edited by Jonathan Strahan
Night Shade Books, 2008
Strahan describes this volume as a collection of stories, tales built around a good idea that is complete; one that opens, builds and then delivers some kind of pay-off at its conclusion. It is not structure he’s after but whether there is a story to be told and the authors get it done by the time they’re finished. He wants a story that is immersive, that sweeps him away into that world for as long as it lasts, or makes him think differently about something. So, let’s see what that means:
The Hero, Karl Schroeder
Given a world that sits in a bubble protected from the challenges of the rest of the universe by a field projected by the largest and most powerful of several man-made suns, this one named Candesce. The hero is Michael, a young man afflicted with a lung disease, the knowledge of both a fatal flaw in his world and the information necessary to save it. Dying, he is willing to risk his life to save the world. In the process, he is cured of his affliction but learns that saving his world will still require his death. The question, then, becomes will he still donate his life to the cause. The answer, of course, lies in the title. While it lasts, the integrity of the world building props the action, gives it legitimacy, and sweeps us away for as long as it lasts.
Turing’s Apples, Stephen Baxter
Given a listening device built on the dark side of the moon so that it lies protected from the radio noise of the earth’s inhabitants. Call this a Clarke device and make it extremely successful acquiring a signal from aliens we’ll call the Eagles. Populate the story with the sons of a man living in Milton Keynes before during, and after WWII so that he could blame his sons’ mathematical abilities to the apples he filched from Bletchley Park. Oldest son is a misanthrope totally devoted to the Clarke device and the message from the stars. Younger son is more human but unable to resist his brother’s invitation/temptations to become involved. The mystery involves the message from the Eagles, the pros and cons of downloading the Hoyle strategy message, and the choices the brothers make. The story fascinates with its pure science/human science debate as well as with the problem the aliens are attempting to solve. The title? The brothers are emulating the work of Turing and his crew during WWII.
Invisible Empire of Ascending Light, Ken Scholes
Given a far future where a god emperor exists, really. Consider that the religion prophesizes that this god will one day be replaced by another god. How to decide whether claimants are qualified? Set up a system where a prospective god Announces intention to ascend. The claim must be Considered and, if valid, then Declaration must follow and ascension can take place. To this point, no claimant has been Declared and the installed bureaucracy wishes it to stay that way. It’s Missionary General Berrique’s job to give Consideration to the latest Claimant and she performs her duties but fails to reach a conclusion. She returns to the palace to discover that she must take a more active part in the discussion than she had foreseen. Actions have consequences. Faith demands much more of its adherents than does either Hope or Charity.
Michael Laurits Is: Drowning, Paul Cornell
Given a social network titled Lief. Next, describe Michael noting everything he is doing a la certain popular sites in the real world. Next, have Michael get afoul of his lines while diving in Japan’s Inland Sea. You can see the title now. But what you have yet to see are the questions that rise when the trauma of his circumstance causes Michael to transition his consciousness from his body onto Lief. Is he alive or dead? Who gets to determine the issue? What does it mean to be alive? You might not agree with Michael’s assessment.
Night of the Firstlings, Margo Lanagan
Given the 10th Plague and then imagine living through the nightmare. Therein lies the story complete with Prophet and prophecy and escape into the Red Sea although Lanagan adds a perfectly reasonable twist to bring her tale more alive and more suspenseful as well as throwing the reader off the scent.
Elevator, Nancy Kress
Given a man who has cared for his wife for a number of years through thick and thin, mostly thin. Such a man has just departed from his wife who is occupying a hospital bed after her latest attempt at suicide fails because the man is sufficiently diligent in his care. That man is riding an elevator with a handful of others. The elevator stops between floors allowing the travelers to examine their circumstances, the ones that put each in this hospital on this elevator on this day at this time. Through the interaction of the travelers during the pause in the elevator’s journey the man discovers answers to his questions. Or did he?
The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm, Daryl Gregory
Given Marvel’s Victor von Doom incarnated as Lord Grimm. Now consider his people, the people of Latvia incarnated as the people of Trovenia. Consider their lives before, during, and after the latest attacks of the American super heroes. Imagine the television coverage while the TV station still broadcasts. Imagine keeping family and friends together as you move from one shelter to the next while the war rages around you. Imagine returning to work when the battle finally concludes. I saw this scenario nearly addressed during a battle between Torpedo and Dare Devil but, in all the years of reading Marvel and occasionally D.C., never with the honesty and gritty detail of this portrayal. It may well be the best story in the collection.
Exhalation, Ted Chiang
Given a world where argon is the atmosphere and that atmosphere is discovered during the story to be the life force of that world. Consider, then, entropy. Once the danger is discovered, can it be mitigated? Mr. Chiang doesn’t think so making his tale more a cautionary allegory than an end-of-the-world horror story.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, David Moles
Given a world where the theme park is not only run by AI but the human role players are intelligences removed for the life of their contract from their human bodies and inserted into personalities that interact with theme park guests. Suppose, next, that the theme park is purchased in a hostile takeover by two more AIs who are not particularly interested in honoring the terms of the existing employee contracts. These new AI control the servers where the employee consciousnesses are hosted making the employees virtual slaves – and you must admire the pun. The story, then, becomes the employee rebellion, its means and its outcome. You must be willing to deal with game industry slang to get through the story but, if you abide that nuisance, it plays well.
The Rabbi’s Hobby, Peter S. Beagle
Given a Rabbi who collects things, boxer trading cards, paper matchbooks, those little sugar things you get when you order coffee at restaurants, keys, and magazines. Mix in a young man prepping for his 1951 Bar Mitzvah, a prep drastically needed because he cannot seem to grasp the nuances of Hebrew. During his breaks the Rabbi introduces him to a young woman on the cover of a magazine named Evening. She is the most fascinating woman either has ever seen. They began a search for who she was, who she might be, a search that takes them to a sister, daughter of the photographer who was father to the girl who died on the day she was born in 1907. How did she get into her father’s photography?
The Seventh Expression of the Robot General, Jeffrey Ford
Retired generals are more often than not an embarrassment to the current government. If the retired general in question is a robot, a badly deteriorating robot at that, the embarrassment is exaggerated. The robot was built with the capability to form seven expressions suitable to the job he was designed to perform, win the war. The seventh expression, described as a god-like expression, enchanted troops to make them extensions of his own determination to win. He did that; he won the war. Now, he just wants to die. Hiring someone to do the job is a problem. The one likely candidate wants to preserve his head, mores specifically the brain in his head. It’s enough to make the general fight one last battle.
Skin Deep, Richard Parks
Given a young woman who inherits the skills and the magic artifacts of her grandmother to become the Wise Woman of Endby. The artifacts are skins that she dons to accomplish specific tasks: there is a Tinker skin for maintaining the homestead, an Oaf for the mindless heavy lifting required, a Soldier for protection, and another whose identity she discovers over time. The young woman beings the tale uncertain of her own wishes for her life but feeling locked into following her grandmother. Events of the story propel her to recognition of the true relationship between herself and the skins as well as the kind of life she wants to live. With a definite finality in her actions, she makes her choice and faces the life she has made for herself. It is a tale far more warm and human than this synopsis might suggest.
Ex Cathedra, Richard Parks
Given a far future with time travelers, and buildings bigger on the inside on the out. It’s that building that, that cathedral you want to concentrate on. It’s the Cathedral of Justice, a place where everything in the EM spectra related to humanity is collected and cached. The hero is the manager of the project building. He’s also a time traveler and that presents a peculiar problem for him. Time travelers are not allowed children, too many complications when travelers go forward and back, back before the children were born. Parks provides the rationale and it works except that it doesn’t work for the hero. Another time traveler is on to him, though, and the story is how he deals with the imposition on his existence. Yes, the solution lies within the Cathedral albeit ignoring for the moment the concept of Justice. Despite the mismatch between title and story, the time traveling and building work.
Truth Window: A Tale of the Bedlam Rose, Terry Dowling
Given an earth as a Cohabitation conquered by one race but administered by 3 client races, a time comes when the administrators are presented a problem in human behavior. The problem comes in three parts: an increasing usage of the phrase By the Lady who may also be referred to as Lady Mondegreen; a church with one window built on a site where the view is of the earth as it is remembered by the defeated humans; and the cleric’s insistence on referring to the window as a truth window. Representatives of the three administrative races meet at the church to investigate and to decide what needs be done. The cleric poses the question to her inquisitors: could this be what the conquerors intended? The administrators agree that what they decide, by default, is what the conquerors intended. Dowling does his best not to answer the question.
Fury, Alastair Reynolds
Given a far future emperor, the target of an assassination, whose ability to transfer himself from body to body makes him virtually eternal. Give him a security professional who has been with him so long that both have forgotten the circumstances of their partnership. Make the security expert a unique robot, one of only a hundred or so ever made and maybe the last. Have the security expert discover from the forensics of the assassination a message: am I my brother’s keeper? Then follow the investigation to its conclusion where that question and more are answered. Crime and punishment, rehabilitation, redemption, all covered in a tightly knit story that holds together beginning to end better than most.
Fifteen stories that did for me what Strahan stated they did for him: swept me away into the author’s world for as long as it lasted, or made me think differently about something I thought I had resolved for myself a long time ago. Recommended.
© 2010 Dan Bieger