Jim Baen's Universe, #7

Friday, 13 July 2007 07:33 Aliette de Bodard and Jeff Cates
"The Big Guy" by Mike Resnick
"Running Water for L.A." by Eric M. Witchey
"Thin Ice" by David Freer
"Weredragons of Mars" by Carl Frederick
"Swing Time" by Carrie Vaughn
"Cryptic Coloration" by Elizabeth Bear
"The Littlest Wyrm-Maid" by Rebecca Lickiss
"Child, Maiden, Woman, Crone" by Terry Bramlett
"The Realm of Words" by Eric Flint
"Touching the Dead" by J. Kathleen Cheney
"Chicken Soup" by A.F. Tesson
"Chirus Fever" by Lisa L. Satterlund

Issue #7 of Baen's Universe leads off with "The Big Guy" by Mike Resnick.  The narrator meets the latest recruit to his basketball team: Ralph, aka The Big Guy. Ralph is a robot designed especially to play the game—and play it better than any human; his reflexes are perfect, and he never misses a throw or a pass. The possibility of hiring robot players fundamentally changes the way of playing within the league—but things start becoming complicated when Ralph learns about emotions...

This story initially had me groaning, mostly because the setup was pretty reminiscent of SF classics such as Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel—in which a physically better suited robot is designated to replace a human. However, the second half of the plot redeemed the story; the introduction of emotions, and the very believable—albeit chilling—reaction of the robot to them, lifted the plot and the characters above the realm of the predictable. Although it ends a tad too abruptly for my taste, this was a very shrewd analysis of robots and of the interactions they would have with humans and teammates.

"Running Water for LA" by Eric M. Witchey tells the story of Ron, a submarine operator who tows glacial water to LA. On what seems like an ordinary jaunt, Ron finds a container on the seabed which contains an unconscious woman—a woman someone tried to kill by immersing her in water.

While I liked the details of submarines and the idea that someone could translate whale-song, I was less impressed by the story itself. Ron's character felt underdeveloped, and the plot itself was a tad too predictable to engage.

The narrator of "Thin Ice" by Dave Freer has got himself into a spot of trouble. Marooned on a crater ledge on the planet Hades, on the edge between daylight and darkness, he waits for sunrise, knowing that the intensity of sunlight will fry him in his suit. He cannot go back to his ship—for, below him, the mysterious alien that ate his two comrades is waiting.

This is a tense story that had me on tenterhooks from beginning to end. The narrator's jeopardy and his subsequent attempts to understand what he's got into—Why has the alien started to chase him and his partners? What can he do to get off the ledge and back into the ship?—feel real and pressing. His interactions with the ship AI are also utterly believable, and the ending nicely used the character's background and knowledge to tie up the story.

"Weredragons of Mars" by Carl Frederick takes place on a generation ship returning to Old Earth after centuries in space. To stave off boredom, a new "trope" is chosen every year—Antiquity, the Old West, the Middle Ages.  Everyone on board then has to dress and act according to the trope. To adolescents Jeffrey, Claire, and Rolf, however, tropes seem artificial and without any real impact on their mission; they are bored and rebellious, and they want to do something different. But matters take a graver turn when they are arrested and dragged before the Commanding Authority of the ship.

The "Weredragons of Mars" is an opportunity for Frederick to poke fun at some of the SF, fantasy, and horror classics, and he uses it to great advantage. But I remained unconvinced by the story's ending. While I was quite ready to believe in the real reason behind the ship's travels, Jeffrey's reaction struck me as a little too conciliatory; given his rebelliousness, I expected him to make more difficulties than he actually did.

"Swing Time" by Carrie Vaughn postulates the existence of time travelers who can open doors into the past or the future using a catalyst to gather energy. For Madeline, the catalyst is dancing—and the attraction to traveling between centuries is stealing jewelry. What she has not taken into account, however, is the presence of another time traveler, Ned, who seems intent on following her—and on beating her to her prize.

I loved the descriptions: the atmosphere of the places Madeline went to was very well depicted, and it was fascinating to see how the dances reflected the mood of the time. Madeline's sensuous pleasure in the dance is evident and contagious, and Ned's ambiguous and charming character was a strong addition to an already potent mix. Halfway through, the story took an unexpected but exciting turn—and reached a conclusion that was both fitting and satisfying for this reader.

"Cryptic Coloration" by Elizabeth Bear takes place in the same universe as her Promethean books: in modern-day New York City.  Matthew is a teacher by day, Magus by night—a member of the Magi association, the Prometheus Club—he makes sure that no supernatural creatures become loose on his patch. When a woman commits suicide by flinging herself through a window and Matthew finds magical venom on the pavement, he has no choice but to investigate. He is followed by three of his students, who are fascinated by him, but have no idea what magic means or of the price paid for knowledge.

This was without a doubt the best story of the issue. Bear hints at the greater universe of her novels without overburdening the reader with exposition. The narration is taut, and the stakes—a lethal creature loose in Manhattan—are high from the start. Matthew's relationship with his students and with the other Magi of the Prometheus Club make for strong interactions, and the story's theme—loss of innocence—is masterfully treated without ever being too explicit. In the end, the price that has to be paid is indeed very high—and heartbreaking—but Bear never lets the story descend too far into mawkishness. Recommended.

"The Littlest Wyrm-Maid" by Rebecca Lickiss is much more lighthearted than the preceding story. Theora, a dragon, has her heart set on marrying a prince she overheard telling stories. She bullies three wizards into making her human for three days and makes her way to the capital. But the prince has become king and is in the middle of very delicate peace negotiations, and Theora finds herself embroiled in political intrigues.

This dragged a bit at times—I found the wizards' part of the narration a bit overlong for what it brought to the plot. When it did hit the right notes, however, it was hysterically funny—Theora, who ends up as a six-year-old human child with an obsession for books, is clueless as to the motives of the people around her, and this makes for strong situational comedy.

"Child, Maiden, Woman, Crone" by Terry Bramlett tells the story of Johnny and of the girl he meets while playing guitar and then later marries. She introduces herself as Natalie, but it is soon clear that she is much more than that.  She is Changing Woman, a Navajo deity, and loving her is not always easy.

This is a quiet, understated story of a relationship between a man and a woman that is also the relationship between a man and the land of his ancestors. Natalie, in many ways, is the land; tied to it, she ages as seasons pass, growing from child to maiden as summer arrives, to finally become a crone in winter. Her relationship with Johnny, and with Johnny's family and friends, is tenderly depicted, and the ending, while not unexpected, is exactly what it should be.

In "The Realm of Words" by Eric Flint, the narrator, a salamander, finds himself swept up in the eponymous realm through a series of wizards' gaffes, along with a couple other magic practitioners. Being wizards, of course, his companions cannot leave well alone, and they soon start a major upheaval in the previously ordered realm by urging the common words to rebel against the Proper Words.

This has a lot of funny touches—the wizards trying to start gin mills to bring oblivion to the downtrodden masses, the animosity between nouns and verbs, and even between different fonts. However, it felt slightly too long for its content—the voice of the narrator, which was funny at the beginning, started to grate after a while, and the story seemed to be more a collection of funny vignettes than something with a coherent plot. The ending left me baffled; it didn't really seem to solve anything.

J. Kathleen Cheney's "Touching the Dead" slowly unfolds like a delicate flower.  Shironne Anjir, an adolescent girl, is trying to fulfill a promise to discover the reason for the murder of the man her maid loved.  Despite her blindness, she has the ability to read people by touching them.  A sympathetic colonel heading the investigation allows her to touch the body of the dead man.

Shironne's mother is married to a powerful politician, and her fear of him complicates the plot.  Both females fear the repercussions if Mr. Anjir discovers what they are trying to do.  Despite her reservations about her daughter's actions, Mrs. Anjir wants her daughter to learn to function independently.  She reluctantly allows her to pursue this investigation.  She seems to be more concerned that her husband doesn't learn what she's permitting their daughter to do.

Mrs. Anjir's action serves as a counterbalance to her husband's disdain for having a less than perfect daughter, since Shironne already knows she is expected to leave home when she turns seventeen.

The story creeps along at a slow, deliberate pace, which may discourage readers with short attention spans.  In many ways the pacing mirrors the cautious steps a sightless person would take in unfamiliar surroundings.  Cheney does a good job of allowing readers to walk in Shironne's shoes.  Her perceptive thoughts are based on a combination of sights, sounds, smells, and mental impressions based on her extraordinary sense of touch.

In many ways, this young girl's methodical reasoning throughout the story reminded me of a young Sherlock Holmes.  The colonel who accompanies her on their search for answers is a worthy partner and an honorable man in every way.  Readers who enjoy intelligent investigative stories are likely to become fans of Cheney's tale.

"Chicken Soup" by A.F. Tesson is a cute story about Eliza's difficulties when she discovers that her daughter's plastic dinosaurs have come alive. High jinks ensue when Eliza has to round up every single one of them and put them back in her shoebox.

"Cute" is what describes this story.  The idea of small plastic dinosaurs running loose through the house is a child's dream—if a mother's nightmare. There are some hilarious moments in this story, but I felt it was trying too hard at times—especially the ending, which was no doubt meant to bring a smile to the reader's face, but which I found slightly on the annoying side.

In "Chirus Fever" by Lisa L. Satterlund, Frank and Liz work for CECID—the Center for Eradication and Control of Infectious Diseases. When a ship with a suspected epidemic of Chirus Fever lifts off without warning, Frank and Liz have to team up before the epidemic can spread further.

"Chirus Fever" is fast paced and full of thrills. It's well-written and easy to read.  As a story, it succeeds in hooking the reader and delivering a plot and characters that satisfy. My only complaint with it is that I expected more of it. Neither plot nor setting were particularly original; the plot was a standard rescue mission, and the setting—ships in space above a planet—was pretty standard SF fare. It's a good story, but not particularly memorable—a pity, given the strength of the writing.

(Reviewed by Aliette de Bodard except for "Touching the Dead" by J. Kathleen Cheney which was reviewed by Jeff Cates.)