"Notes from the Field" by James Van Pelt
"Guardian" by Joe Haldeman
"The Last Robot" by David Langford
"Slices of Life" by Vaughan Stanger
"Looking for God" by Paul E. Martens
"The Dog of the Drops" by Gene Wolfe
"Voices in the Dark" by Greg Beatty
"Soul Birds" by Gus Smith
"Nowhere Man!" by Sabine Furlong
"Eating the Graffiti" by John Aegard
"Dolls" by Colin P. Davies
Starting the issue, "Notes from the Field" is an excellent reversal study of alien fieldwork on unsuspecting humans. James Van Pelt weaves a story hidden in the metaphor of the dating and singles bar scene. What his veteran scientist doesn't count on is how his fieldwork will affect his own sense of identity, muted as it is due to the countless operations to hide his off-world physique. And when he meets another researcher from his own solar system, he realizes how lonely he really is. Thought provoking and well placed to whet the mind to tide you through the next few pieces.
An excerpt from the latest novel from Joe Haldeman, "Guardian" mostly gives a glimpse of the alien character presented at first as a raven but with immense power to transform himself and his companion, a Victorian American woman from Philadelphia. The slice from the novel is barely enough to get a good idea of the meat of the larger work but the premise alone is enough to make me scratch my head. An interview with Haldeman immediately follows the excerpt and gives insight into the book more than the excerpt. Don't judge the book based on the excerpt because it might turn you away with its almost outlandish juxtapositions of setting and tone.
Robot stories have been written in various guises and skill. David Langford takes a large metallic poke at the genre with "The Last Robot Story." Calling Asimovian intricacies into play and borrowing from a Sherlock Holmes style deduction display, this bit of literary fluff will be a nice breather for the brain. Detective Elijah Baley shares with us the moral of the tale, "I may have been a little too clever for my own good this time…" But with appropriate twist and wit, it works.
Taking a near future bend on the Virtual Human project (slices of a human cadaver photographed as either art or science), "Slices of Life" allows Vaughan Stanger to improvise on the possible art form of hyperslice installations. Part hologram, part interactive, these extensions to the slice of the cadaver allow for an intimate look into the dead ex-husband of the narrator. Forced to endure his last artistic statement, she waxes long about the good and bad of their past until she realizes she is part of the show. The end of the story leaves a sour taste in the mouth due to its sugary sentiment but Stanger only gave his narrator a tiny slice to work with. Overall the story is hard to follow at times and has a build-up that ultimately doesn't deliver.
Fiction about the rural poor, uneducated or tent revivals always sends up warning flags. "Looking for God" by Paul E. Martens is no exception. Pastor Cal Martin has lost his faith when his wife Maureen dies but his flock reports miraculous cures at the resident tent revival. When he investigates, he is presented not with God, but with a murky tentacled alien in the back with an unpronounceable name. The alien's handlers give our faithless pastor enough exposition to stifle the living, and the reader's enthusiasm. The 'surprise' ending can be seen lumbering in with the alien and oddly feels rushed.
For "The Dog of the Drops" from Gene Wolfe, you will need a stiff shot of whiskey in order to loosen your tongue in order to wade through the thick dialect in this extremely hard to follow story. The setting of the 'lands beyond the bombed cities' seems a non sequitur to the actual story of a mysterious wolf dog girl, I'm not sure which. If you want a challenge and a headache, keep reading it.
At last, a gem in the middle of the issue in Greg Beatty's "Voices in the Dark." A retelling of the myth of Theseus slaying the minotaur, Beatty gives it a harsh tangibility that will leave you reeling from the emotional impact. In the spirit of Sondheim's Into the Woods but without any speck of comedy, this is the must read piece out of the lot.
Cross-cutting used almost ad nauseum in Gus Smith's "Soul Birds" is forgiven by the pure creepiness of Mr. Shaheen and his found starlings. Although the unnamed narrator has given up his punk lifestyle for wife and kids, his willingness to help the hopelessly vulnerable Shaheen allow the reader to sympathize easily with the impending horror of his situation. Unfortunately, all the subtle and birdlike mixing of thoughts and plotlines can't make up for the horrid ending. Read it for the clever technique and try not to let the last three paragraphs spoil your mood.
The first winner of the 3SF Story on a Postcard competition, "Nowhere Man!" by Sabine Furlong is a tiny character study of Jack the demolition man, his next destination — Earth. Something about the tone is appealing and at one large paragraph, you'll have it read by the time the Beatles move onto the next song.
Ah, more intelligent robots doubling as sentient demolition/remodeling machines — bring it on. Fortunately, John Aegard keeps the techno-babble in "Eating the Graffiti" to a dull roar, giving the main point of view to Foxtrot Sixer, the hapless and hacked robot in question. His hijackers, mainly a saucy bot-lingo programmer named Bev, lead him around the Milwaukee area waging mayhem and destruction for yet to be revealed revenge. A chewy read but worth it for the characterization of Foxtrot Sixer.
In a world where almost sentient dolls are so common as to be part of the homeless, Colin P. Davies gives us Mandi, an eight-year-old girl forced to continue to be an eight-year-old girl indefinitely. Drugs and the pageant circuit, plus an alcoholic father who is constantly on the make for a new improved mother/doll — all ingredients for a twisted look into the mind of repressed sexuality and revenge. Multiple layers give "Dolls" a weight that will beg you to re-read.