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

Challenging Destiny #21

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Image“To Live Forever” by Jay Lake
“The Day the Zombies Came Walking Up Out of the Sea” by Steven Mohan, Jr.
“The Bonebreaker” by Kenneth Mark Hoover
“Waste Management” by Suzanne Church
“Clark Bland Saves the Planet” by Jason Offutt
“The Case of the Twisted Coil” by Hayden Trenholm

Challenging Destiny
#21 brings us an interesting selection of stories, from cyberpunk to steampunk, humor to tragedy.

Jay Lake’s “To Live Forever” gets off to a rough start, with a who-the-hell-is-speaking opening line, a word repetition (clutched/clutched) in paragraph two, and a paragraph of clunky exposition a few paragraphs later. A bit of fast action tries and fails to buoy the opening scene. Flash forward “centuries Later” [sic] and the hero of the opening scene, Dismas, now conspires to defeat the mysterious Children who made him immortal.

The story is not without charm. Lake’s world-building is thorough, the descriptive passages vivid, and the dialogue, while stiff and archaic, is consistent, and flows well. The Children control the planet Gol Goth, and they have forced its human inhabitants into an unchanging Bronze Age. Dismas and his companion, Gestas, wish to free their world of the Children’s immortality, thus returning themselves to “the worlds of men.”

The pleasures of this story include the atmospheric setting, the well described horror of the Deadwalkers, and the Power that acts as the Children’s avenging angel on Gol Goth. The ending is dark, tragic, and effective. “To Live Forever” is a good story overall, but a firmer editing hand (especially in the first few pages) would have made it much better.

In “The Day the Zombies Came Walking Up Out of the Sea,” by Steven Mohan, Jr., zombies come to the quiet coastal town of Lincoln City, Oregon. Their arrival is unexplained, their occupation uneventful, and their departure puzzling. Much of the story follows the Pratt family (whose son Timmy is the first to discover the zombies’ arrival), and the Lincoln City townsfolk who meet to plan an official response to these new guests.

The story maintains a pleasant, humorous tone throughout. I smiled all through this one, and occasionally laughed out loud (as when Mrs. Pratt gripes, “This is precisely why I didn’t want to come to the Oregon coast. Zombies.”) It may be a lightweight story, but Mohan aims to entertain, and does not disappoint.

Stepan is an underworld soldier in Kenneth Mark Hoover’s “The Bonebreaker.” After arriving in the spaceport town of Star City in Kazakhstan, his handler, Viktor, gives him a job: bring in the AI that has been damaging their organization’s local operations. The AI is a cyborg framed out as a pretty, auburn-haired, twenty-something named Natalya. Stepan subdues the AI with some brief but intense violence—and then the plot twists.

“The Bonebreaker” takes the usual cyberpunk tropes and makes them feel fresh. A richly detailed political backdrop and deft characterization help Hoover make it all work. I have only one nit to pick: the denouement requires sloppiness on Viktor’s part. Aside from that, “The Bonebreaker” is smart and exciting, and makes me look forward to Hoover’s upcoming novel about “Russian spies and nanotechnology.”

Hell hath no fury like a woman with a deadbeat boyfriend. In Suzanne Church’s “Waste Management,” Lorna is an engineer itching to put distance between herself and planet Forbi—and her guy, Tanker, whose sole crime seems to be the fact he’s broke. Lorna takes her leave with a vengeance, leaving Tanker to the mercies of their carnivorous landlord, Drevik (“scum-lord” in Church’s gritty vernacular). She’s entitled to half of their common property, so she saws their conjugal sofa in two. What she does with her half makes for one cool image.

This opening provides effective characterization. Lorna is tough, unsentimental, all business. To escape from planet Forbi, she accepts employment as a waste management engineer on a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time lodging satellite. Lorna’s task is to bring the satellite’s waste system up to code; her challenges include more of Forbi’s flesh-eating Braklez, quivering walking jell-os known as Drips, a lecherous human colleague, gaping ten-sizes-too-large toilet bowls, and sentient critters in the satellite’s pipes.

The joys of a story like this stem from the interaction of a well conceived, three-dimensional character with her world. The plot itself—Lorna’s need to fix the satellite’s substandard waste system—seems secondary. Indeed, Lorna arrives at the solution with little conflict to slow her down. As the tale winds down, a newly introduced technology (couch-teleporters) and Tanker’s unexpected reappearance feel like loose ends, and Lorna’s toughness, so well developed in the first third of the story, fails to play a role in the denouement.

Clark Bland doesn’t have X-ray vision, super speed, mega strength, or the power of flight. He’s probably the last normal human on Earth in Jason Offutt’s story, “Clark Bland Saves the Planet.” Clark’s friends, coworkers, and even his wife have all indulged in Super Power Advantage (SPA) treatments. Much to everyone else’s chagrin, Clark just wants to be himself.

The title telegraphs the ending. We know that Clark will, by dint of being himself, save the day, succeeding where countless superheroes have failed. The act of salvation is silly, but in keeping with the story’s light, humorous tone. Better is the conflict between Clark and his wife Gloria, now Wonder Girl, a tale told mostly in interwoven flashbacks. This aspect of “Clark Bland Saves the Planet” is poignant, and leads to a conclusion which is both unexpected and satisfying.

This issue’s last and longest story is Hayden Trenholm’s “The Case of the Twisted Coil.” The year is 1885, and the protagonist is clearly Sherlock Holmes, although this is never overtly stated. Holmes has fled Europe, and presently lives incognito as a hobo in New York City. A dead body surfaces in the hobo jungle, bringing out the detective in Holmes. Before long he’s wearing disguises, chatting up suspects, and deducing like mad, just as Holmes’ fans expect him to do. The involvement of Thomas Edison and Nikolai Tesla adds to the fun.

Trenholm delivers a credible Holmes, and his writing is spotless overall. Science fiction readers who enjoy the Sherlock Holmes mysteries will no doubt enjoy this story, as will steampunk fans. I found the science fiction elements to be too thin and too sketchily explained, and the last scene’s expository dialogue bewildered me. To be blunt, I didn’t understand the solution to the mystery. In fairness to the author, my wife must regularly explain the endings of mysteries to me, so this may be my problem, and not the story’s.