Paradox, #7, Summer 2005

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.
“A Tear like a Rainbow” by Meredith Simmons
“The Avowing of Sir Kay” Cherith Baldry
“A Monument More Lasting Than Brass” by Steven Mohan, Jr.
“The Tiger Fortune Princess” by Eugie Foster
“A Taste of Ashes” by Ilsa J. Bick
“A Hand in the Stream” by Darron T. Moore
“The Gods of Green and Gray” by Paul Finch
The seven stories in issue #7 of Paradox are all historical fiction, some with genre elements, others not.  They range in time from ancient China to an alternate USA in summer 1969.  The stories vary from romantic to horror, offering something for every taste—given an interest in historical speculation.

The issue opens with an angry Confederate captain yelling that he’s surrounded by imbeciles in Meredith Simmons’ “A Tear Like a Rainbow.”  He wants to send up his balloon so that the Union forces can be spied on from above, but there was no hydrogen gas, and furthermore the ignorant soldiers have damaged the balloon, which has a slow leak.  Listening in secret as the captain reams the hapless aides is Pim, a slave boy.  The captain cannot risk going up himself—the leak might worsen, but a drummer boy cannot be found who can read maps.  Pim volunteers—and is so good at what he does, the captain, in praise, rubs his head and calls him a clever little monkey.  We pretty much know where the tale is going by now, but Simmons’ writing is so clear, her characters so believable,  that the resolution is just as satisfying for those who like a feel-good story as if it had been a surprise.

Cherith Baldry’s “The Avowing of Sir Kay” concerns Gareth of Orkney, who has just spent his year in the castle kitchens in disguise, and Sir Kay.    The famed knights, drinking a tad too much, all make “I won’t come back until I…” vows—grand enough until Kay’s caustic commentary gets them riled.  Kay ends up making a reckless vow of his own.  Lancelot, angered at first, tries to make things better, but is discovered by Kay, which makes everything worse.  It is Gareth, faithful to the end, who becomes the balance point—not in deeds of valor. The story is Mallory’s characters by way of the style of nineteenth century writers like Farnol and Pyle.  Baldry, comfortable with those characters and that world, gives us a bittersweet tale.

The opening quote of Steven Mohan Jr.’s “A Monument More Lasting Than Peace” clues us in that we are one parallel universe over—the diverging point being July 20, 1969. The Apollo 11 astronauts crashed on landing.  In 1982, President Reagan has revitalized the moon project, ostensibly for scientific study.  The main characters, a civilian expert in geophysics named Banks (the narrator) and the commander of the next moon-landing mission, an experienced military pilot named Jaroszynski, argue about the politics motivating the faltering space program as they close in on their target.  The two are to land at the spot where Aldrin crashed the Eagle,  and thus score one up on the Evil Empire.  En route, Banks and Jaroszynski embark on one of their familiar arguments.  The captain, a descendant of Poles betrayed first by the Germans and then by the Soviets, feels that Communism must be defeated at any price, but Banks is afraid that political competition is not enough of a motivator to get the space program truly relaunched.  He sees space as the only solution to the world’s problems.  They locate the remains of the Eagle for a ceremony honoring the astronauts of Apollo 11, which is to be televised to the world.  The story of the last moments of the Eagle,  the passionate argument about politics, and the future of humanity, are tightly woven in as Banks and Jaroszynski touch down and proceed.  The characterizations are superb, the issues real, the passions believable, and the tension snapping-tight by the end of the story—and then comes the twist. 

Eugie Foster’s “The Tiger Fortune Princess” is a fairy tale set in Ancient China. It concerns the Empress, Meiying, who is as beautiful as a lily—but when she’s pregnant, is given an augury about the daughter she’s to bear that is fairly grim.  Never mind, the wise Empress knows just what to do.  And we know she’ll do it, for all the symbols and signs are there, but Foster writes with a graceful, easy touch, with just the right images, making the story into a tapestry.  We’ve already seen the whole from the beginning, but that in no way takes away from the pleasure of going over it bit by bit in order to savor the details.

Ilsa J. Bick’s “A Taste of Ashes” covers ground that seems to be irresistible to many alternate history writers: the time travel attempt at the assassination of Hitler.  Not that we know it at the beginning, for Hitler is never named.  But the reader reasonably familiar with history recognizes him immediately in the drab-but-creepy private blinded by mustard gas in one of the WW I battles, 1918.  The narrator, a doctor who treats the wounded soldiers of that war, is almost attacked by a mystery person of unusual beauty and smoothness of skin, who is desperate to kill him before he can do something that will unleash evil onto the world.  There’s a sustained pacing that smacks of H.G. Wells and other early twentieth century writers (just the right touch for 1918), a sense of impending doom, and a great deal of evil glowing in eyes, which may or may not be symbolic.  Bick’s taken on a tough subject to make fresh, but the story is entertaining in the same way that reading very early science fiction can be, despite its now-familiar elements.

We assume at the beginning of Darron T. Moore’s “A Hand in the Stream” that a military exercise is in progress as Colonel Margorie O’Neill leads her SpecOps Team on mission Outback.  Interspersed between painful recent memories on Magorie’s part and the proceedings of the team is what I thought the niftiest part of the story—the “Twinkie Theory” of time travel.  We discover the mission is heading back to Alexandria to save the library, but they only have a very short time to act before the mob and the fires.  A very short time—and do they have enough storage bags to rescue all the scrolls?  Time, threat, and emotional motivation propel them to the end.

Paul Finch’s “The Gods of Green and Gray” is the longest piece in the issue.  The prose and the research are very fine, fashioning a strong backbone to a horrific tale.  The story is seen through the eyes of a couple of Romans who are ordered to proceed on the "taming of Britain" seventy-two years after the bloody excesses of Boudicca’s revolt.  Ursus is an old civilian engineer who doesn’t believe in much, but has heard that those howling druids of Boudicca’s time did what they did in order to address the balance of forces, seen and unseen, in the world.  Livius is a young officer, risen by merit through the ranks as his family has no influence.  He volunteered for this mission figuring it would give him a taste of combat at last, and, if successful, bring his name before the powers that be.  Well, combat he gets.  Not just the local savagery (and there’s plenty of it, unstintingly described) but an ogre.  Meantime, there is the scowling presence of Jusci, the guide, who is a member of that mysterious tribe conquered nearly a century ago. Is he going to betray them? The characterizations begin with subtlety and sympathy, which makes the escalating horrors that much more tense.  We want them to survive, at least in the beginning.  Are the reminders of the past a threat or a warning, Ursus wonders; he seems to gain in sympathy as Livius flattens into caricature.  Even so, the velocity Finch built up carries tension and terror to the very last graph.