And the Future Boston series concludes with a look at its core work.
Raw Feed (1995): Future Boston: The History of a City 1990-2100, ed. David Alexander Smith, 1994.
“’Boston Will Sink Claims MIT Prof’”, David Alexander Smith — Fake Time article from 1923 predicting Boston, built on a filled in caldera, will sink.
“Seeing the Edge”, David Alexander Smith — Basically a mainstream story with a bit of foreshadowing about Boston sinking. The “edge” of the title refers to two things: the edge of the area sinking and the edge of impoverishment as protagonist Jerry runs out of money while caring for his absent landlady’s kid. (It’s hinted she was a prostitute that was murdered.) It’s not only an ode to a city that will die but the story of Jerry drawing closer to child Travis and accepting responsibility for him and entering a new life, crossing an “edge between what he had thought he wanted to be and what he was.” Kind of a nice, touching mainstream story.
“Nomads”, Alexander Jablokov — A subtle mainstream story by Jablokov. I liked the crazy nomad character Rum, a self-proclaimed “nomad” and urban, homeless bum who looks on his lot not as privation but the price of freedom, a point worth considering. His apocalyptic ramblings of a coming urban and social collapse foreshadows Boston’s sinking and make him a sort of barbarian heralding, if not hastening, the collapse of civilization. I suppose the point is that protagonist Caius Fitzpatrick learns not to see permanency in life – be it in relationships or structures. Both are subject to complex failures.
“Projects” Geoffrey A. Landis — This is the interesting, rambling story of three college roommates (one in urban planning, one in physics, one in architecture, and a hanger on girlfriend) and how they flit from one interesting project to another while building their careers. The story ends on a despondent note when the urban planner, who, with his professor, isn’t taken seriously when warning of Boston’s sinking, commits suicide.
“Dying in Hull”, David Alexander Smith — Second or third time I’ve read this story. It’s still a nice story of an old woman attached to her decaying home and community. I liked it better this time.
“The Elephant-Ass Thing”, Jon Burrowes — A humorous story of the first people to greet aliens, the bizarre conversations with them like their request to dispose of their excrement first framed as a request to dump atomic waste and the attempts by the lovers to avoid attention.
“The Parade”, Steven Popkes — A not very interesting story about Herbert Maxwell, down and out physics student and would-be (and not very good) oboe player. When the aliens land on August 22, 2014, the aliens mysteriously give him the gift of great musicianship for reasons not entirely clear. It seems to attract attention to him and for Maxwell to serve as a sort of Pied Piper of Hamelin to draw attention to the aliens. Being a good Polish Catholic, he views this as a gift from God. Perhaps this story sets up the theme seen in later Future Boston stories where aliens are seen as near gods bearing wisdom and miracles.
“Seating Arrangement”, Alexander Jablokov — A humorous, rather literary story linking the trials of a protagonist navigating the social pitfalls of planning seating at her wedding and the political and commercial negotiations for the Contact Zone around Boston where alien presence on Earth will be confined. The humor comes from the fact that she is a “low-level bureaucrat,” a would-be English professor working as a Senator’s aide. When she gets a call from an alien requesting to speak to a “recognized entity”, she recognizes the caller as another low-level bureaucrat. On a lark, she takes it upon herself to negotiate the all important provisions for the Contact Zone of Earth. At story’s end, she finds out she has impromptuly put her self in a position of great importance since all matters of interpretation in the Contact Zone agreement will be referred to her.
“The Uprising”, Jon Burrowes — Brief future history document detailing a terrorist attack using chemical weapons on an alien filled Boston. The terrorists are upset about aliens on Earth. This story also mentions Hull’s destruction.
“Fennario”, Resa Nelson and Sarah Smith — Like David Alexander Smith’s excellent Future Boston novel In the Cube, the story features the alien Phneri. Like that novel, but to a lesser extent, this story draws its power from the Phneri’s two strongest qualities: their otter-like cuteness and doglike behavior as almost pets and their sinister, strange love of destruction, history, and lack of time sense. This story is about the first Phner in Boston and the little, troubled (she feels ignored by her parents who are estranged) girl who briefly befriends him. Basically its theme is that the experience of meeting an alien is indescribable, full of contradictory emotions, and alienating from the rest of humanity.
“Topology of the Loophole”, Geoffrey A. Landis — Two future history documents purporting to explain the workings of the space-time construct which makes interstellar travel possible.
“Not for Broadcast”, Steven Popkes — Transcript of an unbroadcast interview (conducted by an obnoxious interviewer whose jokes fall flat) with centaur Bishop 24 in which he reveals that he is on Earth to guide man towards passing an undefined sentience test. The penalty for not passing is to be considered fit for food though presently humanity is considered too insane to eat.
“When the Phneri Fell”, David Alexander Smith — Brief account of the violence and displacement of Irish in South Boston and resentment that follows the arrival of Phneri refugees in Boston.
“Playing Chess with the Bishop”, Steven Popkes and David Alexander Smith — A future history document – an article from Nature – speculating on the psychology of the centaur Bishop 24 and how it relates to its life cycle and humanity’s upcoming sentience test.
“Letter to the Editor”, Alexander Jablokov — Another future history document, this time a short letter to the editor denying a newspaper article’s charge that the leading families of Boston formed a cartel in 2031 to exploit the products of alien trade exclusively. There is an element of irony in a heading which indicates the paper was purchased and dissolved two years after the letter was printed – a purchase made by Mi Nyo (a character in Dean Alexander Smith’s Future Boston In the Cube and Jablokov’s “The Place of No Shadows”), head of one of the families in question.
“Who is Venture Capital”, Dean Alexander Smith — Future history document announcing the formation, under the direction of centaur Bishop 24, of Venture Capital, a company for interstellar trade and transportation with Earth.
“IPOB Dining Hall Procedures”, Alexander Jablokov — A clever and very funny story written as a memo by Siegried Altona, Assistant Director of Food Services for the Interstellar Port of Boston. He responds to a request for a common dining area for the alien races of IPOB by saying that it is insane – despite “cogent social, moral, and economic arguments in favor of it”. Then he goes on to explain why. The wildly different food preferences and biologies of the aliens involved make a common dining area impractical, repulsive, and downright lethal.
“So You Want to Meet the Bishop?”, Steven Popkes — A future history document with a clever and plausible conceit: an alien etiquette guide for meeting the enigmatic, sinister Bishop 24. It contains useful advice along with warnings in bold face that give one hesitation about meeting the Bishop. Epileptics are advised the Bishop’s fast, jerky motions have been known to cause seizures, and one is advised to “immediately … politely but firmly” decline an offer of a sentience test. Popkes seems to have done almost all the groundwork and dramatic usage of the very intriguing character of the Bishop.
“Camomile and Crimson; or, The Tale of the Brahmin’s Wife”, Geoffrey A. Landis — I have probably read less than a handful of Landis’ stories but all show a wide variety of styles, tones, and concerns. This one has the air of a fairy tale with the young, beautiful wife of an old but cultured Boston Brahmin and the perpetual jealousy of her husband who wrongly thinks she’s being unfaithful. Eventually, he seeks out a clever alien artist who fashions him a clever polygraph in the guise of a ring. However, when the woman is wounded and betrayed by his distrust, she gives in to the temptation of adultery with a common, but smooth talking shopkeeper, an affair aided by a substitute ring which always declares her true.
“The Test”, Steven Popkes — A good story by itself but it becomes a lot more interesting and enjoyable in the context (just as Bishop 24 sees things only in context) of Popkes other stories involving the main characters of Ira Bloom, spatien Gray, and Bishop 24: “The Egg” and its expansion Slow Lightning. This story is a sequel to those stories though it talks of those events briefly and the enmity between the spatien and the centaurs who tried to wipe them out. Bishop 24 refuses to let the ship containing the last of the spatiens land. Ira Bloom (in continuing the theme of familial duty and devotion worked out in Slow Lightning) puts his life on the line by demanding a sentience test from Bishop 24. He will probably be eaten if he fails to pass it. Only by being declared a sentient can he plead Gray’s case before the Bishop. The Bishop makes Ira think he’s being tested then states he’s not ready for a sentience test and then offers him a job as his aide with his first task to negotiate a settlement with the refugee spatiens. Then the Bishop reveals he has tested Ira Bloom but won’t say for what. When Ira asks if the Bishop has set this course of events to “bring me here”, the Bishop simply counters that he won’t answer him and how could he think himself so important? The story ends with a rumination on faith and how one person’s actions can lead to lasting results even if it seems impossible. However, according to my notes on Slow Lightning, there is reason to suspect that the Bishop has been manipulating events a long time so Ira will become his aide or, at the very least, Bishop 24 has been a hidden factor in Bloom’s life. Out of gratitude for Peter S. Croix, Ira’s grandfather, saving his life, the Bishop gets Ira’s parents jobs at Maxwell Station where they will find not only work but Gray, the last survivor of a clan the Bishop betrayed and helped destroy. The implication is clearly that the Bishop intends this too. To do this, the Bishop goes against his own people. Clearly, the Bishop is the most intriguing and complicated character in Future Boston.
“The Place of No Shadows”, Alexander Jablokov — No need to write any more on a story I’ve already read twice before and is one of my very favorite sf stories. I suppose this time around I noticed more the symbolism of the flat pebbles at story’s end and their fitness for one purpose like humanity.
“The Lady of Port Moresby Incident”, Alexander Jablokov — A short future history document revealing the economic tensions of alien trade being controlled by the families of Boston.
“Three Boston Artists”, Sarah Smith — A story about the Phneri repairing a damaged Rembrandt painting and then destroying it. The main points of interest for this story are the rationalizing of the Phneri’s esfnai ability as a super ssophisticated form of sonar (though this does not explain the trouble perceiving the flow of time in one direction) and a further explication on the Phneri fascination with process and not product. This explains their fascination with destroying things because, for them, the importance of art lies not in the object but in its history – including its death. This is completely understandable given that they can reproduce any work of art perfectly. The main character from the anthology’s “Fennario” shows up here as an old woman who works closely with the Phneri and cares for them since Boston regards them as “dangerous animals”. She heads a building restoration company which employs the talent of the Phneri. Thus the ending, where a Phner destroys the painting after restoring it – but not before recording its creation so it can reproduced perfectly again and again – shows the clash of Phneri and human concepts of art, and the uses the Phneri can be put to in service of human art.
“Focal Plane”, Alexander Jablokov — An inventive, cynical story from Alexander Jablokov. (I’ve said Jablokov’s stories have three themes: religion, death, and art but none of these are here.) There is, as usual for Jablokov, a lot to like here. First, there is technological inventiveness in the many details of protagonist Baka using his Targive prosthetics to record the news – and arrogantly suppose that in the Information Age an event only happens if he records it. Second, there is the appearance of Mi Nyo, Cambodian-Boston magnate. In Jablokov’s “The Place of No Shadows”, she appears as a fanatical supporter of the Institute of Human Culture and a woman with a criminal past. (She belonged to one of the Cambodian gangs firebombed in Hull.) Here, as in David Alexander Smith’s In the Cube, she appears as a manipulative, truthless tycoon, a member of the Bar Harbor cartel whose formation was denied in the anthology’s earlier “Letter to the Editor”). The Bar Harbor Gang has resorted to a traditional method of competing with fellow smugglers not in the cartel: they bribe U.S. Custom agents to leave them alone and brutally harass their equally illegal competitors. Third, Jablokov – from the opening quote from Benjamin Franklin – explicitly makes a cynical comparison between the Boston Revolution of this story and the American Revolution. Baka forces Mi Nyo to support a revolution even though the Bar Harbor Gang’s inclination is business as usual and to continue their corrupt partnership with U.S. Customs. However, Baka uses the story of Sitigar Malik – an ostensible martyr to the brutality of U.S. oppression – to force Mi Nyo to support revolution. It’s a particularly ironical ploy because Malik was fatally betrayed to the U.S. by Mi Nyo with whom he competed. The same raid maimed Baka and required his prosthetics. Baka describes the singularly unenthusiastic, bland support of revolution by the Bar Harbor Gang and contrasts them very unfavorably to the Founding Fathers. Whereas Franklin opens by stating America – has a republic if they can afford it, Mi Nyo concludes the story with “A revolution. If you can afford it.”
“Ye Citizens of Boston”, Sarah Smith — Story of Boston’s revolution against America which ends in de facto autonomy if not official autonomy. The plot centers around the revolt and Iris Sherwood (a character in David Alexander Smith’s In the Cube) role in bringing it off. Sherwood lives for the good of the city and trying to ignore individual suffering. Granted, if you accept the revolution as a good thing, her actions, however brutal, are pretty much necessary, but she keeps justifying them in the name of the City as an abstract ideal she sees in biological terms. Sherwood’s attachment to orphaned Denise Sherwood (also In the Cube) is partly so strong because of her guilt in directly and indirectly killing Bostonians. The ambivalence of this revolution (and in sf revolutions are almost always seen as a good thing) can be seen in the subplot with Lemuel Snow, a friend of Sherwood, dealing with his harrowing (and, in its own small way, ruthless as Sherwood’s) mission to kill Sherwood for Snow is a U.S. Customs agent who deeply loves the ideals of America (despite his slave forbears) and sees the Boston revolution as being only for the benefit of a corrupt elite – namely the Bar Harbor Gang. There are several cameos in this story from earlier stories in the anthology: Mi Nyo and Srinagar Malik (Jablokov’s “Focal Plane”), Elliot Endicott and his wife (Landis’ “Camomile and Crimson”), Bishop 24, Baka (“Focal Plane”), Ernest Pole (Smith’s “Three Boston Artists”), the deaths of Lester Kronenbourg (founder of the Institute of Human Culture in Jablokov’s “The Place of No Shadows”.) and Boris Nancolm (Burrowe’s “The Elephant-Ass Thing”).
“WereWhereWear”, Alexander Jablokov — A future history document – specifically an advertisement which shows both Jablokov’s stylistic talent and scientific inventiveness.
“Sail Away”, David Alexander Smith — The last story of the anthology and its main interest is Bishop 24 (now Bishop 25 since he has now tested his 24th alien race) revealing that humanity has, off stage, passed its sentience test. We learn more about the Bishop here since candor is not forbidden him now. We also learn that Boston’s sinking is the inevitable result of it being an anchor for the Loophole. We also see more of the Bishop’s manipulative side though here he seems a much more pleasant, friendly character. He takes Denise Sherwood (who is unhappily married and has just learned the identity of her natural parents and that they are dead) to visit the remains of the Hull. Here it is revealed that, to pay a debt off to the St. Croix-Bloom family (Popkes Slow Lightning), the Bishop has been supporting a family and hopes Sherwood will help revitalize the area when he leaves Earth. Boston, and this is not adequately explained or shown, has grown insular, arrogant, and is in need of revitalization outside the Cube which here is a physical symbol of cultural and political isolation.
“Afterword: How It Came to Be”, David Alexander Smith, Editor — An explanation of Future Boston’s literary inspirations, the division of labor in its creation, and the key to the success of this very good shared world (including, but not restricted, to this anthology): consciously developing themes across the mosaic of stories and deliberating trying to cover the various cultural, technological, social, historical, and political aspects, from Puritan times to 2100, of its main character, the City of Boston.