Jim Baen’s Universe made a splash last year as an online-only, DRM-free short fiction magazine. It has since attracted big-name authors and numerous accolades. The June 2007 issue (Issue #7, also known as Volume 2, Number 1) is my first opportunity to try it out.
Ever since my first short-story-a-day project, I’ve warmed up to reading fiction online. What’s particularly nice is the ability to download a version to my PDA, so I always have it with me. It’s also nice to be able pull it up on a full size monitor when the situation allows. Jim Baen’s Universe proves that online delivery mechanisms can work and work well.
The fiction (reviewed below) is grouped into sections: science fiction, fantasy, classic, serial (a story I did not read since I missed the first 6 parts), and first-time authors. Some illustrations (some decent, some amateurish) accompany the stories. Rounding out the issue are non-fiction pieces by Gregory Benford, Stephen Euin Cobb, Eric Flint, Barry N. Malzberg and Mike Resnick. Resnick also offers a great editorial about the silliness of defining science fiction, a genre which refuses to be put in a “straightjacket”. The closing quote sums it up nicely: “About the only valid definition [of science fiction] that I’m willing to accept is this: all of modern, mainstream, and realistic fiction is simply a branch, a category, or a subset of science fiction.”
But the real proof with fiction anthologies – printed or online – is in the content. Since my reading preferences tend towards science fiction, it might not be a big surprise that the sf stories were found to be more enjoyable overall, particularly Mike Resnick’s heartfelt “The Big Guy” and the adventure “Running Water for L.A.” by Eric Witchey. However, one of the fantasy stories (“The Littlest Wyrm-Maid” by Rebecca Lickiss) did surprise me by being lots of fun.
The opening science fiction story, Mike Resnick’s “The Big Guy”, may play upon the sentimental trope of the robot that wants to be human, but emotion is Resnick’s specialty. The title character is named Ralph-43 – (Homage to Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+, perhaps?) and is the newest member of a basketball team. Ralph performs as expertly as expected, his on-court skills rivaled only by the three other robots in the league. Ralph also has an insatiable appetite for knowledge and (eventually) emotions, but what’s good for the player may not necessarily be good for the team. Stories like this only succeed when the characters are believable and sympathetic and Resnick hits the mark. It may not be as emotional as Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” – understandable given its much shorter length – but the punch line ending, zippy plot and straightforward delivery gives it that tasty, classic feel nonetheless.
Not to be outdone, Eric Witchey crafts a fine sea adventure called “Running Water for L.A.” Ron, recently separated from the love of his life, is a sea trucker who hauls pure water from Alaska to the desert city of Los Angeles using his submarine Miss Melba. During a relatively quiet trip – that is, one that does not involve the occasional sea pirate – Ron unexpectedly receives an S.O.S. call. What follows is a quick-moving adventure that challenges Ron’s ingenuity. Although it’s not profound, I do believe Witchey has crafted an excellent short adventure story.
Dave Freer’s story “Thin Ice” opens with the protagonist, Dr. Kaibo, perched on a small ledge in a moon crater wall. The ledge provides some temporary safety while a mysterious mercury-like alien waits patiently below, waiting to swallow him up like his colleagues. Dr. Kaibo has other concerns as well; if the alien doesn’t get him then the encroaching sunlight will. Like the protagonist of “Running Water for L.A.”, Dr. Kaibo needs ingenuity to overcome his predicament, but in this case, the solution is a little harder to swallow and it relies more on showmanship than sense of wonder.
In “Weredragons of Mars”, Carl Frederick takes us to a generational starship where we meet a teenager named Jeffrey who thinks there must be more to life than playacting the year-long trope laws. This year’s theme is science fiction and Jeremy and his rebellious friends, always being watched by the omnipresent video cameras of the ship’s leaders, get into some trouble (maltropisim being a punishable offense) that eventually leads Jeffrey to discover the true nature of the ship. Frederick creates a compelling atmosphere aboard the ship, much the same way Brian Aldiss did with his book Last Orders. Even though the story’s less-interesting reveal worked somewhat against the intriguing and well-imagined setup, what’s left is still a very good science fiction story.
Madeline and Ned, the time-traveling thieves of Carrie Vaughn’s “Swing Time”, are rivals who compete for the past’s treasures. The idea of time-traveling thieves is a good one, even if the inevitable love story eventually intrudes on that idea. Each traveler has a unique catalyst that enables them to see different doorways in time and step through them. Madeline’s catalyst is dancing – with swing dancing building up the most power – and there are several scenes in which dancing is involved, both actual and metaphorical; the pair’s verbal sparring as much a part of the story as anything else. Madeline wonders how it is Ned is able to follow her, and we do get some explanation, but the story misses out on the cool non-linearity of time travel by making their encounters sequential. Not a story killer, to be sure, but a missed opportunity.
“Cryptic Coloration” by Elizabeth Bear concerns a Harry Dresden-like supernatural cop who is adorned with full body tattoos. By day, Matthew Szczegielniak – “Doctor S.” to his students – is a college professor. By night, Matthew uses magic to solve supernatural crimes, sometimes relying on his membership in the Prometheus Club, a society of Magi. This is the setting for a continuing series of stories of I ever heard one. In this episode, there is a magical, murderous bird creature loose in the streets of mid-90’s New York. Tracking down the creature is difficult enough, but Matthew also has to content with a trio of smitten female students who take it upon themselves to spy on their mysterious professor. Bear’s prose moves swiftly, perhaps at the expense of better characterizations. The three co-eds, for example, we’re nearly indistinguishable and thus interchangeable, except for the one trait that decides the fate of one of them. Mathew’s characterization was better, even though his magic was relegated to participation in an almost-silly magical cockfight.
Not being a tremendous fan of fantasy, it’s taking me some time to zero in on what qualities of fantasy fiction I do like. The light fare of “The Littlest Wyrm-Maid” by Rebecca Lickiss fits the bill quite nicely, perhaps because it does not take itself so seriously. Theora is a fire-breathing dragon with little tolerance for humans. But when she happens to hear the storytelling skills of a faraway prince, she falls in love. With the help of three greedy wizards, she conspires to marry Prince Winthorp. What’s surprising for a story whose intent is to entertain through its perfectly-balanced dose of humor is that the plot is relatively meaty. Besides the Dragon-meets-Prince thrust of the story, Lickiss includes scheming imposters and sneak attacks, all wrapped together in a likable attitude of storytelling. And those three wizards are a hoot! Nice job.
Terry Bramlett’s serene fantasy story, “Child, Maiden, Woman, Crone”, is about a Navajo farmer and musician named Johnny Nobles. As a musician, Johnny is a one-hit-wonder who has since retreated to his corn crops. Early one year, Johnny meets a young girl who inspires him to write a beautiful piece of music. Throughout the year, the maiden named Natalie Whiteshell returns, aging much faster than humanly possible, and Johnny forms a relationship with her. Bramlett’s clear, capable writing conveys the points of the story quickly. The only glaring detriment is how Johnny inexplicably delays questioning his true love about her obvious age progression. It doesn’t kill the story, but it does hold it back.
Eric Flint’s fantasy contribution is “The Realms of Words”, light fare in which the narrating salamander recounts the tale of wayward travelers in a land where letters and words are actual characters traversing the landscape of the written page. My nebulous fantasy preferences were disappointed here, not only because my science fictional brain read the title as “The Realms of Worlds” and received a stern wake-up call, but also because the idea – which I’m sure is the stuff of fresh air for hardcore fantasy fans – ultimately just seemed to me to be silly.
The issue also includes the classic science fiction story “Giant Killer” by A. Bertram Chandler, the story of Shrick, a mutant rat aboard a spaceship. Shrick, initially sentenced to be a sacrificial meal for his tribe because for being malformed, escapes and rises to power in another tribe. Eventually, Shrick faces off with the “Giants” on board the ship…that is, its human crew. This is a very readable story, if a bit too long for the plot. The oracle, as usual, forecasts the story so there are really no surprises, but the telling is worthwhile and the non-human point-of-view makes it more interesting than a “mutant rat invades ship” story.
Three stories in the issue introduce new writers. First up is J. Kathleen Cheney with “Touching the Dead”, the story of a fifteen-year-old blind girl with an amazing ability of clairvoyance achieved through touch. (Think Stephen King’s The Dead Zone.) The story takes place some time in the past (maybe the 19th century?) where a “touch-sensitive” girl is more likely considered a witch rather than being gifted. Cheney makes young Shironne Anjir a very sympathetic character, not only because of the horrors she “sees”, but also because of her over-protective mother and her off-stage abusive father. Some additional drama is provided via the threat of scandal – Shironne’s father is a politician and her mother is the illegitimate half-sister of the king – but the main thrust of the story concerns a murder and Shironne’s promise to her family’s maid to help solve the crime. The mystery is effective, the characters even more so. The result is a debut that entertains more than some of the veterans found elsewhere in this issue.
The second debut, “Chicken Soup” by A. F. Tesson, is not quite as effective. It’s a light story in which a child’s plastic dinosaurs come to life after a brief warm-up in a crock pot. Panic ensues and the girl’s mother spends much of the time rescuing the tiny, live beasties from the family dog. Humorous stories either work or they don’t. Unfortunately, this one didn’t. More promising is Tesson’s writing style which is clear, concise and quite effective at setting up crisp scenes with few words.
The third debut is “Chirus Fever” by Lisa Satterlund, which follows Liz, an agent of CECID – think of it as the spaceflight version of the Center for Disease Control – on board a ship that may be carrying a killer disease. Her partners and a Fed join forces to track the ship, but it’s really up to Liz to save the day. Ultimately, Liz relies on her ingenuity to create a much-needed diversion…not bad for someone who has space sickness in zero-g. But for all the danger that looms, Satterland’s storytelling, while feverishly delivered, fails to give this story the impact it needs.