Interzone #229, July/August 2010

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“Mannikin” by Paul Evanby
“Candy Moments” by Antony Mann
“The Melancholy” by Toby Litt
“Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
“Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark Matter” by Jim Hawkins

Reviewed by Kevin Wohler

Science fiction often looks to the future, but it can also look to the past. But when the “science” of the past is no longer considered valid by our standards, does the story step into the realm of fantasy? In “Mannikin” by Paul Evanby, fantasy and science merge in this story of cloning set against a backdrop of trading companies in the late 18th century.

Inspired by historical writings of the day, Evanby considers how science might have sought an answer to slavery by devising a new breed of sub-human labor. “Mannikin” follows Kilian Caduceusz, a discredited scientist who has escaped from Amsterdam to live on the island of Saint Eustatius. Here, in relative anonymity, he is free to conduct his experiments of separating the animalcula (spermatozoon) and bringing it to life outside of a womb.

The science is historically accurate, even if by today’s standards it is completely discredited. While the idea of animalcula is outdated, it does not detract from the story. If anything, it helps set the tone for this Colonial-era alternate history story.

I’ll admit that I had to work to understand several of the Dutch references, but  “Mannikin” is ultimately a good story with a few nice surprises.

In Antony Mann’s “Candy Moments,” the subject of memories and feelings are explored by a recovering alcoholic. Still grieving from the loss of his wife, Joe Becker is repeatedly drawn to the monolithic Hub Station that has sprung up in the city.

The Hub is an enigma. It promises to help people who are living with bad memories. But the Hub doesn’t erase the memories, only the emotions that go with them. When Joe has to decide between life as an alcoholic or one of sobriety with a new woman in his life, he considers going to the Hub.  But the blank faces of those who have visited too often begin to worry him.

The idea of adding, modifying or removing memories has become a more common theme in science fiction lately. And when I read “Candy Moments,” I had hoped it would offer something new or surprising, if not revelatory. Instead, this story skims the surface of this trope without adding any depth. While competent and well-written, it isn’t memorable.

Moving from the human to the mechanical, we get a taste of the breakdown of artificial memories in “The Melancholy” by Toby Litt. The story, written as a recorded report from an engineer, examines the dysfunction of an Application nicknamed “Lucky.”

Application 13-13 has not returned to Earth from its mission on Europa, and Chief Engineer Chandi Kane believes she has personal insight into the situation. In exploring the breakdown of “Lucky,” she offers up an examination of her own life while trying to help us understand what went wrong.

The immediacy of the narrator’s confession lends itself well to a story that explores both sides of the human/program equation.

The life of the machine is explored in greater detail in “Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. In this odd tale, Alternate Girl is living as an expatriate among the humans. The first of her kind, she is meant to be an ambassador between those in Metal Town and the original makers.

What makes Loenen-Ruiz’s story unique is the point of view. As an expatriate, Alternate Girl’s true loyalties and motives lie hidden beneath a mask of being a model citizen in her new home. Her story becomes one of separation and a need to reconnect.

And finally, we have “Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark Matter,” a lengthy short story by Jim Hawkins. This mashup of classical orchestra musicians and military commandos seems like something inspired by watching music majors take out their frustrations on Halo or Call of Duty.

Told from two points of view, the story tells a fairly linear account of musicians recruited to kill alien monstrosities in VR training simulations. But when their latest concert tour has them visiting planets that are trying to secede from the Commonwealth, the musicians find their training goes far beyond killing alien spiders.

While Hawkins introduces some interesting science fiction, the bulk of the story is political in nature. And it’s none too subtle. The planets threatening to secede from the Commonwealth are painted with a broad brush, each a caricature of a religion or political party.

Though it begins as an interesting exploration of the dual nature to create beauty and destroy, it fails to live up to its original premise. It’s as if the story got lost along the way. Instead of being instrumental to tone, music becomes a gimmick once the politics take over.

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