“Wildstyle” by John Bowker
“Lucky Tart” by Tansy Rayner Roberts
“’Dants” by Paul Hosek
“Aspies and Auties and Long-leggedy Beasties” by Alison Venugoban
“The Answer” by Michael Simon
“Obituary Boy” by Adam Browne and John Dixon
“And a Song in Her Hair” by Michael Merriam
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine has long affirmed a commitment to publishing lighthearted speculative fiction. Its stories aren’t limited to that, of course, but it has established a solid reputation for humor and whimsy. That’s what makes issue #26 so surprising: it is dominated by “dark” fiction, and the stories that do not end tragically still defy the “lighthearted” label. The issue features two rapes, a suicide, several savage beatings, and multiple cold-blooded murders. Even the less violent stories and scenes tend to be about as “light” as a cloudy sunset.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some fine offerings in this issue. In general, the longer the story, the better it’s likely to be. But onto the details…
The issue begins with “Marie and the Mathematicians,” a bittersweet sci-fi romance by Matthew Kressel. A hard-working waitress in a college town discovers she has a remarkable talent: she can “channel” solutions to the baffling mathematical problems faced by the professors who frequent her little café. One of them, the man she has fallen in love with, begins to develop her discoveries into astounding applications, and he offers her a way out of the stagnant drudgery her life has become. She eagerly pursues her romantic dreams, but soon finds herself wondering if she really wants what she thinks she wants.
The story’s lesson is an old one, and some readers may find it predictable, but it’s delivered with vivid description and characterization. That aside, the protagonist is a very simple heroine, sweet but not particularly intriguing. Despite her circumstances, it’s frustrating that she feels no wonder for the achievements she inaugurates. Also, the antagonist is wicked to the point of stereotypical madness, harshly drawn against Marie’s soft-focus form. This challenges suspension of disbelief, as does the strange persistence of the ordinary in the face of the extraordinary. Basically, the story is too brief to showcase all the changes to the world, yet too long given its focus on the changes to Marie.
In Steve Wylie’s “Chicken,” a mysterious entity begins a perilous voyage to a new world. Traveling inside her organic vessel, she thinks mainly of two things: her urgent drive to reproduce, and her ravenous love of chicken. When she finally lands on a new world, her appetite impels her to change herself forever.
“Chicken” is one of those stories with a “surprise twist ending” discouraged by markets like Strange Horizons. It’s tricksy and false, yesss, Preciouss, and worthy of an author whose name is a homophone for “wily.” A reader’s satisfaction will likely depend on when s/he figures out what’s really going on; the later, the better. This is certainly no masterpiece, but it is morbidly cute.
John Bowker’s “Wildstyle” begins at the dark end of the spectrum and grades into the light, sampling all the colors in between. The protagonist, Rachel, is an introverted, nondescript teenager who chafes against her social “invisibility.” Drawn to art, she spray-paints her signature design on buildings and objects when no one is looking. When this habit gets her into serious trouble, she is befriended by Devina, a magician who begins to help her take control of her world. Rachel is encouraged by the early results, and she begins to crave too much power too quickly.
This is a (literally) colorful story of self-discovery, with wonderful, sympathetic characters and enriching detail. Though the narrative runs too long for the story being told, and the intensity of the beginning is out of sync with the rest of the piece, this is a worthy and enjoyable read.
“Lucky Tart” is a magical recipe by Chef Tansy Rayner Roberts. The detailed, whimsical instructions promise to produce a pastry that will convey incredible good luck. Despite the colorful and graceful prose, the novelty of the premise wears off well before the end of the story, and the overall effect is only mildly amusing. The recipe may call for mermaid eggs, but it contains a little too much sugar and not enough flour.
Perhaps the strongest story in the issue is “’Dants” by Paul Hosek. In the future, the global economy depends on instantly transporting people and items from one “’sembler” pod to another. These pods function somewhat like Star Trek transporter pads, but in this case, the “destination” person is created before the “origin” individual is dissolved, to guard against pattern loss. Sometimes, the pods malfunction, and the original person remains even after the “new” person is created. The originals become “’dants,” short for “redundants.”
The protagonist, named Seven (of Nine?), is a Global Transit Authority officer whose job is to “manually disassemble” the ‘dants. Her husband, the secondary protagonist, once helped maintain the transporter technology, but now he lobbies against it and tries to expose its deadly failures. Seven’s perspective also begins to change when she herself becomes the victim of malfunction, and two copies of herself engage each other in pitched conflict.
The world Hosek creates in this story challenges suspension of disbelief somewhat. It’s difficult to accept a futuristic world of thirty billion people living under a single oppressive government; the technology that theoretically enables this regime should have prevented it from forming in the first place. Information and freedom of speech are restricted, even though the communication infrastructure is at least as good as today’s. Also, the story does not explain why it makes sense for the ‘dants to be murdered in all cases of transporter malfunction; it’s just “the law.”
However, readers who look past these questions will find themselves in an engrossing, action-packed tale. Nearly constant dialogue and character interaction keep the pacing brisk. Spots of comic relief add extra dimension and humanity to already interesting characters. One plot twist is easy to see from two pages away, but it is one character’s reaction to it that makes it powerful. Finally, the ending is complete and satisfying.
“’Dants” delves into some weighty themes, most notably the nature of self and soul. Like most of the other stories in this issue, it is not light reading, and it has a particularly gritty texture. At the same time, it’s not a complete “downer,” either.
Next up is “Aspies and Auties and Long-leggedy Beasties” by Alison Venugoban. In this rather bleak story, an elderly man reflects on a world dominated by people with autism. He is one of the rare “neurotypicals” who hasn’t left Earth for one of the colonies, and he remains behind to be with his daughter, who has Asperger’s, and her autistic children. At least, that’s what he tells himself…
Ultimately, this is not a story about autism, but about the alienation of growing old and feeling that the world has left you behind. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really add much to the exploration of this ancient theme. Most of the piece is devoted to tedious and depressing backstory, with little character interaction and weak forward momentum.
Also, the role of autism here is not convincing. For one thing, the piece oversimplifies autism spectrum disorders and the behavior of the people who suffer from them. The protagonist’s point of view renders them creepy and alien, albeit intelligent, and some readers may find this off-putting.
“The Answer” by Michael Simon explores one of the oldest questions of all—that of life after death. The protagonist, a reporter, tracks down an aging academic who retired abruptly from his famous and lucrative study of near-death experiences. Throughout the impromptu interview, the man gradually discloses his motivations for leaving the field, revealing something that will change the reporter’s life forever.
Despite the dearth of action in this story, the central mystery is strong enough to keep a reader engaged, especially given the vivid prose and characterization. Indeed, the story is more about the characters’ perspectives on death than the afterlife itself. It is simultaneously hopeful and sorrowful. Unfortunately, the tragedies that mar both men’s pasts are so extreme that they add a tinge of melodrama to the overall tone. Timing is also a problem; it is easy for a reader to guess a revelation several paragraphs before it is delivered, perhaps dampening its potential impact. The ending may leave readers wanting more. Overall, though, this is a solid and well-written story.
Another of this issue’s gloomy offerings is “Obituary Boy” by Adam Browne and John Dixon. As a neglected child with distant parents, Timothy begins collecting obituaries as a hobby. Slowly, over many years of long, lonely work, he develops a system to predict the exact day a person will die. When his mother finally confronts him about this, she issues him a challenge he can’t refuse.
This piece is a character study of a profoundly damaged human being. Timothy has made a life out of death, and perfecting his “system” is his single-minded obsession. The story is successful in delivering a grim lesson about defining oneself strictly in terms of one’s accomplishments. That being said, Timothy is so strange that most readers will be unable to identify with him. The plot nonetheless depends on the reader understanding him, and the story is likely to disappoint otherwise. Though well-written and logical, this piece offers little in terms of entertainment value.
The issue concludes with “And a Song in Her Hair” by Michael Merriam. This story, a hybrid of Greek tragedy and fairy tale, details the relationship of a music-loving dryad and one of her more troublesome apprentices. She teaches him cello during his adolescence, and he grows up to be the finest musician she has ever taught. He is not content, though, with his musical accomplishments; he wants much more. His greed leads both him and his mentor into great peril.
This tale is well-told, if rather dismal in parts, and the resolution is satisfying. The setting is limited and sketchy, but this is true of many fairy tales, and readers should have little trouble filling in the blanks. But despite the importance of music in this piece, the individual songs are described rather generically; more attention to auditory description might have made this story richer. That aside, the piece as a whole is strong enough that it’s easy to imagine it as part of a fictional mythology.