Imagination Fully Dilated: Science Fiction The Literated World of Alan M. Clark

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"The Sweet Not-Yet" by Melissa Scott
Image "Threesome" by Leslie What
"Area Seven" by Robert Onopa
"The Dream of Vibo" by Patrick O’Leary
"The Artist Makes a Splash" by Jerry Oltion
"Fired" by Ray Vukcevich
"Nohow Permanent" by Nancy Jane Moore
"By Any Other Name" by Steve Beai
"Stately’s Pleasure Dome" by Syne Mitchell
"Between the Lines" by Arinn Dembo
"Dilated" by Robert E. Furey
"Let My Right Hand Forget Her Cunning" by Tom Piccirilli
"Cleave" by Therese Pieczynski and A. Alicia Doty
"Out of the Fire" by Elisabeth DeVos
"Legacy" by David Levine
"Lashawnda at the End" by James Van Pelt

Imagination Fully Dilated: Science Fiction The Literated World of Alan M. Clark edited by Robert Kruger & Patrick Swenson

This collection comes out swinging with Melissa Scott‘s "The Sweet Not–Yet." In this far future tale, mankind has colonized other stars with the help of faster than light, quantum ships. A young man named Cass used to race for his family’s mining company until an accident kicked him outside normal space and time, into a realm known as the sweet not-yet. Now he is achronic, meaning time no longer affects him. He wears a memory prosthesis that supplements his six minutes of natural memory by prompting him on people’s names and the preceding day’s events. He is handicapped, and feels useless. But when another racer goes missing, Cass is the only one in his family who can pilot another ship to go find him.

This is a powerful little story, and a great lead-in to this collection. It’s one of my favorites in the book as well. Scott makes use of some clever technology in the form of Cass’s memory prosthesis and the ships, which use some kind of biological entity called a workhorse to poke a hole into the sweet not-yet, which is a rather poetic version of hyperspace. This is one hardworking fable, and if you only read this one story out of the whole collection, consider your time well spent.

In "Threesome," Leslie What gives us a glimpse of the interactions of three teenaged girls as the rest of the world’s population is being sucked up by aliens. This is a quiet little story, in which the SF elements take place off stage. The real story here is the interactions among the girls and how two of them intentionally do things together in order to exclude the third. It feels a bit out of place coming in behind Scott’s "The Sweet Not-Yet," as it isn’t hard SF, but there are a few other stories in this collection that aren’t as well. What’s story is a convincing character study in an SF setting.

In "Area Seven," Robert Onopa takes us to a planet that doubles as a section of Dante’s Inferno. On this world, dark, twisted shapes dot a barren landscape, and an explorer believes they are speaking to him as he’s taking samples. He soon realizes that they are reciting lines from Dante, and that he is within the region of the Violent, the ring of Dante’s Inferno reserved for suicides.

This is a weird one, a strange combination of alien landscape and the tortured imagery of a long dead poet. Onopa seems to be asking us what is real and what is imagined here. Very nicely done.
In "The Dream of Vibo," Patrick O’Leary takes us to a dying, far-future Earth, where the emperor of the society there, Vibo, dreams of long ago lives. In the dream, in which there were cars and birds, Vibo’s point of view shifts from a man to a bird to a woman to a leaf, and Vibo tells his son about the dream when he wakes up. Together, they decide that if they can dream the life of someone who lived long ago, then perhaps someone from long ago can dream about this future Earth and do something to prevent it. This is a cool story that covers a lot of ground in a short space. The writing is beautiful, well-wrought and poetic, and breaks the boundaries of the ordinary SF tale.

In "The Artist Makes a Splash" by Jerry Oltion, an artist in a human colony on Altair is commissioned to create a piece of art to commemorate the newly terraformed atmosphere. Assigned with the task of creating something ephemeral, Talan decides to create the hall in which the ceremony will be held, then destroy it. When the president of the colony decides that the structure is too beautiful to destroy, Talan does it anyway.

This story was nicely done. I liked Talan right away, and wanted him to succeed. Oltion says a lot here about artists and their responsibility to their art. This is a fun story, and one well worth successive readings.

"Fired" is another weird tale from Ray Vukcevich, about a spaceman looking for a little action in his ship’s bar. He meets a women there who may or may not be made of fire, who wants him to show her his spacesuit. Thinking this will allow him to show her a lot more, he complies, and what follows is the same utter weirdness that has made Vukcevich a favorite among speculative fiction fans, including this one.

This story was inspired by a painting by Alan M. Clark of an astronaut dying from explosive decompression, his blood boiling out into space through his severed arm. The blood looks a little like flames shooting out, and Vukcevich uses this flame image in his fire woman. While technically it’s a misinterpretation of the artwork, it’s a good example of a talented writer bringing his own perceptions to bear and using that vision to craft something uniquely his own. I don’t think this is the best thing Vukcevich has written, but it’s very representative of his bizarro style.

Nancy Jane Moore‘s tale "Nohow Permanent" is a fun, inventive story about a three-eyed, female smuggler transporting a political dissident to safety. By speaking out against the violent government on the planet Yacare, Vlad Pyotrvich has put his life in danger, and has hired three-eyed Pogo to bring him to another planet to join the resistance movement against Yacare. She brings him to her homeworld of Procyon, a hollowed-out moon, to hitch another ride to his destination because it is safer. But she quickly runs into him again while he is fleeing from both the local police and bounty hunters. This is a fast-paced, fun story. No lesson, no moral, just pure adventure SF.

"By Any Other Name" by Steve Beai is an anti-war story about an oiler on a deep space repair station. Peery isn’t well-liked by his colleagues, and spends all of his free time looking at news about the war. When a ship comes in for repairs–with enemy ships in pursuit–Peery and his fellow mechanics spring into action, helping to destroy the enemy ships and starting their repair work on the vessel. When Peery discovers a major problem, he is called into the ship to fix it, and discovers the president of his group and that of the rival faction in a secret meeting to destroy his hometown, where his wife and family wait for him. Discovering the entire war is a lie, Peery does what he must to save his family. While some of the technical details of this piece were a bit beyond me, I really enjoyed the anti-war message of this story.

Syne Mitchell‘s "Stately’s Pleasure Dome" is a quirky, burlesque tale of an intergalactic bordello inside a hollowed-out asteroid and former fluorite mine. George Stately’s Pleasure Dome promises pleasure no matter what the species, and gets a real challenge when a tentacled alien man comes in. The men and women of the Pleasure Dome, which Mitchell refers to as sharecroppers, quickly get to work, and soon discover that what they are doing to the alien has the most unbelievable effect on him.

More conservative SF readers will have a hard time with this one, but if you’re a fan of stuff like Harlan Ellison’s "How’s the Nightlife on Cissalda," and wonder what it would be like to have sex in space, then this tale is for you.

Arinn Dembo‘s "Between the Lines" is a hard SF mystery involving psionics, rifts in space-time, and first contact with a mysterious alien race. It is told in past tense, in the form of a report by Naval intelligence after they have pieced together the strange set of occurrences. The story centers on a brilliant researcher as she seeks to cure a mysterious illness, and a young soldier who has been surgically grafted to his ship, which can jump through holes in space-time. Humanity has made contact with a mysterious alien race they have dubbed the Black Fleet. These aliens only attack when provoked, and in one such battle, the psionic soldier and his ship are lost. That’s when things start getting weird. A mysterious disease begins affecting the people of Earth, and the soldier’s ship reappears as the chief doctor working on a cure dies of the very disease she was studying. Then the Black Feet appears in the skies above Earth. The strange connection between the soldier and the scientist form the backbone of an intriguing SF mystery tale, with plenty of bold extrapolation to keep everyone guessing up to the last page.

Robert E. Furey‘s "Dilated" is the story of a man and robot research team sent to icy Callisto to determine why a recently-launched probe has failed. What they discover is life in the form of a bacteria that has increased the nerve conductivity of the human scientist. When they return to Callisto for further tests, the robot, Aneal, tries to kill Jackson, the human scientist, and destroy the surface in order to sterilize the lifeform. The robot is afraid of the bacteria because it will allow humanity to become independent of robots and travel to the stars.

Ever since The Andromeda Strain we’ve seen alien bacteria, but it’s usually bad. Furey’s tale is interesting in that the bacteria is intelligent and beneficial to humanity. The almost human Aneal gives a nice tip of the hat to Asimov’s robots.

Tom Piccirilli‘s "Let My Right Hand Forget Her Cunning" is a beautifully wrought tale about a writer of new age self-help books whose house has been torched because of something he has written. Then things get pretty weird.

I’ll admit I didn’t understand parts of this story, but I still enjoyed it for its beautiful use of language. Piccirilli is known mostly as a mystery and horror writer, and there are some horror elements to this story. This story is clearly not hard SF, or even SF for that matter, and it looks out of place alongside other stories that are hard SF. But its beautiful language is probably why it made the cut.

"Cleave," by Therese Pieczynski and A. Alicia Doty, is the bizarre story of a family of pterosaur-like creatures who spend most of their time in caves hiding from an unnamed, ambiguous killer and the searchers who seek them out as prey. Pieczynski and Doty have done a good job creating a story entirely from an alien lifeform’s point of view, though I wish I had a more concrete description of the enemy and the mysterious, bladed searchers. One gets the feeling toward the end of the story that the searchers are mechanical in nature, and perhaps the enemy is an alien vessel, so perhaps its best to leave some things up to the imagination. The creatures in "Cleave" have a well thought out and utterly alien life cycle, and were nicely rendered.

"Out of the Fire", by Elisabeth DeVos, is the story of a world where mythological beings coexist with humanity, in which the famous Phoenix decides she doesn’t want to burn to death in order to spawn a new phoenix. Tired of being alone, she wants her body frozen so that medical science can find a way to produce a new phoenix without the old one dying. This story is cleverly told in the form of news reports and excerpts from the Phoenix’s tell-all book, and has the legendary bird being sued by right-to-lifers and defended by pro-choice advocates. This is a funny story, though it gets to be a bit much in some places, and resolution to the Phoenix’s dilemma was well conceived.

David Levine‘s "Legacy" is a hard SF tale about a team of scientists studying strange planetary system consisting of a black hole and a star about to go nova. When they discover an hospitable planet with evidence of intelligent life orbiting the unstable sun, a small team lands on the planet to make contact with the doomed natives. Once there, they learn that the crablike beings who inhabit this world have made a record of their entire existence on a large stone. They call it the Legacy. Thinking that it must contain answers to the planet’s origins–there is evidence that it is older than the system in which it now inhabits–the team ask for permission to take it with them. Knowing that they are about to die, the aliens allow the Legacy’s removal, but in order to get it off the planet, one of the scientists volunteers to stay behind, knowing he will die in a matter of hours when the planet’s sun explodes. This is a good story. It has good hard SF elements, strong emotion, and evokes a keen sense of wonder.

In James Van Pelt‘s "Lashawnda at the End," a team of explorers has landed on a planet teaming with water-hoarding plant life. The story is told in the first person by Spencer, one of the scientists. His romantic partner is Lashawnda, the ship’s botanist. Though exceptionally long-lived in this future, Lashawnda is dying, and Spencer discusses his feelings about that while he and Lashawnda try to reclaim the water that was taken from their storage tanks by a metal-eating lichen. Lashawnda soon discovers that the plant life is one vast nervous system and finds a way to get back their water.

This was a nice story to end with, a hard SF story that focuses on the human rather than the technological aspects, with a bittersweet ending.

All told, this is a nicely-done anthology, given how it came about. Single authors have written stories based on artwork before, but rarely have many different authors taken the challenge. The only problem I had was the presentation of the actual paintings. It would have been nice for the publishers to have spent a little more money to have color plates of the paintings in front of the stories. There are smaller color pictures of each piece on the back cover, but that doesn’t do the paintings justice. As they are now, the paintings are just drab black and white and don’t show much detail. The stories are good, and would stand quite well separately from the paintings that inspired them, but next time I hope the editors opt for color plates of Clark’s wonderful artwork.

Publisher: Fairwood Press (July 1, 2003)
Price: $17.99
Paperback: 228 pages
ISBN: 0966818482