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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Footprints in the Stars, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail

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Footprints in the Stars





Danielle Ackley-McPhail



(eSpec Books, July 2019, pb, 202 pp.)

"Astral Odds" by Gordon Linzner
"Creatively Ignorant" by Ian Randal Strock
"Chains" by Robert Greenberger
"Lost and Found" by Dayton Ward
"Escape Velocity" by Aaron Rosenberg
"Dawns a New Day" by Danielle Ackley-McPhail
"Building Blocks" by Jody Lynn Nye
"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" by Christopher L. Bennett
"The Black Box" by James Chambers
"The Puzzle" by Keith R.A. DeCandido
"The Cardavy Letter" by Russ Colchamiro
"The Sound of Distant Stars" by Judi Fleming
"Generational Sins" by Bryan J. L. Glass

Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf

This is the second in a series of science fiction anthologies under the general title Beyond the Cradle. The first volume, If We Had Known, appeared in 2017 and dealt with unexpected discoveries. The stories in this book feature evidence that humanity is not alone in the universe. Settings range from our own Earth to the far reaches of interstellar space. The anthology is dedicated to the memory of Neil Armstrong.

"Astral Odds" by Gordon Linzner takes place in the present day, or the very near future. The narrator owes a large amount of money to a gambler. A message from outer space, about to be deciphered by scientists, gives him an opportunity to cancel his debt. The gambler, on the advice of the narrator, takes bets as to whether the message will bring advanced knowledge or whether it represents a threat to the human race.

The narrator speaks in an informal way, often using old-fashioned slang, in a manner that gives the story the feeling of a work by Damon Runyon. This style makes for a light, enjoyable tale, but the resolution is anticlimactic.

Also set in modern times, "Creatively Ignorant" by Ian Randal Strock is narrated by a writer who discovers what seem to be ancient coins, unlike anything known to numismatists. Government agents take the narrator to a secret location, where someone with a similar experience explains the situation, and offers a difficult choice to make.

The explanation for the strange objects, and other discoveries, comes as no surprise. The reason why the government demands that they remain secret is implausible, even if it does pay tribute to authors of science fiction.

Another unexpected discovery appears in "Chains" by Robert Greenberger. DNA analysis of a fossil suggests that aliens interbred with the ancestors of humanity. The idea is an interesting one, handled in an unusually realistic way, but very little is done with it.

"Lost and Found" by Dayton Ward takes place over a quarter of a century. Two high school students find a strange object in an abandoned quarry when an earth tremor reveals it. The one who touches it goes into a coma for twenty-five years, but otherwise his body develops normally and remains healthy. Over the years, the other pays regular visits to the special hospital where he lies. At last he awakens, and reveals the truth about his experience.

The author creates fully developed, likable characters who draw the reader into their world. The story is told in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, not always to its benefit.

We leave Earth for the asteroid belt in "Escape Velocity" by Aaron Rosenberg. An astronaut aboard a private space vessel finds an alien object. The woman who owns the spaceflight company wants to keep it for herself, and hide the knowledge of its existence from the rest of the world. Regulations making preliminary studies of the object mandatory frustrate her desire, even though everyone involved is sworn to secrecy.

The author makes use of multiple characters in very short scenes. This results in more of a fictionalized essay on the impossibility of hiding scientific information rather than a complete story.

"Dawns a New Day" by Danielle Ackley-McPhail, editor of the anthology, returns to our own planet. An ancient alien device causes all software to malfunction, and alters human brains in such a way that people can no longer work with computers. A special child living in the resulting low-tech society, along with devices saved from destruction by her mother, offer hope for civilization to recover. The author makes a good point about the modern world's dependence on computers, but the plot contains implausible elements.

"Building Blocks" by Jody Lynn Nye takes place far beyond our solar system. Humans have reached many distant worlds, but have not found intelligent life. The discovery of a gigantic number of identical, rectangular stone objects in an extrasolar asteroid belt leads to a debate over whether they are artificial or natural. Another finding answers the question, but raises new mysteries.

The discussion over the origin of the objects creates little suspense, as it is obvious that aliens created them. The protagonist offers an interesting speculation at the end of the story, but the reader has to be patient to reach it.

The solar system is full of human settlements in "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" by Christopher L. Bennett. The discovery of advanced alien technology in the Kuiper Belt threatens to lead to war for its possession among rival factions on Earth, Mars, and the asteroids. The protagonist is one of a small number of technologically enhanced persons who act as independent troubleshooters. He has to figure out a way to prevent the conflict from boiling over, while putting his own life in danger.

The author creates a richly imagined future and an intricate, suspenseful plot. One notable feature of this story is the way in which it uses the notion of a superhero in an unusually plausible way.

A similar background appears in "The Black Box" by James Chambers. Astronauts explore a large object found within the rings of Saturn. The artifact takes them inside, where they undergo bizarre transformations. The nature of the object promises miracles for humanity, but also threatens it with destruction. This dramatic and imaginative tale always holds the reader's interest.

"The Puzzle" by Keith R.A. DeCandido takes place on the Moon. A meteor strikes a large antenna, requiring repairs. One of the technicians working on the antenna finds a number of small, octagonal, multicolored rocks among the debris. She takes them to a geologist, who dismisses them as meaningless, but plans to take credit for their discovery. The protagonist is oddly passive about having the glory taken away from her, and there is little else to the plot.

In "The Cardavy Letter" by Russ Colchamiro, the only three advanced societies left on Earth after a devastating war—Alaska, Australia, and a small part of North America—all send starships into deep space after a mysterious object transmitting an unknown message. The captain of the North American ship tries to prevent a violent battle from breaking out with the aggressive Australians and the mystical Alaskans, both claiming the object for their own. The decoding of the message offers a touch of irony, but overall the story is too reminiscent of Star Trek in many ways.

"The Sound of Distant Stars" by Judi Fleming takes place on an extrasolar planet with a surface consisting of an intricate labyrinth of huge canyons. At certain times, the planet's winds produce a strange sort of music within the canyons, which has a peculiar effect on the people exploring the world. The climax of the story offers an extraordinary future to humanity. The author balances scientific speculation, believable characters, and a poetic mood in an effective manner, creating a true sense of wonder.

"Generational Sins" by Bryan J.L. Glass is something of an anomaly within the anthology. Unlike the others stories in the book, it does not deal with what we normally think of as space exploration. Instead, it portrays a future in which people can travel between different dimensions. A secret society of mystical technicians reaches a hidden dimension called Dark Space. Dwelling within this place are the devolved descendants of ancient Mesoamericans, who reached it through religious rituals. Through a series of scenes that take place over many years, the story relates weird and frightening events within Dark Space.

This disturbing tale also differs from other stories in the volume in mood and style. It seems more like horror than science fiction, and is written in a dense, difficult style. The author shows great imagination, and is able to create a strong sense of brooding evil, but many readers will find the story confusing.

Victoria Silverwolf remembers the first Moon landing.