Jim Baen's Universe, #5, February 2007

Wednesday, 11 April 2007 13:06 Michael Fay
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"War Stories" by Elizabeth Bear
"A Stranger in Paradise" by Edward M. Lerner
"Demonstration Day" by Ian Creasey
"I Could've Done Better" by Gregory Benford and David Brin
"Marklord Pete" by Will McCarthy
"The Spiral Road" by Louise Marley
"Rebel the First" by Edd Vick
"Pawn's Gambit" by Carol Hightshoe
"Research Alpha" by A. E. van Vogt and James H. Schmitz
"Storm Warning" by Robert Cruze
"Old Folks' Home" by John Kratman
"The Goblin Hunter" by Jeff Stehman

The February 2007 issue, #5, of Jim Baen’s Universe offers 12 short stories divided into science fiction, fantasy, classic fiction, and stories by new authors.

Leading off the issue is Elizabeth Bear’s “War Stories.” One kind of war or another intertwines throughout as Jenny Casey fights them, sometimes alone, sometimes with loved ones.  She starts with an actual shooting war, serving in the Canadian Army, fighting in Hartford and later in South Africa. In Hartford, she saves a child during a firefight. In South Africa, she can’t save herself from the flames, which starts her own internal war. And then she goes to Toronto to help Gabe, a man she once loved, fight his own personal war as his wife dies of leukemia.

The physical action of “War Stories” serves primarily as a backdrop to the emotional action in Jenny’s life. Bear writes about how fighting and being forced to fight affects her, and Jenny more fully recovers from her physical scars than her emotional ones. Still, she’s squarely in the middle of the spectrum in this story.

Bear writes deftly and “War Stories” is compelling. It is, however, ultimately a sad tale. We see that Jenny can muddle through her broken life, but she will never be whole again. In the end, she might even be afraid to try. This is an excellent piece of fiction, and I strongly recommend it, but brace yourself; it’s not a happy story.

“A Stranger in Paradise” by Edward M. Lerner is about the damage we do out of desperate idealism. It is also a love story.

Amanda, attracted to Cameron’s reticence and artistry, and Cameron, attracted to Amanda’s beauty and gentle nature are a team for the Reunification Corps. They seek out pre-FTL colonization attempts in order to reestablish contact with old colonies. They find an old slow boat orbiting Paradise. Cameron sets out to discover what he can from the ancient ship, while Amanda goes down to the planet’s surface to ascertain whether any of the colony could have survived, despite the lack of evidence that people are on the planet—Cameron has a hunch. Suffice it to say that Cameron is correct—there are people—and it dooms him to isolation from the woman he loves. The colonists took action to prevent them from devastating the environment of this world, and the virus they used infects everything that lands on the planet.

“A Stranger in Paradise” is a complex story. It explores both the extremes that people who have seen the devastation of their own environment might go to in order to prevent it from occurring again and the collateral damage they inflict on themselves and on those who unsuspectingly follow.

The title of Ian Creasey’s “Demonstration Day” refers to the day each year when members of the scientific community all convene to see one of their number demonstrate their latest development. However, this year the scheduled demonstrator is missing, and a vindictive scientist wants to blame Drake, the local purveyor of gadgetry and parts for all things scientific. Profits on the line, Drake springs into action—with the help of Audran, who wants Drake to sell his latest invention—to discover what really happened to Rankin and preserve his own reputation.

“Demonstration Day” is a humorous mystery. Though the ending is foreseeable, it doesn’t matter because it’s not the end, but rather the path, that we care about. 

Gregory Benford and David Brin collaborate on “I Could’ve Done Better.” Alec is perhaps a little fast and loose with his vows. And he might like his trips to the bar a little too much. And he certainly never learned to put up those little blinders that married men are supposed to pretend to have.

So, Alec goes down to the bar for a beer before heading home, when he is approached by two extremely good-looking women—persuasive, good-looking women with a proposition.  Alec, being Alec, is unable to decline and winds up ruling Egypt. But, of course, with every offer you can’t refuse, there is a catch.
“I Could’ve Done Better” is a humorous tale whose strength lies in the constant strivings against expectations, of worlds fighting enemies through alternate timelines, and Alec, who is the key to the whole thing.

In “Marklord Pete” by Will McCarthy, everything is tied to intellectual property (IP). You can’t purchase food, clothing, power, or any other necessities without being beholden to someone's owned trademark. Pete is, therefore, an anomaly. He actually entertains the idea that there’s something beyond IP. Of course, true to his world, he is unable to express it that way and tries to fit it into his society.  Pete discovers a trademark infringement upon his portfolio, threatening the subscribers that rely upon his network, and he decides to try something unorthodox and unheard of in a world of instant litigation; he wants to settle out of court! Backed by his able paralegal girlfriend, Muffy, Pete sets about trying to find an amicable settlement and learns the value of his principles in the process.

This is an amusing and not-so-implausible look at the path we might find ourselves on if we don’t fix the copyright and trademark mess that corporations have purchased from our government. For anyone with the slightest interest in the world and how the corporate manipulation of property, intellectual, physical, and otherwise, is pushing us down a spiral path, “Marklord Pete” can be viewed as the ultimate dark comedy. McCarthy has created an appealing character in an otherwise repugnant world.

Louise
Marley’s “The Spiral Road” is the first fantasy in issue 5. Irlen is a doctor for Callis City, caring for the weak and sick, the poorest children of the city, when she can escape the duty of caring for the soldiers injured in the General’s impetuous and selfish war against the Alhasi, the only nation that produces the world’s most important medicine, pursil leaf. Romas is a courier for Alhasa. He follows the teachings of their spiritual leader and acts at his behest. He too is caught up in the futility of the war, given tasks that he has no choice but to complete, and he is tasked with getting some pursil leaf to Irlen.

“The Spiral Road” is a bit heavy-handed. While ostensibly about the quest of two people, it draws broad and heavy statements about war that make it a bit preachy. Moreover, switching between Irlen and Romas results in neither of them being as fully drawn as I would have liked. Of the two, Irlen is the more interesting, but she’s led straight to her goal by the ghost of her deceased father. A little deus ex machina for this reader’s tastes. Romas is little more than the subservient and convenient representative of Irlen’s goal, and the story could have been told as easily with Irlen’s scenes exclusively.

In “Rebel the First” by Edd Vick, Duane Fuller (Reb) is a man of unusual luck. While drinking beer, he needs something to go with it and buys a box Cracker Jacks and thereby gets anointed Pope. Upon opening the prize, he discovers it's the little gold ring the Catholic Church is using to break the papal voting deadlock. As Reb would say, "Wouldn’t you just know it?"

Now, a Texas boy like Reb, raised Baptist but converted to Catholicism because he wanted to irritate his preacher father, is unlikely to have spent a lot of time thinking about the culture of the Vatican or what it might mean to be the Bishop of Rome. Reb certainly hasn’t. But he tries. He tries pretty hard. And then he wings a sermon that sounds a bit like The X-Files and The Terminator and The Weekly World News. And, quite frankly, Catholicism just isn’t ready for a world being invaded by alien cyborgs from the future to kill their babies. The Convention of Cardinals is quite upset, and Reb needs to extricate himself.  And he also decides that perhaps he needs to avoid opening food with prizes, fortunes, or little things inside it.

Witty and clever, “Rebel the First” does an excellent job of taking a stereotype and turning it on its head.  Rebel is a great character with a disarming charm, and this is my favorite story in the issue.

Carol
Hightshoe’s “Pawn’s Gambit” is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty where the outcast aunt uses her curse to bring the sleeping princess whole into her castle so she may train her to protect their homeland. Another of a string of retellings that make the villain of the original fairy tale the hero, here, the evil aunt does what she does only for love of her homeland. She seeks to make the princess strong enough to protect the kingdom from the inevitable husband she will be required to marry.  

Nothing particularly stands out with “Pawn’s Gambit.” It doesn’t set itself apart from other retellings of Sleeping Beauty.  Hightshoe’s writing is utilitarian and workmanlike, but it doesn’t sparkle. Ultimately, the story simply failed to grab this reader.

From the Classic section of Baen’s Universe is “Research Alpha” by A. E. van Vogt and James H. Schmitz. Dr. Gloge is obsessed with his work, developing a serum that hastens individual evolution, so obsessed that he secretly chooses two humans to test his experimental serum on, even though as often as not, it has led to the death of other test subjects such as mice in previous trials. However, the team supervising his research, John Hammond and his assistant, Helen Wendell, is more aware than he thinks about the serum's affects and is actively seeking to end his research.  And they have resources beyond Dr. Gloge’s imagining.  

Dr. Gloge’s test subjects, Barbara and her stormy boyfriend, Vince, have wildly different reactions to the serum. Barbara thrives, while Vince suffers a bad turn. Barbara’s effect is so good that she is able to use newly discovered abilities to figure out what is happening to her and seeks to enhance it. She goes so far that John and Helen are forced to try to stop her.

“Research Alpha” is truly classic science fiction. Tight and crisp writing paired with great action carries this story through complex and thought provoking ideas. The complications and ending weren't unexpected; the premise of this story rests upon foundations of science fiction, and as such, there are bound to be recognizable elements.  Still, “Research Alpha” is a great story and well worth a read.

The final section of short fiction is Introducing: Stories by new authors.

In “Storm Warning” by Robert Cruze, Lee and Maddy Kurchowsky are metallurgists that ply their trade near the sun. They are working to create “battle steel,” a metal capable of handling the massive strains of star travel, and thus prized for building ships.
 
They escape from a massive solar storm that destroys their smelter and their livelihoods. Through their efforts, and the efforts of some unseen solar weather forecaster, many of their fellow smelters survive as well. But when they reach the orbital platform, they encounter another obstacle, the companies that represent their corporate competitors.

Cruze shows signs of being a good writer. His dialogue is clean and his characterization is good. However, the plot is contrived and fraught with coincidence. “Storm Warning” provides glimpses of what Robert Cruze may achieve after he has further refined his craft.

John Kratman’s “Old Folks’ Home” is set in an orbiting retirement home. Seniors of advanced age retire to the minimal gravity and ease of physical strain that Happy Orbit station offers them. Sadly, while they have greatly extended lives, they are bored to tears.

When the director takes a vacation planet side, his father, Bobby, the previous director, has to contend with thieves who try to steal Happy Orbit's shield. He apprehends the thieves just as a solar storm hits the stations in orbit. Of course, Bobby also has to contend with a heart attack and that the thieves are a station full of orphans.

“Old Folks’ Home” is a fairly standard kind of story about peril in orbit. It incorporates many of the same clichés of the trope and is overly reliant on sentiment to make its impact. The action scenes are interesting and seem well thought out, but the story’s flaws leave it flat.

The final story of the issue is Jeff Stehman’s “The Goblin Hunter.” Adham is a professional goblin hunter who finds himself in a bind.  Goblin hunters must use a goblin’s overwhelming curiosity against him, something Adham is particularly good at.  So he figured he could handle taking a man and cargo through the Goblin Hills. But he failed to account for the stupidity of the man he must escort, a failure he contemplates while lying tied spread-eagle on the ground.

“The Goblin Hunter” is a clever little story with an entertaining premise.  Stehman’s goblins are mischievous sprites, rather than the orc-like thugs of many fantasy tales, and they have a certain charm. Adham is also possessed of a gentle quality that makes him appealing. Recommended.