Analog, September/October, 2017
“My Fifth and Most Exotic Voyage” by Edward M. Lerner
Reviewed by Nicky Magas
For Lemuel Gulliver, travel is nothing new. As Edward M. Lerner tells it in “My Fifth and Most Exotic Voyage” Lemuel has been all around the world, seen a host of fantastic things, and has lived to document them all. But travelling through time is something entirely new to him, and finding himself plucked out of his own timeline against his will and dropped into Chicago in the year 2022 isn’t something even the most seasoned voyager can prepare for. Faced with new people and technology, Lemuel must find a way back home, but first he has to convince his hosts that he is who he says he is.
Lerner mixes literature with science in this humorous tale of alternate universes and time travel giving readers double speculation: what if there are alternate timelines and what if a famous literary character from history was sent to the future? Lerner characterizes Lemuel well, and while at times he seems a little too accepting of the strange things around him, this can be explained by Lemuel’s previous experience with the strange and bizarre. Is anything really that shocking to him anymore? Ultimately, I think the biggest drawback with this story is the time it spends describing things to Lemuel. As a very near future story, it ultimately amounts to Lerner describing the present day to readers. Because Lemuel takes much of what he learns with nothing more than curious fascination, the plot is largely flavorless. Readers familiar with Swift’s classic satire will doubtless enjoy this new take on his well-travelled character, however.
“i know my own & my own know me” by Tracy Canfield throws readers far into the future, where a quarantined group of human and uplifted animal researchers work to unravel the mystery of what caused the colonies to completely lose sentient brain function. Trapped together, their various political and personal gripes hang on a delicate balance, undisturbed. That is, until someone uplifts a cat into their ranks.
This slowly unfolding story takes readers deep into the personalities of its characters by keeping the narrative fixed in digital chat communications. This limits what can be said about the history and setting, however the story’s length allows it to naturally unfold, and the characters themselves give readers stepping stones to follow until they have their feet on more solid ground in the world. There is necessarily a lot here that is left unsaid, left up to the reader to either figure out or speculate for themselves. Canfield challenges readers to reassess the boundary between what we think of as human and animal, as future science technologies will undoubtedly force us to confront this distinction sooner or later.
In Eric Del Carlo‘s “Ghostmail,” Kushal’s wife Svetlana is dead, killed in the line of duty in what seems like a never-ending war. So why is Kushal still receiving meatmail messages from her, just as he always has? They aren’t the typical psychic leftovers other war widows receive—these are fully formed communications—yet there is proof that Svetlana went down with her ship. As the messages torment Kushal to the edge of sanity they reveal crucial details about the war not yet lost.
“Ghostmail” is a speedy, snappy story that zips the reader through Kushal’s recovery after the death of his wife and introduces a painfully personal twist on parallel universes. The story doesn’t waste time on speculation and assumption, drawing the immediately correct conclusion about Svetlana’s messages and pushing the reader to follow Kushal’s life after her death. And somehow this feels natural in the tumult of Kushal’s psyche. At times this does make the story come off as spoon-fed and predictable, but all the elements taken together, it is a good read.
In Marie Vibbert‘s lighthearted “The First Trebuchet on Mars,” the Martian colony gets a whole lot more interesting when Jill builds herself a trebuchet. Of course, not everyone can appreciate a fine piece of machinery when they see it, and Ned is absolutely determined to have the trebuchet dismantled and Jill punished for her wasteful activities. It’s certainly a headache for the colony’s reluctant sheriff, but life on Mars is full of innumerable challenges, and one never knows when a trebuchet just might come in handy.
Short, punchy, and funny, “The First Trebuchet on Mars” relies on the witty first person narration of the sheriff to tell readers all they need to know about life on Mars. The characters are simple and archetypical, but in the spirit of literature of this length, readers aren’t bogged down with needless description. There’s a trebuchet, it’s on Mars, and it’s awesome. What more is there to know?
Climbing is in Florian’s blood in “Climbing Olympus” by Simon Kewin. His mother and father were both climbers, not that he saw much of his father growing up. The lure of the highest, most challenging peaks kept Florian’s father away most of the time, and when an attempt at reconciliation between the two sours after Florian’s mother’s death, it seems there can be no mending the tear between them. Except, perhaps, the most challenging climb of all: the tallest peak in the solar system.
“Climbing Olympus” is a non-linear story that weaves in and out of past and present, showcasing pivotal moments in the relationship between Florian and his father. These threaded together vignettes create an emotional build up to the final climb between father and son, cumulating in an unspoken reconciliation and a touching final scene. At times the chronological jumps are confusing, and the dangers Florian faces on Olympus Mons are a disappointing red herring, however the climb isn’t the point of the story, as the reader finds out at the very end.
Lettie Prell details a specific set of hypothetical events, should the situation arise, in “Emergency Protocol.” These events aren’t particularly comfortable, but nothing really is in an emergency situation. Prell would like readers to know, however, that everything is under control, literally, and you shouldn’t panic, no matter what you happen to see or do.
“Emergency Protocol” is a very short piece of flash that manages to convey a lot of meaning and chilling implications in several short and to the point instructions on what to do in an emergency situation. There is a lot here that is left unsaid, and working with the reader’s imaginations Prell is able to tell several parallel stories in one.
Life is hard for the people of New Portland in “A Tinker’s Damnation” by Jerry Oltion. Entropy has been slowly eating away at technological resources, forcing the colony back step by step into the pre-industrial age of the far-off Earth civilizations. If only Henry could get the nanofab up and running, things would be different. They could make anything they might need with only a few raw ingredients. No one would ever have to work again. When a freak accident gives Henry just what he needs to make such a change, he is faced with a moral dilemma: create a post-work utopia in the blink of an eye, or hoard the power of the nanofab among a small group of conspirators.
Oltion raises some interesting questions in this short but sweet bit of fiction. Just what would the world look like if machines truly did create a world in which no one ever had to do a day of work? The dream of the industrial revolution come true? Oltion suggests that this wouldn’t be quite the utopia it seems to be. What would come of all that idleness might be far worse than what might come of a world lacking in a few luxury goods. I think if anything is missing from this story it’s a bit more depth into the interpersonal relationships within the colony. The final conflict seems a bit rushed without it. Taking the length into consideration, however, “A Tinker’s Damnation” is a wonderful bit of speculative science fiction perfect for anyone with a twinkle in their eye for what the technological future might hold.
In “The Old Man” by Rich Larsen, Ezekiel wants nothing more than to kill his father and have him know who did it. Lucky for him the Old Man escaped his cryo-prison. Luckier still, the government thawed Zeke for the task of taking him out. The Old Man has much to atone for and Zeke means to see the debt settled down to the last drop of blood.
Larson tells a fascinating story of revenge and humanity in “The Old Man.” As the narrative unravels itself in a non-linear way set to the backdrop of the swampy bayou, readers find their sympathies torn between politics, family, and human rights in a technologically advanced future. There are layers to this story that make it exquisitely complex and an ethically thoughtful read. Readers expecting a story whirling with technology might be surprised by how intricately and tragically organic it is, however this does not detract from the brilliant piece of futuristic science fiction that it is.
An exciting new world that is hostile to technology awaits Mbasi in “Orphans” by Craig DeLancey. No probes sent to the planet teeming with vegetation have survived through to their full life expectancy. It’s up to Mbasi and the rest of the research crew to figure out why. But when an unexplainable accident forces them into an emergency crash landing from their planned orbit, Mbasi finds herself a little closer to the conundrum than she first anticipated. To make matters worse, whatever has been destroying their probes is making short work of their ship as well.
The mystery in “Orphans” is what truly makes this story shine. The sense of urgency DeLancey puts into every word is palpable to the reader, making every decision seem like life or death. DeLancey cultivates a deep curiosity in readers, and though he peppers the narrative with speculation between his characters, the open ended nature of the conclusion leaves readers on the edge of the cliff of what is knowable, both satisfied and deeply wanting more.
Sending a space elevator up to an asteroid is hard work. In “The Absence” by Robert R. Chase, no task associated with the mission is harder than maintaining spotless public relations, as General Pendelton knows full well. So when he discovers the genius engineer John Hallowell sacrificing a cat to troubleshoot through his own technology, everything in Pendelton tells him to get the nut job off the project. The problem is, whatever blood ritual energy Hallowell is tapping into, it seems to work. Maybe a little too well.
“The Absence” is an intriguing piece of science fantasy that is sure to appeal to a broad audience. There’s a lovely element of mystery to it that is never quite resolved in the story. The background is fleshed out, yet still leaves readers asking for more. Like the absence itself, there’s something a little insubstantial about this story that’s difficult to pinpoint because it delivers so well on all the points that should matter. Something here feels naggingly incomplete—there’s a piece to this puzzle the reader knows is not there, yet cannot see the emptiness which it should fill.
Something, or someone, is killing off all the phytoplankton at the government research facilities in “Arp! Arp!” by Christina De La Rocha. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal if the labs weren’t literally growing the tiny organisms to feed the entire planet. Enter Professor Monique Jackson, marine biologist extraordinaire, to look into the mystery and discover whether it’s a matter of simple tank contamination or something far, far more nefarious that’s causing the mass phytoplankton die-off.
“Arp! Arp!” is a cute piece of short science fiction that doesn’t take itself too seriously. As a piece of literature it’s fairly cut and dried: Monique is snappy and intelligent; Robert is bumbling and short tempered; the villain is classic and red. Readers don’t have to dig too deep to get to the heart of the story, which I suspect will largely impact reader enjoyment, one way or another.
Sometimes a monster has just got to get away, you know? Somewhere he’s home, with familiar faces. In “Viktor Frankenstein’s Bar and Grill and Twenty-Four-Hour Roadside Emporium” by Michael F. Flynn the roadhouse is just such a place. But there are some travelers that are more horrifying than even the most grotesque of the pack, and what’s a ghoul to do when the best little watering hole out there is invaded by the unspeakable? This short piece of flash is a nice refresher in between some longer pieces. Its humor is punny and its characters charmingly stale but it still manages to induce a smile.
The individual self is a dangerous thing in “The Mathematician” by Tom Jolly. A Keltki that refuses to mix and reuse its beetle body components for selfish reasons risks stagnating the whole group. But Cilketat believes there may be something in holding onto the core of an idea and perfecting it. What if, instead of sharing scattered bits of information, one Keltki could master something truly revolutionary? Of course, such thoughts are nothing short of treasonous, and Cilketat must be careful who it confides in.
“The Mathematician” strikes an instant chord of recognition with such individualistic stories as Jonathan Livingston Seagull in which the hero risks life, limb, and ostracization in the pursuit of individual enlightenment. The very alien quality of the Keltki gives the reader room to contemplate the self and its place in the temporal dimension of society, while also sparking a sense of instant sympathy for Cilketat’s desire not to be dissolved into the larger mass of collective thought. This thoughtful short story is a social commentary as much as it is a philosophical musing, and as such has a lot to offer a broad audience.
Hale dreams of a better life for himself and his wife in “Coyote Moon” by James Van Pelt. His engineering degree has gotten him nowhere in a stagnant economy and even working two jobs with Jenna they must share a tiny apartment with another couple just to make ends meet. But all that is about to change. Hale has signed up for the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to be one of the first citizens on the new moon colony. Of course, this shady back deal is all very hush hush. He isn’t the only one who wants to leave Earth, and no one will be very happy to learn that he cut in line.
Van Pelt takes aim at classism and socio-economic trends in this near future story where the working class man is always at the bottom of the ladder. When science fiction presents us with an ever–widening scope of new frontiers to explore, there’s no reason to believe that any of us would be so lucky as to have a front row seat to view them, and even if we were, Van Pelt says through the experiences of Hale, our lives really wouldn’t be all that different than they are here on Earth. Society changes at geological pacing, and the structures we have here more than likely would carry over onto any new world we may reach.
Cjek’darrit has just crash-landed on a strange, uncivilized planet in “Abductive Reasoning” by Christopher L. Bennett. Not only is there little chance of finding any kind of tech around that might help her get off this watery, backward little rock, but now she’ll be late for her reunion. If nothing else, there is some form of (sentient) life around to talk to, though neither she nor the bipedal cultist she runs into are quite what either of them were expecting.
“Abductive Reasoning” dissects the classic secret alien abduction narrative and exposes it for all its flaws and fluff while at the same time poking at our complicated human way of explaining and interacting with the unknown. Cjek is the perfect foil to the confused and misguided Roy, and forces us to laugh at ourselves and the biases in our own reasoning. While the hyper-advanced-alien-meets-backward-human trope is feeling a bit stale these days, nonetheless, Bennett uses it to pick at our own irrationalities, and the ways we chose to ignore the incongruences in the narratives we build around ourselves.
In “Invaders” by Stanley Schmidt, people are gathering from all over the country for a chance to see the total solar eclipse. For retired astronomy professor Abe Svenson, maybe too many people. The roads are congested, all the hotels are filled—he was lucky to find a viewing spot open at a remote B&B as it was. But Abe isn’t the only one of his lodge-mates to have come a long way to see the eclipse, only some have come a lot further than others.
“Invaders” is a cozy science fiction story walking along a somewhat predictable path to a feel-good ending. What risks are taken don’t feel much like risks, and the mystery isn’t given a lot of impact in the matter-of-fact first person narration, but taken as a fictional piece of scientific appreciation, it’s a nice, warm story about togetherness and cool science.
In “The Sword of Damocles” by Norman Spinrad, Marcus 31 of the Order of the Galactic Eye has hardly thought of what he might do with his coming adulthood when his gravity-less world is thrown upside down, so to speak, by an aging sociologist. Suddenly, the task of the Order to find advanced civilizations outside of the Solar System is no longer his. Instead, he will study those civilizations, however possible, and preserve humanity’s interest in what lies within the stars, and perhaps even preserve humanity itself.
“The Sword of Damocles” plays with a logical extension of the Fermi Paradox: we have found the aliens, now why haven’t we heard from any of them? The use of sociology to explain this absence of contact is somewhat spurious, or at least not detailed enough to engage with any deeper than what the story provides. Taking place over several centuries, the narrative draws on the existential horror of not being able to know the future one has helped create. Even the long-lived Bats are not immune to this frustration. And like the Ecliptics remaining on Earth, each of their actions must simultaneously preserve and justify their existence to an unknowable future. The somewhat sterile first person narration allows readers to focus sharply on this fact, and reminds us that we are only really relevant in the here and now.
In “Heaven’s Covenant” by Bud Sparhawk, Larisha has been tasked to lead a new mission of colonization along with her husband Tam. But the further along the mission gets into its preparations the more she uncovers a genocidal plot and political intrigue. Does Larisha have the fortitude to take on the radical factions plotting to destroy everything she holds dear?
Sparhawk’s story is pretty standard fare for science fiction as far as space colonization and stasis space flight goes. The introduction of religious themes as justification for racial genocide links it to the human history long forgotten by those preparing the Covenant for her next flight. The characters are fairly two-dimensional and don’t add much if any depth to the story: Larisa is the naive and love struck heroine, Tam is the belittling and manipulating husband, Chen is the wise old guardian. Readers looking for something fresh may be advised to skip this story. For those looking for a return to science fiction’s roots, this might be just the work for you.