In "Between Worlds" by Stephen Baxter, Mara, a refugee from a planet forcibly evacuated, smuggles a bomb onboard the rescue ship. She demands to see Michael Poole—who died 23,000 years ago. But Mara insists he is there is spirit, and he will be the only one to understand her demand that she be taken back to a world that is gone, to say good-bye to a daughter everyone insists doesn’t exist. An acolyte serving the religion that is organized around the messiah Michael Poole calls him up in virtual reality—and Poole sees the situation as a chance to live again.
Poole uses his position to redirect the refugee ship in the direction of Mara’s home world—though no one really knows if she is sane or crazy. Poole means to escape confinement as a Virtual, and the acolyte means to break out of the imprisonment of his training. Everything has layers of meaning that are not what one thinks—including the name of the refugee ship, Ask Politely. Baxter brings everyone together in an engrossing climax. Though the story is a tad heavy on made-up politics in which there’s no time for reader investment, it’s still an entertaining read.
"The Wreck of the Godspeed" by James Patrick Kelly opens with a deliberate and thus engaging data-dump about the protagonist, Adel Ranger Santos. He’s nineteen years old. He won, by writing an essay, a trip aboard a sentient threshold ship called the Godspeed, which is carved out of an asteroid. It is on a mission to find new habitable worlds. He meets other pilgrims; he even gets laid for the first time (a man and a woman, yet!) . . . but there is a problem. The ship seems to be fritzing out.
The people in the story have various types of implants controlling brain function. Adel has moral boundary implants—which leads to discussion of the Continuum, a far future religion, and from there religion and humanity. The climax resolves the story about the Godspeed (or Speedy, as they call her), which does harbor a dark secret that has affected her. Good action and a wonderful voice, though the talk about religion and bioengineered humans is all familiar stuff.
"Shiva in Shadow" by Nancy Kress has only three characters, though once again they are aboard a ship. Two male scientists, Kane and Ajit, and a woman captain, Tirzah, are on a deep space mission to explore a black hole. Their ship, the Kepler, launches a one-way probe to gather data. The probe is controlled by three uploaded analogues of Kane, Ajit, and Tirzah. There is lots of chewy stuff about dark matter and black holes here amid the tensions between the two competitive males and the woman as nurturer. The narrative voice veers between Tirzah’s real self and her analog self, which Kress pulls off expertly. But again, the humans are too familiar at core: even in the far future, the woman has to take care of everyone (including the ship, which is too easy to read as a symbol for the house, as in housekeeper) while the men do an antler dance. I wished that one of the men had been the nurturer and a man and a woman were doing the competing, but that aside, Kress as always gives the reader a cinematic story at an exciting pace full of scientific razzle-dazzle.
"The Colonel Returns to the Stars" by Robert Silverberg presents a former colonel of the Imperial Service who is called out of retirement to deal with his once-loyal former protégé, Geryon Lanista, who now threatens the Imperium by declaring the world Hermano a republic separate from the Imperium.
On the way to Hermano, we explore the Colonel’s past. He has always been loyal, and thus he led a stellar career—but even he has conflicted views. We get glimpses of his ultra-loyal father, and most particularly of his outlaw (and anti-Imperium) grandfather, who once took the Colonel as a small boy to show him worlds. The crucial line there is that Grandfather only obeys a single law: not to return to Earth unless invited, which clues us into Grandfather’s moral nature . . . and his grandson’s nature. Then there is the relationship between the Colonel and his one-time protégé, whom he hates for a betrayal of a superior officer. He is sent by the government to bring the Hermanos back into the fold—he has ultimate power—but he is really on a personal mission: to confront Lanista and find out what happened during that incident so many years ago.
All these threads wind together to a satisfying close, though once again there is a lot of political talk to get through—and once again we have a curiously backward-looking human trait, that of the empire and imperial officers. Maybe such is hardwired into us, all these stories are saying that in two thousand years, we will still be fascinated by Rome and using Nazi uniforms for instant-recognition elite bad guys, and have the same sort of relationships, motivations, and expectations as in our own past. Anyway, it’s an entertaining story.
"Keepsakes" by Mike Resnick features a pair of government agents on a mission to prevent the “Star Gypsies” from scamming people out of their precious, sentimental keepsakes. Again in the future we have a familiar trope, the old, worn, pessimistic agent and the young enthusiastic one—but Resnick actually does a nice twist on that. The entire story is full of exciting twists and turns as Gabe and Jedediah on one hand and the Star Gypsies on the other chase one another with dangerous and imaginative expertise. Resnick accelerates the tension with seemingly effortless mastery. The mystery behind the Star Gypsies’ passion for human keepsakes is interesting, the resolution fun.
The setting of ”Investments" by Walter Jon Williams is a space opera-type future: a super-powerful, alien race, the Shaa, control the empire. Many other races live alongside humans and serve in the Fleet, whose officers are “gentlemen,” they wear medals, and they hang out with cultured lords and ladies. Lieutenant Severin and Lord Martinez are sent on a mission to settle the planet Chee while investigating shady corporate financial practices—and nothing can be shadier when families are involved in big business for huge money.
Like in some of the other stories, there is a heavy emphasis on political talk, and there is a kind of fin-de-siecle flavor to the social rankings and family interrelations, as is true in a lot of space opera. Williams is deft at creating stylish characters who have money, wit, and power; while we learn more about the two men’s friends, families, and lovers, the plot is building toward a threatening disaster of spectacular proportion. The climax is a breathtaking race.
Publisher: Guild America Books/SFBC (June 2004)
Hardcover: 416 pages
Item Number: 629802