"Breeding Ground" by Stephen Baxter
"Elephant" by Simon Ings
"Perfect Pilgrim" by Jim Grimsley
"Freefall" by Michael Bateman
"Suitable for the Orient" by Karen Traviss
"The Grass and Trees" by Eliot Fintushel
"Breeding Ground" is a further story set in Steven Baxter‘s long-running Xeelee universe. Humanity, at war with the alien Xeelee, has embarked on a galaxy-wide spurt of colonization called the Third Expansion, and makes use of the vast living starships called Spline. When a human weapons emplacement on a Spline is destroyed, the handful of survivors must retreat into the body of the Spline and try to survive. I have not read many of the stories and novels set in the Xeelee universe, so I am impressed by Baxter’s ability to evoke a suitably broad temporal and physical scale in the restricted compass of a short story. I found the affirmation of humanistic values at the end of the story somewhat at odds with the values seemingly asserted by the broader setting, but perhaps this is a consistent idea throughout the series.
Like his "The Convert" in the December 2002 issue, Simon Ings‘ "Elephant" explores the idea of giving people new sensory apparatus. Saul, a synaesthete, joins a research project that is trying to widen the human visual range. Saul hopes to revive his fading synaesthetic senses, but the stress of the project destroys his marriage and drives him into isolation. This story impressed me more than its predecessor, with strong relationships between the characters driving the narrative forward. Ings uses a fragmented style, so that, while the plot is fairly straightforward, the connections between the brief narrative sections are not readily apparent. Like the protagonist, we must work to make sense of the world of the story.
Jim Grimsley‘s Hormling universe, the setting of his novelette "Perfect Pilgrim," is an extremely complex future of which we are given the barest glimpse here. Even though the meaning of the actions and emotions of the characters is not always accessible to the reader, Grimsley writes well enough that the story remains involving. Ess is a pilgrim to the world of Senal, where he will use the hundred days of the pilgrimage to seek his place in the world. Whatever plans he may have had are disrupted when it is suspected that he may harbor the soul of a person who knew Hanson, a messiah figure who ended an ancient war between machines and humans. The Hormling universe seems immensely rich from this brief glance; it will be interesting to see whether Grimsley is able to maintain this depth and complexity as more of the universe is revealed.
A first sale in this issue is Michael Bateman‘s "Freefall," a tale of extreme sports, in this case freefalling, jumping from high places attached to climbing rope. Annie’s husband Cal is a champion of the sport, now retired, until the Zero-G company persuades him to try for the first successful jump on Jupiter. Annie has never felt comfortable with Cal’s vocation, and this jump strains their marriage to the breaking point. Though he tells the story from Annie’s perspective, Bateman manages to make both Annie and Cal sympathetic and their positions understandable, so that the collapse of their marriage seems the result of incompatible values rather than either one’s fault. The arc of the story, however, is too easy, the ending too pat and too eager to provide "closure" for Annie. I am grateful, however, that the author avoided emphasizing the obvious analogy between the physical strains of Cal’s sport and the psychological strains of their marriage.
Colonialism and its legacy has always been a fruitful subject for science fiction, though it serves mostly as a veneer in Karen Traviss‘ "Suitable for the Orient." Frank, a second-rate doctor on a colony world, spends most of his time, when not drunk, vainly trying to cure the ailments of the minkies, as the natives are called. When a teenaged colonist kills a minkie, the doctor finds himself caught in the three-way struggle between the colonists, the minkies, and the military peacekeepers. Traviss captures the backwater feel of the colony world well, making effective use of the imposed isolation of relativistic space travel. As in "Freefall," the note of closure at the end feels artificial, and the story tends to hew closely to genre conventions. Nevertheless, it’s well told and Traviss has a knack for drawing characters.
The woman in the bar tells a story about a kid who turns into a tiger, claws up his sister. When she comes to he’s gone, nothing but a handful of fur left. So begins Eliot Fintushel‘s strange and fine novella "The Grass and Trees," in which the previously unknown relationship between higher mathematics and shape shifting is plumbed. Milo is the boy who turned into a tiger, Dede his sister, and when she finds out where her brother is, Dede comes to take him back. Dede is an "operator," which means she can’t shift herself, but can control those who can. Milo is the most powerful shape shifter in the world. In the middle of this mess is Roberta, the woman in the bar, who just wants to start over and give her four-year-old daughter a home. Fintushel possesses one of the most singular voices in the genre at the moment, reminiscent of R.A. Lafferty and Avram Davidson; like those writers, he refuses to tell a story in any manner other than his own.