The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 2007

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Cover by Kent Bash

“Stars Seen Through Stone” by Lucius Shepard

“Daughters of Prime” by Lawrence C. Connolly
“Car 17” by P.E. Cunningham
“Cold Comfort” by Ray Vukcevich
“PowerSuitTM” by M.K. Hobson
There’s a lot going on in Lucius Shepard’s huge story “Stars Seen Through Stone,” and occasionally it does feel a little top-heavy: the gritty town of Black William, Pennsylvania; Vernon, who accidentally came to Black William to stay some years past; his ex-wife, Andrea, who also still lives in Black William; Joe Stanky, the rough-around-the-edges (to say the least) musical prodigy Vernon discovers; Vernon’s depressed friend, Rudy, who wants to be a cartoonist; the presence (embodied by a statue) of evil Black William, the town’s namesake; the polluted Polozny River, whose few surviving fish are gross mutations; and finally, the supernatural “stars seen through stone” of the title.

Fortunately, everything all ties together, eventually, but this is not a story to start reading if you’ve only got a few minutes at a time to devote to it—“Stars” is thickly convoluted, almost sprawling across history, physics, the otherworldly, and primal human emotions, and all of the elements come together ever so slowly. Many of the details almost feel like they’re going to drag, but most are vividly drawn—including the repulsive ones where Joe Stanky is involved. A lot of readers no doubt are going to feel like Shepard’s story in fact does drag on for too long, and that the payoff at the end wasn’t quite worth the wait; I, for one, was glad that I stuck it out for the hopeful conclusion. Novellas are not an easy or popular format in speculative fiction, but Shepard proves himself quite capable of handling it.

“Daughters of Prime” by Lawrence C. Connolly takes us to a planet where the only xenthropologists are recreations—genetically and with the original memories—of one Cara Randall. The original Cara had a great talent for languages and science and allowed herself to be literally deconstructed, with one copy going into storage and the others sent out to study the sentient beings of another world. We meet the story’s protagonist, Cara Gamma, when she goes looking for a lost surveillance flier and winds up not only meeting one of the inhabitants, Long Eyes, face to face, but learns that his people have known about her observing all along. Furthermore, Long Eyes believes that she is an X-ooh; Cara is not exactly certain what an X-ooh is, except that they believe she has come to help them against a great menace.

Connolly does some nice world-building here in the tradition of protagonist-as-explorer, including reminding us that not every language spoken by beings possessing throats similar to ours will come out sounding like much of what we’re familiar with. Cara is also faced with the classic explorer’s/observer’s dilemma: how much do you passively watch, and how much should you interfere when your subjects are in danger? Cara’s integration into the culture she is studying goes…not smoothly, and not without pain, but it goes, and Connolly offers up a nice twist when she figures out the cost of becoming a part of the society she is studying.

P.E. Cunningham’s “Car 17” has almost a tall tale/good vs. evil feel about it, which plays well for how the story is narrated (by an adult character remembering larger-than-life events from his childhood). Officer Will Jamison (usually known by those he’s protecting and serving as “Officer Will”) and his beloved Car 17 are the closest things that the then-little town of Haberville have to a legend; Officer Will took extra-special care of Car 17, and—perhaps in return—the seemingly sentient car did vastly more above and beyond the call of duty than any normal car should have been able to do.

But if you have a car that’s helping fight for good, then it may be inevitable that sooner or later you will encounter one with a bent for evil. When a darker vehicle comes to Haberville, it falls to Officer Will and Car 17 to stop it, with our narrator as the only witness to what really transpires when those forces meet. Overall, “Car 17” is a lighthearted tale with a spin on what it means to be friends who watch each others’ backs.

“Cold Comfort” by Ray Vukcevich is nearly short enough to count as a flash piece and is another lighthearted story with a bit of a (possibly) grim beginning. Only here, Vukcevich takes the idea of the Turing Test—determining whether or not someone (or something) you’re questioning is intelligent—and shows us what happens when you pit two such tests against one another, after a fashion.

And finally, “PowerSuitTM” by M.K. Hobson gives us a glimpse at a corporate future when an up-and-coming corporate ladder climber—in this case one Marshall Graig—comes to rely just a bit too much on his personal AI, not just for business but also social interactions. His only social interactions. Both Graig and his chief rival, Andrew Drock, have enhancements to their careers, as it were; Graig has his AI, “Buddy,” while Drock has implants. And they will go head-to-head at a presentation about a huge career making-or-breaking acquisition given for the Big Boss.

But if humans are to eventually create artificial intelligences, then it is probably inevitable that we will create them in our own images—complete with ambitions of their own and free will. And their ambitions may not necessarily dovetail with your own. I wouldn’t exactly call this a cautionary tale—or if it is, it’s not a grimly serious one—but in this age when electronics make up such a major portion of our lives, when many college campuses and coffeehouses and other social settings are silent because everyone is communicating with everyone else electronically rather than in the flesh, Hobson’s well-done tale of corporate clashing nudges us back to the fact that we’re much more likely to have a happy ending with a human being than a computer.