“The Burden of Fire” by Hayden Trenholm
“The Kol Effect” by Brent Knowles
“’Swordsman Wanted’” by Patrick Scalisi
“Not Human” by Teresa Howard
“Touching Down” by Jennifer Kennedy
“An Even Trade” by Paula R. Stiles
Reviewed by Dave Truesdale
Hayden Trenholm’s “The Burden of Fire” didn’t quite connect for me. It’s a time travel story (among other things) involving an advanced race (part of the Collectivity) coming to Earth in need of humans with certain mental abilities they require to pilot their advanced quantum ships, but they want nothing else to do with Earth until we lose our aggressive qualities. So far this is pretty familiar stuff, but the author also attempts to show us the rise and fall of the Universe, and at the same time tell the story of one young pilot who must lose not one, but both his parents (in a time-related unfolding of events) in order to save the Universe. There’s just far too much going on here to set up and explain everything adequately (expository infodumps abound), and the result reads like a beginner’s first struggling attempt to Say Everything in One Short Story–a fatal flaw new writers have been warned against time and time again.
Brent Knowles’ “The Kol Effect” is another slim tale having time travel as the central conceit. Demetrius Kol is a corporate tycoon who seeks to oversee his empire through the eyes of his grandson Christin. He first purchases one of the first time-travel machines, called a Skipster, and rather than using it legally to travel back in time, sets the machine to travel forward. What he finds is not to his liking and through events in the story he eventually buys the entire Skipster enterprise so he can refine the process and do what he pleases. Told in an epistolary format–trading emails with one of the early Skipster representatives–the infodumps are more palatable than in the previous story, but in the end the story just doesn’t measure up as anything more than yet another nominally interesting time travel gedanken, despite the title and its hoped-for success as the story’s central selling point. Solid, effective, time-travel pieces (those that attempt to alter the past or future) are difficult to pull off, as so many have been published over the past eighty-five or more years, and while I applaud this attempt it didn’t quite make the grade. I have a feeling that if the author were to rewrite this piece ten years from now, with more experience under his belt, he just might make it a more effective entry to this particular sub-genre of time travel tale.
Patrick Scalisi’s “’Swordsman Wanted’” clocks in as the first all-around successful story so far. It’s not a major piece of fiction with any deep intellectual import, mind you, but a pleasant little diversion, and the best written of the first three tales. An out of work ex-Iraqi military vet finds an unusual ad in the newspaper: ‘Swordsman Wanted.’ When he discovers that a dragon has taken up residence in a bank’s vault atop a pile of gold bullion, we know we’re in for a light-hearted read, and Scalisi carries it off with a quiet, assured professionalism. After signing a contract with the bank our ex-military vet is given a special sword and is charged with removing the dragon–if he can. Bullets do not faze the beast and others have failed. His reward? One million tax-free dollars. How he completes his mission is best left for readers to discover. Again, while not a major story, Scalisi’s humorous, clever little tale is well-wrought and achieves the author’s intent admirably. This sort of story–mixing contemporary reality with an element of magic, humorous or otherwise–is the sort the short-lived and much-beloved John W. Campbell-edited Unknown was famous for running, lo some sixty-plus years ago.
“Not Human” by Teresa Howard is one of those stories that you desperately want to end up liking, but turns out to be marred by a weak, hurried resolution. Thirteen year-old Kelli is summarily and against her will taken by strangers from her school for gifted children, and is whisked away to an unnamed clinic where she is held prisoner and tested endlessly for she knows not what. The middle section of this story is well-written and full of dramatic tension as Kelli uses her wits (and a partial explanation from her former professor, come to visit) to piece together what is happening to her and why. It has something to do with outlawed genetic manipulation, the possibility that her dead father might have been an alien, and her mother’s complicity in the act, for Kelli might be the result of such illegal genetic tampering.
The body of the story is centered on Kelli’s escaping–or being rescued–from the clinic before further harm can come to her through ever more radical “testing.” While a bit of cleverness on her part eventually leads to her rescue, we never learn if her father was an alien, if he and her mother manipulated her DNA, and if she indeed was entirely human or not. All of this is totally unresolved to any reasonable degree, but left hanging, as the story ends with a quick tv-type cliché rescue from the secret clinic, with one character letting everyone know that the bad guys have been taken care of. This story held a lot of promise, but wasn’t quite able to fulfill that promise. Teresa Howard can write well enough for the most part, but this story needed some editing to strengthen the ending. (It also needed some copy-editing as well, for we have several instances like “roll playing” for role playing, “causally” for casually, where “Enhanced Humans” is capitalized throughout, in one instance it reads “Enhanced humans,” and there are several elementary grammatical mistakes which stick out like a sore thumb–not just in this story but others as well.)
In “Touching Down” by J. Y. T. Kennedy we find two research scientists piloting a snazzy shape-changing aircraft following a flock of Icarians (large pterodactyl-like sentient beings) on an unnamed planet. What they discover when one of the Icarians becomes injured and they attempt to heal it, is the crux of the story. What rest and sleep and death are to human beings isn’t at all the same for the Icarians, where any of the aforementioned interferes with what the Icarians believe to be their soul. The consequences brought about by the well-intentioned humans has a negative effect for the Icarian in question, his entire flock, and the future of human/Icarian relations.
This sort of story, in various incarnations, has been appearing most notably in Astounding and now Analog for nigh on to seventy-five years–the story of trying to understand the alien, communication between species, and how alien species may look at the universe quite differently than do we and how their various religious concepts may differ even more radically. There’s always some new twist or way of looking at things that make these stories worthwhile. The author’s idea here was as worthwhile to explore as any, but the line by line prose–the choice of words–was only passable, and the final line, the doubt expressed by the main human character as he goes to sleep, didn’t ring true–at least not for a final line, the thought the author wishes the reader to remember. The core idea of this piece was a good one, but the flat execution rendered it ultimately a near miss.
At just over three pages, Paula R. Stiles’ “An Even Trade” vies with Patrick Scalisi’s story as the best written of this issue. Short and sweet, this character study concerns the emotional adjustments a 40-year-old woman makes when she agrees to switch her tired, sagging body with that of a younger, more fit, man who actually wants a “fixer-upper” body. When she runs into him two years later she realizes a number of things about herself (which I shan’t give away here), and the story resolves itself quite well.
Of the six stories in this issue the high marks go to Patrick Scalisi and Paula R. Stiles. While not overly impressed by most of the offerings this time around, Neo-opsis yet provides a valuable training ground for new authors to learn their craft.
Neo-opsis #19, June 2010 (tri-annual)