The best blend of science fiction stories is ones that can please both sides of my brain. This issue didn’t disappoint. I can easily recommend Adam-Troy Castro’s novella “The Hiding Place” and the novelettes “Ian’s Ions and Eons” by Paul Levinson and Thomas R. Dulski’s “Balm of Hurt Minds” as must-reads for this issue. The short stories pack quite an emotional and philosophical punch, though a couple of them were too cut-and-dried to be as effective. Gregory and James Benford provide the “Fact” side of this issue with their article “Smart SETI” and the issue rounds off with Alastair Mayer’s “Small Penalties.”
The issue opens with Adam-Troy Castro’s novella “The Hiding Place,” featuring his sociopathic legal counselor Andrea Cort. Andrea has appeared in several of Castro’s past short stories and has a novel series of her own that began in 2008, with Emissaries of the Dead, and includes the sequels The Third Claw of God and the upcoming Fall of the Marionettes. This is a tale that can be read as a standalone, and as someone unfamiliar with Castro’s previous work, I was nevertheless taken in by Andrea Cort’s character. I’m going to refrain from any easy jokes that are made about lawyers who grew up without a conscience or emotional empathy; in fact, her learning how to overcome her emotional distance and find meaning in relationships provides a strong undercurrent to the plot of the novella.
The plot itself involves a trio of scientists who are arrested for murdering the fourth member of their research team. Because of “cylinking” technology, the three suspects are actually connected as one personality split into three bodies; to arrest and imprison one would defeat the purpose of punishment if the other two people can live their lives free. The question of shared guilt, however, is up for debate: only one of the trio had physically committed the murder, and the prosecuting lawyer Lyra Bengid is struck trying to find out proof of guilt and in what way, since the evidence shows that the trio became linked during a communications blackout after the murder while the team was alone researching in space. Bengid calls up Andrea in a final attempt to figure out this puzzle, since, as the novella reveals, Andrea is thinking of connecting with her current cylinked pair of lovers, Oscin and Skye Porrinyard. The strength of this novella combines the best of a typical “whodunit” with the ethical and emotional quandary of what it means to truly lose yourself by “cylinking” with another. Is “cylinkage” an expression of ultimate love or ultimate escape? Castro guides the reader through Andrea’s journey to parse this complicated question, and the end result has a satisfying impact made me interested in reading more about Andrea Cort.
The logistics of time travel are addressed in Paul Levinson’s story “Ian’s Ions and Eons,” a story set in the distant future where the nameless protagonist tries to change our recent past. This prolific author and former SFWA President is the author of several novels and short stories, the most recent being The Plot to Save Socrates in 2006, which also dealt with time travel. Levinson amuses the reader by not overburdening them with the theoretical practicality of time travel (though the topic is discussed), instead focusing on one man who buys a trip to overturn the 2000 US election decision to stop the count in Florida, which resulted in the election of George W. Bush. The purpose of this change has global consequences, though they are not the typical “we must stop our terrible future from happening” level of urgency. The protagonist hints that the future he is living in now is not a tragic ruin or on the verge of impending doom because of the Bush administration – after all, science has progressed far enough to enable recreational time travel – but the benefits of preventing our current economic depression and the war in Iraq associated with this prompts the protagonist to try and change the past anyway.
The story rolls along at a realistic, intriguing pace, despite the lack of imperativeness expressed by any of the time travel agents hired to help: the interchangeable assistants Irene and Ilene are businesslike and purposeful, and Eric, the gatekeeper of the past, discusses the pro and cons of the traveler’s decisions over a glass of red wine. The traveler is successful, but the results of his success aren’t as grand as he expected and, in fact, are quite preventable. I enjoyed the lighthearted tone of this story, when something as tumultuous as time travel becomes just another commodity. Levinson doesn’t belittle the serious paradoxes and repercussions of time travel, but the down-to-earth, utilitarian attitude expressed by Ian and his business partners is a refreshing change to the sense of impending foreboding that time-travelling characters typically possess.
“The Balm of Hurt Minds” by Thomas R. Dulski, addresses the language and purpose of sleep, and how one medication has aversive side effects that are more than just dry mouth. Somnomol is a drug that has been approved for use by many world governments as a non-addictive sleep aid. Investigative reporter Tomma Lee Evans discovers that this medication—an invention of the mysterious alien race of “Neighbors” that observe the planet from Earth’s orbit – causes people’s dreams to be broadcasted into the psychic atmosphere. The story meanders a bit in order to slowly unveil this revelation, cutting back and forth between Tomma’s story and several tangential accounts from various characters who experience this psychic reception. As a reader, I’m engaged but also a bit disappointed that these side characters’ stories don’t tie into Tomma’s in the end. It might be a bit heavy-handed if they did, but even a brief mention that these were the accounts Tomma had found in her research would be a nice way to tie in all the pieces together.
The short stories vary in effectiveness; some are too idea-heavy and some are just marvelous, like Larry Niven’s “The Flare Weed.” This short-short cuts to the quick in laying out an interesting scientific idea and then hits you in the gut with its emotional impact. An alien relates an interesting story of a new species discovered on a far-off planet while drinking at a bar about a type of plant that blooms only in the heat increases created as a result of solar flares that bloom catastrophically close to a planet’s atmosphere. The idea of the juxtaposition of life starting in the wake of near-destruction is a strong image that leaves an impression upon the nameless narrator. Moreover, the narrator is woken up that night upon realizing the implications of the flare weed’s seeds that travel throughout space. A perfect gem.
An elderly couple discovers extraterrestrial life in their backwoods home in Paula S. Jordan’s “Two Look at Two.” The ordinary folksy characterization of Sara and Jason makes them immediately likeable. They start to notice odd injuries on animals found in the woods during their afternoon walks, culminating in an encounter with another alien couple walking their own otherworldly creature. Jordan does an effective job describing the otherness of the aliens they discover through inference rather than plain description. The ordinary well-meaning quality embodied in Jason and Sara is also seen in these strange beings. With this slice-of-life impression of finding alien life in mind, Jason’s question, “Sara, you and I—not all of our kind are like us, are they?” echoed with me in a way that shows the subtle power of this quiet tale.
Edward M. Learner’s “Blessed Are the Bleak” is a post-humanist, dystopian look on the transition of human society into “Virts”, or virtual selves. Malcolm Jerkins recollects his culpability in this progression towards the singularity as a government drone working for universal healthcare. This logic rings a bit anti-progressive to me, portraying government healthcare equaling costing cutting and sponsoring the shift to “uploading” as a cheaper alternative to medical procedures (I mean, logically, corporate healthcare would do the same thing to help increase its profits). Malcolm’s bitter tone also tainted my enjoyment of the story and his final revenge against the system was downplayed and vaguely explained.
“Remembering Rachel” is sci-fi whodunit, involving memory loss and intergalactic politics. Detective Darcia goes through a paint-by-numbers runaround in this story by Dave Creek, who is a frequent contributor to Analog. Darcia is investigating the murder of Rachel Cantara, the fiancé of an important moon politician, Secretary Grayson Whitford. Whitford is the main suspect, of course, but as the leader of important Moon-Earth negotiations, his situation hints that it may be a political set-up. Darcia investigates the case and the conclusion is rather humdrum, especially in comparison with the intense complexity of Castro’s “The Hiding Place.” All the characters are very flat, and the emotional dimension of Whitford’s situation feels muted and forgettable, even as he is left reeling from the truth of the murder investigation at the end of the story. Perhaps this weakness wouldn’t be as evident if placed in another issue, but I thought this was the poorest story of this issue.
The flaws of TV journalism and alternative medicine are mixed in a fun and fluffy way in Jerry Oltion’s “Quack.” Dustin Wegner, a researcher for the Centers for Disease Control, and Nathan LeTourneau, a practitioner of homeopathy, make unlikely bedfellows when Nathan dares Dustin to join him in a scientific investigation of homeopathy on national television. Under show pressure from their TV host, Dustin accepts and the two manage to raise enough money from an impromptu telethon to commence the research. Homeopathy is a method where medicines are diluted until their actual medicinal content is close to nil, but the “essence” of this medicine is used to treat patients. Obviously, Dustin is prepared not to take any of the cure’s effectiveness at face value, but as the study continues, the question of who is the quack and who is not comes into play. Nathan’s truly scientifically-rooted curiosity behind his mysterious cures pulls in Dustin and leaves him to push his skepticism aside. The TV show’s pressure to always entertain the audience while they conduct this research also highlights how earnest scientific investigations can be transformed into quackery for the sake of showmanship. Oltion questions the relationship between the mass media and the individual pursuit of scientific truth and how the line can easily blur between what’s true and what’s not. I enjoyed the read, especially the thematic flip where Dustin gains national credibility at the cost of professional respect by the end of the story.
The issue’s “Probability Zero” column – named by tradition rather than indicative of the story’s unrealistic ideas – is a short-short slot where submissions are more idea-driven. Alastair Mayer’s “Small Penalties” suggests an innovative way to deal with spammers that is entirely self-deserved and tongue-in-cheek. Because of the accumulated seconds from millions of lives that were wasted by deleting spam, a guilty spammer is left to survive in the tundra as punishment. The idea is both ludicrous and an odd historical parallel of other figures who had been exiled to the north: political dissidents and rabble-rousers that were seen as threats to the state. The comparison of spammers to dissidents adds another level of humor to the story. Like how a good dessert rounds off a satisfying meal, “Small Penalties” provides a pleasant end to a meaty issue.