New Light on the Drake Equation – Ian R MacLeod (SCI FICTION May 2001)
More Adventures on Other Planets – Michael Cassutt (SCI FICTION Jan 2001)
On K2 with Kanakaredes – Dan Simmons (Red Shift (ROC) AC Sarrantonio Ed.)
When This World is All On Fire – William Sanders (Asimov’s SF Oct/Nov 2001)
Computer Virus – Nancy Kress (Asimov’s SF April 2001)
Have Not Have – Geoff Ryman (Magazine of F&SF April 2001)
Lobsters – Charles Stross (Asimov’s SF June 2001)
The Dog said Bow-Wow – Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s SF Oct/Nov 2001)
The Chief Designer – Andy Duncan (Asimov’s SF June 2001)
Neutrino Drag – Paul Di Fillipo (SCI FICTION 22/8/2001)
Glacial – Alastair Reynolds (Spectrum SF 5)
The Days Between – Allen Steele (Asimov’s SF March 2001)
One Horse Town – Howard Waldrop/Leigh Kennedy (SCI FICTION 4/3/2001)
Moby Quilt – Eleanor Arnason (Asimov’s SF May 2001)
Raven Dream – Robert Reed (Magazine of F&SF December 2001)
Undone – James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s SF June 2001)
The Real Thing – Carolyn Ives Gilman (Magazine of F&SF July 2001)
Interview: On Any Given Day – Maureen F McHugh (Starlight 3 (Tor))
Isabel of The Fall – Ian R MacLeod (Interzone July 2001)
Into Greenwood – Jim Grimsley (Asimov’s SF September 2001)
Know How, Can Do – Michael Blumlein (Magazine of F&SF December 2001)
Russian Vine – Simon Ings (SCI FICTION June 6 2001)
The Two Dicks – Paul McAuley (Magazine of F&SF August 2001)
May Be Some Time – Brenda W Clough (Analog Science Fiction & Fact April 2001)
Marcher – Chris Beckett (Interzone October 2001)
The Human Front – Ken MacLeod (chapbook – The Human Front – PS Publishing)
New Light on The Drake Equation – Ian R MacLeod
An atmospheric and poignant tale, set in France, in which a lifelong SETI researcher looks back on his life of fruitless searching for signs of extraterrestrial life from a future where genetic bodily restyling is all the rage. His memories are interrupted by the arrival of an old girlfriend, a woman who may be the alien he has been searching for all his life.
Beautifully written and evocative.
More Adventures on Other Planets – Michael Cassutt
A modern interplanetary romance (literally) featuring two older members of a Scientific Institute who operate waldos on the surface of Europa who are searching for signs of life beneath the frozen surface. It’s extremely well-written and amusing without having that annoying American habit of over-emphasising the humour.
On K2 with Kanakaredes – Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons never disappoints and here he is on top form, and on top of the world in a tale of a climbing crew who are ordered by the US government to accept one of the alien insectoid Listeners (as they are known) on a climbing expedition up K2. The characterisation is excellent, and despite the brevity of the tale we accept the idea of a large insect bonding with a pack of professional mountain climbers. Simmons provides one of his usual metaphysical clichés in the concept of the Listeners having come to Earth to teach us how to Listen to the song of the world.
When This World is All On Fire – William Sanders
A global warming themed tale set in the American Midwest where white people are beginning to encroach on what remains of Native American land now that the sea level has risen, leaving much of North America under water.
Sanders employs the dry and desperate environment as a backdrop to a tale of a Native American security man and his obsession with the young white girl he hears singing one day when her family park on Indian land illegally.
Like all the stories so far it has a sad and poignant element to it, but is nevertheless an energetic and well-painted story. You can almost smell the smoke and the baking land.
Computer Virus – Nancy Kress
I seem to remember at least two TV movies of the Eighties or earlier which featured a computer going rogue and holding people hostage in some building or other. One featured Kate Jackson of Charlie’s Angels, but was otherwise unmemorable.
Thankfully Nancy has used this concept far more cleverly in a fast-paced story where an escaped AI invades a computer-controlled house into which a female scientist has retreated since her geneticist husband was murdered by eco-terrorists.
The AI wants to hold her and her children hostage unless it is allowed to talk to the Press, something its creators do not want it to do.
It is up to her to use her wits to defeat the AI, since her young son has contracted a mutated virus, and his temperature is steadily rising.
It says much about the media, about government, and a climate in which we seem to be more afraid of each other than posited foreign terrorists.
Have Not Have – Geoff Ryman
Ryman’s work is very much character-driven, but there is always an interesting backdrop, an exotic setting against which the drama can be shown to best effect. Here we are, it is supposed, in China, where a young woman makes a living by adapting the fashions she sees on screen and in magazines to make dresses for the peasants of her village. The stark poverty of the villagers is contrasted by the advent of technology and a development of the internet which will allow everyone to have TV ‘in their heads’.
It’s a startling, evocative and original tale, in which individual characters are carved intricately like small jade sculptures
Lobsters – Charles Stross
A bewildering and disorienting romp through a future world of predatory ads, AIs, and world where the minds of lobsters are uploaded into a digital environment, their minds employed as processing slaves. Quite brilliant, but very difficult to describe. It’s easier to read the story for yourself.
The Dog said Bow-Wow – Michael Swanwick
As usual Swanwick has created a bizarre and exotic world in which to set his tale, which features a genetically engineered dog of the far future who joined forces with a human man and hatches a scheme to steal the jewels of a member of the aristocracy.
In this future, the Queen (an almost immortal creature with multiple brains set deep into her vast body) lives in a Buckingham Palace which surrounded by a labyrinth.
Vivid, surreal, amusing and memorable.
The Chief Designer – Andy Duncan
An emotional and poignant view of ‘the chief designer’ of the USSR space programme, rescued form a Russian concentration camp to become the main force behind Russia’s bid to conquer space.
Neutrino Drag – Paul Di Fillipo
Very stylish fast and amusing SF from Di Fillipo who tells the story of how an alien got involved in drag racing with an American gang. When the human hero accidentally ‘bonds’ with the alien’s specially-cloned girlfriend, he is challenged to a ‘chicken’ race into the corona of our sun.
Di Fillipo evokes a sense of place and his vision of contemporary gang culture in the US is, if a little romantic, vivid and realistic.
Glacial – Alastair Reynolds
One of the best stories in this collection features Clavain, the renegade conjoiner from Reynolds’ ‘Redemption Ark’. Here, the action is set long before that of the novel, at a time when the conjoiners have set off to find a habitable world to start a colony. Felka, the mind-damaged conjoiner and Galiana, the leader of the group along with Clavain land on the frozen planet Diadem, only to find a dead Earth colony has already preceded them. One man has frozen himself deliberately in the hope of being revived.
Like the later story ‘Moby Quilt’ in this volume, a vital part of the plot is a gestalt of seemingly low-level intelligence creatures (in this case, worms) which seem to be acting as an information processing device; i.e. a self-aware organism composed of thousands of smaller creatures.
Fascinating reading, and suggesting that Reynolds may be planning other Clavain stories to fill in the gaps between this and ‘Redemption Ark’
The Days Between – Allen Steele
An interstellar ship, whose passengers are all cryogenically frozen for the long-haul light-years-long trip suddenly awakens one of its passengers only a few months into the mission.
The AI controlling the functions of the ship refuses to re-freeze him – for complex reasons having to do with a sub-plot involving conspiracies and mutiny – and we follow his descent into madness as he realises that he will die years before the ship reaches its destination, and his slow return to reason.
One Horse Town – Howard Waldrop/Leigh Kennedy
Far too similar to Howard Waldrop’s novel ‘Them Bones’ for this to be an original story, it tells of three different time-periods intersecting; The siege of Troy; Homer’s adolescence, and a modern day archaeological team. Visions and impressions of the periods overlap and bleed through, affecting the action and the destiny of those involved.
Moby Quilt – Eleanor Arnason
Another of the best stories in this volume is a peculiar tale of love which sees Lydia Duluth, a future PR guru and location-scout visiting a waterworld. Also visiting is the alien K’r’x with whom she is put into mental contact via a pair of AIs. While investigating the mystery of the vast circular mats which float on the oceans, she begins to fall in love with the vast squidlike creature. As with ‘Glacial’ this also deals with the subject of gestalt or multi-symbiotic organisms working together as one organism.
Raven Dream – Robert Reed
An odd piece featuring Native Americans who live in a seemingly secret part of our world – to them our world is known as the spirit world – and the coming of age of Raven, a young man who slowly begins to learn who and what he is and how his world relates to the world outside.
Reed has used Native American characters before but not to such concentrated effect. What works in this story is that we are looking from a perspective of the belief of Raven, which gives us doubts as to what is real and not real – and indeed how we actually define the word ‘real’.
Undone – James Patrick Kelly
A marvellous densely-packed modern space opera in which a feisty heroine of the resistance – standing up for her right to be an individual – escapes into the future but is pursued by a mine travelling six minutes behind her. Any attempt to travel backwards in time beyond that point will wipe her mind and reprogramme her memories. Cleverly, the story ends up going in a most unexpected direction.
The Real Thing – Carolyn Ives Gilman
Another story which features a Native American lead character in the form of Sage Akwesasne, who volunteers to be dismantled and projected – via a slingshot black hole process which is not that important to the plot – fifty years into the future.
She arrives in a world where she is literally a commodity since the courts have ruled that she is not the original Sage, but a copy, and the legal property of a megacorporation in a world where hype and spin are the be-all and end-all of business.
Obviously it’s a commentary on the direction in which our media-obsessed society is moving, and a very clever one, managing to be both funny and dismayingly accurate if we dare to hold a mirror to our own society now.
Interview: On Any Given Day – Maureen F McHugh
Transcript of a fictional TV programme in which a teenager infected with a retrovirus mutated from a longevity treatment is interviewed. Not only interesting structurally, but showing a strong command of voice and character, since through the testimony of one girl McHugh brings to life those about her, described in a ‘Talking Heads’ style confessional.
Isabel of The Fall – Ian R MacLeod
In a far and complex future, Isabel tends the mirrors which redirect light to various parts of her community, part of a society in which social roles and responsibilities are rigidly controlled. When Isabel fails to correct a mirror misalignment, part of her community experiences an unheard-of twilight, which leads to a friend ship with another woman, a dancer at the cathedral. It’s a tragedy of consequence, of the terrible events which lead from the simple error of the mirror misalignment. Powerful and haunting.
Into Greenwood – Jim Grimsley
Grimsley’s story is a clever examination of the concept of relative freedom. The hero is a revolutionary, attempting to promote independence on worlds controlled by the efficient and mysterious Prin. After years of silence she is invited to visit her brother, a man who has been genetically altered to become a symbiont; a vegetable creature living in symbiosis with an intelligent tree.
One of the better stories in the collection it examines issues surrounding slavery and freedom while at the same time creating a vivid and realistic world.
Know How, Can Do – Michael Blumlein
Michael Blumlein showed in his novel ‘The Movement of Mountains’ that he has a deep interest in scientific and medical ethics and shows this again to good effect in a disturbing love story where the narrator is a cloned human brain linked to the nervous system of a roundworm. As his psyche grows and learns he slowly falls in love with the female scientist who created him.
Russian Vine – Simon Ings
Aliens infect humanity with a virus which renders them illiterate and therefore incapable of developing complex societies and science and thereby destroying themselves. The aliens think of themselves as gardeners, conserving the races of the galaxy. Against this backdrop one of the aliens forms a relationship with an Earth woman. Very well-written, from an odd point of view; i.e. that of one of the alien earthdwellers.
The Two Dicks – Paul McAuley
A clever tribute to Philip K Dick, set at the time of Dick’s famous exegesis in 1974, but in an altered timeline in which Richard Nixon remains in power, having somehow derailed the careers of influential creative figures. Dick himself has been dissuaded from writing science fiction, although pirate copies of his one SF novel ‘The Man in The High Castle’ are much in demand. Elvis Presley appears at one point, asking Dick to sign his last mainstream novel ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ (the title of the novel within ‘The Man in The High Castle’) while mentioning obliquely that they have something in common. They both have dead twins. Elvis in this timeline runs an ice-cream business.
Beautifully written, very much in Dick’s style.
May Be Some Time – Brenda W Clough
Famous explorer Titus Oates is snatched at the point of death from his own timeline and taken to a New York of 2045, only to discover that his rescue was just an experiment employing technology provided from a First Contact message sent from Tau Ceti.
Highly readable and enjoyable.
Marcher – Chris Beckett
A topical tale involving an immigration officer who is called in to examine cases of ‘shifters’, disaffected people who take ‘seeds’ which have the effect of switching them between alternate worlds.
The Human Front – Ken MacLeod
MacLeod examines his usual themes of Scotland, Communism and grey aliens in an unusual novella originally published as a chapbook. The son of a Scottish doctor remembers his father treating the occupant of a crashed ‘bomber’ during the war, and had always considered the pilot to be a child.
Later we realise this is not the world we know, and that the Americans have been using alien anti-gravity technology in military technology.
It’s dense and complex, but very much character-driven and manages to explore themes of politics, communism and propaganda against a backdrop of alternate worlds and civil war.
The Reef – Paul J McAuley (Skylife Ed Benford/Zebrowski 2000)
Reality Check – David Brin (Nature, Vol 404 2000)
The Millennium Express – Robert Silverberg (Playboy, Jan 2000)
Patient Zero – Tananarive Due (F & SF 2000)
The Oort Crowd – Ken MacLeod (Nature, Vol 406 2000)
The Thing About Benny – M Shayne Bell (Vanishing Acts, Tor 2000 Ed Ellen Datlow)
The Last Supper – Brian Stableford (Science Fiction Age, Mar 2000)
Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN – Joan Slonczewski (Nature, Vol 405 2000)
Our Mortal Span – Howard Waldrop (Black Heart, Ivory Bones, Avon Books/Eos, Ed Ellen Datlow and Terri Wilding)
Different Kinds of Darkness – David Langford (F & SF, Jan 2000)
New Ice Age, or Just Cold Feet? – Norman Spinrad (Nature, Vol 405 2000)
The Devotee – Stephen Dedman (Eidolon #29/30 2000)
The Marriage of Sky & Sea – Chris Beckett (Interzone Mar 2000)
In The Days of the Comet – John M Ford (Nature, Vol 405 2000)
The Birthday of the World – Ursula K LeGuin (F& SF, Jun 2000)
Oracle – Greg Egan (F& SF, Jul 2000)
To Cuddle Amy – Nancy Kress (Asimov’s, Aug 2000)
Steppenpferd – Brian W Aldiss (F&SF, Feb 2000)
Sheena 5 – Stephen Baxter (Analog, May 2000)
The Fire Eggs – Darrell Schweitzer (Interzone, Mar 2000)
The New Horla – Robert Sheckley (F&SF July 2000)
Madame Bovary, C’est Moi – Dan Simmons (Nature, Vol 407 2000)
Grandma’s Jumpman – Robert Reed (Century, Spring 2000)
Bordeaux Mixture – Charles Dexter Ward (Nature, Vol 404 2000)
The Dryad’s Wedding – Robert Charles Wilson (Star Colonies, 2000)
Built Upon The Sands of Time – Michael Flynn (Analog July/Aug 2000)
Seventy-Two Letters – Ted Chiang (Vanishing Acts, Tor 2000 Ed Ellen Datlow)
Annual collections have evolved like dinosaurs from the slim volumes of the 60s and 70s into the paperback versions of Tyrannosaurs, vying for attention with their garish colour schemes (Sadly, the text for the cover of this issue completely obscures the artwork, looks like it’s been thrown together hurriedly in a copy of Adobe Illustrator and doesn’t do the volume itself any justice at all).
This series, ably edited by David G Hartwell, goes head to head with the Gardner Dozois series and a whole subspecies of other annual compilations which somehow survive to re-emerge next year, so good luck to them.
This volume purports to be the best SF of 2000. I say purports to be since the publishing history is a little strange, giving a first paperback publication date of June 2000, when some of the stories included were not published until July/August 2000. Looking at the publication dates of the stories included we notice that, yes, it seems that possibly all of the work included comes from a time before August 2000, which is unfortunate if your excellent SF story was published in, say, November 2000.
However, it is nevertheless an excellent collection and Hartwell, whatever publishing constraints he is bound by, has to be congratulated on selecting not only brilliant pieces of work, but those which complement and enhance each other. McLeod and Slonczewski, for instance, both deal with the theme of intelligent bacteria, and there are other examples of synchronicity throughout the collection.
The Reef – Paul J McAuley
One of my favourites in this collection, which tells of an expedition to find the result of a lost experiment in genetically engineered zero-gravity organisms.
Reality Check – David Brin
This is the first of several examples of the short pieces that were published in Nature throughout 2000 to celebrate the Millennium. David Brin takes a very Dickian turn with this piece which suggests that there is embedded code within the text which can wake certain people up to face a truer reality.
The Millenium Express – Robert Silverberg
On the eve of the Third Millenium, an investigator is tracking four men: Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Vjong Cleversmith. His aim is to find out why they are planning to blow up (or implode, since the matter is still under discussion) The Louvre, and to stop them. But can he, and more importantly, should he?
Patient Zero – Tananarive Due
A good, if a little schmaltzy, tale of a young boy who was one of the first to contract a lethal virus, and one of the only people to survive. He is kept within an isolation unit and we see the world through his eyes, via the doctors and helpers who come into contact with him, as the virus destroys society.
Well-written, and from an unusual perspective.
The Oort Crowd – Ken MacLeod
This is a prequel of sorts to MacLeod’s ‘Dark Light’ books, and is one of two tales here dealing with the concept of intelligent bacteria.
The Thing About Benny – M Shayne Bell
An unusual tale, set in the aftermath of climate change, or at least an ecological disaster, where a savante of sorts – who is also an obsessive Abba Fan – hunts through office blocks in search of rare plants which unwitting workers may have been keeping in a plant pot. His aim is to discover a new species and name it after Agnetha.
Very original and readable.
The Last Supper – Brian Stableford
A celebration of genetically-modified food in this gloriously politically incorrect story set in the restaurant of a renowned chef whose dishes are all genetically modified, and some ingredients are not what one might call strictly legal.
Elegant, satirical and memorable
Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN – Joan Slonczewski
Another millennium tale from ‘Nature’, this time told as a news report in which a civilisation of bacteria join the UN.
Our Mortal Span – Howard Waldrop
I have a problem with Waldrop. As a writer he is good, descriptive, poetic, emotive, and pushes all the right buttons, but there is always something I don’t quite get.
This a tale set in a near future Fairy Tale Theme Park where a mechanised troll goes on the rampage, accusing the other characters of not being true to the original scripts, or so it seemed to me. It might be a little more complicated than that.
Different Kinds of Darkness – David Langford
This is what I would term a ‘real’ SF story, the sort of thing one used to get in SF monthly. It’s full of meat and character and fascinating concepts, such as pictures designed to drive the viewer insane and schools where the pupils have their perceptions altered.
New Ice Age, or Just Cold Feet? – Norman Spinrad
A short satirical tale from Spinrad in which a future Earth is struggling to reverse the effects of Global Cooling
The Devotee – Stephen Dedman
An interesting noir-esque tale featuring a hard-boiled private eye and covering issues such as amputee fetishes, porn and cloning. Despite what some people may find to be distasteful subject matter, this is an excellent tale, stylishly written and conveying a sense of verisimilitude to a complex near future society
The Marriage of Sky & Sea – Chris Beckett
A clever story which exploits our current obsession with media celebrities, one of whom is the hero – if that is the right word – of this short gem. He is an author, travelling the galaxy in a sentient ship, each time landing on a primitive world and writing about his experiences with the natives, despite the fact he is well aware of what the effect of his intrusion – along with his advanced technology – has on the cultures he visits.
On this occasion, however, he may have underestimated both the natives and his own feelings.
In The Days of the Comet – John M Ford
And yet another tale featuring the microcellular, or smaller, particles of the universe, in this case, infectious proteins or prions, which have been seeded in comets. Extraordinarily well-written for such a short piece.
The Birthday of the World – Ursula K LeGuin
A beautiful and poetic work from Le Guin, who never fails to marry the base human and the exotic into a powerful piece of work. Here, a race which has, as the basis of its culture, hereditary gods who foresee the future, is thrown into turmoil by the failure of the system and the power of ambition and greed working within the family.
It’s a haunting and mysterious piece, but one which seems firmly grounded in its own reality.
Oracle – Greg Egan
Although not made that clear in the text, Egan here fictionalises a rivalry in the late Nineteen Forties between two characters based on Alan Turing and CS Lewis, and sets up a battle of essentially, science versus religion.
‘Turing’, trapped by the police into admitting a gay relationship, is blackmailed into working for an unscrupulous government scientist, but is rescued by a mysterious woman who turns out to be an AI, one of the descendants of his research.
Following a series of brilliant scientific developments on ‘Turing’s part, ‘Lewis’ believes ‘Turing’ to be in league with The Devil, and sets out to expose and discredit him.
To Cuddle Amy – Nancy Kress
Another tale that features children, which seems to be a popular subject in this volume, although this is a short and quite chilling tale, examining what morality we may eventually ascribe to producing children if it becomes a simple matter of ordering another one if the first one doesn’t work out.
Steppenpferd – Brian W Aldiss
In a strangely parallel story to Alistair Reynolds’ ‘Century Rain’ Aldiss takes us to a strange system where copies of the earth are trapped inside Dyson Spheres. On one of these worlds, in a pre-industrial Scandinavia, a priest is tormented between his faith and the reality he sees around him, doubting whether his fellow priests are real, or merely the transient bodies of the shape-changing asymmetrical aliens who have created these worlds.
Sheena 5 – Stephen Baxter
Baxter examines the ethics and possible consequences of genetic experimentation in this tale in which a tailored squid is sent out to the asteroids to set up a mining operation. The squid however, was pregnant and gives birth en-route to other equally intelligent offspring.
An alternate history of Sheena can also be found as part of Baxter’s 1999 novel, ‘Time – Manifold 1’ where the pregnant squid is diverted to Cruithne, Earth’s other ‘moon’ and the destiny of her children changed.
The Fire Eggs – Darrell Schweitzer
An odd and borderline surreal tale of luminescent eggs which appear all over the world, hovering slightly above the ground. Impervious to any form of force, and seemingly inert, they are eventually relegated to the status of inexplicable curiosities by most of the population. There are a few however, who claim that they can hear the eggs singing.
The New Horla – Robert Sheckley
A reworking of the classic tale ‘The Horla’ by Guy Du Maupassant.
I’ve never really ‘got’ Sheckley, and this fairly recent piece of his didn’t help me to get him any further.
Madame Bovary, C’est Moi – Dan Simmons
It is discovered that works of literature generate their own universes in which, more often than not, the central figures do not realise that they are the central figures. This is probably the best of the ‘Nature’ stories, conveying a tremendous amount in its brief number of words.
Grandma’s Jumpman – Robert Reed
Reed as a writer is very much at home in America’s rural backwaters, and before he began his recent style of vast post-vanvogtian space opera with planet-sized ships and immortal post-humans, his work was more redolent of Clifford Simak, as here, where a young boy visiting his aunt’s farm discovers the true nature of her relationship with the alien farmhand.
As with much of Reed’s work, there is a bittersweet undertone to the piece, where idyllic surroundings are the background to a coming of age and a loss of innocence.
Bordeaux Mixture – Charles Dexter Ward
The subject of GM crops (and other foods) seems to have inspired many writers, here, Charles Dexter Ward foresees vegetation which emits pheromones to make one want to grow and eat it.
The Dryad’s Wedding – Robert Charles Wilson
On a colony world a woman has an accident and lies in a river with half her brain missing before she is found, When she is awoken after a regeneration procedure she finds the empathic flora and fauna around her trying to make contact, and has unaccountable memories of Brussels, which she has never visited.
Apparently a prequel to a Wilson novel, this is a deep and complex, highly detailed piece of work, rich with scientific ideas and the atmosphere of an alien planet.
Built Upon The Sands of Time – Michael Flynn
A very literary and Irish piece set in a bar in which scientists and others discuss matters of scientific import over a Guinness or two, and in the course of things hear a tale of alternate worlds and altered history.
Seventy-Two Letters – Ted Chiang
This is a strange novella set in an alternate Victorian world where golems can be brought to life by placing a sequence of seventy-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet under their tongue.
Also, it is discovered, each individual male sperm, when examined, contains a complete foetus. How these two scientific discoveries relate to each other is at the core of this tale of weird science, murder, espionage and the very future of the human race.
An excellent anthology of the Steampunk subgenre from Gevers and the good people of Solaris, with not a bad story in the whole bunch. Of particular note are the stories by Marly Youmans and Margo Lanagan.
Steampunch – James Lovegrove (2008)
Static – Marly Youmans (2008)
Speed, Speed the Cable – Kage Baker (2008)
Elementals – Ian R Macleod (2008)
Machine Maid – Margo Lanagan (2008)
Lady Witherspoon’s Solution – James Morrow (2008)
Hannah – Keith Brooke (2008)
Petrolpunk – Adam Roberts (2008)
American Cheetah – Robert Reed (2008)
Fixing Hanover – Jeff VanderMeer (2008)
The Lollygang Save the World on Accident – Jay Lake (2008)
The Dream of Reason – Jeffrey Ford (2008)
Steampunch – James Lovegrove
A deportee narrates a tale of Steampunch, the strongest and best mechanical pugilist.
Static – Marly Youmans
A beautiful and descriptive tale of a world in which physical laws are far different to those of our own and where static is a powerful and possibly deadly force.
Speed, Speed the Cable – Kage Baker
The battle is on to save the laying of the transatlantic cable from being sabotaged, and secret agent Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax is on hand to save the day. This story is set within Kage Baker’s complex ‘Company’ Universe
Elementals – Ian R Macleod
A Victorian scientist attempts to trap an ‘elemental’ in an electric cage, with disastrous consequences for himself.
Machine Maid – Margo Lanagan
One of the most powerful stories on this collection is this unashamedly feminist piece from Lanagan, set in a Victorian Australian outback where automata can be programmed to do almost anything
Lady Witherspoon’s Solution – James Morrow
Morrow’s satirical piece follows a young lady’s initiation into the charitable work of Lady Witherspoon, whose main aim is to deal with the worst excesses of male behaviour with a unique Darwinian solution.
Hannah – Keith Brooke
An investigation into a child’s death leads a Victorian forensic scientist to investigate the identification of blood, which leads to the culturing of the victim’s blood cells, and the cloning of the dead girl
Petrolpunk – Adam Roberts
A rollercoaster of a story from Roberts which features parallel worlds, an immortal Queen Victoria and the fight for petroleum across the dimensions
American Cheetah – Robert Reed
A robotic Abraham Lincoln attempts to dissuade robotic representations of the infamous James gang from their criminal pursuits.
Fixing Hanover – Jeff VanderMeer
Borderline cyberpunk in which an android is washed ashore in a post-apocalyptic world and found by a primitive Viking like people, one of whom is a refugee from a more advanced culture, and wants to rebuild the android.
The Lollygang Save the World on Accident – Jay Lake
Complex steampunk goings on in what seems to be a generation ship launched by a Victorian society.
The Dream of Reason – Jeffrey Ford
Fantastical story about a scientist who believes that matter is light slowed down and that the stars are diamonds. He hatches a complex plan for an experiment which involves slowing down light and firing it into the eye of an expendable volunteer.
A decent crop of stories from 1999 many of which seem preoccupied with the theme – either subtly or overtly – of longevity or perhaps to be more accurate the preservation of body and/or personality.
It’s a mixed bag, but the overall quality is high.
The Wedding Album (1999) David Marusek (Asimov’s 1999.06)
Marusek takes the basic concept that photographs will develop into ‘sims’ – 3D sentient captures. He then runs with the idea on a surprising and twisting journey into the future.
10 to 16 to 1 (1999) James Patrick Kelly (aka 1016 to 1) (Asimov’s 1999.06)
A visitor from the future to the 1960s has to recruit a young boy into a mission to save the world from nuclear holocaust. Emotive and well-characterised.
Winemaster (1999) Robert Reed (F&SF July 1999)
Robert Reed is a master of strangeness and envisions a plague which destroys and recreates humans as digitised entities. Very clever.
Galactic North (1999) Alastair Reynolds (Interzone #145)
Reynolds here – over a vast span of time – tells us the origin of a situation detailed in his Revelation Space novels and a long chase across time and space. Marvellous stuff. An exemplary example of new space opera.
Dapple: A Hwarhath Historical Romance (1999) Eleanor Arnason (Asimov’s 1999.09)
A romantic tale of a young female alien belonging to a curious species. They are gay by nature and only turn to heterosexuality in order to breed. The girl wants to be an actor but as this is a strictly male occupation she disguises herself as a boy in order to pursue her career.
A romantic and poetic piece.
People Came from Earth (1999) Stephen Baxter (Moon Shots, July 1999)
Following a nanocaust the survivors of a moon colony struggle to keep the human race alive. Another piece which is romantic in nature and despite being scientifically accurate is more poetic than realistic.
Green Tea (1999) Richard Wadholm (Asimov’s, October 1999)
Dense and slightly baroque Hard SF here in which exotic matter is stored on the vane of a spaceship in order that it will be transmuted and destroy a nearby star in an act of revenge. Cleverly structured first person piece. Hard work, but worth persevering with.
The Dragon of Pripyat (1999) novelette by Karl Schroeder (Tesseracts 8, October 1999)
One of the best in this collection. A freelance troubleshooter is sent to the Chernobyl site as intelligence suggests that terrorists may be planning to blow open the ‘sarcophagus’ containing the failed reactor. However, tales of a dragon living in the poisoned town seem to point to something else going on. Excellent writing and characterisation.
Written in Blood (1999) Chris Lawson (Asimov’s June 1999)
Another excellent piece, the title of which refers to a muslim and his daughter on their Hajj, who meet a man who can write the text of the Koran into DNA. Again, excellent characterisation, and containing a hefty swipe at the practice of female genital mutilation.
Hatching the Phoenix (1999) Frederik Pohl (Amazing Stories, Fall 1999)
A late Heechee story in which Gelle-Klara Moynlon visits a project she has funded which is capturing and enhancing the light from a system that has already been destroyed. The enhanced resolution means they can observe an intelligent species on the surface before the nova rendered them extinct.
Suicide Coast (1999) M. John Harrison (F&SF Jul 1999)
A very dark tale from Harrison about dangerous sports, software and the nature of friendship.
Hunting Mother (1999) Sage Walker (Not of Woman Born – Mar 1999)
On a converted asteroid, an elderly genetic scientist and her half-cougar ‘son’ dance with death in a very poetic, romantic piece on the theme of how the old have to give way to the new.
Mount Olympus (1999) Ben Bova (Analog Feb 1999)
A workmanlike but unoriginal tale from Bova which features a rescue from the caldera of Olympus Mons on Mars
Border Guards (1999) Greg Egan (Interzone #148 Oct 1999)
Egan postulates a future where immortal humans live in an infinite array of worlds called The Territories. A young man around a century old meets one of the creators of the Jewel, the device which, when implanted, absorbs the cells and functions of the brain. Mind blowing stuff.
Scherzo with Tyrannosaur (1999) Michael Swanwick (Asimovs July 1999)
A prelude to ‘Bones of the Earth’, set in a future where enigmatic aliens have given humans the secret of Time Travel. Tourists can travel to a thousand years before the dinosaurs are wiped out and dine on plesiosaur steaks. Swanwick examines some of the benefits, consequences and pitfalls of time travel very cleverly here.
A Hero of the Empire [Roma Eterna] (1999) Robert Silverberg (F&SF Oct 1999)
Silverberg in his alternate world where the Roman Empire continues to the present day. An exiled favourite of the Emperor is sent to Mecca where he encounters a modern-day Mohamed.
Expertly done, giving much food for thought.
How We Lost the Moon, a True Story by Frank W. Allen (1999) Paul J. McAuley (Moon Shots, July 1999)
A great short piece by McAuley which details what happens when a small black hole escapes from a research facility on the dark side of the moon. As expected, well written with interesting characterisation. Much better than Greg Benford’s novel ‘Artefact’ which uses a similar premise (on Earth) but falls down on the one dimensional characters.
Phallicide (1999) Charles Sheffield (Science Fiction Age Sep 1999)
Sheffield writes here from the viewpoint of a young woman brought up in a US cult, who is allowed certain liberties because she has a talent for Chemistry and pharnaceuticals. The cult employ her skills to develop Viagra-style drugs to keep the elderly Patriarch and his aging minions sexually active. When one of the eldwrs plans to marry her thirteen year old daughter, she decides to rebel.
It raises many social and ethical questions and may have benefited from being developed into a longer format.
Daddy’s World (1999) Walter Jon Williams (Not of Woman Born – Mar 1999)
A very decent piece about the digitisation of consciousness and what it may mean in real terms.
A Martian Romance (1999) Kim Stanley Robinson (The Martians – 1999)
One of Robinson’s alternate tales of his terraformed Mars in which the terraforming has failed. Some of the residents embark on a trip across one of the frozen seas.
The Sky-Green Blues (1999) Tanith Lee (Interzone #142 – 1999)
A tale of alien love and the reality experienced by a fictional character. Poetic but a little odd.
Exchange Rate (1999) Hal Clement (Absolute Magnitude, Winter 1999)
Clement does what he does best here which is to postulate exploration of life on a planet five times the radius of the earth. It’s ravaged by earthquakes, has very little hydrogen, and a complex atmospheric mix. Despite his years Clement has managed to keep pace with the younger writers.
Everywhere (1999) Geoff Ryman (Interzone, #140 February 1999)
A positive view of the future from Ryman at a time when The Angel of The North is a historical landmark. Superlative writing.
Hothouse Flowers • (1999) • shortstory by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s Science Fiction, October-November 1999)
The concept of keeping old people alive taken to a logical but absurd conclusion.
Evermore (1999) Sean Williams (Altair #4, August 1999)
A probe containing the digitised copies of prospective colonists has its main drive destroyed by an encounter with a micrometeor. The human personalities, living in isolated virtual worlds and after thousands of years being borderline insane are brought together for a radical proposition.
Of Scorned Women and Causal Loops (1999) Robert Grossbach (F&SF Jan 1999)
The hadron collider is the setting for this intriguing time travel murder investigation.
Son Observe the Time (1999) Kage Baker (Asimovs May 1999)
Part of Baker’s ‘Company’ series which features an organisation of immortal time travellers. Here they are in San Francisco before the great earthquake of 1906 attempting to conserve art and literature that would otherwise have been destroyed. Someone else is there, however, with an altogether different agenda. Excellent stuff.
‘Some 10 million years in the future, a thousand trustworthy humans and their cloned offspring have been granted an incredible power. With it they can build worlds wherever they wish and terraform any wasteland. With it they preserved a peace that lasted for eons.
But the arrival of a woman as old as The Great Peace itself generates uncertainty and fear. For she brings with her a dire warning: the tale of an ancient crime that may yet tear the universe asunder.’
Blurb from the 2003 Orbit paperback edition.
This novel is a fix-up adapted from five stories originally published in ASIMOV’S SF magazine:-
Sister Alice (November 1993)
Brother Perfect (September 1995)
Mother Death (January 1998)
Baby’s Fire (July 1999)
Father to The Man (September 2000)
Ord is apparently the youngest child of the Chamberlain family, one of a thousand families whose members – augmented by near-immortality and quantum cyborg talents – maintain a peace within the galaxy which has lasted millions of years.
We discover early on that the Chamberlains are not a family in the normal sense. Ord is merely the latest model in a series of clones that now number more than 22,000. Rank is assigned by what number the clone is in the chain, so when the Chamberlains receive news that Alice, their number twelve (and hence only the eleventh clone to be created) is to visit after an absence of millions of years, the family begin to speculate on her motives.
Alice, shunning the rest of the family, befriends Ord, and confesses that she was the architect of an experiment which has gone tragically wrong, creating an explosion which is already causing devastation and which could potentially engulf the entire galaxy.
The consequences for the Chamberlains are personally devastating. Alice is imprisoned, stripped of her godlike powers and the rest of the family become hunted as The Great Peace collapses into chaos while frantic rescue efforts are made in an attempt to evacuate worlds near the core before they are destroyed.
Ord illegally receives some of Alice’s talents and sets off on a mission, the nature of which he does not fully understand.
Once more, Reed has produced a novel on a grand scale, its timespan covering millennia.
In some senses it can be described as a ‘Romantic’ novel since it eschews – and this was also a criticism aimed at ‘Marrow’ – the current Classical fashion for tortuous explanations of quantum mechanics and string theory. The augments of the older members of the family are powered by masses of dark matter although the exact scientific principles are avoided, in this case a refreshingly welcome change.
Reed can, I think, be described as a modern van Vogt. the transformation to ‘superman’ is common in his work and he employs the same vast land and time-scapes that van Vogt once played with, paying attention to, but not controlled by, the basic laws of the Universe.
The plot (again a strange vanVogt-ian trait) ends up being far more complex than one might initially suspect.
The premise is also a Romantic one, since one cannot imagine – in however enlightened a society – civilisation handing over its reins to a thousand carefully chosen beneficiaries and their cloned descendants.
This novel could very easily have descended into a triumph of style over content were it not for Reed’s complex strands of character motives and actions.
From one viewpoint it could be argued that this is an examination of what determines personality.
At one point Alice remembers herself as a child, with her ‘father’, Ian, the original Chamberlain. they are standing in a stairwell of their estate house and Ian has given Alice some cloned feathers. All are identical, he tells her, and asks her to drop the feathers one by one over the balcony.
Although identical in every respect, the feathers are subject to the changing forces around them and so no two fall exactly the same way. It is a device by which Ian explains to Alice why her brothers and sisters, although genetically identical, are shaped into individuals by the Universe around them.
There are questions raised as to which is the real personality when an augmented human becomes 99% computer memories and 1% flesh.
Later there are ethical questions raised about the morality of creating a universe in which Life can be cultivated if the price to be paid is the destruction of entire Star Systems teeming with sentient life.
This whole debate, however, is itself subverted when the reader realises that the entire sequence of events may have been part of a plan set in motion aeons before.
There are seldom any easy endings or answers in Reed’s work. There are merely consequences which directly affect the protagonists.
It is to Reed’s credit though, that the questions raised tends to linger in the mind and niggle away at us in the wee small hours.
‘In a future both idyllic and hi-tech, Ryder is the leader of a very special group of children. In their different ways, they are all highly specialised; in Ryder’s case, he has an eidetic memory and hyperacute senses, thanks to genetic engineering. And thanks to Dr Florida.
Genius, super-scientist and philanthropist, Dr Florida everyone’s favourite grandfather; but, as Ryder’s story unfolds, Florida is seen against the long-term effects of his work, which are not always as foreseen. this is the case with sparkhounds, a new species of creature intended to colonise planets which are presently dangerous to humans and make them liveable. Instead, the ‘hounds revolt and attempt to take over Earth. Ryder, his parents, his friends and Dr Florida himself have to make impossible decisions in the chaos that follows, and thus they all learn more about themselves.’
Blurb from the 1990 Orbit paperback edition.
Sometime in the near future the tailoring of children’s genes has become commonplace. In Central America, a group of gene-tailored children meet, bond and together build a well-defended tree house in a large oak-tree.
The central figure, Ryder, has an unexpected talent in his ‘refined’ genes in that he has an eidetic memory so perfect that at times he goes into trances while reliving past events.
Marshall has been given additional intelligence but is still made to feel inadequate by his mother’s need for perfection, which is why he has to win at everything.
Jack, the only tailored child in his family, has more modest improvements and spends his time catching and studying snakes.
Beth is of Indian descent and sings beautifully while Cody has been tailored after her Lesbian mothers’ wishes to compete with men on their own terms. She is strong, practical and has a perfect aim.
The mastermind behind these advances is Dr Florida, ‘Father of the World’; a genetic scientist whose team is also dabbling in the manipulation of animal genes. Every year Dr Florida visits some part of the world and release new creatures, and their capture by the local children elicits rewards. This year Dr Florida visits Ryder’s area and releases a white, furred four-legged snake which he calls a snow dragon; something which Jack and Marshall are determined to capture. Dr Florida, however, appears to have ulterior motives and invites the children to spend a holiday with him.
Some time later, news breaks regarding ‘the moon’s moon’; a comet which Dr Florida’s company has placed in orbit around the partly-colonised moon, and which is being mined for water and organics. It appears that Dr Florida is a man obsessed with bringing life to the sterile wastes of the Universe. He has secretly created a species he calls ‘sparkhounds’ within the comet which were designed to populate the upper atmosphere of gas giants.
They are large armoured winged creatures with the faces of bulldogs and a stinging tail. They absorb electricity and have organic batteries built into their bodies. They create floating nests from any available organics and are naturally ferocious and territorial. Now some of them have escaped, killed the staff of the comet and are breeding and building new nests.
Many of Reed’s novels are oddly structured, taking a diversion midway through the narrative, and this is an example.
Most of the first half is taken up with Ryder and his eidetic memory of how his group of children came together, and his relationship with the strange Dr Florida.
It would appear that Dr Florida has plans for the ‘team’ of children he was so impressed with, but it is not made clear exactly what those plans were. When it is though that the world might be invaded by sparkhounds, he plans to evacuate several hundred gene-tailored children on an ark constructed from an asteroid, but this never transpires. It is suggested that Florida engineered (no pun intended) the escape of the ‘hounds in order to launch the ark and bring life to some other part of the Solar System, or the galaxy, and because of the destruction of the ‘hounds was thwarted in his plan.
So what is the novel all about? One can possibly see Dr Florida as a metaphor for God; ‘Father of the World’; the giver of life. Certainly he is ultimately enigmatic and unknowable. The snow dragon highlights the children’s differences. Marshall is desperate to trap it for gain and the approval of his ghastly mother. Jack seems to want to study it, while Ryder thinks it should be left alone to live out its life. The girls seem indifferent to the creature.
Overall the novel is highly unsatisfactory since Reed fails to move out of the pastoral idyll he has created for his children. The denouement in which the ‘hounds are destroyed ‘off-page’ leaves one with a sense of anti-climax. One feels that a far more dramatic solution would have been to have the children board the asteroid ark and then for Ryder to have his internal debate about the motives of Dr Florida, a man established as complex and enigmatic but sadly burdened with some very bad dialogue.
Reed tidies up the loose ends by shooting years ahead to an adult Ryder, looking back on what had happened to his friends since the Sparkhound Crisis.
Reed’s recurrent motif of the adolescent boy in small-town America perhaps begins here, but this is his least satisfying work and reads like something hurriedly finished. There is, however, a Simak-esque poignancy to it, and one cannot help but be reminded of Simak’s tales of the idyllic West passing away while at the same time having alien creatures roaming the countryside.
‘Jesse is the kind of callow, sly college man who has it all. He’s editor of the student newspaper, enormously popular with the female students, breezing through with terrific grades. But he’s oblivious to the fragile balance of life… until something unutterably strange strips away the surface calm of his existence and exposes a universe that proves uncontrollable and endlessly mutable.
For Jesse has become the focus of a conspiracy of creatures from beyond the end of time to re-create our universe anew. Blinded by sex and greed, Jesse can’t see the terrible flaw in their vast plan… until a wonderful woman named Sully comes into his life and turns everything right side up.
The result is a wild, erotic joyride, a no-holds barred tour de force, and, finally, a novel of sublime grace and beauty, a testament to the transcendent power of love.’
Blurb to the Tor 1998 paperback edition
Reed here manages to turn a seemingly absurd premise into a thought-provoking and beautifully crafted novel in a minimal amount of pages.
There are Turtles at the end of time, but these are no ordinary turtles. They are Godlike post-organic entities and they are on a mission.
Our Universe is destined to continue expanding rather than subsequently contracting into another Big Bang (thus recreating the Universe) and will simply slowly fizzle out and go cold. The Turtles’ mission is to rebuild the Universe into a cyclic one, one that will perpetually die and recreate itself. To do this, the Turtles travel back in time.
One of the turtles arrives in an America of the mid Nineteen Seventies (in the guise of a Native American) where any vertebrate destined to die within the following fifteen months is given immortality, fated to become the next wave of turtles in a trillion years time, from whence they will leap back to fifteen months earlier than before. Thus, in fifteen month sections, the creatures are working their way back to the Big Bang itself.
Those not chosen to become turtles are dismantled and stored in a virtual library.
It’s an extremely well-written piece which vividly creates US college life of the time and concentrates on the characters and the changes they undergo as a result of the turtle’s actions.
It’s very much a character driven novel, a love story that manages to examine teenage relationships from both male and female points of view. The central figure, Jesse, is a serial dater with a reputation for using girls for sex until he simultaneously meets The Turtle and falls in love with the enigmatic Sally Faulkner. Or does he?
Nothing in this book is what it seems. The turtles’ awesome abilities allow them to alter people’s perceptions and memories, and in the course of their hunt for a ‘criminal’ who has travelled back in time in order to live another trillion years, reality is warped in order that the truth, if such a word has a meaning in this context, can be discovered.
It raises many ethical questions about the nature of the universe, the integrity of the individual, and the rights of an individual against the concept of a greater good. Who, for instance, decides what is good or right when deciding the destiny of the universe? Certainly, the denouement leaves one with many questions which are unanswerable, pondering on issues raised in the book long after the pages have been closed.
This collection features several tribute stories, notably Jack Williamson, but also HG Wells, Jack London, Jules Verne and GK Chesterton. Postmodern pastiche seems the zeitgeist of 1997.
Outstanding stories from Dave Wolverton, Sheila Finch and Yves Meynard. Nice to see a healthy representation of female authors also, but one would have been happier to see newer names here.
After a Lean Winter – Dave Wolverton (F&SF, 1996)
HG Wells’ ‘War of The Worlds’ told from the perspective of Jack London, in a Victorian Alaska. A very well-crafted atmospheric piece, which brings us a little closer to the Martians than Wells did.
In The Upper Room – Terry Bisson (Playboy 1996)
A young man, living with his mother following the break-up of his relationship, enrols on an erotic VR holiday in ‘Victoria’s Palace’ and ends up having more of an adventure than he may have originally imagined.
Thinkertoy – John Brunner (The Williamson Effect, 1996)
A tribute to Jack Williamson, this was maybe Brunner’s last short story as he died in 1995 at the Worldcon in Glasgow. Written in a suitably retro style it carries a nasty sting in its tail.
Gregory Benford: “Zoomers” (Future Net, 1996)
A hard SF vision of a future where prospecters trawl virtual space for information to sell.
Sheila Finch: “Out of the Mouths” (F&SF, 1996)
A high quality tale from Finch (who is a linguist) of a highly unethical experiment in linguistics which the originator justifies because it may help to stop an interstellar war. Very beautifully written, this is reminiscent of the best of Connie Willis’ early work, and to a certain extent Russell’s ‘The Sparrow’. Finch certainly deserves wider exposure.
James Patrick Kelly: “Breakaway, Backdown” (Asimov’s, 1996)
A very stylistic tale, told in the voice of the narrator; a recruiter interviewing an applicant for service in low-g.
Yves Meynard: “Tobacco Words” (Tomorrow, 1995)
A marvellous and engrossing piece featuring a disabled boy with a crippled tongue. His sister works at removing sins from humans arriving on her world who have picked up the sins of others while travelling through space. Full of detail and beautiful pieces of unexplained randomness. One of my favourite stories in this volume.
Joanna Russ: “Invasion” (Asimov’s, 1996)
A story that is interesting and well-written but reads as being somewhat dated. Had it been written in the Seventies it would not have raised any eyebrows. A ship encounters a distress signal and is forced to evacuate a horde of troublesome alien children with telekinetic abilities.
Brian Stableford: “The House of Mourning” (Off Limits: Tales of Alien Sex, 1996)
Stableford seems at his best with exploring the possible uses or misuses of genetic engineering. Here, we follow the victim of one such procedure and slowly uncover the tragedy of her life.
Damon Knight: “Life Edit” (Science Fiction Age, 1996)
A neat little gem which examines the consequences of us being able to edit our lives and change things, thus creating a new timeline. Knight takes this in a direction one might not have expected.
Robert Reed: “First Tuesday” (F&SF, 1996)
By hooking himself into a computer interface, the US President is able to visit every house independently, and answer questions.
David Langford: “The Spear of the Sun” (Interzone, 1996)
Langford postulates a world in which GK Chesterton, rather than HG Wells was the greatest influence on European Science Fiction, and here presents one of his Father Brown stories; in this instance, the murder of a pagan acolyte aboard a space liner.
Gene Wolfe: “Counting Cats in Zanzibar” (Asimov’s, 1996)
The mother of Artificial Intelligence meets one of her children on a boat at sea, and amidst literary allusions and references, they play an intellectual game of cat and mouse.
Bruce Sterling: “Bicycle Repairman” (Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology, 1996)
A lovely cyberpunk tale of a bicycle repairman living in a barter society who receives a piece of equipment that others are keen to retrieve. Packed with character and wee thinky bits.
Gwyneth Jones: “Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland” (Off Limits: Tales of Alien Sex, 1996)
Set in a time when therapists are using VR immersion sex programmes for treatment and analysis, this is a short study of sexuality, domination, control and sexual identity. One has to ask though, whether it adds anything new to any debate.
Allen Steele: “Doblin’s Lecture” (Pirate Writings, 1996)
Steele, who was once a hard nosed journalist, brings us a quite chilling story of convicted criminals brought to campus to be interviewed as part of their course work by students. The lesson, however, doesn’t end with a mere question and answer session.
Kathleen Ann Goonan: “The Bride of Elvis” (Science Fiction Age, 1996)
A very entertaining story in which Elvis turns out to be a humanoid alien, stranded on Earth with his harem. When he goes missing from his tomb, one of the brides becomes concerned.
Kate Wilhelm: “Forget Luck” (F&SF, 1996)
Not a new idea (that ‘luck’ in terms of avoiding death has a genetic basis) but one that is skilfully handled here by Wilhelm.
Connie Willis: “Nonstop to Portales” (The Williamson Effect, 1996)
A lovely tribute to Jack Williamson by Connie Willis in which a man arriving in Williamson’s home town finds himself on a sightseeing coach from the future.
Stephen Baxter: “Columbiad” (Science Fiction Age, 1996)
A sequel to Verne’s ‘From The Earth to The Moon’ in which HG Wells discovers that Verne was describing an actual journey in his novel.
‘In the deepness of space there are millions of worlds like our own. All are linked by The Bright, a pathway between the stars, created by an ancient godlike race known only as The Makers.
Now Humanity travels the Bright, uniting its worlds to a common destiny and a better future. But they do not travel alone. For others have discovered this gateway to the stars and they are planning to use it for a far more deadly purpose.’
Blurb from the 2003 Orbit paperback edition.
Reed takes the premise that, some time in the Earth’s distant past, an elder race seeded the Earth’s crust with a lattice of degenerate matter, the consequence of which was that somehow this lattice is able to admit passage – via a portal – to an infinite string of alternate Earths.
It’s a large-scale production contrasted – as in ‘An Exaltation of Larks’ with a neatly detailed portrait of small town America.
For a million years, the Founders, ands alternate species of human with large crania and furry faces, have been travelling the Bright – as the chain of portals is called – in both directions from their homeworld, uniting and civilising each Earth.
Jy, the million year old leader of one of the two Founder missions, has now reached our earth. There she is kidnapped by Moliak, her counterpart from the opposite end of the Bright. He has discovered an unstoppable civilisation of cyborg humans. Rendered almost invincible by augments and nanotechnology they have reverted to a savage tribal existence. Moliak wishes to destroy the Bright in order to contain them and stop them over-running the thousands of Earths already discovered.
Two American teenagers, Kyle and his date, Billie, are dragged into the kidnap and are taken along with Jy and her retinue on a journey through the various Earths, back to the Founders’ homeworld.
It’s not one of Reed’s best, but even here the characterisation is excellent. the people are real; they have flaws. Kyle is a fantasist and is pretending he is on of the aliens’ envoys, a Wanderer, in order to impress and seduce women. Confused adolescent males turn up a lot in Reed’s work and are generally portrayed with a blunt honesty. With some writers this may have made them seem heartless and cold. However, as with characters in other Reed books, Kyle emerges as a sad victim of himself. Reed makes us see his flaws – perhaps Reed’s own early flaws – through more understanding eyes.
Reed is also fascinated by the concept of near-immortal beings who bear comparison with similar characters in the work of van Vogt who also painted his highly colourful tales against absurdly vast backdrops.
The immortality issue is addressed, but does not satisfactorily convince that the central characters are over a million years old. All wanderers carry a hard memory unit which, if the body is destroyed or wears out, means that the mind of the individual can live on. Rather than explore the ramifications of this technology Reed uses it only as a plot device. However he deals much more effectively with the subject of immortality in later works such as ‘Marrow’ and ‘Sister Alice’
The structure does not help this novel since it is a multi third-person narrative in which we change characters with each section. With three or four characters this device may have worked but six or more gives the narrative a disjointed feel and it lacks coherence.
It is far more complex than it first appears since most of the main characters have secrets, some of which are not revealed until the end, but then again, this is another Reed device which he employs widely elsewhere.
Kyle’s secret we know from very early on, and we subsequently learn surprising things about other characters as the novel progresses.
‘Cornell Novak spent most of his youth traversing the American heartland with his father, a fanatical. self-appointed UFO researcher who investigated strange sightings and odd manifestations. His young life abruptly changes one day when the night sky suddenly vanishes, to be replaced by a distorted mirror image of the Earth. But even as ‘The Change’ makes his father a celebrity, a gulf opens between them, leaving Cornell feeling alone and betrayed.
Years later, Cornell joins a secret government project and learns about ‘portals’ to alien worlds through which humans emerge as aliens. Cornell crosses a portal with Porsche, a beautiful and charismatic companion with whom he embarks upon a bizarre odyssey. When he finally returns to Earth, Cornell realises that his greatest challenge is yet to come, as he faces secrets more shattering than any of his encounters on the other side.’
Blurb from the September 1995 Tor paperback edition.
Reed begins in low key with this tale of Cornell, his father and his father’s friend Pete, driving across America chasing tales of UFO sightings.
Cornell believes that his father’s obsession with UFOs stems from the fact that his mother was abducted by aliens.
Suddenly, the three begin investigating reports of large circles of fused glass, burnt into the landscape across the country.
Shortly afterwards the world is forced to take Cornell’s father seriously when the sky disappears and is replaced by an ‘everted world’, a view of the Earth as though seen from the inside of a giant world-shaped balloon.
Later, Cornell (estranged from his father following the revelation that that his mother – far from having been abducted – abandoned them both when Cornell was a child) is recruited by a secret Government Agency. This organisation has discovered – or been shown – portals which lead to other worlds. Humans can travel back and forth through the portals but are physically transformed during the process into natives of an equitable intelligence level.
Cornell, passing through to the world known as High Desert, is transformed into a gestalt organism, composed of a central spherical mind, attended by six humanoid – but very alien – bodies.
It’s very much a novel of two halves, each being oddly pastoral in its own way. In the first half Reed skilfully paints portraits of the people of small town America, tolerant of the mild aberrations of their neighbours. There are echoes of Simak here, particularly when Porsche Neal later describes the Universe as merely a big neighbourhood, separated by picket fences, a metaphor which Simak may very well have been happy to use himself.
The natives of High Desert (or at least the recruits who have ‘gone native’ almost literally) also live a pastoral existence, living on grease nuts and using nothing more advanced than reclaimed spearheads which the original natives abandoned.
In his vacation periods back on Earth, Cornell confronts his mother and makes a kind of peace with his father who, it transpires, had been right all along in assigning such importance to the fused glass discs for whose presence no one could provide a decent explanation.
So what point is Reed trying to make, if any? Reed is puzzling in that many of his novels – at least before ‘Marrow’ were very different to each other while still exhibiting a richness of characterisation, and a need to explore the soul of the protagonist. What they may have in common is a ‘masked’ character, in this case Porsche Neal, who is discovered to be an alien transformed into human.
‘Exaltation of Larks’ sees Sally Faulkner exposed as an ancient individual who was trying to subvert the Turtles’ plan for the universe. ‘Marrow’ sees one of the near-immortal captains exposed as the mastermind behind a convoluted plan to take over the ship, while in ‘Sister Alice’ it seems that hardly anyone ends up being what they initially purport to be.
Here, Reed is following Dick in examining what it is that defines us as human, and in so doing, highlights the irrelevance of Humanity in the Universe.