Intergalactic Medicine Show, Issue #1

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“Respite” by Rachel Ann Dryden
“A Rarefied View at Dawn” by Dave Wolverton
“Loose in the Wires” by John Brown
“Trill and the Beanstalk” by Edmund R. Schubert
“Night Walks” by Robert Stoddard
“Taint of Treason” by Eric James Stone
“Eviction Notice” by Scott M. Roberts

The premier issue of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show features Card’s “Mazer in Prison,” seven other stories (some good, some not so good), and the most unappealing Prairie Muffin ever to appear on SF cover art.

The aforementioned cover art must have had Rachel Ann Dryden’s short story “Respite” in mind. Planetary colonists Ann and Edward hurry to reach the cliff caves’ protection before thousands of flesh-eating scupps hatch out. The scupps, flying crab-like creatures, are most abundant on the coastline; Ann and Edward thought they had established their farm far enough inland, but they were wrong. Conveniently for the plot, there is no inland passage to the cliff caves, so our intrepid frontier-folk must head for the shoreline, where the scupps are most dense. As if that weren’t enough, Ann is pregnant and near term.

“Respite” begins in the thick of the action, but soon bogs down in back story and awkward exposition. This would be forgivable if the protagonist, Ann, were more sympathetic. She obsesses over who is the strong one, who the weak one in their relationship. When disaster strikes and they are faced with their imminent deaths, Edward “weeps,” and Ann despises him for it. She also decides that everyone else in the colony sees him as a weakling, too. Apparently, if a man gets snippy and depressed at the thought of being eaten alive by flying killer crabs, he’s a worthless sack of flesh. Edward can redeem himself in Ann’s eyes, but at what cost?

If “Respite” is meant to be a character study of a small-minded, judgmental woman, then it is an effective (if unpleasant) tale. On the other hand, if it is intended as a parable of redemption, it fails.

Women rule the mountaintop village of Kara Kune in Dave Wolverton’s “A Rarefied View of Dawn.” Long ago, men destroyed Earth, and the Three Thousand Sisters banded together to colonize the planet Lucien. Now they shun men, pair off with one another, reproduce asexually, and offer stark options to the few boys who are born into their society.

The men of Lucien live in the lowlands. Women will be women, so occasionally a descendant of the Three Thousand Sisters will find herself a man and become impregnated the old-fashioned way. Such was the origin of Bann, the story’s protagonist. Ten-year-old Bann will soon have an important decision to make regarding his future in the village.

Mr. Wolverton’s world-building skills bring the story to life; he has given careful attention to the weather and biota of Lucien, a world of oppressively hot mountaintops, thick cloud cover, and steaming valleys. His descriptive passages are the story’s strongest suit. Unfortunately, the story’s central conflict—Bann’s nearness to puberty, and his community’s reaction to it—revels in its own phobic extremism. Except for Bann’s mother and his friend, Maya, the women of Kara Kune are caricatures of homosexuality and radical feminism. The story reaches its climax with an attack on Bann, a sequence which reads like a homophobe’s worst nightmare.

Some readers may find “A Rarefied View of Dawn” a plausible portrayal of an extreme society, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief to the required degree.

John Brown’s “Loose in the Wires” is an odd hybrid, one part Twain-style yarn, one part Twilight Zone. It begins, in true yarn fashion, with a rambling tall tale. The narrator’s brother-in-law, Delmus, has returned from an African Peace Corps assignment with stories to tell. For one of his stories, he has evidence to back up his claims: two small beetles in a jelly jar in the trunk of his car. Delmus tells Will, the narrator, that they contain African gods.

Delmus soon tries to absorb a god’s power in the most straightforward way possible. Thereafter, “Loose in the Wires” becomes a familiar story. The narrator’s initial condescension toward Delmus is turned on its head; there’s more to this universe than us blinkered Westerners can possibly imagine. The ending is predictably consistent with this theme.

The opening of “Loose in the Wires” is somewhat interesting. Delmus is a bumpkin, a not particularly likable buffoon whose lies (“they were feeding me on rats and grass”) border on being offensive. As long as the story adheres to the tall tale format, it remains interesting thanks to three questions: are Delmus’s stories all lies, how far will the author take this, and what will be Delmus’s comeuppance? When the story leaves tall tales behind and revels in the fantastic, I found my interest flagging.

“Trill and the Beanstalk” by Edmund R. Schubert, tries hard to be a good, old-fashioned, action-packed moon base adventure. Here’s the set-up. More than anything else, Captain Jack Trilling wants to pilot the lunar elevator in its occasional run up to meet the shuttle. Unfortunately, Trill is the base’s Chief Engineer, so he’s stuck doing repair work. He’s also the President of the United States’s nephew, so his base commander, Colonel Kirtley likes to bust his ass for the hell of it by making him rebuild the lunar elevator’s control mechanism over and over again.

The U.S. and China are at the brink of war. They’re in a race to see who can make it to the asteroid belt first in order to stake a claim on a crystalline substance which will make the winner the world’s technological giant for decades to come. Each nation has built a moon base, and each has a carbon nanotube—the titular beanstalk—which they use for launches.
Before long, Trill’s caught up in the machinations of a beautiful-but-deadly Chinese saboteur who kidnaps him and takes him to her base. He’s eventually confronted with a problem: listen to his heart (and hormones), or obey his commanding officer. Decisions, decisions.

“Trill and the Beanstalk” begins with a cheap trick (is Trill in life-threatening jeopardy? No, he’s just playing chess!) and just keeps getting worse. Inexact word choices, info dumps, clunky exposition, characters whose diction is inappropriate to their level of authority, the Colonel’s unprofessional behavior vis-à-vis Trill, her monochromatic nastiness, Trill’s dumb-as-dishwater acceptance of the lines the Chinese saboteur feeds him: it’s a rare paragraph that lacks a misstep. The Colonel "barks" (more than once), eyes "burn," the Chinese saboteur is a "vision," Trill fears he’s "falling under the woman’s spell," electronics "wink," stars "beckon."

There’s more, but to go on would be unspeakably cruel. Let’s just say “Trill and the Beanstalk” wasn’t good for me, and leave it at that.

Fortunately, this issue takes a positive turn with Robert Stoddard’s “Night Walks,” an affecting study of the way sickness and pain can challenge a loving marriage. Josh has had a close scrape with cancer; now, apparently in remission, he’s home with his wife, Megan, who stood by him throughout his grueling treatments.

No longer a patient, Josh must deal with the real world. He fails miserably. He roams the streets at night, stalked by fear: “It wasn’t that he was afraid of dying. It was that he didn’t have either the strength to remain in this world or the courage to leave it.”

The honesty of that line hooked me, and Stoddard’s firm hand on the story kept me on board. Josh looks for oblivion, and finds it in the guise of ghostly figures who haunt the night, reveling in their pain, feeding off the strength and empathy of other nighttime wanderers. Josh’s habitual walks become otherworldly forays which transform him into someone Megan no longer recognizes. She sets out to save Josh; soon, they must save one another.

“Night Walks” succeeds on multiple levels. The story has important things to say about the burden illness and pain place on an individual, and on a relationship, yet it never becomes preachy. “Night Walks” also works as an offbeat, creepy horror story. Finally, it succeeds as drama. I cared about Josh and Megan, and I was rooting for them right up to the last sentence.

Eric James Stone’s “Taint of Treason” is another gem, a brief but tragic story with a surprising conclusion.

The narrator of “Taint of Treason” lives in the kingdom of the mad King Tenal. The king has convicted the narrator’s father of treason. The sentence is death, and the narrator, to prove his loyalty, must be his father’s executioner. His father urges him to obey, since only by doing so will the narrator be able to provide for his mother and sisters. If he refuses to execute his father, he too will die.

“Taint of Treason” packs a hell of a punch into its tiny frame (it’s not quite two pages long). It’s tempting to interpret it as an allegory for totalitarian regimes with its upside down notions of justice and betrayal. Allegory or not, it’s a splendid tale.

Rick Manchester is the regret-filled protagonist of Scott M. Roberts’s story, “Eviction Notice.” He sees himself as a failed soldier, husband, and father. Facing eviction from the home which holds many powerful memories for him, Rick must confront his inner demons to save himself and the soul of his dead son, Tommy.

Roberts delivers lean, visceral prose full of memorable images: the demon who feeds off misery, Quincy Umble, symbolically castrates Rick by cutting off his beard with a combat knife; Tommy’s ghost is trapped in a dumbwaiter; dark butterflies signal the arrival of evil. Roberts’s skill is also evident in the fact that Rick, a man who has done despicable things and seems beyond redemption, wins the reader’s sympathy and approval. It’s also refreshing to read a story which assumes some intelligence on the part of the reader: exposition is delivered with subtlety, not a spoon. “Eviction Notice” is an unqualified success.