Amazing Stories, #603, September 2004

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"Proof" by Timothy Zahn

"The Spider's Amazement" by Bruce Sterling

"Human Subjects" by Ray Vukcevich

"Monster" by Gene Wolf

"1,000 Words, Loose Cannon, or Rubber Duckies from Space" by Harlan Ellison, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman

ImageAmazing Stories' new incarnation is a glossy, full color magazine hoping to appeal to a broad audience base by spending more time on fantasy, horror, and science fiction movies, radio, music, games, and comics. The move away from a fiction-only format is realistic. One has to respond to the times and many of the genre's younger aficionados (who are obviously targeted here) get most of their stories from the big screen, video games, and comics. I found the artwork and fiction uneven, but then…they weren't the magazine's emphasis.

In its lead story, "Proof," by Timothy Zahn, society saves money on incarceration by implanting a device called a "curl" in each prisoner's forehead. The device causes the prisoner to "see" things that aren't there and to not "see" things that are. Thus, our point-of-view character sees insurmountable walls topped with razor wire and multiple guards carrying machine guns, when in reality there is only a small containment wall and very few guards. But the ruse goes much deeper. The curl can be used by the prison review board to obtain "proof" about a prisoner's future actions—think of Hamlet staging a play to prove Claudius's guilt.

This was a great idea and a story with an interesting ending. Unfortunately, it required feats of contortionism to execute and dogged determination on the reader's part to suspend disbelief. The story started slowly and alternated between Hillcrest prisoner Angel Morris's thoughts and experiences, and a running info-dump given by a Mr. Jacobs who methodically explained the technology experienced by Angel in each previous paragraph. The reader doesn't learn until the end of the story who Mr. Jacobs is or what he is or where he is or why he's explaining. And though withholding that information is necessary to make the ending work, it made for a very irritating read.  At least the illustration by David Rankin was edgy and cool. It was, in fact, the best illustration in the magazine.

In "The Spider's Amazement," Bruce Sterling manages to put an interesting spin on one of science fiction's oldest tropes: the last man and woman on earth. When his city is overrun by enemies, "the Spider," a decidedly Saddam Hussein-type figure, disappears into a secret cave with his Eve and hides for millennia inside a cryogenic sarcophagus. The story opens with the sarcophagus's lid popping and the Spider being revived. He exits his cave only to find that his ancient city has been destroyed. He's thrilled. Being the last man alive, the Spider decides that he is "the ultimate arbiter of sanity" and his final decree regarding his Eve confirms what the reader has been led to believe all along. The story is told through internal monologue—no dialogue or action. Sterling is a good enough writer to make this bearable, but it did feel more like an intellectual exercise than a story.

"Human Subjects," by Ray Vukcevich, was (I thought) the most successful story in the issue. It's a joke: every human has an alien. We're in demand as experimental animals. The young man who knows this has just worked up the courage to reveal it to his lover. Will she believe him? People can't see each other's aliens. She confesses that she's been doing a very strange thing lately. She stands at the kitchen window after dark with a flashlight and has an overwhelming urge to turn it off and on. Aliens, thinks he, and he goes into the backyard to see if there is any pattern to the flashes. There is. His lover's alien begins to speak to him in Morse code. While the reader is still chuckling, Vukcevich manages to pull off a revelation of love, a change in character, and an ending with enough ambiguity to give the story warmth and depth. "Human Subjects" is very nice work, indeed.

Gene Wolf's "Monster" is a two-headed man who has been imprisoned for murdering his wife. He insists he's innocent, and he wants to tell his side of the story. He uses a voice-activated device from the prison library to record what happened in his own words.  As he defends his innocence, and implicates his twin brother (the other head) whom he insists took over while he was asleep and killed her, the reader gets a very chilling look at a real monster. A clever, well-structured story that accomplishes a lot in two pages.

"Harlan Ellison's Loose Cannon, An Introduction," by Neil Gaiman and "Loose Cannon or Rubber Duckies from Space, A thrilling Two-Part Serial of Exactly 100 Words Each," by Harlan Ellison. If you know a little bit about the science fiction community you will appreciate this one much more. It's almost an insider joke. The introduction states that from 1958 until his "death" Harlan Ellison pared down a two million word, seventeen-volume novel to two hundred words. After his death…Margaret Cho, virtually unrecognizable under the prosthetics, took home the Oscar for her role as Ellison in Quentin Tarantino's life-affirming biopic Harlan? Put Down the Pineapple Harlan. Gaiman muses that had Harlan "lived" another decade he might have gotten the sections of "Rubber Duckies from Space" down to fifty words each. This introduction is a thousand words. In the following two-hundred word "novel," telepathic rubber duckies travel two-and-a-half million light years to turn over planet earth to a burglar named Troy Newsome. Troy, now a "god" has "to figure out what the hell to do with it." The introduction is a good-natured roast of Harlan. The "novel" makes fun of science fiction itself. People who pick up the magazine and know nothing of Harlan will be perplexed. The rest of us are having a pretty good snort.