Tales of Time and Space: Stories by Allen Steele

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Tales of Time and Space: Stories

by Allen Steele

edited by Darrell Schweitzer

(Fantastic Books, April 2015, 240 pp.)

“Martian Blood” (Old Mars, Bantam, 2013)
“Ticking” (Solaris Rising 2, Solaris, 2013)
“The Other Side of Jordan” (Federations, Prime, 2009)
“Cathedrals” (Starship Century, Lucky Bat Books, 2009)
“The Jekyll Island Horror” (Asimov’s, January 2010)
“Locomotive Joe and the Wreck of Space Train No. 4” (Impossible Futures, Pink Narcissus, 2013)
“Sixteen Million Leagues from Versailles” (Analog, October 2013)
“Alive and Well, A Long Way from Anywhere” (Asimov’s, July 2012)
“The Heiress of Air” (Raygun Chronicles, Every Day, 2013)
“Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (Twelve Tomorrows, MIT, 2013)
“The Big Whale” (Rip-Off!, Audiobook.com, 2012)
“The Observation Post” (Asimov’s, September 2011)

Reviewed by Jason McGregor

Allen Steele’s introduction to this collection is titled “Pattern Recognition” and at least two of the patterns he recognizes are also what I would have mentioned (and will mention) in this review: eight of the twelve stories are narrated in first-person and, more importantly, five of the twelve are not “center-core” SF.

That group of five consists of “Martian Blood,” “The Jekyll Island Horror,” “Locomotive Joe and the Wreck of Space Train No. 4,” “The Big Whale,” and “The Observation Post.” These tales are not bad and if you welcome tales set in the past or full of sometimes consciously bad science (or both) then they may be quite enjoyable. “Martian Blood” (first published by Gardner Dozois in Old Mars and selected by him for The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection) is set in more or less the present day on the Mars we thought we had in the first half of the twentieth century. A scientist wants to test the panspermia theory and needs the blood of the reclusive and (justifiably) xenophobic Martians. His misanthropic human guide doesn’t like the effects he imagines will result.

“The Big Whale” is hilarious for the first few of its nineteen pages and could have been a ten-page classic. It was written to the order of “take a famous first line from fiction and run with it.” So Steele starts with “Call me Ishmael. That’s what everyone does…. They don’t call me unless they’re in trouble, though. Trouble is my business. I carry a harpoon.” The story continues in hard-boiled detective mode and Ishmael’s checking out Mrs. Ahab when she comes to his office as “the dame” is especially funny. Alas, the story did not maintain for me.

“The Jekyll Island Horror,” “Locomotive Joe,” and “The Observation Post” form a sub-group within this group, as they are structurally almost the same story. When all three protagonists are old men, they basically tell the story with a sense of long-completed “doom,” back up into the actual happenings and/or give the needed historical infodump (the narrator of “Locomotive” specifically saying, “It’s called knowledge, kids, not infodumps”), and then arrive again at the end. This can be a very effective method of storytelling used sparingly but has the effect here of making the bulk of each story feel almost like going through the motions and leads to expectations of greater conceptual/perspective twists when one reaches the end of both the inner and outer stories than are actually produced. And all the narrators (as is the case in some other stories) are similar working stiffs either being given orders or standing aside from the action or both. In the first, a guy who wanted to be a reporter had to settle for being a rich publisher’s valet and then began some minor SF writing. In 2008, he gives Allen Steele a story he wrote in 1954 about the “terrifying events of 1934” when a “meteor” hits near the island. (There’s a strange problem with the math, too, since the narrator would have to be about ninety-two but is described as being “in his late sixties.”) The second story doesn’t seem to be specifically related to Steele’s other “Goddard” stories but is a Goddard story nonetheless. Steele says “anyone who tries to nitpick it for ‘scientific accuracy’ needs to get a clue.” The conductor tells of how the space trains came to an end in 1939 and how Locomotive Joe became a hero. And the meat of the third story is set in 1962 just before the events history records of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The former ensign of a blimp makes a sort of deathbed confession of how his following orders of a new lieutenant led him into a time travel story and an act that has troubled his conscience ever since.

The second group consists of the remaining seven stories and breaks down into three sub-groups: four stories in his “Near Space” series (set in the near future when humanity is becoming a system-wide civilization), two stories in his “Coyote” series (set in the further future when humanity has reached other stars), and “Ticking.” The last, somewhat shockingly, is an “AI which just spontaneously wakes up and starts killing people” story. So, in a sense, this would not be considered very scientifically science fictional by many but at least deploys very conventional tropes. And it is set in a sort of present which has a lot of robots, so is almost an alternate present like “Martian Blood” but doesn’t really play any games with time or the past. (Though the story was long in gestation and has strange mentions of serial ports which, while not impossible, make it sound dated. A serial port pops up even more strangely in “Cathedrals.”) It addresses overpopulation and automation through multiple limited third-person viewpoints and is, again, not bad for what it is and may appeal.

The Coyote tales are surprisingly short on content. “The Other Side of Jordan” could be described as “boy loses girl, goes wandering while writing letters to try to get girl back” and “Cathedrals” could be described as “girl finds ancient backup drive, views a fragment of a video, talks about it.” There is a lot of “knowledge” in these stories, though, and the infodumps of the milieu are fascinating. “Jordan” also introduces the Hex artifact (which later received novel-length treatment in the eponymous book). And “Cathedrals” makes me lose my objectivity as it is another frame story, but done from the third-person and starts at the 100 Year Starship symposium (complete with vigorous name-dropping of the actual movers and shakers) and then moves to its meat in the middle, set 400 years later when the descendants are on a world under an alien star, which gets me misty-eyed. The title, of course, is taken from the concept prevalent in starship planning circles that this is a project that demands more than one lifetime, as some European cathedrals did.

The Near Space tales are quite varied: “Sixteen Million Leagues from Versailles” takes us into the Martian hinterland to try to recover a museum piece from a crashed cargo ship; “Alive and Well, A Long Way from Anywhere” is structurally like “Jekyll Island,” et al., and has the public face of a spectacularly wealthy and eccentric man tell the tale of the latter’s retreat to an asteroid hermitage; “The Heiress of Air” tells the neo-pulp tale of a criminal gang’s entanglement with a bored and skilled economic princess; and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” has a friend of a cult member describe how the latter came to join such a cult and what happened when they tried to make contact with their invisible, all-powerful, solar-loving alien gods.

All the familiar elements of Steele are on display in this collection, if not usually in their most brilliant form. There is his usual sensible oscillation from romance to cynicism such as in “Jordan,” when we are being amazed by the wonders of Hex and also being shown “a small planet the color of ear-wax in orbit around a white dwarf.” There are his spaceships carrying cannabis sativa, perhaps for the pot-munching alien hjadd. There are his musical references from the title of “Set the Controls” to a scene in “Jordan” when his protagonist is “tangled up in blue.” There are all his blue-collar working stiffs who haven’t been replaced by the crewcut technocrats of the gleaming chrome future. There are his innumerable in-references to science fiction and its history in nearly any place they can be wedged. Unfortunately, some of the negative familiar elements of Steele are also on display, such as manipulated plots and characters behaving oddly. Perhaps in part because nine of the twelve stories were written in less than two years (not that that’s too fast but that there’s no selection, they’re probably mostly coming from the “same place,” and there’s little chance for much evolution), there is little that stands out as remarkably successful or cutting edge, though there is nothing unreadable either, and the vast bulk is quite interesting and wouldn’t be a bad introduction to the novice (though I’d recommend diving straight into his previous collection Sex and Violence in Zero-G) or a bad way to get reacquainted for the long-time fan.