Alien Crimes, edited by Mike Resnick

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“Nothing Personal” by Pat Cadigan
“A Locked-Planet Mystery” by Mike Resnick
“Hoxbomb” by Harry Turtledove
“The End of the World” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Dark Heaven” by Gregory Benford
“Womb of Every World” by Walter Jon Williams

While Alien Crimes has been reviewed here previously, it is sometimes fun to give readers a second look, or an alternate view.  It’s interesting to see how different sets of eyes see the same stories, sometimes in agreement, others not, and each for wildly different reasons. Over its fourteen years, Tangent and Tangent Online have run Alternate View reviews many times. Once, for a certain issue of a print magazine, we ran four different reviews of the same magazine in one issue. Much to my surprise, all four reviewers (each unaware of the other reviews) saw the same issue of that magazine with an almost unanimous degree of story-by-story consensus. Other Alternate Views we have run have resulted in just the opposite result.

Herewith, my Alternate View review of Alien Crimes, edited by Mike Resnick, which is a follow-up to his 2005 original SFBC collection Down These Dark Spaceways.

Pat Cadigan’s “Nothing Personal” (spoiler warning) involves middle-aged homicide detective Ruby Tsung and her new partner, transferred in from a fraud and cybercrimes unit, Rafe Pasco. While investigating the strange deaths of two young girls who are oddly similar (both are Asian, have similar names, have died of natural causes, and their background checks don’t add up), Ruby gradually finds herself in the midst of an alternate world criminal supplier of ingeniously fabricated alternate identities, of a sort made possible only through the existence (and exploitation) of alternate timelines. The criminal mastermind has found a way to steal identities from one timeline and…but you get the picture. This alternate timeline Bad Guy plays on the emotional vulnerability of parents whose children are dying, promising life for their children in another timeline where things have happened slightly differently. In doing so, the timelines are adversely disrupted and sometimes, as in this case, the children from both timelines end up dead. Enter alternate timeline detective Pasco who must track down and jail the hapless parents who have only the welfare of their children at heart, but who have nevertheless engaged in an illegal enterprise at the expense of timeline stability. Thus we have the emotional aspect to consider as well.

“Nothing Personal” offers the reader a satisfying blend of science-fiction, crime mystery, and just enough background character development to make it a well-rounded, satisfying read. And, at the same time—and by implication—brings to mind the present day issue of black market trafficking in illegal organs, providing (sometimes false) hope to those who can afford the smuggler’s price. The issue is similar in that both play on the emotional vulnerability of their desperate clients, but with a clever SFnal reworking.

“A Locked-Planet Mystery” by Mike Resnick was, I am sorry to say, a disappointment. Aside from the otherworld setting for the murder of a very important corporate cartel ruler it could have been told as an episode from any tv detective drama we see today. Added to this, the motive for the crime is never fully ascertained. I’ve enjoyed Resnick’s stories quite a bit for a long time and have praised several quite highly, but this one just didn’t do much for me.

Harry Turtledove’s “Hoxbomb” (spoiler warning) on the other hand, is insightful, cleverly imagined (and not without its amusing bits) and deals with a horrible crime involving genetic manipulation by alien celebrities (just because they could) so that a human woman would give birth to a deformed monstrosity.

Hox genes are those that, when altered and introduced into humans in virtually undetectable methods, give rise to horrendous birth defects. A pair of high-profile, alien “lifeys” (dream-vid stars) on the alien planet commit this outrage. The alien “celebrities” figure they can get away with their crime against humans because our technology is so different from theirs that we’d never be able to figure it out.

A human and alien detective must work together to solve this repulsive crime. Story tension is brought about from the fact that each species is so different from one another, which gives Turtledove the opportunity to show the prejudices between the otherwise compatible species (we refer to them as Furballs, and they to us as Baldies).

The alien world and its science is based on biology, whereas ours is based on manipulation of dead matter (electricity, computers, etc.). Both are shown to have advantages and disadvantages, but in the end both methods play their fair share in the solving of the crime. Just how these technologies differ is brought to light in clever exposition of the pieced-together evidence. “Hoxbomb” is a nifty crime story pitting different technologies against one another, as well as two very different races who live and work together in a more or less friendly (if uneasy at times) coexistence. All of this makes for an interesting read, with social commentary present (the alien detective wonders why the parents of the deformed child don’t destroy it, for example), but without its taking dominance over the primary story. “Hoxbomb” gives us a biogenetically spawned crime with the sfnal element integral to the story, and along the way examines interspecies prejudice with a nod toward an ethical issue of timeless concern. Well done.

“The End of the World” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is so well-crafted and of such quality that if it fails to make the Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon ballots, another award will have to be created just for it alone. While its central theme is not a new one and has been endlessly addressed in all manner of literature and film, it is worth noting that subject matter of such nature needs periodic restatement from time to time. Thus stated, “The End of the World” is a stunning novella, and though quite long, its rewards justify the length, and then some. Torture, mass murder, a stranded and hunted young girl who is sheltered by a kindly stranger who risks all, a haunted, century’s-old hotel, and shapeshifting aliens come to live among us in peace, are all elements of the elegantly told mystery the author has seamlessly woven into this moving (and even skin-crawling creepy) story. Though one can hope that its length will not prohibit its inclusion in the various Best Of roundups next year, this seems an unfortunate certainty. Better, then, to buy the book and read the story now.

“Dark Heaven” by Gregory Benford refers to what the newly arrived alien beings from Centauri believe is where we all go when we die. It’s a clever commingling of how the concept of reincarnation could become possible applying the concepts of physics (it has something to do with minds emitting wave packets of energy into the universe). It also underpins how the aliens view life and death, and thus how they conduct their affairs here on earth, which is obviously quite different from ours. When bodies start washing up on the Gulf Coast shoreline a detective is brought in to solve what appear to be their murders. As you might imagine, they are tied up with the Centauri delegation (and the secretive FBI), but in a way one might not at first glance imagine. As the detective’s search leads him from clue to clue we get a nice travelogue of post-Katrina Gulf Coast culture, some good local color, and a satisfying murder mystery where the concept of murder, as is beauty, may be in the mind of the beholder.

Walter Jon Williams is one of the most creative, inventive, page-turning, entertaining writers in the business, and all of these qualities (and more) are brought to the fore in “Womb of Every World,” which is a short novel, and not a novella, as are the other stories. It runs to 142 pages, the first 60 of which are taken up with a sword & sorcery story involving all of the usual suspects (i.e. tropes), including evil priests (which are really ugly aliens in priestly garb) running a cult devoted to ritual sacrifice.

I hate to pull the plug on what happens next, but to do so would be to ruin everything. Let’s just say that the rest of the story takes unexpected twists and turns, joyriding at high-speed here and there with the reader riding shotgun to Williams’s wide-open, pedal to the metal highway driving, his imagination flying in the wind as he looks over at you smiling large. Intentional or not, we can see hints of Roger Zelazny (think snappy, clever, tossed-off dialogue) and Dan Simmons (think Hyperion’s future world). But the overall effect is pure Willams. Talk about throwing in the kitchen sink…Williams plays with just about every current SF concept you can think of here, and makes it work in a dandy and deadly murder mystery with much larger implications. This story might also have easily worked in Dozois and Strahan’s The New Space Opera, but I can see (using Dozois’s own informal separation of types) where it might more closely align itself with the SF Adventure tale—though the line is a fine one here.

Like the Rusch novella, “Womb of Every World” is much too long for any Best Of or other reprint anthology, so unless some smart chapbook publisher picks it up your only hope of reading this smart, engaging, inventive work is to buy this book. Which I highly recommend. 

Alien Crimes is a solid, rewarding, entertaining book, with several real knockouts, and at the price, a steal.

Publisher: SFBC (April 2007)
Price: $14.99
Hardcover: 496 pages
ISBN: 978-1-58288-223-9