"Tail by the Tiger, Horn by the Bull" by Ken Rand
"Catalyst" by John Alfred Taylor
"Child of Luna, Child of Earth" by Ralan Conley
"Career Opportunities" by Matt Howarth
"Made in Heaven" by Derek Paterson
"Breathing Space" by Sheila Crosby
"Diver" by Matt Howarth
Oceans of the Mind seems very promising. They've decided to build each issue of this quarterly (published in PDF format) around a unifying theme. Spring's was nanotechnology; this issue focused on the "Industrial Solar System." What's more, each issue contains a science column written by Gregory Benford. The layout is attractive, the pay rate professional, the themes planned far enough into the future to ensure a steady flow of good writing. As I said, this all seems promising. While I look forward to reading future issues, I have to say that this issue was a bit disappointing. Perhaps it was the specific theme, but, while there were some good stories, and all the stories were competent, the issue seemed tired overall. There is so much that could be done with the industrial solar system, so many possibilities to explore, but most of the authors spent their time exploring topics that had been done before, using styles and language that had been used before. Benford's column is so good, and publisher Richard Freeborn's vision seems so clear; let's hope the fiction rises to their level in future issues.
In "Tail by the Tiger, Horn by the Bull," by Ken Rand tells a competent yarn about a muckraker journalist caught between bribes, threats, and personal miscalculations. The story moves along smoothly enough, with action and complication (bribe/threat/ disaster/witchcraft/fire/twist ending) coming often enough to kept even Van Vogt happy, and Rand tells it with confidence. However, in the end the story isn't very satisfying. Part of it is the tension between the action, and the language and setting. While it was clear that the story was in part an homage to the tough guy reporter stories of the pulp days, the language didn't work. There was enough retro vocabulary to make the story feel old-fashioned ("gat" and "newsies" are used, and this is more than 500 years in the future), but not enough of an arch tone to make the story really funny. At other times, Rand employs the over-done metaphors of the pulps, but without the raw intensity to carry them off. He also extrapolates some aspects of society (new drugs, new money), but other parts seem to have gone backward, without explanation; this story could have been published in 1950. The result is somewhat humorous, but in the end, lacks real credibility as either humor or a serious tale.
If Rand's story could have been published in 1950, John Alfred Taylor's review of sweatshop labor from earlier still, though the descriptions of female bonding seem to be viewed through the lens of Atwood's Handmaid's Tale. "Catalyst" too is technically competent, but historically, and, more importantly, science fictionally, uninspired. Yes, it is possible that there will be sweatshops again, and yes, young women will be sold into them, perhaps. But will they resemble the past so closely? We'll have manufacturing and mining colonies in the asteroids and outer moons of the systemand we'll still be using near-slave labor to make clothing? Why? Why will old character clichés repeat (the crochety doctor, the friendly farmer)? The interplay of the women planning the rebellion is cleanly told, and realistic, but delivered without tension; it would have been a better story at half the length. What's worse, Taylor doesn't offer the slightest investigation into why the circumstances exist, as, for example, Heinlein did in "Logic of Empire." Here it is simpler: slavery, bad. Rebellion good. If this judgment of the story sounds harsh, it is because the prose and technology is solid, and Taylor is clearly capable of so much more.
"Child of Luna, Child of Earth" is also too familiar, and again, Heinlein is the name that comes to mind first as the source. Ralan Conley's descriptions of the tunnels and colony on the moon are goodbut not that much more developed than those in "The Menace From Earth" or "Gentleman, Be Seated." Loonies take advantage of naïve newcomers to the moon in fun, crusty ways familiar from The Cat Who Walked Through Walls or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and the long trek through tunnels and across the surface, using half charges of air bottles, well, that's a minimal version of the action sequences in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, with a touch of Bova's short story "Fifteen Miles" mixed in. On the positive side, Conley does a good job of evoking the texture of this new society, and portrays the romantic relationship that develops between the two main characters in ways that are not only realistic, but that evoke the tension between terran and lunar cultures.
"Career Opportunities" is uneven, and the language is clunky at times, but the core idea is fun, and I have to applaud Matt Howarth's daring. Sure, a lot of the story is told in summary, and sure, some aspects of the core character aren't convincing (surely an actor this good would show some insight into character at some point in the story?), but the sheer sweep of the story is fun. Howarth's tale of personality transfer into "bobbies" (robot bodies) touches on sexual ethics, political maneuvering, fear of space, the growing fear of the biological body, and the drive of the famous actor to hang on. I could poke a dozen holes in the plot, but the fact is, this story moved at Golden Age pace, and offered Golden Age fun.
I winced at the beginning of Derek Paterson's "Made in Heaven," thinking that the retro language was being used as unconsciously as it seemed to have been in some of the other stories. I was wrong. While a couple of the uses are a bit too extreme even for me (when and where in the heck are Olee and Olga supposed to be from?), a little ways in to the story, it became clear that Paterson was consciously re-using older clichés, in order to produce a fun yarn of a story. The result was pleasant, and one of the best in this issue. The story is meant only as fun, but the pace with which Paterson throws in new ideas is impressive. We've got plucky AIs, we've got genetic engineering, we've got contract killers, we've got economic maneuvering, we've (literally) the "square-jawed" pilot, we've got broad-beamed Norwegian cooks throwing what sound like Gypsy curses, and we've got true love, all in a brief, efficient story. If I haven't given much sense of the plot, that's intentional just read the story, and know that evil is punished, virtue rewarded, and that true love wins out.
"Breathing Space" is the best story in this issue. It shares some of the same flaws of the other stories Sheila Crosby explains too much, and dumps ideas in without fully integrating them (why Arab fundamentalist spacers, except to make the derelict ship hard to use?)but for once, there is real emotion in a story. The story opens subtly; Crosby does a good enough job of evoking the emotional flatness of clinical depression that Dan Gaunt's suffering that I barely cared what he did. Then, as he was drawn into the activity in this asteroid mining station, so was I. By the end, Dan's internal struggle and the external struggle of the impending industrial accident are fully synchronized, as are the economic, physical, and emotional threats to his family. I was rooting for him to save his child, and ready for the comforting ending when it came. "Breathing Space" isn't perfect, but it is a good read.
Ah...! In content, "Diver" is no more substantial than a 500 word piece of flash fiction, and the ideas here are no more new than in the rest of this issue. However, Matt Howarth delivers them in the form of a black and white comic, and the result is fun. While his visual style is his own, he captures the exuberance of Golden Age SF, and of comics of all decades, suggesting that people will find ways to dive the atmosphere of Jupiter for the sensation alone, and that there will always be rebel rock and pirate radio to lead the fight against corporate tyranny. Logical? No. But immensely fun, because it openly glories in the dream of space.
Greg Beatty was most of the way through a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa when his advisors agreed that letting him go to Clarion West 2000 would be a good idea. Bad idea. He finished his dissertation, on serial killer novels, then gave up on traditional academia and returned to his original dream of writing fiction. He's had a dozen stories accepted since September, with acceptances by Ideomancer.com, 3SF, Palace of Reason, Would That It Were, deathlings.com, and several anthologies. Greg's non-fiction appears in Strange Horizons and the New York Review of Science Fiction fairly regularly.