The August 2007 issue of Jim Baen’s Universe (Issue #8, also known as Volume 2, Number 2) contains 12 pieces of short fiction and 6 non-fiction articles. As with my experience last issue, I am still loving the delivery mechanism as it makes for convenient, read-anywhere portability.
Overall the issue was a little better than good, with the usual explanation of editor vs. reader tastes. Besides the fiction stories reviewed below, this issue contains Rudyard Kipling’s classic “The Mark of the Beast”, and part 8 of the serial started with issue #1, “Fish Story”. Not having read any of the previous parts steered me away from the serial and at 8 installments so far, I do wonder if there is a master plan for the plot or this is just something to exercise the authors’ creative minds. Until I finally take the plunge, I can only guess. (Anyone have an opinion here? Is it worth jumping in mid-series?)
A surprisingly enjoyable (to me) story was “The Lord-Protector’s Daughter” by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. – surprising because my usual detachment to fantasy was nowhere to be found. This is fortunate for the issue overall because that story is by far the longest and carries the most weight. That said, the two standouts in this issue are science fiction stories: “Concentration of Dogs” by Carl Frederick and “Free Space” by Carrie Vaughn.
Here are the individual story reviews…
“An Ocean is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away” by John Barnes follows two rival journalists on the face of a terraformed Mars shortly before a cataclysmic event is set to reshape it even further. Professional rivals Thorby and Léoa aim to capture “The Great Blooming” – a terraforming project to create a Martian ocean using a comet – without the aid of computer-generated imagery. They both subscribe to the “realist movement” of documentary filmmaking, but that doesn’t stop one from sabotaging the other. Nor does it make them or their relationship interesting. The first half of this story was dreadfully slow, steeped in trivial philosophical discussions about things that did not directly affect the thin plot. Thankfully – as much as the resulting mediocrity could be considered a blessing – the pace picked up significantly when the BERE (Big Energy Release Event) knocks them both for a loop and Thorby must make some decisions about the type of person he wants to be.
Edward M. Lerner’s “At the Watering Hole” is a first contact story with alternating story lines. In one, a SETI scientist detects an alien transmission. Just in time too; this happens at SETI’s last night in operation, thanks to fruitless searching and the subsequent lack of funding. In the other story line, the leader of the aliens conducts their own search for alien intelligence through an annual ritual meant to spread their race’s collective oneness by bringing other beings into their fold. Lerner serves up sense of wonder with few words, and ties it all together with a perhaps too-abrupt ending that is nonetheless effective.
Speaking of collective oneness, Carl Frederick’s entry, “Concentration of Dogs”, concerns an unexpected lab discovery that allows dogs to communicate with one another through their neural implants. The pack of experimental canines forms a collective consciousness that has increasingly wild feelings towards humans, especially when the emerging pack leader is a mean, old Pit Bull. Student lovebirds Mark and Claire, working under the almost-megalomaniacal Professor Robert Weiler (nicknamed Prof. Rottweiler, of course), aim to conduct some studies out at the preserve, but the situation quickly degrades to one of any clichéd 80’s horror flick. And yet for all its B-movie moments and borderline-annoying quotes about dogs actually spoken by Claire, this story does an excellent job of pulling the reader along its ever-moving wave of drama and action.
Carrie Vaughn whips up a fast-moving space adventure in “Free Space”. A technician (Ms. Hart) who is contracted to work at Covenant Station, the commercial/residential space station above Mars, discovers a cache of radioactive material in storage bays that are supposed to be empty. Hart quickly discovers that this is no accident. Vaughn’s prose is a little cumbersome at times and the outcome predictable, but the pace is so frenetic that once the radioactive material hits the fan, it’s hardly a problem.
James Hogan, author the enjoyable Giants novels, supplies a comedy of errors in “Murphy’s War”. Hackers have infiltrated government computers and initiate a sequence of reactions from the military and politicos (including a familiar-sounding U.S. President who mimics the rootin’-tootin’ cowboys of High Noon) that quickly escalate to the brink of nuclear war. Being a tongue-in-cheek vehicle, though, the usual interruptions get in the way. Hogan’s prose is a bit drier than I remember and this story contained more than a fair share of run-on sentences. It wasn’t until about halfway through this that I could get into its grove.
In terms of fantasy fiction, I’m somewhat of a noob. Generally speaking, I prefer science fiction over fantasy because the rules of fantasy usually seem too arbitrary. I’m still trying to precisely pinpoint the qualities of fantasy I like and dislike, and to the former I can add “The Lord-Protector’s Daughter” by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. Here, the main character, Mykella, is the daughter of the benevolent Lord-Protector of Lanachrona, Lord Feranyt. After Mykella is visited by an apparition, she begins to experience special talents that have been unheard of since the days of Mykel, the ancestor presumably after whom she was named. Mykella, who works in the Finanace Ministry under her uncle Joramyl, learns the ways of her powers by playing sleuth, investigating the shady accounting figures surrounding the city’s tax collection. The “magic” part of this fantasy is Mykella’s talents, which she discovers when she explores a mystical, glowing table in the lower levels of the castle. What she learns is the ability to see others across a distance, “read” people’s internal emotions, make herself invisible, travel to other lands (though largely an unexplored talent), and ultimately extinguish someone’s life by breaking their life thread (which she is able to see). These talents sound as hokey as you might find in other stories, but unlike other stories, the author does not overplay them here. Mykella is still learning her talents one by one, thus making her an endearing character. Additionally, the story contains several other layered elements adding to its enjoyment: Berenyt’s (Mykella’s cousin) infatuation with Rachylana (Mykella’s sister); the treatment of women in society and Mykella’s determination to overcome the gender barrier; and the further mysteries of the Table that are dangled in front of the reader. While there are no surprises at where the plot is headed (there’s a fine line between foreshadowing and spoilers), I nonetheless found the whole story to be a quite enjoyable diversion. Given my usual experience with fantasy, that’s saying something.
In “Creation: The Launch!,” Laura Resnick has created a whimsical story explaining the hardships of being God’s creative consultant. The narrator, an angel named Ishmael (but please refer him as Rafe or Thad) reveals the humorous truth behind creationism and other some other product launch screw-ups. The narrative is also effective at conveying the snarkiness of Ishmael’s responses to God, a funny mixture of fear and patience.
In “Dark Corners”, Kristine Kathryn Rusch takes us to a Nazi-occupied France in the 1930’s. Besides the Germans, the submissive French and the French resistance, there is a race of faeries that live in hiding within the catacombs beneath the city. Solae is one of them, and his meager magic powers are no match for the German threat. That is, until he finds the strength to gain some conviction. It takes him a while to get there though. Until then, plot is forsaken in exchange for some worthwhile world-building. The depiction of magic was reasonable (not a huge fan of fantasy, me) and actually kind of intriguing; mysterious without being overplayed.
Newcomer Gary Cuba’s “Mrs. Schrödinger’s Cat” takes us behind the scenes of Schrödinger’s very famous experiment where he is accompanied by a trio of physics honor students and his wife’s uncooperative cat. This is a very entertaining, if minor, story that reads somewhat like a longish joke, with each student superseding the action of another such that we don’t know whether the cat is alive or dead. Get it? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Even so, it got a few chuckles out of me.
“Squish” by S. E. Ward concerns an ex-entomologist named Sarah currently working as an exterminator at a spaceport. Her discovery of little blue ants messes up her long weekend with her husband and she’s not happy about it. On the bright side, a robotic leg comes in handy for squishing little blue ants. This was not a bad story, but there was nothing overly special about it either.