Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 2004

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"The Tribes of Bela" by Albert E. Cowdrey
"The Condor’s Green-Eyed Child" by Robert Reed
"Start the Clock" by Benjamin Rosenbaum
"The Library" by Carol Emshwiller
"Relics of the Thim" by Matthew Hughes
ImageAlbert E. Cowdrey is a frequent contributor to F&SF, usually giving us wonderfully quirky tales set in his hometown of New Orleans. In The Tribes of Bela, Cowdrey takes us from the French Quarter to a mining colony on an alien world for an intriguing murder mystery that soon turns into an adventurous fight for survival.

The story is told as a series of extracts from journals and letters, most of which were written by a Colonel Robert Kohn, who has been sent to Bela to investigate murders among the workers at a mining facility. The narrative then moves back and forth among Kohn, the female doctor who has been examining the bodies, and a few others as the story escalates to the conclusion. Cowdrey has done a good thing here, writing an alien invasion story in which we are the ultimately unsuccessful aliens, on a planet whose inhabitants have the strangest reproductive cycle this side of a Neal Asher novel. This fast-paced novella should please fans of well-written adventure SF.

In "The Condor’s Green-Eyed Child," Robert Reed returns to the adventures of a Native American boy named Raven he introduced in a previous issue of F&SF. In this story, Raven is tromping in and out of the spirit world when he comes upon a downed plane he thinks is a giant bird. A young girl and her younger brother emerge from the plane, which came down in a storm. The boy is very sick with a fever, and Raven must decide between fleeing what he calls demons, or helping them to survive. I have been a fan of Robert Reed since his "Dragons of Springplace" was published many moons ago in the pages of this very magazine, so I always know I’m in good hands when taking a ride through his work. This story makes me want to read Raven’s earlier adventures.

In "Start the Clock," Benjamin Rosenbaum takes us to a cyberpunk future haunted by a strange case of arrested development. A disease has permanently stunted the growth and development of Earth’s children, causing the affected to stay as children. Suze is a Nine, a woman stuck perpetually at the biological age of nine. She and her friends are looking at real estate in a subdivision called Pirateland. The "house" they are looking at is actually a Spanish galleon, complete with rope ladder and water cannon. When their friend Abby–who stayed home–goes missing, Suze conducts a search, and finds her watching a pair of older kids have sex while taking notes. Abby then tells Suze that she wants to "start the clock," taking treatments that will allow her to age. The story follows Suze from being upset with her friend to acceptance of her decision.

This is a great little story. There are lots of cool little cyberpunk elements: Suze’s earring doubles as a telephone, they can track each other’s position with locators in their palms, and Suze uses swarms of tiny cameras to catch up with Abby. There’s also the idea of this strange aging disease, which Rosenbaum deftly explains while still managing to keep it in the background. The only problem I had with the story was how Suze seemed so childlike and so adult at the same time. They live by themselves, hold down jobs, even drive, but retain enough childishness to want to live in a pirate ship. I had trouble with this part, but the rest was cool and full of great ideas. The pirate ships are a nice surreal image while giving a tip of the feathered cap to that most famous of perpetual adolescents, Peter Pan.

In "The Library," Carol Emshwiller shows us a world through the eyes of a dark-skinned soldier on a mission to destroy an enemy stronghold of beauty and learning. A treasure trove of knowledge, the library is full of what the soldier deems blasphemous material, and is guarded by a contingent of bare-breasted librarians. He is captured and ultimately befriended by one of the librarians, who shows him some of her world. The deeply conservative and warlike soldier eventually warms to her ways.

This is a very interesting story. Emshwiller doesn’t give too many details regarding the nationalities involved. It’s obviously a fictional world, but the vagueness of the details (the soldier has a warrior’s topknot in his hair, a style used by many warrior societies) gives the story an air of a fable or morality play. These people could be anyone now or in the future. This is a nice bit of world-building here, even if the social-political aspects of it are shrouded in mist. That isn’t the point of the story, though.

In "Relics of the Thim," Matthew Hughes returns to the popular world he showed readers in his story "Mastermindless," way back in the March issue. This is the tale of an interstellar detective named Henghis Hapthorn. In this adventure, Hapthorn travels to the planet Pierce where the assistant of a professor there claims to have invented a time machine. The assistant turns out to be none other than famous fraudster Orlin Borissian, with whom Hapthorn has apparently matched wits before. Nevertheless, Borissian stands by his time travel claim, and Hapthorn goes to the ruins of an ancient city where the original inhabitants of Pierce–the Thim–once lived. Borissian’s machine makes a hole in space, where he can reach in and pull out objects one at a time, once a day, that fit together like machine parts. The professor, Ulwy Munt, believes that the Thim had no machinery whatsoever, and lived entirely spiritual lives, allowing them to move on to another plane of existence. Borissian disagrees, and is killed the next day by the professor. But don’t worry, Hapthorn is on the case.

I really don’t think much of this story, and wonder as to Henghis Hapthorn’s popularity among F&SF‘s readers. It’s an intriguing world, at least in the beginning, before Hughes starts cribbing from Sherlock Holmes and Star Wars. Also, Hapthorn has some sort of strange, non-corporeal assistant that winds up being sullen and not very useful, as well as a demon he can call on for help. This blend of far-future tech and a seemingly supernatural critter felt a bit incongruous. The names were too ridiculous for me too, being the sort of faux futuristic-sounding monikers I’d expect from an episode of Buck Rogers instead of one of the finest fiction magazines published today. These names fall off the tongue like a gobbet of Jell-o. And the ending, while amusing and clever, left me with the feeling that I get when I read a feghoot: that there’s ten minutes of my life I’ll never get back.