“Fire Magic” by Stephanie Burgis and Patrick Samphire
“Draw the Faithful to their Knees” by David L Felts and Ken Rand
“All Things Being Equal” by Karen Danylak
“Dying for Air” by Sean Williams and Simon Brown
“Instinct” by Nigel Read and Lee Battersby
“Questing Beast” by Andrew and Ilona Gordon
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #23 has a specific theme for this issue. Here, collaborations are explored. Most of the stories are a collaboration between two writers, but the two stories that are written by a single author have a collaboration cleverly placed within the story itself.
The first story isn’t a collaboration between two writers who write it, but about two writers who star in it. “Saving Astounding” is Michael Main’s first published story, and while slightly overcomplicated, it is cleverly told. An eighteen-year-old Isaac Asimov is the protagonist here, who is sent by his mom to John W. Campbell, Jr.’s office to see why the new issue of the July 1938 Astounding didn’t arrive for display at the Asimovs’ family store. There Isaac meets Fred Pohl, his co-protag for the remainder of the story, as well as John Campbell himself, and his secretary Miss Edison. As fate would have it, Miss Edison is either robot Helen O’Loy herself, from Lester del Rey’s famous story in that issue, or perhaps she was invented by Thomas Alva Edison in the past. From there, the story gets rather rambunctious as Miss Edison sprouts wings and flies off with the only copy of that July’s Astounding, and Isaac and Fred climb aboard an airship named Skylark (à la E.E. “Doc” Smith) to go retrieve the precious pulp issue. Along the way Isaac proposes marriage to Miss Edison/Helen O’Loy, and Nikola Tesla (Thomas Edison’s old arch rival) appears as the story’s antagonist.
That’s the setup of the story. Yes, this is all quite fantastic, and as I noted perhaps overly complicated, but if one is sympathetic to a funny tale about the beginning of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and somewhat familiar with the history of that time, this story is quite entertaining. I had read Pohl’s autobiography twenty years ago, The Way the Future Was, and I remember enough of his depiction of that era, the Futurians, and his comments about Astounding to pick up most of the references. I have to admit I hadn’t read Lester del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” in years, and this story did make me go dig up a copy of this classic tale and reread it with delight. I was a young boy when the New Wave of science fiction in the ’60s was happening, and twenty years from even being born when this story takes place, so of course this is way before my time. Younger readers of SF today who aren’t familiar with the classics of the genre might have a hard time with this tale. And that’s a shame. This story is a fun nugget giving a glimpse at the “birth of modern science fiction,” told from a madcap Golden Age comic viewpoint of two of it’s most influential writers. Not great literature, but it isn’t supposed to be.
“Fire Magic” by husband-and-wife team Stephanie Burgis and Patrick Samphire is an excellent medieval fantasy in the classic style. Captain Marko Jovanovic of the King’s Guard is thrown into a dilemma. Should he commit treason and save the visiting Princess Heléne and her chaperon, Justine, the latter being a widow whom he’s taken a fancy to of late, or should he let the king’s son, Prince Drago, use the princess in a wicked scheme to defeat her homeland? The prince’s magician has developed the ability to defeat any countryman of a royal once that royal’s heart has been instilled with fire magic. He has already used this against the kingdom of Enskk by turning ten thousand of her soldiers into ten thousand screaming candles. Prince Drago plans on doing just that to Princess Heléne of the Kingdom of Lourne after their marriage, which is only days away. But Marko discovers his intention and must decide what to do.
This is the longest story in this issue, a novelette in the upper-middle length, but it certainly is a quick read. Any fledgling writers out there who would like to learn how to write a flawless fantasy of this type could study this one to see exactly how it is done. Burgis and Samphire make it look effortlessly simple, when in actuality it’s anything but. They present their characters through two rather opposing points of view—Marko and Justine—and carefully chose just the right scenes to develop the characters and build the drama. The prose is simple, yet descriptive enough to make the world come alive, and the tension mounts quickly. Some might complain that there’s nothing really new here, that this is the same stock fantasy world that has become so popular over the years. And they would be correct. It is. But there is a reason why these worlds have become so familiar: this is what many readers prefer. There’s nothing wrong with that. My only lament is when such fare is poorly done, or presented in a mediocre fashion. But this is a textbook example of how to pull a reader in and make him or her care. I found this tale to be storytelling of the highest caliber and a pleasure to watch the tale unfold.
The third story in this issue is “Draw the Faithful to their Knees” by David L. Felts and Ken Rand. In this short novelette, Brother Heath, a sixteen-year-old monk living in a monastery, is becoming aware of his budding sorcerous powers when a young farm girl comes to where he and the other monks are tending the fields. Injured, she is taken back to the monastery where Heath later learns she has magical powers as well. Knowing that anyone thought to posses such powers will be turned over to the Ennead to be "assessed," he has kept his gift a secret. But now the prelate has been sent for so the young girl can be taken away to determine if she is a sorceress, and if so whether she should be trained or put to death. Heath is torn between whether he should help her escape or not.
I found this a satisfying story once I finished it. My initial complaint was that it took forever to get to the part where Heath was faced with a decision, and I felt the beginning could be compressed quite a bit. There’s not a lot of tension in the first two-thirds of the story. As it turns out, the freedom of the girl is only tangential to what the story is about. At first I found the opening, which reveals the monotony and inflexibility of monastic life, to be rather dull and plodding, but eventually realized it was appropriate to the story’s aim. This is a quiet story with few fireworks, and while the penultimate scene did offer a confrontational climax, it wasn’t precisely the determining factor to the story’s resolution. I was surprisingly satisfied in the end, and I didn’t think I would be.
The next collaborative theme is “All Things Being Equal” by sole writer Karen Danylak. Here the theme begins in the joining of the heirs of two feuding houses in a different take on Romeo and Juliet. Even the title is somewhat Shakespearean, but there the similarity to the Bard’s play ends, as this is a light story and not a tragedy. Lady Kyrin and Lord Stepano long to be wed, but are prevented from doing so by a royal statute that says that equals can’t be united in matrimony. Wishing to overcome this, they petition Queen Elandra who, finding the young lovers’ obstacle more intriguing than the mundane courtly business before her that day, proposes a challenge. If they will rescue her cousin Iseline from the ilkra, a hideous beast holding her in its cave, she will grant their request and break with tradition. Here the collaborative theme reaches fruition as the young couple team up to rescue Iseline.
Danylak’s prose is quite charming, and the story plops humorously along until the couple arrives at the cave to save the queen’s cousin and slay the beast. Then the story loses narrative control and becomes rushed. At that point, rabbits are pulled rather clumsily from the hat, so to speak, as the couple’s relationship falls apart. This is one story that could have used a little more verbiage, I think, as things unfold a bit too quickly. Yes, this is supposed to be a light story, but what it had in cleverness in the beginning becomes lost toward the end when it devolves into silliness. I was impressed enough with the author’s skill at narrative tone and witty dialogue to want to read more of her work in the future, however.
In “Dying for Air” by Sean Williams and Simon Brown, Lewis is a failed flatform graphic’s artist who agrees to let his wife Kaye be injected with a carrier virus so her body can produce a serum for medical science. Though they’re both willing, albeit skeptical, she is the best candidate of the two. This transaction is slightly illegal, which is why they are being offered $45,000 per injection. But something goes wrong, of course, and Kaye starts to mutate. I won’t tell you what she mutates into, but it does go well with the sterile theme of the story.
While the science seemed plausible enough to me, it was the human equation here that held my interest. The authors had one line that cut rather deeply: “Like fiction writers unable to make the change from books to interactive media, an artist who can’t work in 3D is practically useless.” This is the reason Lewis and Kaye are in such financial straits, but being a fiction writer and reader myself, this instantly became a very uncomfortable future. In the story, Lewis has just finished reading a collection of short stories by Kafka, which he had to read in book-form (books being hard to find, I take it) because it was unavailable on “tab.” Apparently, Kafka is not commercial enough for standard media release in the future, which hints at the future of publishing: where mass-market publishers would profit most by fewer number of books being offered to the consumer. This is an homogenized future where people have become commodities along with the products they buy—the corporate giants control all, it appears. It is not a future I would care to live in, though I fear it is one we may well be heading toward. I’m not a technophobe in the slightest, and while I do see this is as a cautionary tale, I do think it’s a little too late. The genie is already out of the bottle. This story is well written, but it left me with little hope. Which may very well be its point.
“Humans and Fey actually have a lot in common, despite the claims of the right-wing scaremongers,” is a great line from Nigel Read and Lee Battersby’s “Instinct.” After the Fey Right Movement gains a foothold in the world, supernatural creatures of the night finally have they’re own hanging spots. Told in the first person by a nameless protag (a “Lon Chaney-gene” werewolf), two humans stroll into the Lowlife one evening where he’s drinking. They are young law students named Trudy and Mark, and definitely out of their element. Everything’s fine for a while, but after a few drinks it all turns ugly.
This story wouldn’t have worked in third person, as the wry, clever narration of this lycanthrope-challenged fellow gives it most of its charm. I really enjoyed this tongue-in-cheek horror tale, and I won’t try to deconstruct it further. It’s enough to say that it’s humorous, but not overly so as to devolve into camp. I was not rooting for my own species in this one. Fey Rule!
In “Questing Beast,” Andrew and Ilona Gordon mix warm-and-fuzzy alien creatures with AIs on a distant planet. When a millipede virus invades this intentionally PC-limited world, Sean Kozlov must find a way to restore the Nannybot that was used as a backup system. A “Questing the Beast” program just might do the trick. And so they must construct a physical beast to act out the scenario.
While I’ve long since grown tired of grim cyberpunk future-noir worlds devoid of all hope, despite its mild profanity, this YA tale was just too cutesy for me. Also, in the cavalier way that the authors introduced the characters and the world, I got the feeling that this was a story in a series of stories. Maybe that’s why I had a difficult time caring for the characters and putting the world together. If not, a better setup would help. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be very much at stake here. Only the careers of a group of planet-dwelling folk I really didn’t care about. Not that every story has to be a life-or-death struggle, but while this one was light, I didn’t find it clever enough to make me smile. You may think differently.
Out of the seven stories here, the first three were my favorites: "Saving Astounding," "Draw the Faithful to their Knees," and especially "Fire Magic." In addition, I found "Instinct" to be a nifty little horror tale with several genuinely clever lines.