Farthing, Issue 3, May 2006

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"Family Time" by Harper Scott

"Hobo" by Clifford Royal Johns
"Common Time" by Bruce Golden
"What About the Plastic Race?" by Greg Beatty
"Labor Day" by Amanda M. Hayes
"Change of Life" by K. Tempest Bradford
"Problem, Child" by Lisa Batya Feld
The third issue of Farthing opens with "Family Time" by Harper Scott, a time travel story that looks at both the time and the traveling aspects of the subgenre. Don Sabrini is about to get shot dead, but his associates and TMs (short for "time machine") hope to save him. Unfortunately, others are showing up to see how things unfold, and the TMs are only able to travel back at five-minute intervals. Complications arise. Can they escape the inevitable?

This is a story that’s been done before—both plot-wise and structurally—but "Family Time" is still a lot of fun. For its length, the characters are fairly clear.  And, as with most stories involving time travel and crossing planes and meeting past/future selves, thinking too hard about this one could ruin it. Just enjoy the ride.

A hobo, a sort of scavenger-like spaceship always on the lookout for a free ride across the galaxy, has attached itself to Captain Tarain’s ship in "Hobo" by Clifford Royal Johns. Commanded by only two men—Keel and Captain Tarain—Keel is sent to take care of the hobo problem while Tarain controls the ship. But what Keel finds attached to the ship is far different from what he expected. It might even be something he wants to find.

There’s very little action in "Hobo." Given its premise, I expected to see a battle between the crew of Captain Tarain’s ship and the ungrateful little scavenger. Keel felt underdeveloped as a main character, his envy of hobos forced. Despite this, the ending surprised me, leaving me with questions—the good kind, where I simply wanted to know more and more.

I admit to liking my fair share of military science fiction, ranging from the classics of Robert. A Heinlein to the more contemporary works of David Drake. Thus, I was very happy to encounter "Common Time" by Bruce Golden, which opens much like a classic military SF tale, but soon veers off in a whole new direction.

Willie Solman, a soldier who wishes for nothing more than to be back home playing the blues at some local dive, has been drafted in the astromarines. Now he’s alone, fallen behind in the war over a section of galaxy, and amongst all the gunshots and screams, he hears music. Music? In the middle of a war? He then discovers a creature he’ll never forget, one that will change his life forever.

Solman’s story—his love of music and the thing he meets on a battlefield on Vega Five—is simply compelling. I also have an appreciation for stories about humans and aliens forming strong friendships, thanks to Cory Doctorow‘s "Craphound." And now I have another story to add to my list of favorites. When the two characters really connect in "Common Time," I was reminded of just how strong friendship can be, no matter if it’s shared between a human, an alien, or some musical notes. Well recommended.

"What About the Plastic Race?" by Greg Beatty attempts to answer the eponymous question, presented as the subject of an interoffice e-mail. Dave and Hiram are working on the same AI project while contemplating different theories of intelligence. Dave begins to suspect that the plastic race (i.e., computers, cell phones, faxes, etc.), subtly interwoven into daily life as they are, might have their own plans for the future.

This flash piece is interesting enough, but it is essentially all setup for the real story—the existence of the plastic race. 

In "Labor Day" by Amanda M. Hayes, Pam and Evie enjoy their holiday weekend off from school by engaging in a live action role-playing game in their local woods. The day starts as expected: they tromp about, telling stories of the elves and goblins that used to battle in the woods, searching for clues and cursed items, reveling in the fantasy world they’ve created. Then they stumble upon a portal, an honest-to-goblin vortex in the middle of a clearing, and there’s definitely something on the other side trying to invade their dreams. Evie is determined to find out what it is, while Pam is reluctant. It turns out Pam was the wiser.

At first, I was concerned that this was going to be some DM’s thinly disguised campaign-transcribed-as-short story, filled with elf-hating goblins/goblin-hating elves, Tolkien-derived lore, and maybe a cursed skull. Instead, Hayes welcomes the reader to a world that’s safe and serene until things drastically change. What emerges from the portal is the stuff of nightmares, except it’s real, realer than anything these girls could conjure up. Worth the read.

Everyone knows it; mothers and their children, however much they might resist, eventually separate to go their own way. Animals, at least from what I’ve seen on the Discovery Channel, stay with their young until they’re ready to venture out into the world, and then off they go. It’s more complex with humans, a situation explored—successfully if a bit out there—in "Change of Life" by K. Tempest Bradford.

Carol is one of many children, several of whom are about to leave home. Her mother can’t handle it, and to fill the void, she gets pets, naming each of them after a newly-absent son or daughter. Eventually, her mother begins talking to and treating these pets as if they were their human namesakes. Carol knows something has to be done.

Though the prose isn’t particularly compelling, stylistically, "Change of Life" is a strong story. There’s a lot of humor, and as heavy-handed as the moral is, there’s still plenty to enjoy. The mother’s actions are rash, but at the same time, understandable. Things are wrapped up rather hastily in the end, but you know how youngsters are, always on the go.

"Problem, Child" by Lisa Batya Feld is about a little boy, David, who may or may not be autistic; he sees things differently. The book his father writes secrets in bleeds, which tells David that his father is hurting, and hurting badly. Using his fertile imagination and the power of his mind, David journeys to his father in order to learn what’s hurting him and unravel the secrets deep within the bleeding book.

This could be the third or perhaps fourth story about an autistic child doing magical things I’ve encountered this year. It has some lovely imagery—the bleeding book, David’s journey, a talking crow—but otherwise, I’ve read it before. Others might enjoy it, but I was hoping for a stronger twist in "Problem, Child," something to make me really believe in David’s magic.