Leading Edge, #49, April 2005

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"The Last Days of the Mahdi" by Tom Pendergrass
"Laryngeal Love" by Monte Davis
"Just Passing Through" by L. Sanger Kelly
"The Prophetic Method" by Andy Eliason
"Imperishable Stars" by Karen L. Kobylarz
"Contractual Arrangement" by John Derderian

There are six pieces of fiction in this issue of Leading Edge, and although the table of contents does not identify them by length, I am pleased that most appear to be novelettes. I commend the editors for offering their readers longer works than are typically found in the semi-pro zines, where guidelines often limit authors to just a few thousand words. This, despite the fact that I also felt some of these pieces might have benefited by some vigorous trimming.

Commenting on the fiction, editor Jason Wallace notes that the stories in this issue seem to have found a common theme: the apocalypse.

First up, "The Last Days of the Mahdi" has been constructed by Tom Pendergrass on the frame of an apocalyptic Islamic prophecy. Our protagonist is an assassin sent by his sinister organization to deal with the perceived threat of a rogue agent now calling himself the Mahdi. The assassin’s soul is divided against itself: his assigned mission against his artificially imprinted persona’s faith—while Pendergrass explains [rather too often] that his nominal identity is just as artificial as his disguise. This story comes to vigorous life in the teeming streets of al-Qahira in Egypt, at the center of a new Caliphate ruled by the Mahdi, where we find the protagonist tormented by his inner struggle. The true climax comes, not with the end of the world, but when he finally makes his choice between his orders and his imprinted faith in the man he has been sent to kill.

At the end, however, I found myself somewhat disturbed by the fact that the quotation proclaiming the apocalypse is not an authentic hadith of the Mahdi, as the story implies. This seems a strange way to conclude a tale which is essentially about faith, and in which the author has clearly taken pains to depict the other details of this faith authentically.

"Imperishable Stars" by Karen L. Kobylarz also involves the assassination of a world leader, in this case the Roman Emperor Galba. Here again we find the events are based on historical fact, and the author’s research is evident. But this piece struggles to find its center, and the Egyptian fantasy elements are not well-integrated with the Roman history. Kobylarz suggests that she was inspired by the figure of Quintillianus, but her story fails to make this character interesting to the reader, which is a shame, because much could have been done with him. Even more to the point of the story, she fails to interest us in the emperor Galba, or to make her case that he was worthy to join the divine pharaohs among the imperishable stars of her title.

In reading this issue, I noted a second element common to half of the stories: the mad scientist. John Derderian combines the two in his "Contractual Arrangement" by having the mad scientist destroy the world. This is an old-fashioned piece of hard SF, the sort in which the author, like a stage magician, must keep up the pseudoscientific hand-waving to distract the reader’s disbelief and hold it suspended for the duration of the tale. While Derderian’s mcguffin is not original, his hand-waving is sufficiently deft to carry the plot through its paces as the mad scientist Craswell succeeds in powering the entire world with his miracle solar-energy foil. And although characterization is not the strength of this sort of story, it comes to a nice moment at the end, when Craswell finally realizes the consequences of his invention and, for once, loses his self-control.

The scientist in "The Prophetic Method" is not precisely mad, but he is driven near to it by his prescient knowledge that the world is about to come to an end. Author Andy Eliason has given himself an impossible task; while he waves his hands at great length attempting to convince the reader of the story’s premiss, no explanation will work. Miracles are inexplicable. This would have been a much shorter and more convincing tale if it had skipped the fake math and simply said: "One day, Adam looked up from his calculus book and realized that he knew every instant of the universe’s history: past and future." Eliason could then have spent his time reaching more deeply into the real heart of this story, which is how a relationship between two people can survive when they know their world is doomed.

"Just Passing Through" gives us ghosts and vampires instead of the end of the world, but its mood is still dark. This is another story that does not seem to find its center. We find JoLynne in Romania, a refugee from her past, but she has brought her own ghosts with her, in her dreams. Author L. Sanger Kelly informs us that these "psychic dreams" give JoLynne a special power to do good in the world, and she comes to accept this destiny by the time the story ends. Unfortunately, her epiphany occurs offstage, while the story’s scene switches to follow a couple of obviously expendable tourists to Dracula’s castle, where we expect they will come to a Bad End because they made fun of their handicapped waitress at dinner. However, we are not even allowed the fun of watching them gnawed by wolves before the author returns us to JoLynne, post-epiphany, to let us know that the important stuff happened while the narrative was engaged elsewhere, and to deliver a parting moral not particularly related to the events of this fractured tale.

A typographic aside: it was irritating to try to read this piece because the magazine’s word processing program couldn’t seem to reproduce the accents in the Romanian words without leaving gaps between the letters. Time for an upgrade.

Monte Davis supplies this issue’s comic relief with "Laryngeal Love." Here again is the mad scientist, a villain searching for the perfect voice which he can use to control the world—by voicemail. Albert Upton is seduced by Carla, the disembodied voice on his company’s new phone message system. He can’t resist the opportunity to meet Carla in person. His dream voice is of course not what she seems, for Carla is quite literally disembodied, but Albert takes matters into his own hands, defeats the mad scientist and becomes an unlikely hero, while the world remains quite unaware of the dire fate from which it has been saved.

I fear that some readers may find this story spoiled for them by the illustration, which gives away the mcguffin on the first page.