Absolute Magnitude, #15, Spring 2001

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"The Cold Calculations" by Michael Burstein
"Mirror" by Chris Bunch
"Black Boxes" by Matthew S. Rotundo
"Mirusha" by Geoffrey A. Landis
"Invisible Friends" by Steve Sawicki

Two stories in this month's issue of Absolute Magnitude recall the classic SF tale "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin.

(For those unfamiliar with that story, it goes something like this: A spaceship pilot has been sent on a mission to bring desperately needed medicine and supplies to a faraway colony. He discovers that a girl has stowed away on his ship, and he calculates that the weight of this extra person will burn up too much fuel, causing the mission to fail and many colonists to die. Then the pilot does the only thing he can–he throws the stowaway off the ship, to die in space. She's an innocent girl who has only the best reasons for wanting to reach the colony, but the universe doesn't care about goodness, or decency, or need. The only thing that matters is the numbers–the cold equations of the title–and those numbers say she has to go.)

It's a great story–elegant, logical, and chilling. Michael Burstein's "The Cold Calculations"– an obvious tribute–shares a similar set-up (not to mention title), while Geoffrey A. Landis's "Mirusha" has a similarly-themed conclusion. Of course, it's no easy task to be measured against an all-time classic. (Incidentally, these are not the only stories out there to share similarities with "The Cold Equations." In Charles Sheffield's "Humanity Test," rather than throwing anyone off the ship, the weight is made up by amputating the arms and legs of all the crewmembers, and throwing those limbs overboard.)

In "The Cold Calculations," Jason Sawyer is pilot of a one-person space vessel, bringing desperately needed medical equipment and a power generator to a base on Titan. En route, Sawyer encounters an asteroid and reacts impulsively by blasting the thrusters to slow down. Unfortunately, this uses too much fuel, and the only way to compensate is for a Jason Sawyer-sized object to abandon ship. If Sawyer jumps out the airlock, his AI co-pilot Zec will be able to complete the mission without him. At the last minute, however, Sawyer decides to try downloading his neural pattern into the ship's computer. He lives on, as the ship itself, but poor Zec's personality is crowded out and disappears. I had a little trouble believing that an experienced pilot, even a reckless one, would make such an obvious mistake as simply blasting away too much fuel. I also found it difficult to accept that the first-ever personality download could be accomplished by a pilot aboard a one-man cargo ship. If all the equipment already exists, and it's this easy, why hasn't anyone ever done it before? The best part of the story comes at the very end, when Zec's personality is supplanted by Jason's. Zec says, "I reach out one more time to proclaim my self awareness to the universe. Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. I am Zec–I am Jason Sawyer, ship's computer." This part is so creepy and interesting, I wish it had been developed even more–showing us aspects of Zec gradually giving way to aspects of Jason. (This sort of confused personality blending might have sounded something like one of my all-time favorites–Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit.")

"Mirusha" is another space disaster story. The Russian Mir space station has long since fallen, but that hasn't stopped the ailing Russian government from fielding a more modest public relations piece–the Mirusha ("little Mir.") Unfortunately, this little station has big-Mir-sized technical problems, and the Cosmonauts aboard it are running out of air. Their only hope is John Radkowski and Ryan Martin aboard the International Space Station. Radkowski's ship doesn't have enough fuel to reach the high orbit of the Mirusha, but Ryan is able to "whip" the ship up there using the station's garbage cable. Unfortunately, by the time Radkowski gets there, the Russians are already dead. "Space is cold and empty and unforgiving," the story concludes, "it does not care about human tragedy or last-minute heroics or brilliant piloting skills. Sometimes your time runs out." This is very much like the theme of "The Cold Equations," but here it doesn't have quite the same emotional resonance. In "The Cold Equations," the ending of the story is the inexorable, inescapable result of everything that has come before. In "Mirusha," it turns out that the Cosmonauts have died (given the set-up, there's no reason why it couldn't have turned out differently), and we don't get to know them well enough to really feel their loss. "Mirusha" is a classic idea story. The idea of whipping a ship into a higher orbit using a very long cable is interesting, original, and plausible (I assume it would work, although I have to defer to Landis himself on this one, as he knows far more about such things than I.) Fans of this type of hard-sf solution will appreciate the story the most.

"Black Boxes," written at the Odyssey summer workshop, is Matthew Rotundo's first professional sale, and it's a solid debut. This was my favorite story of the issue except for "Invisible Friends," which isn't really a fair comparison anyway, since "Invisible Friends" is much, much longer. In "Black Boxes," individuals can choose to be outfitted with a black box–sort of like the kind that are currently dug out of airplane wrecks. People with black boxes can record things they see. Jeremy Aldrich is a public defender charged with defending Franklin Lee Sable, "The Black Box Killer," who has slaughtered fourteen victims and removed their black boxes with less than clinical efficiency. Prosecutors contend that Sable destroyed the black boxes, which proves he knew his crimes were wrong, and cannot therefore plead insanity. Aldrich believes that he can find the missing black boxes and prove that his client really is insane. The black boxes themselves, as well as the society they've spawned, may remind some readers of the movie Strange Days. I did wonder a few times how Sable–who is so pathological he doesn't seem to be able to form complete sentences–was able to function effectively as a serial killer. The story also seems to suggest that there's something about the black boxes which degrade our basic humanity ("little brother is watching you"), but it's never clear what's wrong with allowing people to freely choose to record their own experiences. Overall, the story is an effective mix of crime, law, technology, and literary allusion (there are nods to Orwell and Poe.)

In "Mirror" by Chris Bunch, a young war veteran has decided to drink himself to death in the company of a bartender, who is a veteran of the same, unspecified, future war. Toward the end of the story, the concept of "Doublegangers" is introduced. These duplicates of human beings were used to fight in the war and were later scheduled for termination, but some of them might have escaped. The conclusion suggests that the young man is actually one of these Doublegangers, and that the bartender, as a fellow veteran, is willing to cover his trail. The problems of the Doublegangers–not officially human, used for dangerous labor, filled with false memories, hunted–are similar to those faced by the replicants in Blade Runner. The story presented some engaging ideas, but I was left feeling like a bit too much of the action was happening offstage, being hinted at only obliquely.

"Invisible Friends" by Steve Sawicki is formatted as a series of emails from the author to his friend Mike. In these emails, the author details his interactions with a number of odd companions, including a dog that drives, some monkeys that knew Shakespeare, and some "damned aliens" who are always performing super-advanced experiments in the basement. The story doesn't really have any narrative structure as such, but moves from one comic set piece to another with manic energy, rotating constantly through its assortment of strange characters. The story is very well-written, very fresh, smart, and witty, and is actually pretty funny. It's also kind of long, but does show a remarkable inventiveness in coming up with new gags page after page. If you like your science fiction zany, you'll like this one.

This issue of Absolute Magnitude had four short serious pieces, and one long humor piece. They were all science fiction stories taking place in the near future. They were all told in a refreshingly clear and straightforward manner, and contained more actual incident than a lot of the stories out there.

Dave Kirtley won the 1997 Asimov Award, and attended Clarion in the summer of '99. Two of his Clarion stories have sold, one to Gothic.net and another to On Spec. His previous review experience includes reviewing beer for his college newspaper. Visit his webpage at www.sff.net/people/davekirtley/