Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Issue #4, February 2007

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“Tabloid Reporter to the Stars” by Eric James Stone
“Wisteria” by Ada Milenkovic Brown
“Call Me Mr. Positive” by Tom Barlow
“Beats of Seven” by Peter Orullian
“Approaching Zero” by Kelly Parks
“Miniature” by Peter Friend
“The Moon-Eyed Stud” by Justin Stanchfield
The fourth issue of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show contains a wide variety of quality science fiction and fantasy.  All the offerings are engaging, accessible, and easy to read, and they do not need to rely on violence, sex, or outlandish antagonists to maintain strong dramatic tension.  Several of the stories are cerebral, and it is often simple curiosity that spurs the reader from one page to the next.  But while the best offerings deliver a satisfying payoff at the end, others do not quite achieve their full potential.

The issue starts off strong with “Tabloid Reporter to the Stars” by Eric James Stone.  A disgraced science reporter deviates into tabloids before he gets an amazing second chance; he is embedded in humanity’s first voyage to another solar system.  Once the ship arrives at its destination, the reporter stumbles into the role of ambassador, and he must negotiate a very delicate conflict to maintain peace within the crew itself.

This is solid science fiction, full of speculative technology, alien environments, and the sheer wonder of discovery.  The mechanics of alien life are particularly intriguing.  Interspersing journalistic reports with the narrative, the author deftly weaves exposition and backstory into the action without impeding the story’s brisk pace.  The richness of the universe described here is worthy of a novel.

The narrative culminates in a climactic twist that turns the story on its head.  It defies expectations so boldly that a reader may throw the manuscript against the wall, allowing the pages to fall where they may—only to pick them back up and finish reading to the end.

Some readers may find the ending a disappointing cop-out, but others will find it oddly satisfying.  Either way, the setting and its inhabitants are so interesting that it would be a shame if the author never revisits them.  This environment is full of many other stories begging to be told.

“Wisteria” by Ada Milenkovic Brown bursts with local color, in scenery as well as character.  The protagonist is an older black woman still struggling with the loss of her husband, a gardener who turned their yard into a southern kind of Eden.  The bereaved woman searches for her husband’s face in architectural sculptures and vines—and especially in wisteria.

This piece relies on mood, imagery, and characterization for its effect, and in those respects, it is impressive.  However, the plot is rather simplistic, and the mundane details of daily life comprise much of the narrative.  The pace is slow as a dirge, and perhaps that is appropriate.  “Wisteria” is one of the more “literary” stories in the issue, and its appeal may be limited to readers who value wordsmithing over storytelling.

In Tom Barlow’s “Call Me Mr. Positive,” an intersellar traveler awakes from hibernation to find himself the only surviving member of the crew.  Through a series of journal entries, we watch him grapple with the loss of his friends—and worry that the same mysterious fate might threaten him.  While battling ennui, he goes through his crewmates’ possessions, getting to know them better in death than he did in life.

This is a competent examination of one man coping with extreme isolation, and the voice is wry and engaging.  That being said, the story’s abrupt ending disappoints, leaving major questions unanswered.  Several intriguing mysteries seem to go unsolved; if the final paragraphs contain any clues, they eluded this reader.  The choice of format is inherently limiting, of course, diaries being a rather extreme form of first-person point of view.  Literary merit aside, readers will likely want to know more about what happened to the sympathetic protagonist.

“Beats of Seven” by Peter Orullian takes on the difficult task of evoking music through silent written narrative.  A recording industry professional hears something strange while recording the ocean on a deserted beach—a trumpet playing jazz.  The mystery fascinates him, and interviews with locals lead him to a solution that is both natural and supernatural.

This story is very well-written, and the curiosity-driven suspense is highly effective.  The dramatic tension is tight.  But while the author vividly describes music throughout most of the piece, this breaks down somewhat at the climax.  Here the narrative tries to convey sound, emotion, and synergy that is so beyond normal human experience, readers may detach from the protagonist’s point of view and get lost in the words.  It is a valiant attempt, but it will likely leave many readers feeling left out.  Be prepared to read this story more than once to appreciate it fully.

“Approaching Zero” by Kelly Parks presents an intriguing scientific premise it then fails to exploit.  A scientist, beholden to a commercial investor, creates a device that can peer into parallel universes, only to discover nothing but sterile, oceanic Earths.  Suddenly confronted with the obligation to repay his investor’s money, he hurries to locate a marketable alternate world before his project is shut down.  It is then that an unexpected benefactor steps in to help.

This story ripples with lively humor, and the science and comedy make for a very entertaining mix.  Unfortunately, the characters’ petty squabbling interrupts the narrative at every turn, and instead of building suspense, it’s just annoying.  The characterization doesn’t ring true, and the antagonist especially is almost cartoonish in his anger management failures.  By the climax, scientific mystery is removed from the central conflict, and the resolution shrinks the story to something much smaller than it could have been.  Don’t take this piece too seriously, or you will likely be disappointed.

“Miniature” by Peter Friend is the shortest piece in this issue, appropriately enough.  A grouchy retiree receives a visit from an alien researcher who wants to know all about his model railway.  During the interview, the old man’s train of thought rattles down some rusty tracks into his most precious memories of a love now lost.

With gentle humor, this story explores the random but potent associations that enliven our memories.  The beautifully detailed narrative culminates in a poignant and satisfying resolution.  While the piece sometimes veers close to saccharine sentimentality, the protagonist’s emotions remain genuine throughout.

The issue concludes with “The Moon-Eyed Stud” by Justin Stanchfield.  In a conceptualization of Hell akin to an Old West ghost town, the protagonist seeks deliverance in completing his last earthly task—breaking the stud who killed him and then followed him into limbo.  When the stud escapes from its pen, the man tracks it across the desolate lanscape.  While searching for the horse, he begins to find hope again.

This piece is very strong in setting and characterization, and the protagonist is a subtly tortured hero worth rooting for.  But while the pacing is even, it’s also rather plodding, and the author tends to overuse folksy and egregious similes.  Readers unfamiliar with a breaker’s tools of the trade may find themselves scurrying to the dictionary or Google to understand what’s going on.  The ending, while complete and reasonably satisfying, delivers a lesson that is a little too simplistic for a piece of this length.  All that aside, though, this story nicely evokes the mood of a classic campfire yarn, even if that was not the author’s intent.  Readers who enjoy westerns will want to check it out.