“Inscribed on Dark Water” by Gregor Hartman
Reviewed by Geoff Houghton
The first piece of new fiction in Interzone #277 is “Inscribed on Dark Water” by Gregor Hartman. This novelette is set on the colony planet Zephyr, a recently settled oceanic world. Since Zephyr is mainly ocean with a newly engineered biosphere, there are no underground reserves of coal or oil. The hydrocarbon fuels needed to maintain the human civilization on the planet are manufactured from algae by hundreds of floating refineries. The author manages to draw a detailed and apparently scientifically accurate word-picture of the operation of the mobile refinery and the society which it serves.
The main protagonist is a young Marine Biology student, Olani. She is serving an internship on Blue Pearl Mobile Refinery No. 242. The story covers the days of an inspection visit by the powerful agency that manages the planetary oceans. Four of the inspection team are engineers but the fifth is an attractive and sophisticated female lawyer. Mingzhen is everything that Olani’s gruff and overweight supervisor Tessa is not. She rapidly strikes up a close and sexually charged relationship with the young intern.
The planet Zephyr has a distinct ‘frontier’ feel with Inspector Mingzhen as a smart and urbane visitor from a more refined and cultured world. In comparison, Tessa, Olani’s supervisor on the refinery, is simplistic and unsophisticated. But neither of these two older woman are exactly as Olani believes. Tessa has a grim and grisly secret in her past and Mingzen has a hidden agenda.
The heart of the story is the relationship between these three very different women over the few days of the inspection. The author has drawn their very different characters with a fine and sympathetic eye and the denouement is believable and true to life.
The second offering is “The Sea-Maker of Darmid Bay” by Shauna O’Meara. This story is set in a bleak world where a small community of fishermen and farmers are attempting to eke out a bare existence in spite of the increasing pollution and regulation of their home, Darmid Bay, by a ruthless but more technically advanced people, the Kurathi, who have moved in to make it their own. Four hungry young fishermen are furtively fishing amongst the debris and detritus dumped by the Kurathi when they make an unusual catch.
The “Sea-Maker” that they inadvertently hook and seriously injure can magically create clean water and new life. It has been attempting to hold back the ravages and damage that the Kurathi are doing to Darmid Bay. This fantasy creature is reminiscent of Australian Aboriginal stories of the “Dreamtime” when mystical beings strode across Australia creating the people and beasts that inhabit the continent. It may be no co-incidence that the author is Australian.
The four young men must decide what they can do to help the Sea-Maker in its mission and how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to restore and preserve the bay.
The third tale is “The Analogue of Empathy” by Joanna Berry. This story takes place entirely within the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories in Oxfordshire UK in the very near future. The first person narrator, Lena, is not human at all. Lena is a Cognitive Intelligence Personhood Emulating Robot created with military funding.
In the world of this story, the UK has just fought in “The Atlantic War” in which an unspecified enemy successfully used hacking techniques to turn UK weapons systems against their own side. The military hope that work with Lena will teach them how to build machines with a genuine loyalty to their cause and that that will cause them to reject hacking attempts. The cybernetics expert, Doctor Harris, who created and is training Lena has a different agenda. He is an embittered and crippled veteran of a previous war. He hopes instead to create a machine intelligence with sufficient empathy that it will not wage war at all.
When Dr. Harris believes that he has succeeded in generating that empathy, he attempts to install that programme into the UK’s most critical defences.
The reader is invited by the author to empathise with Doctor Harris. However, the author does not address the moral dilemma of whether it is acceptable for Dr. Harris to betray his oath and duty to the defence of his own nation by unilaterally deactivating his own country’s defences for any cause whatsoever.
Fourth is “Territory: Blank” by Aliya Whiteley. Much of the activity in “Territory: Blank” takes place in “The Domes,” which appear to be advanced holographic virtual reality suites, although this is only revealed to the reader part of the way through the story. The narrator is a young graduate, Saffron, who appears to have volunteered for some form of virtual reality experiment. However, it is not entirely clear where the experiment ends and reality intervenes.
The opening line: “Day 156: Watkins has also been eaten” compels attention—Who is Watkins? What ate him? How and why? However, do not expect to have these questions answered easily, or at all.
This already complex work is made far more complicated by being written in a non-linear manner, beginning in the middle of the story and jumping from place to place in an apparently random manner. Each reader will need to choose their own way to read and interpret this unusual offering.
The last novelette is “Singles’ Day” by Samantha Murray. This story is set on an overcrowded Earth in the near future. The four nations who supply the protagonists in this story are still recognisable as diverse nations, but they are all more heavily regulated and less free in order to carry their share of the Earth’s massive overpopulation. In spite of all their problems, this consortium of nations has managed to assemble enough resources to construct four large interstellar spaceships.
Each of the four ‘Greatships’ will carry 1000 colonists on a multi-year, one-way journey to a human-compatible planet in a distant solar system. Most of the future colonists have been carefully chosen for professional skills, emotional strengths and compatibility, but fifty places are to be randomly allocated to reflect unidentified genetic variety that might have some future value. This is the story of four winners in that random lottery.
Since each of the winners in the lottery must go on the voyage alone, they have been selected from amongst shoppers on Singles’ Day, an international institution to encourage late marriage. But not all Singles’ Day shoppers are unencumbered with romantic attachments and these lottery winners must decide whether they are willing to leave family and friends behind them forever.
The four winners are from participating countries: China, Australia, USA and The Netherlands, Europe. The author has drawn succinct word-pictures of those four different societies and how those four polities have adapted to the pressures of overpopulation and depletion of resources. Yet that is not the true heart of the novelette. That is merely the backdrop to the separate yet strangely parallel stories of these four young women. This is an SF story set in the future, but the story of the four individuals has been paralleled across the ages in every wave of migrants who have dreamed of a better future in far-away lands. Each of them must make the same momentous decision to go or to stay in the certain knowledge that whatever they decide, it will irrevocably alter their entire lives.
Geoff Houghton lives in a leafy village in rural England. He is a retired Healthcare Professional with a love of SF and a jackdaw-like appetite for gibbets of medical, scientific and historical knowledge.