Dancing with Myself

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Some of the stories here I had read before, but I’ve put my notes in from my pre-1997 readings of them.

This one also has science articles.

(Just keeping things straight for the future historians who will, of course, want to know all that.)

Review (1997): Dancing with Myself, ed. Charles Sheffield, 1993.

Cover by Stanislaw Fernandez.

Out of Copyright” — This story revolves around a clever idea: that in a future where cloning is routine a person’s surviving heirs have copyrights to that person’s genome. Eventually those copyrights lapse into the public domain. This story centers around companies competing in a test-of-concept in which asteroids are launched at Io. The companies clone long dead scientific geniuses whose genomes are in the public domain. The clones provide assistance on various projects. The narrator of the story heads one combine’s teams. His talent is not scientific but in sabotage of the minor and persistent sort which accumulates and dooms a combine’s efforts. Most of the sabotage involves a keen understanding of people for it is revealed, at story’s end, that he is a cloned version of Al Capone (though Sheffield doesn’t explicitly name him). [Peter F. Hamilton also used an Al Capone resurrection in his Night’s Dawn trilogy.] The story’s concept lets Sheffield talk about some of the quirks and talents of those historical scientists who were cloned. Sheffield also points out that cloned scientific geniuses do not always turn out to be valuable. Sometimes the original’s accomplishments owed more to environment than genes. [There was something in the air in 1989, the year this story was first published. It was also the year that Robert Silverberg’s Time Gate was published. It’s historical figures were resurrected via computer simulacra.]

Tunicate, Tunicate, Wilt Thou Be Mine” — This is Sheffield doing a sort of H.P. Lovecraft imitation. As in many a Lovecraft tale, the story is narrated in the first person by a narrator who writes desperately of awful things before some cosmic horror previously viewed closes in for the last time. Here, again as in Lovecraft – notably his “The Colour Out of Space” – the horror is an alien who has crashed on Earth. The alien is much like an earth tunicate, a strange creature combining the features of animal and plant, vertebrate, and invertebrate. Under its influence, the narrator kills his wife and friends.

Counting Up” — Science article on the importance of numbers to science with interesting side excursion to the amazing pheromone sensitivity of moths which can, it seems, sometimes sense one molecule of a substance.

A Braver Thing” — This story is mainly interesting because in the end notes Sheffield says it has “a big lump of autobiography”. One suspects Sheffield was a bright lad like the narrator Giles Turnbull and came from a humble, poor background and that he met someone like Marian Shaw – loved devoutly and in an asexual way by the narrator – who taught him about art, literature, music, and people. The main part of the story is about Turnbull’s relationship with Marian Shaw’s genius son (the Shefffield-like narrator says he’s just very talented and not a genius), Arthur Sanford Shaw. Shaw becomes introverted in college, an undistinguished student studying the problem of quantized gravity. Turnbull is promoted to a Fellowship at Cambridge and studies space-time quantization. Shaw makes a brilliant breakthrough which makes interstellar travel possible. However, he decides to suppress it thinking humanity too “bloody-minded”. The story ends on what I took to be a note of intended irony. Shaw, mentally unbalanced, commits suicide. With the rationale of sparing his mother grief, Turnbull destroys Shaw’s notebooks but uses Shaw’s research to come up with the revolutionary “Turnbull Concession Theory”. The night before being awarded the Nobel Prize he relates the story with the implication that he will tell it again in his acceptance speech. “The Braver Thing” seems to be risking his relationship with his “inamorata” Marian Shaw – and his reputation – by relating the truth about his “discoveries”. In an old way, this is a reworking of that slush pile cliché about a writer getting (usually via time travel) a pile of great, unpublished literature and exploiting it. Here, though, it’s science and not art that’s plagiarized. The title derives from John Donne’s:

I have done one braver thing,

Than all the worthier did

And yet a braver thence doth spring,

And that, to keep it hid.

The Grand Tour” — A very good, suspenseful story. Sheffield takes the idea of ion drive and gives it a twist. Here the ion drive is human powered, a space traveling bicycle, and Sheffield invents a race much like France’s Grand Tour bicycle race. The contestants peddle about space. Sheffield gives us the rather formulaic plot of hot new competitor versus old competitor in his last race. Ernie Muldoon, the old racer, is clever, constantly finding legal loopholes in the rules (which others imitate). Sheffield does a great job of detailing those rules. Muldoon pulls another legalistic/scientific trick out of his hat at story’s end. It surprised me. I thought the narrator/young competitor would win. Nice story with a nice feeling between challengers despite the formulaic setup.

Classical Nightmares … and Quantum Paradoxes” — Scientist Sheffield talks about a topic of professional interest to him (and a lot of other physicists): reconciling relativity theory with quantum mechanics. Relativity says no object can be accelerated to faster than light speed. Quantum mechanics has no such restriction. Indeed, the transition between discrete energy states not only is done at faster than light speeds. By definition, it’s instantaneous. The fact that relativity does not specifically forbid instantaneous transfer between two points and quantum mechanics requires it opens a theoretical possibility for faster than light travel and communication.

Nightmares of the Classical Mind” — This story, notes Sheffield, springs from his scientific article “Classical Nightmares … and Quantum Paradoxes” and involves the idea of quantum effects being manifested macroscopically, specifically the sort of effects Schrodinger’s Cat demonstrates. The science doesn’t quite explain the story’s ending but quantum mechanics is so strange that can be excused. The main attraction of the story is the plot and narrator. The narrator is a cynical man along on an expedition to the abandoned Glory of God space station of the Church of Christ Ascendant, abandoned after the taxman and other legal authorities closed it. Thomas Madison, the charismatic head of the Church, is rumored to have died, and the Church’s wealth was never found. It turns out that the narrator is Madison’s brother and co-creator of the Church of Christ Ascendant scam. He’s been in prison – as have many of the Church ex-leaders – and subjected to especially bad treatment paid for by the hibernating (in a cryonics unit) Madison who hopes to outlast all his old confederates and emerge after seven years of hibernation to collect the hidden Church funds. The narrator is out to murder his brother (getting the hidden money doesn’t seem to be a motive) and joins a scientific expedition to the station. The expedition sets up an experiment – the most important in man’s history – to see if space-time is quantified in a granular structure than being continuous. It turns out it is and the effects of the experiment trap the narrator on the station (after he tries to kill his lover, a physicist he cynically manipulated into taking him on the expedition, after she discovers his true identity). The experiment sends the narrator nine months back in time, and causes him to find himself rather than his brother as the hibernating Church head.

The Double Spiral Staircase” — The central idea of this story – aliens coming to Earth millions of years ago and encoding a message in our DNA (in the intron portion which does not code for protein production) was also used in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode (I have no idea who came first or if there are earlier stories with the same idea). In the tv show, the message is typical Star Trek pabulum about the brotherhood of sentient life (at least Vulcans, humans, Klingons, and Romulans). Here the message is construction details on building very advanced transportation technology (with provisions for anti-gravity and maybe instantaneous) and anti-aging information. The aliens didn’t want to wait for more sentient races to evolve and develop a technological civilization capable of star travel, so they left a message. It’s an intriguing idea, and I liked the by-play between the slightly eccentric, smelly (he works in an animal lab) molecular biologist and the cynical head of NASA, now taken over by the Navy. The NASA head got the biologist kicked out of Annapolis after a vicious prank, but the biologist harbors no ill feelings. At first, the Navy man tries to suppress the technology until he finds out the information is in DNA. His cynicism vanishes then and his youthful fondness for space travel returns.

The Unlicked Bear-Whelp” — A brief summary of chaos theory. I was puzzled by Sheffield saying James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science didn’t really explain chaos theory or how its ideas integrate various areas of science. Sheffield is a lot smarter than me and trained in physics so maybe the wool was pulled over my eyes.

The Seventeen-Year Locusts” — One of those silly idea stories that the author was smart enough to keep short. Here, as seventeen-your locusts are periodic, so are “Seventy-Million Year Dinosaurs”.

The Courts of Xanadu” — The second time I’ve read this wonderful science fiction ghost story about a buried city underneath the sands of the Takla Makan desert in China. It may be the ruins of an extraterrestrial settlement or an old human empire or Atlantis. In any case, the inhabitants seemed to have possessed a technology that imprints images on every molecule of the landscape and releases them under the right stimuli. The images may be from one of

yesterday’s empires with their arbitrary imperial powers, their cruelty, and casual control over life and death

Its ruler may have wanted a monument. (Sheffield rightly points out that nothing is more alien to a modern American than such a polity.) I like mixing science fiction with history and archaeology, and this is a fine example of that. I found Sheffield’s end note about being able to take an uncaptioned satellite photo and give its approximate location, latitude, season, and climate interesting. (He worked for a satellite company.) However, he admits he doesn’t like to travel and fares poorly on the ground at a new location.

C-Change” — The tale of physicist Hippolyte Martin who discovers he can permanently alter the speed of light – make it faster. He triggers his device, goes exploring space, returns to a very disrupted Earth (Martin’s device changed the speed of all electromagnetic radiation, including that in electrical devices thus destroying banking and communications) to report that an Intergalactic Trading Federation does exist among alien races. However, after finding that humans have broken out of the hundred light year zone of reduced light speed imposed on Earth 10,000 years ago, they reimpose the limit. Like many sf writers, Sheffield seems to have a low opinion of humanity.

Unclear Winter: A Miscellany of Disasters” — An overview of the statistical probability and energy of various disasters: nuclear war, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, meteorite and comet impacts, solar disruptions, and supernovas.

Godspeed” — This story concerns, at its heart, two areas of human psychology: human credulity towards purported authorities and possible human reaction to alien contact. An inventor invents a faster than light drive, tests in a prototype, and then gets thrown in jail with his partner (the narrator who, like the narrator of Sheffield’s “Out of Copyright” specializes in human engineering) after aliens from Tau Ceti show up and warn humanity that someone is using ftl technology which, like all ftl technology, could supposedly stress local space-time to where it would snap into the low energy state of a black hole. The story ends with the narrator uncertain as to whether his partner or the aliens are telling the truth. Humanity, enamored of the rather clumsy, ostensibly benevolent aliens just trying to warn us of our danger at great personal inconvenience to them, believes the aliens. The inventor thinks they have ftl drive and don’t want competition from smarter humans. His calculations show that the aliens have lied about the danger and probably about the chronology of their journey. Humanity accepts the allegedly untainted, benevolent statements of the aliens. The narrator accepts his partner’s expertise. The truth is unknown.

Dancing with Myself” — This is a tale about a “universal DNA converter” that runs amok and infects humanity with the DNA of its inventor, the story’s narrator and something of an old-maid biology professor (whose insight into humanity gives the story more interest). At first read, the story is kind of neat. Then, I thought about it more. First, the story seems (given my knowledge of biology which is not great) to fail on a technical level. True, given the story’s parameters, not everything in everyone’s genome will be converted to match the narrator’s DNA. Males will still be born since the X-chromosome is too different from the Y-chromosome to be converted. However, it seems like the rest of the genome would be converted making everyone very closely related genetically with all the attendant hazards. (Sheffield interestingly doesn’t mention this means every race except Alison Benilaide’s – never mentioned that I saw – would eventually vanish. The cynical part of me says you could take a similar starting point and come up with a paranoid, conspiracy-mongering plot in which some groups complain that this was a deliberate program of eugenics and racial genocide.) Second, Sheffield again subscribes to a sort of general misanthropy here and also falls for that old liberal shibboleth of war and conflict being the irrational, emotional product of our glands. War and conflict can be rational given self-interest and different assumptions of the parties involved. Third, Benilaide seems close to the stereotype – for good and ill – of the purely rational (she isn’t) scientist. It’s almost as if Sheffield’s saying she’s a scientist because her glands are so passive.

Something for Nothing: A Biography of the Universe” — The title of this science article says it all.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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