“Bits and Pieces” by Ty Drago
“The Party” by Diane Arrelle
“Ebb” by Scott H. Andrews
“Jackpot World” by Larry Hodges
“In the Service of the Guns” by David Tallerman
“Catted” by J. Michael Shell
“Chocolate Kittens From Mars” by Mary A. Turzillo
Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk
Since I thought I determined a theme in the previous issue of Space & Time, I wanted to check and see if I found one in this issue. And, yes, I did. The theme this time would appear to be straightforward SF; not “hard” SF, where it focuses on the nuts & bolts of science, but at least somewhat rigorous SF where at least you can say “this is SF, not fantasy.”
Then I started wondering: did the editor actually assemble these stories with a theme in mind, or am I seeing patterns where none exist? One thing the human mind in general is good at (and something I flatter myself I’m also good at) is discerning pattern. Even where no actual pattern exists (it’s why, for example, so many people have found clouds that look like familiar things, or tea readers seem to find patterns in tea leaves in the bottoms of cups); so am I seeing a pattern or not? Maybe SF itself is too tenuous to be thought of as a theme in a genre magazine. Although, to be fair, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, for example, has had a “Stephen King” issue, and although many people who don’t read a lot of King think he’s a “horror” writer, he stands on his own. King has written too many types of fiction to be classified easily by those who read him, so maybe SF is enough for a theme.
“Bits and Pieces,” by Ty Drago, stands on its own as an SF story, but took me back some 30 years to when David R. Bunch was publishing his Moderan stories in (I think it was) Amazing and Fantastic. Bunch’s stories were very New Wave and involved (again, depending on memory here) machines with human parts, and told in a much less accessible language than Burgess’s “Nadsat” (A Clockwork Orange). Bunch’s stories were, more or less allegories and/or parables; “Bits and Pieces” is a straightforward, if offbeat, piece of SF.
The protagonist of Drago’s story is a machine scavenger named 122.5, whose primary functions are to salvage organic flotsam from wars and crash landings on the planet he inhabits, and to avoid the combat/scavenger ACU-591, which competes with him for flotsam. 122.5 uses the flotsam, both organic and inorganic to repair himself; ACU-591 uses the organic for fuel. But what happens when one piece of organic flotsam is not dead, but alive? A strange little story, and quite arresting and well told.
Okay, not every story in this issue is SF. “The Party,” by Diane Arrelle, is an offbeat fantasy about a Christmas party and what happens there. Lisa’s brother and sister-in-law have been killed in a plane crash, leaving their young daughter Tina in Lisa’s care.
The problem is, either Tim or Marcie has been visiting Lisa frequently at night after the crash; and she’s going ahead with the annual Christmas party at their behest. What happens at the party is the core of the story, what happens after the party is the kicker. It’s well written and a bit different from your usual ghost story.
“Ebb,” by Scott H. Andrews, is SF of the best kind, in my opinion, and told with a sure hand. In the space of a few pages, Andrews limns an entire culture with nary a trace of expository lump or purple prose.
Our unnamed protagonist lives in the water-borne city of Nisia, subject to the tides of his unnamed planet. Once every forty-four years, the Convergence happens: the sun aligns with the moon and the tides peak; there is a celebration, and afterwards, all of Nisia grow their crops on the mud flats before the tides return. Our protagonist, “Moonpa” (means Grandpa), is too old to help with the planting, tending or reaping, and thereby hangs the tale of his life.
A wonderful story, wonderfully told, of how people face the encroaching darkness of death, and of sins and redemption and familial love.
“Jackpot World,” by Larry Hodges, is a sly little SF tale of an alien named Songo from an alternate reality who came here as a historian to see what humans are like. You see in his reality, Quaternia, the humans all blew themselves up years ago in nuclear exchanges.
Songo is a large, purple being who is newly versed in the use of the Reality Traverser and uses a holographic projector so he can move about among humans without causing comment. Or so he thinks; since Quaternians don’t lie (and by extension, don’t fight, steal or cheat each other), Songo doesn’t count on what might happen when a less-than-honest human enters the convenience store Songo is patronizing to rob it. Amusing and lightweight; not as funny as, say, Laumer, but it stands on its own.
“In the Service of the Guns,” by David Tallerman, is a different kind of military SF; unlike, say, David Drake. The military trappings are a framework for the story, and the story is about the protagonist, Pilate (name very deliberate, obviously) and what he does.
Humanity is in a fight to the death with the Abadoni; a whole class of cyborg “Guns” has been created—fighters who are as much machine, even in psyche, as man. Guns tend to look down on non-combatants, and there is little fraternization. Pilate, who is a “profiler,” is transferred away from the planet Abadon to a planet which houses the slug-like “Singers,” who do nothing but sing unearthly harmonies and build strange structures from a resin they extrude.
We never really learn what a Profiler is, nor why the Singers were considered necessary to the war, but Pilate learns a way to use them in the war effort. How he does this, and the ramifications of using Singers (which are similar to whales in how they are regarded by the non-Guns), are at the core of the story, but although the story is very well written, I remain unconvinced that Pilate needs to suffer any angst at all about his actions. Which doesn’t spoil the story for me, but does weaken it.
“Catted,” by J. Michael Shell, is another break from the SF theme of this issue. It concerns a person who may be a god, a psychic vampire, or something entirely different. The protagonist, Fiona, meets Ishmael, and she’s the only one who can see him.
Is she dreaming or awake? Is Ishmael dreaming or awake? Is she his food, his love or a toy, like a mouse to a cat? The story answers none of those questions, but is well written nonetheless. I have a smallish quibble with the opening of the story, however, which says, “When a cat plays with a mouse, he loves the mouse… until he loves the mouse to death.” Uh-uh. Sorry, I’ve been a cat owner all my life; cats love the play, not the object of the play. They can’t help themselves. It’s very literary to start the story that way, but for me detracts from the story, as I’m put on my guard at the very beginning.
“Chocolate Kittens From Mars,” by Mary A. Turzillo, is very SF and, like most of the better stories in this issue, very weird. The illustration by Alan F. Beck shows three kittens’ heads, and each one has the masculine (“mars”) symbol in the fur on its forehead. Which set up an odd resonance for me with the first hardcover edition of Heinlein’s Between Planets, which had an illustration of a Martian “flatcat”—which, instead of a symbol, had a third eye in its forehead. So all the way through this story, which is a story about obsession, personal and corporate double-dealing, and chocolate, I kept thinking about flatcats.
I hope you can read this without my handicap, as it’s extremely well written, as you’d expect from a Mary Turzillo story. It’s a very human story of love and the chocolate “habit,” even though the end may be a bit Twilight Zone-ish. Not quite a tomato surprise, but someone is in for a surprise of some kind. I will say no more.
So I have 5 of 7 stories which are definitely SF; I think maybe that constitutes a theme for our purposes. If you’ve never read Space & Time, you could do a whole lot worse for your SF habit than to pick up this issue.
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