Absolute Magnitude, Summer 1999

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"Balance of Trade" by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
"In the Winds That Sleep" by Gene KoKayKo
"In Memoriam" by Jamie Wild
"Fionna" by Chuck Rothman
"Fat Guys in Space" by Linda Tiernan Kepner
"The Pilgrim" by Richard R. Harris

Absolute Magnitude continues to try to carve a niche for itself as a purveyor of adventure-oriented science fiction. Of all the magazines in the field, the fiction it publishes most resembles Analog fiction, with somewhat less emphasis on the "idea as hero" or "engineer as hero" sort of stories which Analog often features, and perhaps somewhat greater emphasis on military SF.

A natural fit for the Absolute Magnitude "niche" is, of course, Space Opera. After all, Space Opera stories are usually adventure, and they are usually SF, if not particularly hard. Where better to look for stories then, than from the authors of some of the various Space Opera novel series? In the past couple of issues, Absolute Magnitude has published stories by Chris Bunch, co-author of the Sten novels. For this issue (and apparently next issue as well), editor Warren Lapine has included a story by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, set in their Liaden universe. Lee and Miller published the first three Liaden books in the late '80s, but have not been able to continue the series until this year: Meisha Merlin has just brought out the newest Liaden novel, Plan B. These are very engaging Space Opera stories, featuring three closely related human races: Terrans, Liadens, and the evil Yxtrang. The novels I have read so far turn on the encounter of a Terran with the Liadens. This is also true for the novelette "Balance of Trade". Jethri Gobelyn is an apprentice trader with the Terran ship Gobelyn's Market. He is entrusted with his first unsupervised trade, which comes off fairly well. But he meets another man in a bar, who needs just a little money to be able to invest in something with a sure 4-1 return. Can Jethri lend him the money? The reader is not likely to be as gullible as Jethri, but he is convinced by the man's brandishing a card from a Liaden family. The Liadens are fanatical about their honor, surely an investment they are backing will not go wrong? All this is basically a setup to get Jethri introduced to the Liaden family in question, an introduction that promises to be important for his future. This story itself is enjoyable enough, but there are no real surprises to make it memorable.

A fairly intriguing, if wildly implausible idea is at the heart of Gene KoKayKo's "In the Winds That Sleep". Humans have used DNA from the vanished alien super-race, the Krillich, as "filler" in virus inserts which promise to give them immortality. The early experiments were failures, and these people, including the narrator of the story and his lover, attempt to obtain drugs for relief from the pain and physical debilitation that resulted. Apparently, for some hard to follow reason, Krillich artifacts are illegal for private people to own; yet also highly prized. The couple are hired by one of their shady "suppliers" to travel to the Krillich home planet and obtain some Krillich bones, in exchange for a six-month supply of the drug they need. To nobody's particular surprise, what they find is much more impressive than bones.

This story is a nearly complete failure. Part of the problem is scientific plausibility: alien DNA? used as "filler"? Filler? Because of a shortage of human DNA? Whazzat? DNA is like a fossil fuel now? All these sillinesses could have been easily finessed, too. But they aren't. There is also a lack of real conflict. The Krillich artifacts are supposed to be illegal and hard to find. But the viewpoint couple basically just waltz right in. The narrator, for some reason, has to take twice as much of the drug as he's supposed to need. Therefore we are supposed to worry that he will become incapacitated in the middle of the mission. But this becomes totally unimportant. And the eventual resolution is pure nonsense. Crown this with clumsy prose, and you have a story that at minimum needed one more rewrite before publication.

One of the problems with many of these stories is that they have one idea, and they present it competently enough, but that's all there is. So it is with "In Memoriam", by Jamie Wild. A veteran space fighter pilot is the narrator. He had been "wingman" for Luke Torington, "the most decorated ace of the Consolidation War". Torington has just been found dead in a gutter. The narrator tells his view of Luke Torington to a young reporter. The central idea is honest but stale: Luke Torington, great hero, hated killing, and it took so much out of him, took his soul, that he ended up in a gutter. All this is, no doubt, a fair lesson about war that we can do with hearing again, and it's presented competently enough, but … that's all there is to it, and we've all seen this theme before. It needs a twist: an old twist, but one that might have helped this story a bit, would be to have the "enemies" in the War be aliens, and Torington one of the few to see them as essentially "human", but not even that much of a twist is given here.

Chuck Rothman takes on another fairly familiar idea in "Fionna". But he manages to view it from just enough of a new angle to make this a good story: the second best of this issue. Our narrator is Tom, who lives with Fionna. Tom works for Immigration Control, and Immigration Control's job is to prevent "them" from entering. I won't say who "them" are, as it might be a mild spoiler: suffice it to say that "they" are a group of people whom SF stories have often shown to be mistreated in the past. Fionna disapproves of Tom's job: anyone care to guess what group Fionna might secretly be a part of? We are told immediately that Tom has been forced to kill Fionna: the story tells us why, and what Fionna is, and how Tom reacts. It is all a bit old hat, and obvious, but still true. (Though I must say, the postulated prejudice and extreme reaction, assumed as given for the story, really does not seem likely to me.) And Rothman finds ways to personalize Tom's conflict, and to illustrate Fionna's true character, that lift the story just enough out of the ordinary to make it work.

Now to Linda Tiernan Kepner's "Fat Guys in Space". The concept in this case is mind-numbingly silly. NASA has decided that they need to demonstrate the safety of space travel by sending up four really fat guys, and showing that they too can survive. Such a silly concept might work if it was meant to set up a goofy story, but actually Kepner mostly plays things straight. As such, my suspension of disbelief snapped and my belief went plummeting into the Marianas Trench. It wasn't helped when a routine shuttle trip was extended three weeks (!) by missing a "window". And the closing lines were frankly offensive. Just a bad idea, all around.

This issue closes with "The Pilgrim", by Richard R. Harris. (I must say, the author has great taste in initials.) I would place this story in the middle range of this issue's offerings. It's set in Africa, featuring a Canadian member of a UN fighting force. The opponents are called the Walking Dead, and they seem to be under the influence of some drug, which makes them able to fight on after terrible injuries. But all this is backstory, somewhat interesting, but never really developed. The story focuses on the POV character's struggle to reach the safety of his unit. We are treated to some descriptions of the mildly futuristic fighting tech, and to a personal encounter with some of the innocent victims of the war. It's not bad, but it never finds a coherent thematic center, and a lot of issues, potentially interesting issues, are either left as backstory, or resolved offstage.

This is a wildly varying issue of a magazine that I have often found inconsistent in the past. The best two stories are sound, enjoyable, SF adventure, but the worst two are simply awful. In between are a couple of pieces which don't offend, but which I won't remember, either.

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.