Helix #4

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"Gherem" by Mike Allen and Charles Saplak
"Pretty Little Thing" by Sara Genge
"A Matter of Muskets" by Berry Kercheval
"Vamp in the Middle" by James Killus
"Mercytanks" by Jennifer Pelland
"The Hoplite" by Robert Reed
"Shelf Life" by Pras Stillman

Mike Allen
and Charles Saplak team up to tell a traditional fantasy tale in "Gherem." Fleeing the carnage of battle, Gherem the peasant carries the diminutive witch, Withered Nassissia, on his back as they struggle to return home. Her legs shattered, Nassissia carries the Vicinage Poppet, a strange doll that is the reason for the war. En route, they encounter various tribulations that heighten the drama. Both characters are well drawn and the action is gripping, but I felt like I was reading an except from a novel. While the tale reaches a satisfying conclusion, something seemed amiss. The worldbuilding is well done, as many odd names are thrown at the reader, which is perhaps why it felt like a novel. The investment of putting the world together in my mind seemed a bit much for a short story; I can see a full-blown novel set in this world. Still, an enjoyable adventure tale.

Sara Genge uses multi-viewpoint first person in "Pretty Little Thing." While Claude is a charming narrator at first, it quickly becomes clear that he is a psychopath stalking Annita, a young black woman who’s been rejuvenated to look like a teenager. The speculative element is provided with a future replete with nanos and thought diaries, the latter figuring into the structure of the narrative. Genge is a new writer and I remember her vivid story, "Godtouched," in Strange Horizons. "Pretty Little Thing" isn’t as strong, but still interesting enough. Genge is definitely a talent to watch.

Berry Kercheval delves into Alexandre Dumas’s classic, The Three Musketeers, in "A Matter of Muskets." Told in epistolary form, d’Artagnan reports to Capitaine de T of an encounter with aliens. Once relieved of their muskets, the foursome are led into the cigare volante (flying cigar) by strange grey men. Arthos wonders if they’re not Scotsmen, as they certainly aren’t Frenchmen. The tension builds as the grey men perform experiments on Porthos, while Athos shares the fruits of his cognition. "These are not soldiers, but natural philosophers," he offers. "Ma foi!" exclaims Aramis. "I think you are correct."

Despite the lack of story here, this is charming. The dialogue is brisk and the setup fresh. I guess it’s too much to ask for much to really happen here as our classic heroes are way out of their league. They board the alien spacecraft, make an observation or two, and holler a "One for all, and all for one" before being sent about their business; though this missive does have a small twist in the end. Well written and entertaining.

In "Vamp in the Middle," James Killus combines jazz with vampires. While the first-person narrative pulled me along, more or less capturing an awkward white guy of the 50s playing jazz, the vampiric element never came alive. Francie is the lead singer in their combo as well as the creature of the night, and while she was well drawn, I never believed in her vampire aspect. It’s like Killus threw in the undead element so he make this a speculative fiction story.

Jennifer Pelland’s "Mercytanks" is a deep-space story set in the year 2579. Tanjel and her associate, MackMACK, are relativity counselors sent by HumaniCo to intercept an Earth vessel launched from 500 years in the past. The plan is to put these thirty-one "humanblanks" into mercytanks until their natural deaths, these holotanks to simulate a reality they couldn’t handle otherwise. Tanjel, however, has issues with this procedure; to her, this is no way for anyone to live. Meanwhile, there is an entertainment requirement in the contract, as the new arrivals lives are to be broadcast to the rest of modern humanity via their brainstreams—a humanity so evolved as to barely resemble humanblanks. Individual physical bodies are a reference point as the soul of the person more or less resides in cyberspace. Or so the author would have you believe.

The old cyberpunk credo: "Through science and technology we have met the aliens—and they are us," is certainly alive here. And one of the better ways to explain it to the reader is to have the highly evolved humans indoctrinate the atavistic ones and see what conflict develops. Pelland does an excellent job of this, and I found myself pulled along as this marvelous new world unfolded before my eyes, reminiscent of Charles Stross’s Accelerando tales.  My only problem is with the ending, which I won’t give away. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of ending once or twice, but once you’ve seen it, the novelty quickly wears off, and this reader was left feeling duped, even when I saw it coming. And while a Dickian ontological ending was inevitable if not predictable, the author’s skillful technique made it chilling and memorable. Recommended, but could we please not see this denouement again for a long while?

Robert Reed delves into the philosophy of being a warrior in "The Hoplite." In the future, science has found a way to not only clone an ancient soldier from the DNA of his unearthed remains, but using a quantum-dilutor, can capture his soul and place it in his new body. These soldiers are known by their iconic names: The Gladiator, The Glacier Man, The Janissary, and the story’s narrator, The Hoplite. Told in alternating present/past tense, I enjoyed the philosophical flashback scenes much more, finding the narrator’s current mission somewhat comic-bookish. At first, I thought the only reason the mission was there was so we’d have a story to pin the interesting history upon. But in the final scene, I changed my mind and thought both threads came together nicely.

"Shelf Life" by Pras Stillman is an SF farce, a lowbrow redneck comedy in space. Cotton, who used to be a woman before his sex change, lives with his wife, Lucinda, and his mother-in-law, who’s basically a head brought back to life. Cotton longs to live on Mars and not the asteroid where they currently dwell, but the mother-in-law says that Mars is nothing but a bunch of barking jackals and shuttles up on blocks. I’m leery of disparaging this tale, as humor in SF is hard to come by nowadays, and I often think our field takes itself too seriously. I’ve often wondered if some of us feel that SF/F is scorned enough without its writers also taking potshots at it, but humor seems to have fallen out of fashion in the past several years. Plus, humor is a subjective thing. The narrative in "Shelf Life" is a convention one must accept for it to work, as people barely talk this way nowadays, let alone by the time humans have colonized the solar system. Despite the Will and Grace tropes of the gay lifestyle—ones I’m sympathetic towards—this has a very dated feel, like a 20th-century sitcom. But, as with all humor, aesthetic values are thrown out the window if the reader laughs. Perhaps this will make you chuckle, but I found it too hackneyed.