InterGalactic Medicine Show, #3, October 2006

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"Dream Engine" by Tim Pratt
"The Box of Beautiful Things" by Brian Dolton
"To Know All Things That Are in the Earth" by James Maxey
"Fat Town" by Jose Mojica
"The Adjoa Gambit" by Rick Novy
"Xoco’s Fire" by Oliver Dale
"Small Magics" by Alethea Kontis
"Cheater" by Orson Scott Card
The first story in issue #3 of Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, "Dream Engine" by Tim Pratt, features a shape-shifting government hit man named Howlaa and his incorporeal sidekick, whom he calls "Wisp."  Their employer is the Regent of Nexington-on-Axis, a city-state in the center of the universe, which specializes in "snatching" goods, buildings, even people and animals from other worlds as they come into range of the machines.  The state’s large machines are tended by the "royal orphans," insect-like descendants of the long-dead Queen and Kings of Nexington-on-Axis, who built the original machines.   The orphans are inherently able to grab things from other worlds, an ability enhanced by the machines, and are compulsive collectors.  The Regent, the only one able to communicate with the orphans, is able to persuade them to focus their random kleptomania into channels that will enhance his personal acquisition of wealth and power.  Smaller machines of a similar nature seem to be in the hands of some private citizens.
Both Howlaa and Wisp are bound to community service as punishment for a criminal past, although Wisp has managed to keep his own background a secret from Howlaa.  The two are somehow linked together, but it is not necessarily an amicable relationship.  Wisp, who narrates the story, is charged with observing and recording everything around him, a task in no way hampered by his lack of physical substance.  He can see, hear, think and speak, but envies Howlaa’s ability to feel.  Wisp also is unable to sleep or dream, escaping from sensory input only by spending time in a dark closet. 
The Regent orders Howlaa to find and destroy a mystery man who appears suddenly in various parts of the city, slaughters many people, and abruptly disappears.  To aid Howlaa in this endeavor, the Regent has him drink the blood of a questing beast, thus providing the DNA for Howlaa to add that form to his shape-shifting repertoire.  “Questing beasts … could pursue prey across dimensions, grasping their victims with tendrils of math and magic, and chasing them forever, even across branching worlds.” The Regent may have outsmarted himself.  Carefully keeping to the exact wording of his contract, Howlaa resolves the problem, although not the way the Regent expected. 

An entertaining story, a small blow struck against greedy authority, and even a happy ending.  What more could one ask for?

"The Box of Beautiful Things" by Brian Dolton may leave you musing on the nature of truth and beauty—synonymous according to Keats, but maybe not when one of the two arouses the envy of those in power.  

Weng Hao’s Grand Carnival Of Curiosities features the usual amusements: tigers, acrobats, storytellers.  What sets it apart from the others is the Box of Beautiful Things.  Only a few at a time are allowed in to view the treasures.  “A necklace of gold filigree, delicate as a spiderweb, bright as the morning sun on Mount Yang. A jade dragon, smooth as water, cool as a blessing. Silks, as vivid as dreams. Porcelain, pale as milk. Pearls and rubies and feathers.”  People stand patiently in line for a brief glimpse of these wonderful things, and leave with gladness in their hearts, thrilled by what they have seen.

So famous has the box become, the emperor himself has heard of it, and sends his emissary, Yi Qin, to determine if the rumors are true.  Despite Weng Hao’s pleas that his customers are well satisfied with the memory of beauty, illusion or not, Yi Qin must do her duty.  In a moment of candor, she reveals that the emperor’s motivations in protecting his people from charlatans may not be as high-minded as a simple reverence for truth.

The story moves smoothly, with a large chunk of philosophy slid in so carefully that it doesn’t affect the story’s momentum.  Weng Hao makes a good argument, but perhaps as a writer I feel predisposed to agree with him.  After all, what is a storyteller but a spinner of dreams to gladden the hearts of one’s listeners?

"To Know All Things That Are in the Earth" by James Maxey seemed, to me, to contain a lot of unwarranted assumptions, contradictions, and unanswered questions.  I had the feeling it might be an incomplete segment of a longer story.

Allen Frost and his wife (girlfriend?), Mary, are having a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner when the restaurant is invaded by cute little Hallmark-style cherubs who grab Mary and a few other people and fly off.  Similar scenes happen worldwide and are generally thought to be the "rapture" as interpreted by some Christians, despite the fact that the "chosen" are of a variety of faiths and were taken against their wills, and the "angels" are nothing like those in the Bible.  Allen, a formerly non-religious biology instructor, decides there is no reason to go to work in the morning and drops out of society, eventually taking up residence in his grandmother’s abandoned house.  His personal narrow viewpoint had been that science and religion were mutually exclusive, therefore all trappings of religion, i.e. Christianity, were false. Yet, he immediately concludes that the beings who took Mary are angels, and therefore it’s his previous understanding of the world that’s false. No other options.  “Because, when you’re wrestling an angel—its powerful wings beating the air, its dark, all-knowing eyes looking right through you—you can’t help but notice evolution really doesn’t explain such a creature. The most die-hard atheist must swallow his pride and admit the obvious. An angel is the product of intelligent design.” He begins reading the Bible, still can’t make sense of what happened, and turns to mysticism and magic. 

When a former student brings Allen the body of a cherub, pickled in moonshine, he discovers that the "angels" are very similar, biologically, to humans, but have a tough, Kevlar-like material under their skin and a golden egg in place of a heart.  He takes the similarities and differences as absolute proof that angels and humans are both of divine origin and that intelligent design trumps evolution. 

As a logical argument, none of this holds water.  I can see an individual, even a scientist, falling apart after such an experience and thereafter leaping from one conclusion to another, but I would have found it more convincing if the background details were a little more consistent.  “Much of the global economy had collapsed after the Rapture” but “The world, for the most part, was intact.” Allen makes a living reading tarot cards for his neighbors, who think he’s a magician, but he does most of his trading over the Internet.  All governments are in trouble because everyone’s expecting the antichrist, and leaders tend to be assassinated, but someone’s maintaining order, and the world hasn’t collapsed into some postapocalyptic nightmare but seems to go on as usual.  Most people think the strange beings are angels, and that the "rapture" has occurred, suggesting people of all faiths or no faith have all bought into a particular religious viewpoint, but anything to do with magic is popular, so maybe they’re all just grasping at straws like Allen. Other theories about the angels include offworld aliens or demons, but Allen dismisses those.

Some intriguing ideas here, even if these "angels" didn’t come near to fitting any religious concept of angels that I’m familiar with.  But too many things bounced me out of the story.

"Fat Town" by Jose Mojica could be a fairy tale, a coming-of-age story, a plea for acceptance from those who don’t meet the standards of the tyrannical majority, or perhaps a thinly-veiled expose of the greedy manufacturers who bombard us with addictive food additives that contribute to the obesification of America.  Or all of the above.  Anyone for high-fructose corn syrup? 
Herb is overweight, like his father.  His now-thin mother and teenage sister, who used to be fat, constantly remind him of his shortcomings with all the fervor and intolerance of the newly reformed.  Unable to convince her husband to diet, Herb’s mom is getting a divorce and moving her children to a new home in “Sunken Valley Virginia, The Sweetest Place On Earth.”  Supposedly the perfect place for perfect people, the town had me immediately thinking Stepford Wives or something similar, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

The real estate agent seems unnerved to find two very detailed gingerbread cookies in the house.  Cue the ominous music.  However, she pulls herself together enough to present them with huge bags of candy: "Endora’s Sweet Creations. Courtesy of Mrs. Endora Blair herself. She’s the mayor…And the judge…And the school principal."  By now, you may think you know where the story’s going, but it does contain a few surprises.

Herb saves the day, of course, bringing the story to a happy but maybe a little too-sweet conclusion, neatly solving all problems in the manner of a Saturday morning cartoon.  It’s still a fun read.  Relax and enjoy your visit to Sunken Valley.  Don’t eat the candy.

"The Adjoa Gambit" by Rick Novy takes place on the Antarctic Reservation for Indigenous Population, where the survivors of the war with Procyon—mostly women and children—have been relocated.  The "Procs" home planet runs heavily to jungles and swamps, and they hate the cold.  Duty at ARIP is undesirable, and the guards tend to bully a little, but they seem pretty civilized for a conquering army.

The Procs are obsessed with gambling, and will bet on anything with anyone.  Many of the refugees, because of language barriers and the guards’ intimidation tactics, don’t fully understand that they have any choice, and may lose their week’s rations or even their living quarters.  Enter a smart and confident little girl from Togo who finds a way to win back her family’s shelter and may have bigger goals in mind.

Little Adjoa has a grasp of "headology" that Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax would approve of.  I think the Procs are in for a rough time. 

"Xoco’s Fire" by Oliver Dale is about courage, persistence, and triumph over adversity.  It also touches on rape, incest, torture, child abuse, and gory, gratuitous violence so might not be suitable reading material for the young or squeamish. 

The story opens with Xoco, a young girl, praying and making sacrifices to the gods, or working magic—it seems to be the same thing.  She prays for vengeance against her father, the village shaman, who is also the father of her unborn twins.  It seems that the shaman feeds his power by inflicting pain on Xoco and her mother, and the people of the village ignore the situation because he uses that power to provide them with food and protect them from their enemies.  Xoco names her babies for the gods, Sea and Sky, and believes they will actually be gods who will help her to escape from her life of misery.  Even more than her own escape, Xoco is determined that her children will not suffer as she has, that she will not repeat her mother’s failure. 

The shaman is a creature of pure evil and lust for power.  But in his pride and arrogance, he overlooks the fact that if inflicting pain brings strength, perhaps enduring it does also.  Add to that Xoco’s love for her children, and the odds are tipped in her favor.  It is Xoco herself who embodies that spark of divinity, an unquenchable human spirit.

This is a powerful story.  It may be too graphic.  It put images in my head I didn’t much care for.  But the writing was compelling, especially the character of Xoco, so I had to read it to find out how she accomplished her deliverance—there was no doubt that she would find a way.

"Small Magics" by Alethea Kontis takes place in a setting that might be Victorian England.  Women wear bustles and are excluded from such societies as the Royal Society of Natural Scientists. 

Young Minna learned etching from her father, but magic from her mother.  She combines the two, making magical etchings such as luck charms.  But these are only small magics, women’s magic, and she yearns to do more.  She wants to exceed what she sees as the limitations placed on her by society.  She wants to learn the more powerful magic that she is certain men have reserved for themselves.  To her, "natural science" suggests alchemy, and she wants to become an apprentice. 

Abetted by her friend, Effie, Minna writes to Lord Aster, head of the Royal Society, and is granted an appointment.  She sneaks off on her errand, consulting neither her mother nor Effie’s mother, who certainly would not approve.  There she learns she has been duped by Aster’s nephew, who intercepted her letter and thought an interview with a girl interested in science might be amusing.  He seems quite confused by Minna’s referrals to magic, although the samples of her magical etchings she has brought to show have him emotionally bouncing about like a puppet.  Perhaps men’s science really doesn’t involve magic? 

Tipped off by a servant, Minna’s mother storms in and takes her away.  A confrontation with both mothers follows, in which the two girls learn that their magic isn’t so weak, after all, that men lost their magic long ago because they abused it, and that limitations are self-imposed, for the sake of doing no harm.

So listen to your moms, girls.  You don’t have to force men to let you into their little clubs.  Women already have far more power than men; they just prefer to work behind the scenes 🙂

"Cheater" by Orson Scott Card is part of the Ender Saga.  Little Han Tzu is an essential part of his father’s plan to restore the glory of their family and of China.  Tzu’s father, one of the richest men in China, selected an extremely intelligent woman to be Tzu’s mother.  He spends a lot of time playing with and encouraging the boy, provides him with tutors and carefully selected playmates, and is diligently grooming him for a test that is given to five-year-olds.  It may have some connection with the comment that the first step in restoring past glory is to become a great general.

Tzu tries hard to please his father.  He does well at his studies, and does his best to win the "games" his tutors play with him, even when they’re boring.  But what Tzu really wants is to be allowed outside his walled garden, where all the other people are.  Father tells him that will come later, after the testing that proves Tzu is the best child.

But Tzu’s father tries to stack the deck, and Tzu is smart enough to see it.  He reasons the situation out logically.  His father obtained the answers to the test and had Tzu memorize them.  That means his father doesn’t think Tzu is the best child after all.  His father is not proud of him like he keeps saying.  He is just trying to fool people.  Tzu won’t betray his father, but he won’t pretend to be something he isn’t, either.  So he deliberately gives the wrong answers.

And the result?  The people giving the tests are pretty smart too.  They have to be.  They’re fighting a war.