PROS: Interesting comparison between classic and contemporary short sci-fright fiction; satisfying glimpses into two authors’ ongoing literary worlds; solid pacing; good examples to whet the appetite to buy the publications in which the stories are featured.
CONS: Three of the four reviewed stories undoubtedly have a greater impact if the reader is familiar with other stories written in those worlds.
BOTTOM LINE: Seasonally-appropriate science fiction tales from capable authors that work well within their word-count restraints and satisfy the reader looking for science fiction with an eerie edge.
Given that Halloween is not too far away I thought I would spend the next few Fridays featuring science fiction/fantasy shorts of the thrilling variety. For this week’s selections I chose two stories from the recently released Baen collection In Space No One Can Hear You Scream and two from the October/November 2013 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.
“A Walk in the Dark” by Arthur C. Clarke
When the only mechanized form of transportation available at Camp IV fails, Robert Armstrong must walk six miles in the dark of night if he is to reach Port Sanderson in time to leave this forlorn planet at the edge of the galaxy behind him. This is not an ideal situation, but the prospect of waiting another four weeks for the next transport ship arrival is unbearable, at least until his light fails and he is caught out in the pitch dark less than half-way from his destination. Time is a factor and thus Armstrong travels the road by the feel of its topography and hopes to beat his ship’s departure. As the dark and the quiet begin to seep into his consciousness, Armstrong recalls the stories he was told upon arrival, stories meant to frighten the newcomer. Before humanity’s arrival this was an uninhabited planet. What could there possibly be to fear?
Clarke’s story first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories in August 1950 and has been reprinted in the just-released Baen collection, In Space No One Can Hear You Scream. While the setting and plot of the story are such that it does not feel particularly dated, the tenor of the frightening elements feels very much at home with a 1950’s sensibility. Yet even that description belies the fact that Clarke does manage to tap into a very timeless fear: the fear of the dark. It may be more accurate to say that the way in which the story ends reads similar to other stories written at the time. That is offered by way of observation, not criticism, as I am a fan of these classic tales.
“A Walk in the Dark” is in large part a story about how our fears, even when presented with little foundation for truth, can be magnified to the point of terror. If you have ever been outside on a night when it is truly so dark that you cannot see your hand in front of your face then it is very easy to put yourself in the place of Robert Armstrong and experience what he is experiencing. A fun story for an autumn night read.
“The Rhine’s World Incident” by Neal Asher
Reynold and his team of Separatists are on edge, racing to complete an armed strike on a nearby city before their location is discovered and a strike team arrives to cut short their plans, and their lives. A rendezvous is set and when the team arrives suspicion leads them to take captives while they work to assess their safety level. They arrive at a local farm looking for answers, and then the fun starts (if you define “fun” as something craptastically frightening!).
This short story is set in Asher’s Polity universe, a set of stories that are no stranger to the darkness that lies within the heart of man and that which is visible without. “The Rhine’s World Incident” starts out tense and only feigns in letting up before science fiction/horror style action begins. This story is also reprinted in In Space No One Can Here You Scream. I chose it because I have sampled the author’s longer fiction this year and was curious about how it translated to the shorter format. Serendipitously it makes as a great contrast to Clarke’s story in that there are similarities (that cannot be revealed without spoiling both stories) and yet they are very different in their horror sensibilities, with Asher’s being much more graphic. Taken as a pair they make a nice comparison of these kind of scary SF stories from two very different periods of history.
“Encounter on Starbase Kappa” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
In this novelette, set in the universe of her Diving series, Rusch returns readers to the setting of Diving the Wreck (itself encompassing the short “Room of Lost Souls”) with a cast of characters suffering from the improbable–a trip five thousand years into their own future. Captain Jonathan “Coop” Cooper is hoping to recover himself, and in so doing give the crew of his ship the purpose they so desperately need. After a freak accident sends them five centuries forward in time, they discover that a starbase familiar in their own time continues to exist as a derelict that is claiming the lives of many who venture near it. Despite misgivings of the people who have taken them under their wing, Coop and crew set out to ensure that their past will no longer endanger lives in the present.
Rusch can tell a good story and I have been vocal both here and elsewhere that I am a fan. Her name on the cover means I am likely to spend my money. The Diving universe was my first experience with her work and though I felt predisposed to liking this story it took a few pages for it to settle into a nice storytelling rhythm. It may just be a personal thing, but the constant repetition of the word “anacapa” (the name for the drive which powers ships and starbases in Coop’s past), drove me to distraction early on. Thankfully the story picks up from there and I soon found myself drawn in to the characters Rusch had created and the unfolding mystery going on at Starbase Kappa.
Being a novelette the story has time to expose the reader to Rusch’s universe within the unfolding events of the story while simultaneously engaging the reader with Coop’s characterization. Rusch makes the most of the space she has, telling an interesting, tense story that flows well and satisfies while encouraging the reader to explore more of these characters and this universe in Rusch’s other novels and short stories.
“Memories of Earth” by Neal Asher
Why go for one Neal Asher story when you could have two? When I saw that he also had a story in this particular issue of Asimov’s it was too much of a coincidence not to choose it for review. This story features the far-distant future of the Owner, Asher’s character featured in other short and novel-length stories. On a distant planet Alan Saul and his partner Tina Chandra look at the world that Saul hath wrought. Like a future Adam and Eve they overlook the beauty of a planet in the process of being seeded for human life. Other refugees from old Earth lie frozen in sleep awaiting the end result of Alan Saul’s efforts. While his partner Tina begins to question whether what they are doing is moral, in that they are interfering with the planet’s natural growth, Saul struggles to come to grips with the loss of his power as age and circumstance have caused his once demi-god-like post-human body and mind to begin to falter.
Asher’s is a short but effective story which provides a bit of social commentary capable of provoking further conversation while also showcasing the frightening and yet exciting idea of imagining what the future of humanity may be like. I have dipped my toe into the Owner universe previously and this fresh exposure makes me want to get right back into that world.
Next week I will bring you more stories fitting to the season. In the meantime I hope you’ll check out Clarke’s story and the other free short on the Baen website that are featured in the anthology In Space No One Can Hear You Scream and don’t pass up the opportunity to read current issues of Asimov’s. While all short fiction collections and magazines have a “mileage may vary” factor for the individual reader, there is always something of interest in the fiction and nonfiction presented in Asimov’s.