Absolute Magnitude, Summer 1998

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"Plaudit Gives" by Sarah A. Hoyt
"Siren" by A.J. Austin
"Veritas" by Daniel Abraham
"Mercenary" by Bud Sparhawk
"The Question" by Alan Dean Foster
"Backblast" by Chris Bunch

Absolute Magnitude #10 is a solid issue of Analog-style stories (including even a reprint from Analog), with a definite adventure bias, as promised. I've seen three issues of AbMag so far, and this is the best one.

The biggest name in this issue is, I suppose, Alan Dean Foster. But his story, "The Question," is very disappointing. It's about an individual, imprisoned by servants who look after his every desire, but won't let him over the wall to the wider world. After much travail, he escapes. It turns out, of course, that this individual is really a … I won't spoil it, but it's a silly, tired cliche.

"Plaudit Cives" by Sarah A. Hoyt (a name new to me) is an OK story about a successful "Player." Apparently, criminals in this civilization are designated "Players," and their duels with other "Players" are recorded for the entertainment of the wider public. Syrac the Beheader is telling his story to a crowd at a tavern: how he and a friend grew up together dreaming of rising out of the slums, how they were mistreated by an upper-class man and ended up Players, how Syrac rose to fame, and his friend didn't, and the groupies Syrac has known, especially the last one … There aren't any surprises here, and the milieu isn't particularly original or convincing, but the story is told well enough. Worth a rating of OK.

I guess A.J. Austin likes his initials. Having already been published in Analog, Asimov's, Amazing, and Aboriginal, he's placed "Siren," a reprint from Analog, in this Absolute Magnitude. Should we look for him in Aberrations next? "Siren" is nothing special: a survey team is investigating a new world. They encounter some cute aliens who sing mesmerizing songs. The first couple of team members who hear these songs end up horribly dead. The narrator is stranded on the planet, out of range of possible rescue, certain to die from lack of oxygen. And there's an alien, and the alien sings to him … The narrator is rescued, and the team captures an alien, too. Is it possible that the survey team has jumped to the wrong conclusion about these aliens? You guessed it. This story (and the many others like it I've read) isn't bad – but it isn't good either, and there's nothing new here. "Analog"-style stories like this depend on a neat SFnal idea or twist, since there's nothing much in the prose, plot or characters to draw us in. So why do we see basically the same ideas so often?

Bud Sparhawk's "Mercenary" has a simple idea at its core: soldiers, right before demobilization, are offered a cash reward if they allow a "somatic tape" to be made of them. This turns out to be a copy, which is reinstantiated again and again, for future, as well as alien wars. That's about all there is to the story. I was bothered by some implausibilities: sure, you've got this "somatic tape," but where do you get the bodies to use? And why do some of the copies remember other fighting? (Or are they copies of reinstantiated copies?) I felt this concept was a bit underbaked.

Chris Bunch is a solid professional. Each of the last two issues of Absolute Magnitude have included one of his "Shadow Warrior" tales, about former Federation soldier Joshua Wolfe, now "free-lancing" in the Outlaw Worlds, and both tales have delivered just what's promised: solid professional SF adventure. "Backblast" is a mystery, set on one of the abandoned Al'ar worlds. An archaeological team is investigating the Al'ar artifacts, when "backblast" from one of the Al'ar power transmission towers kills student Lorn Ware. Wolfe is hired by Federation Intelligence to pose as an insurance company investigator. He finds, predictably enough, that the death was no accident, and he soon uncovers simple human motives, amidst the alien ruins, which might be reason for murder. The story is fast-moving and there's some nice action, with a decent, well-motivated solution to the mystery.

Daniel Abraham is another new name for me, and his story turns on a solid science-fictional idea: a drug which can erase traumatic memories and create new ones to fill in the holes. But what works is that the main character is convincing, and that we care about his problem, and believe in his eventual decisions. This character is Paxton Cort, a well-to-do businessman. He's cheating on his wife as she is about to have their second child, and he's just received news that his recent medical tests show a problem. We learn, soon enough, that his doctor suspects that he has had his memories replaced: and she suggests that he try to recover them. The story turns on what he can find out about who he might have been, and what he does about it. The resolution isn't earthshaking, but it is convincing and emotionally honest. (I do quibble, however, with his secret identity: this revelation was improbable, too pat, a bit melodramatic, and for all that, not really necessary for the story.) I have to say that this is the best story I've read in the three issues of this magazine I've seen.

This issue of Absolute Magnitude is mostly of a piece with the others I've read, delivering decent but uninspiring SF adventure, often in the Analog mode. But "Veritas" is a cut above, and makes this issue stand out just a bit from the crowd.

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the sf and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in the St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent.