"Star Garden" by Brenda Cooper
"A Private Mutiny" by Andrew Burt
"Pictures of Old Earth" by Cherith Baldry
"Ol' Gator" by Gregory Benford
"Scavenger Hunt" by Julia West
"Symphony" by Douglas Smith
"Sand Trap" by Jerry Goodz
"Tracks of Shining White" by O'Neil De Noux
"We Defy Old Stars" by M.C.A. Hogarth
"Out There" by Jennifer Schwabach
"Paradigms" by Derek Paterson
The Spring 2004 issue of Oceans of the Mind looks to be the largest to date. The theme of "Colonies" must be a popular one for writers and readers alike.
"Star Garden" by Brenda Cooper launches this issue. Set on a far-flung planet, a world of lifeless desert sand, the environment is desolate and harsh. A colony of humans has settled here, cannibalizing their wrecked ship, StarGarden, for the means to endure. They live within its modified shell, afraid to venture forth, except for a restless few who brave the arid wasteland, never to be heard from again. Survival is a balancing act on a razor-edged wire of aging equipment, maintaining genetic diversity, and diminishing fundamentals. The denizens of StarGarden are ruled by their fear and by an elder council that is the final dictator in all things, including when and whom to marry. An unexpected death triggers a ripple of events that sends some of the colonists out into the desert, against the express orders of the council.
"Star Garden" is a competently told tale of courage and survival. There is a slightly rushed feel to the narration in the middle, which made it difficult for me to become fully engaged in the hardships experienced by the colonists in their sandy world. The outcome is also entirely predictable. But despite these shortcomings, I found "Star Garden" to be a solid opening piece.
"Pictures of Old Earth" by Cherith Baldry begins with a puzzling enigma: How can Theo, a boy blind from birth who has never been to Earth, draw a detailed picture of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice? The answer: Theo can see the memories of the people around him, conveyed through a telepathic link, triggered by touch. But there is a price for his gift, which no one understands until almost too late.
"Pictures" is a sweet, slightly sentimental story about putting the past aside and looking to the future. Baldry's prose is engaging and occasionally touching. Her characters are a little unrealized, hovering somewhere past two dimensions but not quite achieving three, much like one of Theo's drawings. Still, this is an enjoyable tale, recommended.
"Ol' Gator" by Gregory Benford manages to instill a sense of wonder while at the same time conveying how brutal and terrible war is. Set in modern time, the main character is an American Special Operations Major stationed in the Middle East. One of the front men in the War on Terror, he must deal with Al Qaeda, Feydaheen, and Iraqi resistance fighters, whom he kills with a casual, glib disregard.
The narrative in "Ol' Gator" is vivid, realistic, and compelling. Details of wartime brutality and justice spring from the page, skillfully rendered by Benford's sure hand. And, even though the protagonist is a willing participant in the violence, Benford still manages to make him sympathetic.
The main problem I had with this tale was that I couldn't figure out the connection "Ol' Gater" had to this issue's "Colonies" theme. A more fitting theme would be "hope born from destruction." Despite the thematic incongruity, this was an excellent story. Highly recommended.
"Scavenger Hunt" by Julia West is a fast-paced adventure tale set on a watery planet perpetually beset by storms. Humans cannot survive on the surface, living instead in underwater domes. The mechanisms which purify the salt water and hold it at bay are under heavy strain and prone to frequent breakage. Colonists sleep with air tanks under the beds as a safeguard against the reality of mechanical failure. The main character, Mod, is both a scavenger and a technician, skilled in finding essential spare parts in abandoned domes and fixing failing equipment. But there are other dangers, human ones that are less predictable than strained machinery.
"Scavenger Hunt" is a satisfactory, although unmemorable read. The plot is a touch disjointed, the final outcome predictable, and the characters relatively flat, but the pacing does a good job of making up for these shortcomings. There wasn't much to stir my emotions or sense of wonder here, but I had fun, which counts as respectable entertainment in my book.
"Symphony" by Douglas Smith begins with a scene out of nightmare: people panicked and running, convulsing in seizures caused by an aurora of frenzied color in the dark skies of an alien world. In the middle of the the maddening beauty, horrified but unaffected, is Gar Franck and his young, autistic son, Anton. There are two stories in "Symphony," the colonists' attempts to communicate with an alien sentience so strange they cannot comprehend its language, and Gar's struggle to come to grips with his son's autism. Both converge in a spectacular, explosive finale.
Smith's language is poetic and evocative. He creates an intricate fabric of light, color, and sound with effortless flair. The fluid style and the abundance of complex, wrenching emotions makes up for the fact that "Symphony"'s storyline is never satisfactorily resolved. Another recommended story in this issue.
"Sand Trap" by Jerry Goodz is set on hell, literally. A far flung penal planet houses felons and political prisoners–the former in a colony dubbed "Stygia" and the latter in "Hades." The hate is senseless and deep-seated between the two factions, blossoming in an unforgiving ecosystem of limited resources paired with a history of mutual violence. The prisoners are alone on the sandy, desolate planet, abandoned by their military overseers who were called away long ago.
Goodz predicts a chilling future where mankind is so intent upon its own destruction that even the victims of society, political prisoners, become fanatical killers. He examines the enduring issues of fanaticism, war, and vengeance. Will our future be as grim as our history? Or will we learn to curb our hatred?
"Tracks of Shining White" by O'Neil De Noux has a decidedly Hardy Boys meet Indiana Jones feel. Three boys discover a mysterious pit of huge snakes in their explorations, in defiance of the sensible warnings delivered by concerned parents. Purportedly set on the alien planet of Octavion, the science fiction element feels tacked on from the start. This story could have been relocated to a rural Western town with nothing more than a few minor tweaks.
I found "Tracks of Shining White" disappointing, not just because of the contrived science fiction element, but because the overall execution felt lacking. The protagonists are two dimensional to the extreme, making it a rigorous mental exercise to tell one apart from the other. The action is conveyed in a stilted, featureless manner, as is the setting. And finally, the resolution is trite, a pat wrap-up which provides no insight into the nature of humanity or the universe at large.
In welcome contrast, "We Defy Old Stars" by M.C.A. Hogarth is an enchanting tale of an alien society on an alien world. This story conforms to the theme of "colonies" at variance to the others in this issue in that the Jokkad protagonists are not star wanderers. This group of "colonists" is a family group defying their nomadic tradition by initiating a long-term habitat in the face of religious opposition.
"We Defy Old Stars" is a well told tale. The Jokkad are an intriguing race of tri-sexed people who often switch genders at one or both of their puberties. There is a definite feel that this story is set in an extended, multifaceted universe of Hogarth's that stretch beyond what is contained in these few pages. As such, elements of Jokkad society often come across sketchily–such as their religious dogma–but this lack did not lessen my enjoyment. On the contrary, it left me hankering for more.
"Out There" by Jennifer Schwabach is the story of Grubber. Born in the brutal spaceport society of New Shreveport, sold at the age of three, and then orphaned when her foster parents die at the tender age of eight, her life is an endless struggle to survive. The odds are against her. Her society is pitiless and callous; children are chattel and adults have the power of life and death over them. Grubber evades rape and enslavement, and happens upon a kindly man who delivers, unwittingly, the means by which she can escape. But only if she is brave and lucky enough.
"Out There" is a solid, but uninspired story. The technique and pacing is adequate but unsophisticated. Schwabach's forte is in making Grubber eminently sympathetic. An all too common shortcoming in this issue, this story suffers from a certain predictability, although it is engaging nevertheless.
"Paradigms" by Derek Paterson is a charming story of self-sacrifice, heroism, and survival. The mysterious abduction of a construction drone on an Offworld Scientific Research Station leads to panicked conjecture. Has cosmic radiation mutated an Earth creature into a drone-killing monster? But before anti-monster battle preparations escalate, Johnson, the Chief Maintenance Tech, suggests the culprit may be mechanical rather than monstrous. It turns out to be a Garbage Recycling Unit (G.R.U.)–a friendly, wistful, and totally lovable A.I. left unassembled and mislaid–who manages to have itself put together. G.R.U. upstages his human counterparts, displaying a delightful blend of wit, altruism, and intelligence. One cannot help but care about the welfare of such an affable personality. When Johnson and G.R.U. must work together to overcome anti-A.I. prejudice and save the station, I was cheering them on at every step.
Paterson's writing is crisp and assured, a pleasure to read. There is also an underlying "brains versus brawn" subtext in "Paradigms" which any science geek who has lived through the hazards of a public school education will be able to relate to. A thoroughly enjoyable finale to this "Colonies" themed issue.
Oceans of the Mind continues to offer a variable range of fiction with this issue, most of decent caliber, with a few jewels.