Oceans of the Mind, #14, Winter 2004 “Editor’s Choice”

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"The Word of Ghair" by Cherith Baldry
"The Wind at Carthage" by Mark Tiedemann
"Profits" by Terry Bramlett
"Wings, Waivers and Wild, Warm Weather" by Greg Beatty
"The Breath of the Gods" by Scott William Carter
"Twenty Two Centimeters" by Gregory Benford
"Krasnaya Luna" by Paul Marlowe
"Surely The Clouds Would Come" by Robin Jensen
"By and By" by Jerry Goodz
Issue #14 of Oceans of the Mind is a departure from the usually thematic issues of this PDF ‘zine. Despite that, the stories were more similar than I expected—all but one take place in a world different from our own, and all but two feature spaceships. While I don’t read a lot of outer space SF, I liked this issue quite a bit.

"The Word of Ghair" by Cherith Baldry provided an interesting, if short, opening for this issue. The protagonist is hired to negotiate the development of a newly discovered planet, Perel—it is rich in minerals and other resources, but the native folk are simply not interested in any trade agreements. The protagonist sets out to manipulate the natives into allowing access to their natural resources.  He invents a god, Ghair, and successfully initiates the Perelians into this new religion (curiously, they did not have a god until then.) They eagerly embrace new spirituality, and to honor Ghair welcome the developers from Earth. The developers immediately start digging up the planet, and the protagonist has second thoughts. Just as the natives find their new faith tried by the exploitation of their land, the protagonist is called upon to demonstrate the power of the god he invented.

While I liked this story, I felt that some of the more interesting questions were skimmed over—for example, how does one introduce a concept of divinity to people who have no religion? This is an entirely new paradigm, and I wish Baldry spent more time exploring it. This is something no evangelist has ever encountered; converting people into a different belief system seems easier than introducing an entirely new concept. Moreover, religion is something every society on earth has developed, and I would be interested to know why the Perelians are different.

"The Wind at Carthage" by Mark Tiedemann deals with a group of researchers and their pilot as they explore a potentially habitable planet. The visual of the symmetrical lakes and towering spires is breathtaking; however, the plot focuses mostly on the politics of funding, conflict between the scientists, and the romance between Moira, one of the scientists, and Paris, the pilot protagonist. I enjoyed the many layers of this story, and the fact that the focus stayed on human interaction. The alien landscape serves not only as a setting, but also as a catalyst that brings several story conflicts to a critical point—Moira’s and Paris’ relationship, Paris’ struggle between his love for Moira and his need for self-reliance, and the conflict between two scientists that culminates in a violent confrontation. A very complex story, and a great read.

"Profits" by Terry Bramlett is a fast-paced adventure tale. Myrle is sent to investigate a newly discovered planet. While her findings belong to her employer, she usually tries to bag a few specimens for a quick profit on the side. On her new assignment she discovers an intelligent (and rather belligerent) life—red-eyed, furry and winged creatures that kidnap Myrle as soon as she sets foot on the planet. Aided by her on-board AI, Deason, she manages to escape and capture a young specimen. As the creature begins to weaken, Myrle contemplates the ethical repercussions of kidnapping an intelligent being.

This story was a quick and fun read, but I felt that the protagonist’s moral dilemma was a bit predictable, and wasn’t that much of a dilemma to begin with. Even though throughout the story Myrle is portrayed as concerned about her profits, she is a likeable character, and it is difficult to imagine her doing something as heinous as throwing a little fuzzy baby into a cryogenic tank.

"Wings, Waivers and Wild, Warm Weather" by Greg Beatty takes place on earth, and lacks spaceships. However, it has wings—one morning, everyone on Earth wakes up and discoveres they now have wings and can fly. I liked the way Beatty handled the profound changes in people’s lives, especially the huge aggregations of flying people, who convey the information to those on the fringes of the "gossip cloud" via cell phones. And of course, the only question everyone is concerned about is, where did these wings come from? A quick and fun read.

"The Breath of the Gods" by Scott William Carter is another adventure tale—the protagonist is racing against the clock, since he only has a few minutes to save the woman he loves before a giant asteroid strikes the planet and destroys it. The story of the relationship that precedes this situation is told in flashback: Richard is sent to Vogal Rone to establish a stepdock—the device that allows instantaneous travel across galaxies. Julie is an anthropologist, who studies the local society and the Order of Ascension, its dominant religion. She is concerned that the stepdock will open the planet to the influx of tourists and other scourges of civilization.

I found the flashback parts most interesting. The Order of Ascension appears to be a cross between a suicide cult and Buddhism, and I wish it were explored more. I also enjoyed the parallel between the stepdock and implications of such easy travel with the effects of jet planes on our own planet; easy accessibility has a sad tendency to ruin indigenous cultures, and I found Carter’s treatment of this issue quite thoughtful.

My only problem with this story stems from Julie’s transformation—in the flashback, she is a vibrant, strong character, and in the present timeframe she is a damsel in distress who needs rescuing. I thought that this change deserved a more thorough explanation than just joining the Order of Ascension and being brainwashed (or drugged.)

"Twenty Two Centimeters" by Gregory Benford takes place in a parallel dimension that lies only twenty-two centimeters away from ours. It has a sun and the moon, but since the energy of the sun is much lower than ours, this world is also very cold. It is covered by frozen methane that thaws during the day. Julie and Al travel to this frozen world, the Counter, to discover that despite the intolerably cold temperatures, there is life in the methane ocean. Intelligent creatures that look a bit like walruses, a bit like tube worms, have language, and Julie and Al communicate with these creatures via an AI system, Wiseguy.

The story is haunting and beautiful, sad yet hopeful. The alien creatures are truly alien, with nothing humanoid about them, and yet they and their plight are deeply sympathetic and wrenching. It is one of my two favorites from this issue.

"Krasnaya Luna" by Paul Marlowe has an interesting premise: a secret lunar colony established by the former USSR in the 1970’s. The colony was kept secret; moreover, the colonists never communicated with the Earth until mid-2020’s. At that time, the world is torn by a struggle between three superpowers vying for the last of the oil. When the lunar colony contacts the earth and offers the abundant sources of energy, all three send envoys.

The story is told from the point of view of Rodion, the envoy of the Union. He arrives at the Moon, and is greeted by the vibrant colonists (almost all of who are women), vodka, and Cossack dancing. At this point, I was a bit worried that the story would turn into a caricature. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded—Marlowe does a wonderful job painting a sympathetic, idealistic society, based on what socialism was supposed to be like, not what it turned into. The story is optimistic without appearing naïve, and offers a complex treatment of difficult political and economic questions. The touch of humor remains light and kind.

"Surely The Clouds Would Come" by Robin Jensen is my other favorite. It is more of a fantasy than science fiction, and it takes place in another frozen world, where creatures known as masta-te (or mas, when they are young, I believe) spend their life traveling across ice slopes. There are also dragons, bears, and fish. The world Jensen creates is wonderfully complex and well-developed—masta-te live a spiritual existence, avoiding flat ground, and revering pure ice. They rely on their claws for anchoring and movement: their claws can focus sunrays and melt the ice, which then immediately freezes again. Masta-te have two dreaming arms that they lock with others as they sleep and share their dreams; they also talk and pray using their talking arms.

The story focuses on two young mas, Thelo and Mian. Mian is crippled, since one of her talking arms has been injured and is now useless. This handicap excludes Mian from the prayer circle. Thelo is the opposite—strong and capable, to the point of taking unthinkable risks.

Jensen’s protagonists are as sympathetic as they are alien, and I found myself emotionally involved in the story, and fascinated by their ice world. This is a tale that will stay with you.

"By and By" by Jerry Goodz is a rather predictable space western. Somi, a pilot, works for a thoroughly unlikable Dako, a man who commands a vast fleet of spaceships and mines all over the solar system. Dako is responsible for Somi’s sister’s death, not to mention horrible working conditions of his workers and captains. The plot revolves around Somi organizing Dako’s downfall, trying to rescue her niece and nephew from their horrid father, and having a romance with a Spatial Policeman.

Besides this story’s predictability, it suffers from little action. The characters seem stereotypical, and I never developed any sympathy for the protagonist. It is a solid story, but to me, it lacked in emotion.

Overall, a very good issue. I really liked that most of the stories treated the themes of alien worlds with depth and complexity, and that even the most alien creatures were presented as sympathetic and ultimately understandable.