The February 2008 issue of Jim Baen’s Universe (Issue #11, also known as Volume 2, Number 5) contains 12 pieces of short fiction and 6 non-fiction articles. Nine of the stories are reviewed below. I did not partake of the classic reprint “Unprofessional” by Rudyard Kipling and two of the three serials: “Fish Story” by Dave Freer, Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis, now in its tenth episode; and ” The Ancient Ones” by David Brin, now in it’s fifth episode. I suspect it would be easier for hesitant readers like me if each episode came with an “Our Story So Far…” intro.
Considering the nine stories I did read, this is another solid issue. I prefer science fiction over fantasy so maybe it’s not surprising that the weakest story for me was a fantasy story. But the good outweighed the bad overall, with the standout stories being David Brin’s “The Smartest Mob” (airships!) and Holly Messinger’s “End of the Line” (Vampires in the Old West!).
Individual story/article reviews follow…
“The Smartest Mob” by David Brin posits a near future that is both scary and marvelous. Dirty bombs have decimated areas of Washington, D.C. and travel is accomplished via airships. (Airships!) A reporter named Tor Pleiades is traveling aboard a dirigible headed for a port near a major political conference (involving an otherwise irrelevant alien artifact that may of may not represent first contact). Tor is connected to a virtual reality version of the Internet and rumors begin to surface of an impending terrorist attack. Tor utilizes the “smart mob” – a consensus of folks that constantly monitor the news and others sources to determine what is really happening – and deduces that the airship she is on might be used as a bomb. As if that premise isn’t cool enough, Brin gives us a great view of what the future of communication and media might be like. The smart mob surfs the wave of data, ferreting out truth from nonsense, with credibility ratings factoring into the mob’s “voice”. This meta-level view of information is intriguing and something I’d love to see more of. As this story shows, it allows for some great dramatic tension. There were some moments where I thought I could see a plot twist a mile ahead, but thankfully this turned out to be false second-guessing on my part. This was a fun read with lots of cool tech sprinkled in along the way. Nicely done.
Three stories in this issue involve spaceships with a single crew member and an AI/computer companion. The first is Eric James Stone’s “Premature Emergence”. (The other two are by Tobler and Gerrold.) This is an interesting story about a ship returning home through a wormhole after a long voyage. The trip is cut short when the ship exits the wormhole too early; the result, we learn, of a desperate artificial intelligence determined to save her “child”. What initially starts as man vs. AI (nicely set up with a brief explanation of past human/AI wars and the laws humanity has in place to limit their intelligence) eventually turns into a team effort to save the man and the newly-created AI, which was woken early because of an impending nova. (The title, you now see, is a double entendre referring to both the ship’s early exit from the wormhole and the premature birth of the AI.) Though the setup is well done and the action is quite tense at times, the Deus ex machina ending here smacked of cheating.
In E. Catherine Tobler’s “Waking Ophelia”, the title character wakes from stasis sleep because her one-person ship has been boarded by what appear to be space pirates. Their motive for boarding involves a silly long-kept promise by their leader, the manly man named Larkin. The story has a strong start: the premise was nicely set up and Ophelia was promising to be a welcome, headstrong character. But her turnaround from resistant victim to doe-eyed female was unbelievable and disappointing. There was also some attempt to add depth to the story by contrasting the harsh reality of life with the cold passivity of stasis sleep, but that felt like it was tacked on at the end.
David Gerrold’s “Spiderweb” reads like a casual, internal dialogue by the lone crew member of an exploratory ship. He (that term used loosely; it is briefly mentioned that people can assume whatever gender they wish) decides to investigate an anomaly that causes spacecraft to lose velocity near a certain region of space. His thought process is logical and takes into consideration some of the realities of space travel. His discovery is quite interesting and Gerrold’s straightforward delivery makes this a quick and enjoyable read that harkens back to the days of classic sf.
“The Temple of Thorns” by John Lambshead is the Greek mythology-based fantasy story of Persueus and an unnamed princess (though if you know your mythology, it’s not hard to guess who it is). This story unfortunately sits squarely atop the tropes of fantasy that I dislike, like unexplained magic, heroic quest, and prophecies that we all now know will eventually come true. As if that weren’t enough, mythology is not a favorite topic of mine. So, yes, the princesses identity was a surprise to me, but ultimately a “so what?” While I found the writing to be capable, ultimately this run-of-the-mill story failed to elicit any interest from me – even in the potentially cool Sinbad-like scenes of Perseus fighting the undead, a usual crowd-pleaser.
“Hourglass” by Alma Alexander is a quaint story about a wandering minstrel named Aris who finds himself lost in a snowstorm. Aris manages to find shelter in the home of a young man who is wise beyond his years. Through a magical artifact, Aris learns the true nature of his host’s situation – but too late. This is an interesting setup, as far as it goes, but otherwise cut short by one unlucky cat.
Mike Resnick’s short fiction excellently conveys the human condition with poignancy and respect. True to form comes “Sluggo”, where a grotesquerie finds peace (and loneliness) in an amusement park’s haunted hose. He is befriended by a young girl who sees beyond his skin and shows him the true meaning of love and friendship. I’ve come to expect a certain level of enjoyment, insight and attachment to Resnick’s work and this does not disappoint.
The third installment of Edward M. Lerner’s time-travel serial, “Countdown to Armageddon”, takes place in 733 B.C. This episode seems to serve as a bridge between the action-packed previous installments and what promises to be some more exciting encounters. This episode shows our misplaced heroes, scientist Harry Bowen and ex-Interpol agent Terrence Ambling, trying to fit in with the natives while they look for clues to the whereabouts of Abdul Faisel. Faisel is the terrorist who arrived in this time period five years previously to change the outcome of the Battle of Tours so that the Islamic forces would win against the Christians. But all that is backstory. For now, Harry and Terrance survive through some clever storytelling, stealing from our classics (Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island) which are unheard of by the locals. Although we don’t see Faisel himself this time around, we are introduced to some new characters: a Frank Christian named Bertchramm who is hunting down the band of Islamic warriors (led by Gamal) that kidnapped his niece, Bertha; and Brother Wolfgang, who helps Harry and Terrance find room and board. Again, Lerner’s writing style is straightforward and engaging and makes me wonder what comes next.
Holly Messinger serves up an outstanding story of vampires in the Old West with “End of the Line”. Jacob Tracy (Trace) is a wilderness guide who is slowly being put out of work by the expanding railroad lines. Trace is hired (more like coerced) by Miss Fairweather, a dabbler in the sciences, to find the source of a series of attacks on railroad workers. Rumors say it’s a roving wolf pack, but Miss Fairweather drops hints on unholy vampires. That’s the crux of the plot, but there are other things that add depth to the overall story: like racism against his black partner John Bosley (Boz) and Trace’s ability to see ghosts. Oddly, though this ghostly ability is witnessed by the reader but is in no way relevant to the plot; it’s just something he can do. Perhaps that ability is put to better use elsewhere since some post-reading Googling shows that Messing has other Trace and Boz stories. If they’re anything like this one – which is to say well-written and jam-packed with non-stop, throat-ripping, blood-spattering action – then bring ’em on!
Some interesting essays round out the issue:
- Becoming Stewards of Our World, The Great Theme of the 21st Century, Part One by Gregory Benford, is an eye-opening environmentalist essay with charts. “The deep secret about global warming is that the conventional wisdom solution is a lie.”
- Stephen Euin Cobb’s essay, What I’ve Learned Interviewing Futurists, talks about some unexpected technological trends: increasing rate of change in other disciplines besides technology (social, economic, political, linguistic, etc.); the decline of privacy; increased popularity of virtual worlds; proliferation of cell phones and interconnectivity; partial artificial brain replacements; computer hackers turning to hacking biota; and much more
- With Television Has a Lot to Answer For, Mike Resnick talks about the lack of originality on the part of writers who choose to write only within the confines of somebody else’s world; specifically, media tie-in properties like Star Trek and Star Wars. I’m not sure whether I agree with the conclusion (that television is to blame) but there may be something to the premise.
- Meanwhile, Eric Flint begins a series of essays analyzing the impact of electronic reading on publishing. This one is titled Paper Books are Not Going to be Joining the Dodo Any Time Soon. Self-explanatory, methinks.
- Resnick offers up another essay (The Literature of Fandom) that looks at the distinguished history of sf fandom through some of the non-fiction books devoted to it.
- Barry N. Malzberg’s article, Substantial Fire, or Why This Column Almost Didn’t Appear, provides ample opportunity for him to profess his obvious love for the genre.