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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Tor.com -- July 2016

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Tor.com, July 2016

"Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper" by Douglas F. Warrick

"Once More Into the Abyss" by Dennis Danvers
"Something Happened Here, But We're Not Quite Sure What It Was" by Paul McAuley
"The Art of Space Travel" by Nina Allan

Reviewed by Nicky Magas

It can be hard to find a place to get away to in modern life. But if you're a time traveller with access to a time-reticulation chamber, as is the protagonist in "Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper" by Douglas F. Warrick, literally anywhere and anywhen will do. Like the hollowed out skull of Abraham Lincoln, seconds before his assassination. It's a clever place to die, if that's the sort of thing you're into, but just when the time traveller has made himself comfortable, a new mystery throws itself into his life that itches to be solved.

As far as unsolved and possibly unsolvable mystery stories go, "Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper" is a good one. The tone of the story is light, even as the plot grows steadily more melancholy. The reader never gets enough information on the protagonist to fully understand him, but that's how it is with most people. Readers come to empathize with him however, as he throws himself into an existential loop from which he cannot hope to escape without changing something fundamental about himself.

The abyss is calling Stan in Dennis Danvers's "Once More Into the Abyss." Then again, the abyss has always been calling to Stan. As a now grown and well-aged child of alien parents, the sinkhole in New Mexico and all the strange things that have come out of it contain a lot of mystery and attraction. And it's not just him. When his father-in-law Simon steps into the abyss, prophesying the reunion of alien parents with alien children, Stan and what remains of his family travel to New Mexico to witness whatever comes next. Having come from alien parents, Stan knows that no possibility is too weird to consider.

"Once More Into the Abyss" is the final installation of a three part series about Stan, his unconventional family, and children of alien parents. Stan is a wonderful unreliable narrator. His advanced age and his unresolved relationship with his parents compete to make the reader question whether or not the events of the story are really extra-terrestrial, or if they are simply the imaginings of an old man with a lifetime of regrets behind him. What makes him such a relatable character isn't so much the plot as it unfolds in Stan's present, but the way he describes his time with his family in the past. In the end, it doesn't matter whether or not Stan is really the child of aliens. The final paragraphs of the story pull the heartstrings, and are sure to leave a few eyes in need of a subtle dabbing.

In "Something Happened Here, But We're Not Quite Sure What It Was" by Paul McAuley, Leah Bright has found her calling in life. By whatever means necessary, she and her supporters will not allow Universal Communications to set up a series of radio telescopes in their town on First Foot. As far as Leah is concerned, it's far too dangerous to transmit into space a beacon probing for potential alien life when they live right next door to a miasma of alien ghosts that have already wreaked havoc through their population once. Unfortunately, there's little that Leah can legally do against the giant corporation that has all the right permits. Nothing but consult her ghosts and stir her supporters into sabotage.

"Something Happened Here, But We're Not Quite Sure What It Was" is a perfect little stand-alone out of a larger body of work. As a commentary on the political animal that is humanity, it hits the nail right on the head and posits that, even on an alien world, humans will never stop being and behaving like humans. In fact, if First Foot was never explicitly stated as being an extra-terrestrial world, the unfamiliar reader would never guess that the story took place anywhere but on Earth.

Emily's mother might as well be on Mars in "The Art of Space Travel" by Nina Allan. Much of Emily's life is dominated by the Martian planet these days, whether it be the Second Wind mission that will see its astronauts visit her hotel in a whirlwind of media attention before they launch to the red planet, or thoughts that her father might have been one of the men involved in the failed New Dawn Mars mission that proceeded it. Emily would just as well focus on her mother, however, whose infrequent bouts of lucidity after her work at the Galaxy disaster site leave Emily more perplexed about herself and her place in the world with each passing day. But with her mother's untimely death a near certainty and no other living relative to call her own, speculation about who her father might be weighs on Emily's mind, and she has only the scattered and barely coherent information her mother has given her to guide her to the truth.

Emily's journey into discovering her past unfolds wonderfully in "The Art of Space Travel." Each possible father comes with his own pros and cons to Emily's life and psyche until readers aren't sure themselves who would be the best of the bunch. Allan drops enough hints throughout the story that the reveal and Emily's reaction to it don't come as a surprise, though readers may be pleasantly tickled by all the subtle ways the story moves them toward that conclusion on their own. The science fiction is underplayed to allow a greater emotional connection to Earthbound Emily and her problems that are both insignificant and world altering, depending on perspective.