The alternate history series continues with some qualifying stories buried in this review.
Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 2, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1997.
“After a Lean Winter”, Dave Wolverton — This is the second time I’ve read this story, the first being in its original appearance in the War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. by Kevin Anderson. I still liked its story of Jack London, during the Martian invasion depicted in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, hiding out in the Arctic and watching a bloodmatch between dogs and a captured Martian. This time, though, (after reading Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth”, seemingly inspired by London’s The Sea Wolf), I was reminded that this is not only a clever use of London in the context of the central idea of alien invasion but also a further reworking of his theme of blood struggle in life and evolution.
“In the Upper Room“, Terry Bisson — I originally read this story in its first publication in Playboy. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it the second time around. It was not interesting. It wasn’t an insightful story about lingerie fetish or any other type of sexual fetish. It wasn’t erotic. It wasn’t satirical — at least not in any way that mattered.
“Thinkertoy“, John Brunner — It was a nice surprise to see one of John Brunner’s last stories here. It was written for the Jack Williamson tribute anthology The Williamson Effect. According to his introductory notes, Hartwell says Brunner died before he could write the afterword for the story, but Hartwell speculates that it was inspired by Williamson’s “Jamboree”, a story I have not read. That may be true, but I also was reminded of Williamson’s classic “With Folded Hands” since, like that story, we have a man coming across a vendor of wonderful robotic merchandise, robots which eventually turn out to be very sinister. Here a widower buys the remarkable Tinkertoys which are clever, highly adaptable robots which can (rather like Legos) be assembled into several different shapes and do all sorts of wonderful things: answer the phone in several, customizable voices with Eliza-like abilities to keep the conversation going, integrate various household electronics, serve as worthy opponents in various games, and household inventory control. His withdrawn son, traumatized by the death of his mother in an auto accident, takes a real shine to the toys and programs them for all sorts of things, helped by his older sister. The protagonist finds out that the chips used in the Thinkertoys were originally designed as a Cold War weapon. They were to be dropped behind enemy lines to conduct various acts of subtle industrial sabotage: jam electronics, loosen valves, start fires, and mess up bearings. The children eventually use the toys to try and kill their father (The cold, impatient, malicious intelligence of the children reminded me of those in Brunner’s Children of the Thunder.). As to why, they explain, simply, “He was driving.”, referring to the auto accident that killed their mother.
“Zoomers“, Gregory Benford — This story is clever in a lot of ways. The background is explicated in the clever way you’d expect from Benford. As the story unfolds, we get a portrait of a warmer future where clever software and robotic production lines have created customized, frictionless production or “frictionless prod” (and, not so coincidentally, middle managers have been, economically, sent to the wall). The plot is a clever, workaday version (which would have probably found a home in H.L. Gold’s Galaxy if it was still being published today) of the cyberverse (or, here, “data-sphere”) popularized in the noir-like plots of early William Gibson novels. Here, the data-sphere is not only sensed visually but by various somatic inputs of temperature and pressure. With augmented programs, the protagonist, sort of a futuristic day trader, roams this virtual vision of the world looking for investment opportunities, future fads, and the possibility of extrapolating short term changes in the economic and literal weather of the world. Throughout the day, she’s trying to win a bet with an unnamed Foe. At day’s end, it turns out the foe is her husband (at least, on this go around of the “standard five-year monogamous contract”) to whom she is happily married to. To further undercut the usual adventure plot associated with such cyberverse tales, the husband notes that they’re not rich, they “just grease the gears of the great machine” (another author might have ended the story with a fortune made) and that there’s dishes to be washed before heading off to the beach. Benford has libertarian sympathies (he’s on the editorial board of Reason magazine), but he certainly realizes the problems and shortcomings of the free market (and that, conversely, they are not as brutal as the alternatives) with the line: “Sure dog-eat-dog markets sometimes worked better, but who wanted to dine on dog?”
“Out of the Mouths“, Sheila Finch — Though this story is built around a linguistic notion, this story, surprisingly, given Finch’s training in linguistics, isn’t a very detailed look at that science. During a desperate war with the alien Venatixi, one of their young is captured and the master of the Guild of Xenolinguists undertakes an experiment to learn their language and also teach the alien to be fluent in ours. The alien child, T’biak, is raised with a human child. But the experiment fails. T’biak learns little of the human tongue. Surprisingly, it is discovered that the Venatixi are born with a full language capability, not just a potential to learn language. T’biak doesn’t learn much Inglis. But, unpleasantly, something is learned of the lethal and truly alien Venatixi. They mutilate animals, kill people and cut off their wrists which is what T’biak does to his human character who comes to think of him as her angelic child (at least in his looks). The teller of this story, the disgraced master who ran the project, speculates that she loved T’biak too much. However, when he meets his daughter, the child raised with T’biak, he is reminded that love and death are homonyms in the Venatixi tongue. The story is ok. The idea of instinctive language and encoded culture is interesting, if not new. However, Finch doesn’t concentrate on that but on a tale of symbolism and puzzling motives and the relationship between parent and child, whether natural or surrogate. Finch is a bit too obscure in parts. Part of that is the standard alien that can’t really be understood. Part of it, for instance when daughter Keri seems to say she won’t take the master’s hand, is because Finch is mainly telling a tale of reconciliation, reconciliation of the master with his past deeds and daughter.
“Breakaway, Backdown“, James Patrick Kelly — As Hartwell notes in his introductory notes, this story seems heavily influenced by Samuel R. Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah…” (A story I didn’t like too much after first reading it, but I skimmed it again after reading this story and was more impressed by it.). Stylistically, there’s little similarity. Kelly pulls off telling the story as one side of a conversation, all the words being from a spacer returned to Earth. He not only manages to give a little bit of exposition about his future (not much beyond the date) but, more importantly, the physical details of the space settlements: the necessity for those returning to Earth to exercise long periods of time to slow bonerot; tending the artificial ecosystems, the screening process for recruits, and the realities of sex (no floating untethered but couples bound together with elastic or just sitting in one place and having near-tantric like sex just by will). It’s sex and bonerot that link to the story’s real concern, the same as Delany’s: how space alters the body and mind and culture. Delany’s spacers have been rendered neuter, there gonads removed so they are not subject to radiation damage. Here the narrator’s sometime lover, Elena, has had her ovaries and thyroid removed for similar reasons, a tap put in her hip to facilitate regular blood tests for leukemia. Her breasts have also been removed though it’s unclear whether that is too prevent a possible tumor or for aesthetics. When she has to decide whether or not to stay in space permanently, the narrator is called in by Elena. Confronting her with a thin skeleton of atrophied muscles, no breasts, various organs and parts removed, and wasting bones, Elena asks the narrator if she finds her beautiful. Elena says she regards herself as beautiful, that space has made her over, and that, if the narrator doesn’t see this as beautiful, she had better return to a life on Earth. Like Delany’s spacer, standards of beauty have been altered in the spacers here. In the Delany’s story, it was just a smooth crotch. Here, it is a more drastic reshaping. Frelks, fetishists who concentrate on the neuter spacers, adopt to a new standard of sexual beauty in the Delany story. Here, the spacers redefine their own sexual attraction (Delany’s spacers don’t have sex..). Now, you can argue that the standards of beauty seem hardwired in the brain, that no one would ever find the wasting effects of long term living in space attractive. On the other hand, I suspect Kelly knows this but is using that fact to show how powerful the influence of space is on the mind and emotions, that it can’t rewire the most basic elements of human thought and behavior. The narrator also notes that, like other muscles, the heart atrophies in space. This is a metaphorical reference to the ease with which Elena and the narrator go their separate ways.
“Tobacco Words“, Yves Meynard — This story has a pleasing air of strangeness about it that makes up for an ok plot. I suspect that strangeness comes from Meynard being a French-Canadian (though the story was first published in English). There is an oddness of culture about it that would lead you to believe it was written by a non-American. Not only does the semi-mute protagonist Caspar need to smoke to help him talk (I have no idea if nicotine has such an effect or not), but Meynard adopts some Catholic terminology that leads to some disorientation at the beginning of the story. Caspar’s sister, Flikka, works as a confessor to the spacemen, some rather altered humans, who visit the maintenance station that is Caspar’s wordlet. At first, given the way her work is described, I thought calling her a confessor was some coy term for prostitution. Then I found out she really did “confess” sins, that is remove, in some advanced medical type procedure, sins picked up by spacers in their travel. Some could be quite harmful. (At story’s end, it is explained that, when a spacer dies, their souls and sins “dissolve” into overspace, and the sins wait to infect others if they are not removed by confessors. There is no real attempt to rationalize this plot element.) Caspar helps what appears to be a lethal alien, actually a much altered human spacer, to be confessed. In exchange, he gets a doll-like toy from him which seems to be an intelligent device with which he can talk.
“Invasion“, Joanna Russ — While this story was amusing, I’m not sure it was good enough to include in a best-of anthology (but then, again, I didn’t read everything published in short sf in 1996). It did help, after reading her dreadful “When It Changed”, alter my impression of Russ as a radical, humorless feminist. To be sure, there are feminist efforts here. Females are described by the rowdy, child-like aliens as “short, round-shape bean with front bumps” (lots of puns here). The Captain and her First Officer (who sleep together) are, of course, reversals of the supposedly expected roles. Their reading material is also reversed. She reads military history. He reads Emily Dickinson. Another woman is described as coming from a male-dominated planet. The plot is about the havoc a bunch of shape-shifting aliens cause on board a ship as they impersonate children. Russ’ point seems to be that children are already aliens.
“The House of Mourning“, Brian Stableford — This is another of Stableford’s intriguing stories about the possible uses and consequences of biological engineering. This story, unlike some of the others I’ve read recently, isn’t that hopeful. (The title is an allusion to Ecclesiastes and the line “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”) The central idea is the intriguing engineering of prostitutes, via viral vectors, to produce mind-altering and aphrodisiacal chemicals in their body fluids (which specific ones is not detailed). The agents react to each body differently. The “trip” of having sex with each altered prostitute is different, and some clients become addicted to the uniqueness of certain prostitutes. The modifications that produce the drugs in body also, in some cases, create chemical imbalances in the women (at least, no male prostitutes are mentioned) rendering some, like the story’s protagonist, psychotic. The story involves her leaving the asylum on holiday and visiting the funeral of her old, addicted client. She decides that his interest in her was something, based in engineered uniqueness and intoxication, approaching love and that maybe, if her brain wasn’t so messed up, he could have loved her. Stableford isn’t as optimistic as usual in this story. The protagonist notes that Nature, the “hoariest whore”, won’t take all this modification lying down. The genetic modifications producing engineered pheromones and secreted psychotropes will mutate and produce even weirder variations on sex — and problems in relationships.
“Life Edit“, Damon Knight — An intriguing short short sf piece built on the notion of editing, literally, your past life out of regret or for many other reasons. The story is mostly an editor answering the questions of someone who is going to undergo the treatment. Alternate timelines are evoked to explain how deleting an event from your life will not effect all the other people involved — they’ll continue unchanged (until they edit themselves) in other timelines. At least, that’s the official story. But the woman who questions the therapy gets the impression that her life is ghost-like and meaningless since she suspects others have altered it by editing their own lives, specifically her abusive father.
“First Tuesday“, Robert Reed — A nice story built around a compelling idea. In the future, the President of the United States sends his digital avatar to every house in America where he is reconstituted into a hologram by the household entertainment systems, and his responses are built on sophisticated artificial intelligence protocols that mimic his personality. The story is told from the point of view of a young boy in such a household visited by the President. The whole notion comes off as the President comes off as a nice, charismatic guy in his chitchat with the boy and his mother. (Actually, President Perez seems rather Lincolnesque in his charm — a resemblance further heightened by mention of the political question as to whether floating cities should be allowed to secede from the country.) Perez can be blunt, though, especially when talking to the boy’s stepfather who doesn’t like him at all. The only thing that marred this story for me is the central political dispute between the boy’s stepfather and the President. In a future where America has allowed many refugees from poor countries in (the country of origin is never explained, but the stepfather accuses Perez, wrongly, of being one so you can infer it’s from Latin America), the resulting population boom has caused economic dislocations for native Americans and a country where living space is cramped and the illusion of nice houses and a yard is only maintained by holograms. If Reed is arguing for unlimited immigration for those unfortunate enough to live in bad countries, I don’t agree. Still, the story is charming, and Perez thinks his experiment will become a tradition.
“The Spear of the Sun“, David Langford — If I had read more G.K. Chesterton’s work (I’ve only read one Father Brown story and an alternate history essay), I’d probably appreciate this story more. Still, I found it amusing. Basically, this is a literary alternate history where G.K. Chesterton is the founder of sf (instead of that 19th Century fantasist H.G. Wells). Not only does Langford give us a Father Brown mystery aboard a spaceship. but he frames the story with all sorts of amusing material: an introduction explaining how the Father Brown universe has attracted a number of writers (some recognizable as sf writers, some famous as mainstream authors) and an amusing afterword talking about the various authors who have contributed to Father Brown or written critical articles on it. Isaac Asimov is mentioned with his Foundation and Father Brown where Father Brown saves the Holy Galactic Empire from psychohistorians. There are Martin Gardner’s scholarly works on Father Brown (at least, in this alternate universe), and Philip Jose Farmer’s typical cross-series work combining the Father Brown tales with other fictional series. Britain is the center of sf with contributors Hilaire Belloc and Jimmy Swaggert contributing to G.K. Chesterton’s Science Fiction Magazine. A letter writer named “Ms. Cadigan” argues that women sf authors should appear in the magazine, and Carl Sagan contributes articles on miracles that can’t be explained. I’ve seen articles elsewhere that Langford has written on Chesterton’s work so he is knowledgeable on the topic and something of an admirer.
“Counting Cats in Zanzibar”, Gene Wolfe — As with most of the Wolfe I’ve read, this is an oblique tale, but, basically, it’s the tale of a women fleeing, using a series of identities, the intelligent android she and her husband helped create. The exact reason she wants to hide from her involvement is left unexplained except that she feels her creation will supplant man (no one else seems to think so). She is also suicidal but hasn’t been able to finish the job. She encounters, on a passenger ship, the android who has been looking for her. They have several conversations, perhaps have sex (it is not entirely clear), and she tells him that she wants him to read her books and understand humanity better and remember her. She, at story’s end, falls into a trap laid for the android (who she has decided to spare). The story has an enigmatic last line “spoken” by a shark coming for her after she’s thrown overboard. It’s all very atmospheric and mysterious though this is better than some Wolfe I’ve read. It doesn’t add up to much, but it was fun reading.
“Bicycle Repairman”, Bruce Sterling — This is the second time I’ve read this story and nothing new occurs to me upon this reading.
“Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland”, Gwyneth Jones — This story is built around a couple of annoying clichés, so I didn’t like it much. First, it features virtual reality, not one of my favorite sf concepts. Second, it’s built around the old sixties’ notion (actually, even older) that sex, in the presence of assurances against disease and pregnancy, should simply be “essentially an innocent and playful social behavior”. Now, granted, it would be nice, perhaps on first thought, if sex really worked like this, but I doubt it would. (It didn’t seem to work that way in our society when we were close to achieving those assurances.) Now, to be fair to Jones (who I seem to recall does a lot with “gender issues” in her fiction), the story seems to imply, with its bondage and dominance ending, that sex is often about power too. But, if that was Jones’ intent, it seems undercut by the ending in which the protagonist, undergoing sex therapy in a “consensual perceptual plenum” (basically a virtual reality version of a chat room with the virtual world maintained by the effort and agreement of those who inhabit it), decides that sex with real people in the real world is too complicated, that virtual sex, the “convenience food” of sex is an ok substitute. The title stems from the personas that the protagonist and a stranger adopt in their therapy world. Red Sonja is, of course, from Robert E. Howard’s fiction. Lessingham is a character in the fantasy works of E.R. Eddison who, The Encylopedia of Fantasy tells me, had Lessingham self-consciously inhabiting dreamworlds in a sort of lucid dreaming state. The character of Lessingham, here, also makes reference to the real world too.
“Doblin’s Lecture”, Allen Steele — This is an ok story, firmly part of a tradition of sf stories that deals with alternate punishments for criminals (and not just, as here, the death penalty), but I don’t think it’s good enough for a best of anthology. Basically, a convicted serial killer talks about his life to a college audience and then executes, in front of the audience, another (unwitting) convicted killer. Steele seems in favor of capital punishment for deterrence reasons since he notes that a study years later shows that the college audience for the “lecture” commits virtually no felonies or spousal or child abuse. Steele isn’t clear as to whether they feel horror at what domestic abuse could create (lecturer/killer Doblin is the stereotypical victim of child abuse) or deterred by the graphic experience of what an execution involves.
“The Bride of Elvis”, Kathleen Ann Goonan — This rather jokey story wasn’t very interesting. Essentially, it’s based on tabloid ideas: that Elvis really is an alien and that he is the center of a religion. The story follows a Bride of Elvis waiting for the return of the spaceship built by her real people, seemingly a group of aliens who can mate with humans on occasion but who really, to keep the bloodlines pure, prefer to mate with Elvis or, at least, his frozen sperm. This story was ok but doesn’t seem to belong in a “best of” anthology but one of those original theme anthologies with tabloid like stories.
“Forget Luck”, Kate Wilhelm — This is a highly polished story, as you would expect from Wilhelm, especially since she writes mysteries which this kind of is. The story details how a man is accosted by an old professor in to researching whether some people exhibit the influence of a luck gene. The protagonist establishes that, yes, one exists, but the professor tries to suppress the research because he now has government funding. At story’s end, the protagonist reveals that he is such a person (amongst other things, he stumbles into a cushy academic job as a payoff from an embarrassed FBI after a fellow agent accidentally shoots him). The story tries to get an extra zing at the end by saying the protagonist is “little more than a slave” to his genes. However, Wilhelm doesn’t really set up the premise that his entire life is controlled by his genetic inheritance. It only seems to kick in, as far as the luck gene goes, at crucial times.
“Nonstop to Portales”, Connie Willis — This isn’t exactly an original story in terms of plot. Willis combines a couple of characteristic themes: time travel and tourists from elsewhere/elsewhen taking in things we contemporary Earth folk don’t appreciate (such as the aliens coming to see an eclipse in her “And Come from Miles Around”). However, Willis’ skill at evoking emotion (always there when she isn’t trying to do constant, screwball comedy which I don’t care for) makes this a special story. The plot, a man at a professional crossroads, encountering a group of time traveling tourists come to Portales, New Mexico, tourists interested in, of all things, a very obscure sf writer named Jack Williamson, not only evoked emotion but also a real appreciation for the life and talent of Jack Williamson, one of the creating figures of modern sf, a writer still publishing, who helped create the genre in a small shack on a desolate ranch in New Mexico.
“Columbiad”, Stephen Baxter — An alternate history involving both H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Wells is approached by a Frenchmen who insists that Verne’s From Earth to the Moon was mostly based on fact and, furthermore, that there was a second space voyage. Wells, thinking there was a hoax, travels to Florida and finds the ruins of the launching cannon 28 years later. However, the story ends (it’s main charm) on a plausible surprise note. Wells says he will not argue with the common perception that the moon launch was just a story, and socialist Wells logically echoes socialists off today when he says:
“We must concentrate on the needs of Earth — on poverty, injustice, disease — and turn our faces to new worlds only when we have reached our manhood on this one . . . “