Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 2004

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"The People of Sand and Slag" by Paolo Bacigalupi
"Rapper" by Albert E. Cowdrey
"Invisible Kingdoms" by Steven Utley
"Free, and Clear" by Daryl Gregory
"Metal More Attractive" by Ysabeau S. Wilce
"The Pebbles of Sai-No-Kawara" by Chet Williamson
"River of the Queen" by Robert Reed

ImageThe February issue of F&SF begins and ends with two stories that complement one another about human beings in the far future who have developed the means to become essentially immortal. Sandwiched between them are a series of stories that also put a spin on aspects of immortality, involving reincarnation, mechanical life extending devices, immortality achieved through legacies and eternal damnation.

First is "The People of Sand and Slag" by Paolo Bacigalupi. In this story, Bacigalupi posits a future where humanity has adapted itself to living in a hostile environment. A biomodification called "weeviltech" has allowed humanity to survive in this harsh future, even to giving them a kind of immortality, allowing them to constantly regenerate no matter how seriously they injure themselves. With this advancement in self-preservation comes a cold-hearted, compassionless superiority over other less modified life forms that is starkly illustrated when the three characters in this story, Chen, Jaak and Lisa, find a dog — a real, unmodified, basic organism dog — in the tailings pits of the mines they have been developed to protect.

Chen, Jaak and Lisa, instead of following their natural instincts about what to do with the dog, decide to keep it, despite the expense of providing food and water for it. Dealing with the dog awakens something in them that almost, but not quite, makes them question the rightness of their own existence.

Bacigalupi paints a very ugly picture of where humanity might be headed. This is quite a claustrophobic story as well, concentrating completely on the three main characters (and a brief visit from a scientist who inspects their find) with only a few hints to suggest what kind of a world it is beyond the confines of the environment in which these three individuals live. There is plenty of techie stuff entwined with the premise itself to satisfy the hardest of hard sf readers, but the main attraction of this story is the faint hope that those parts of us that can accept the "other" might still exist in a world where self-preservation and survival come first.

Albert E. Cowdrey takes us to New Orleans in "Rapper." Tiny little Miss Margery, a psychic reader, tells the local bad-ass boy 2Bad (real name: Arthur) that he is going to come to a bad end if he doesn't straighten up and fly right. 2Bad, of course, ignores her.

Miss Margery knows about reincarnation. She also knows where 2Bad's soul will go if he gets killed before he repents, which he does — get killed, that is. But death is not the end for 2Bad, as Miss Margery had warned; he keeps coming back in various incarnations to torment her, though she was not the one who killed him first. But he won't stay dead; and in a moment of inattention, Miss Margery unknowingly frees his soul at just the wrong moment, and 2Bad gets his chance to really wreak some havoc.

While ostensibly set in New Orleans, we don't get much of a sense of that particular setting here. Rather, the characters are the focus of this amusing story about the consequences of one's actions, a dark tale told with a light touch.

"Invisible Kingdoms" by Steven Utley also deals with immortality of a different kind. This time, however, immortality isn't quite the same as living forever.

Mr. Cahill is a very rich man who is an avid collector of all kinds of things, including 400 hundred million year old biological specimens that have been acquired through an anomaly in time, which eventually brings him afoul of various law enforcement agencies. Goofy trademarked products (all developed by Mr. Cahill, of course) are littered throughout this story including an AI that plays a role in the eventual discovery by the authorities of what Mr. Cahill has been hiding from them.

This is a light and amusing tale that, on one level, tells us that immortality can be achieved in more than one way, and on another level, might be a cautionary tale about the consequences of collecting. Like the next-but-one story, "Metal More Attractive," the style in which the story is told is not invisible, and the archness of the prose adds to the overall humorousness of the tale.

The next story is not so much about immortality as it is the quality of life. Daryl Gregory's "Free, and Clear" struck a resonant note in me, initially, since I, too, like poor Edward in the story, suffer from allergies. Edward's allergies are so bad, in fact, that they even torment him in his dreams. His wife drops him off at a massage therapist's in a last-ditch attempt to cure him of his permanently stuffed up condition, and the treatment leads to an unexpected result.

Allergies are no fun, as well I know; but the extent of Edward's suffering in which Gregory wallows in such graphic detail us is relentless, maybe overly much so. Neither was I sure how Edward ended up where he did after the therapy session; the ending seemed disconnected from the rest of the story. Even after a couple of reads, I was unable to connect the dots satisfactorily.

"Metal More Attractive" by Ysabeau S. Wilce is one of those stories where the style chosen to tell the story is as much a part of the story as what goes on in it. Banastre Micajah Hadraada, Duke of Califa (known as "Hardhands," a nickname which he has not yet quite earned,) is the fifteen-year-old grandson of the Pontifexa of Califa. He is very fond of his grandmamma, but that doesn't stop him from wanting to kill her for reasons he deems sound and just. As this tale twists along in its style-weighty prose, we, along with Hardhands, find that his reasons for wanting his grandmother dead may not be as sound and just as first supposed.

While I am not a big fan of in-your-face over-the-top style-heavy prose, I have to confess that there really isn't any other way to tell this story except the way in which Wilce has chosen to tell it. After reading the story a second time, I found I was less irritated by the style than I was the first time around, and actually quite enjoyed the story, though whether in spite of the style, or because of it, I'm still not sure.

Chet Williamson uses the Japanese legend of Bodhisattva Jizô in "The Pebbles of Sai-No-Kawara" to tell the story of Lattimore and his wife Carolyn, who are in Japan visiting their daughter, and who have just visited the Jizô-dô at Kamakura's Hase Kannon Temple. Lattimore learns about Jizô's sacrifice, to remain a Bodhisattva instead of becoming Buddha so that he can help the souls of aborted, miscarried or stillborn children spend less time in hell, and it strikes too close to home for Lattimore who admits to guilt surrounding the abortion of their first child. He wanders out of his hotel room during the night and his guilt takes him on a journey straight into the heart of the legend, from whence there is no turning back.

Williamson paints the hell these unbegun lives live in vividly. He uses the legend as a counterpoint to Lattimore's liberal beliefs, causing the crisis of conscience that sends Lattimore off on his journey, and so, neatly ties Lattimore's fate into the legend.

The last story in this issue, "River of the Queen" by Robert Reed, is at the other end of the immortality spectrum from "The People of Sand and Slag" and is about Quee Lee and Perri who readers may recall having met in "The Remoras" from the May 1994 issue. Quee Lee and Perri, both immortals (though Quee Lee is considerably older than her 40,000+ year old husband) have come to catch a glimpse of the Dawsheen Queen. The Dawsheen world is about to go into a millennia-long cycle of glaciation where all life on their planet dies. The Queen is the genetic repository of all of the planet's species, to hibernate until the long cold winter comes to an end. But the Queen is kidnapped and Quee Lee and Perri become involved in finding out who kidnapped her and why.

Reed's story contrasts starkly with the first story in this issue, in that the immortality the humans enjoy here is one of leisure, luxury and ease, without having to endure the harsh necessities of basic survival. Quee Lee's and Perri's involvement in the Dawsheen's affairs are almost those of dilettantes, something to do to pass away the time. I liked the meat of the story, which is the mystery of the Queen's kidnapping; as well, I was interested in the alien Dawsheen and their culture which developed from their planet's cyclic nature. This story was a fitting conclusion to this issue's focus on aspects of immortality, leaving the reader cheered that perhaps not all of what makes us human will be lost if life is extended.

This was, altogether, a satisfactory issue. While no one story stood out as being better or worse than any of its neighbors, I had a pleasant time reading them, and certainly the stories gave me food for thought on the subject of immortality.

Theresa Wojtasiewicz is the former editor of Sol Rising, the newsletter of the Friends of the Merril Collection, a member of the Cecil Street Writers Workshop, and an avid (though lately too infrequent) reader of fantasy and science fiction. She works in desktop publishing, doing things like brochures and newsletters, to feed her reading habit.