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

Tor.com -- February 2014

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Tor.com, February 2014

 
“Space Ballet” by Judith Moffett
“Mad Maudlin” by Marie Brennan
“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Kathleen Ann Goonan
“The Tallest Doll in New York City” by Maria Dahvana Headley
“The Price of Doing Business” by DB Jackson
“Cold War” by Adam Christopher
“Jubilee” by Karl Schroeder

Reviewed by Louis West.

“Space Ballet,” by Judith Moffett, follows Josh, his teacher and fellow students at the Center for Dream research as they probe the possible precog meanings of a dream he’d had. Dreams and dream-research have long been used as a future-warning mechanism across various genres. In this story, dream-interpretation is presented as a fledgling science struggling to gain recognition, and pursuing Josh’s dream leads to identifying and neutralizing a potential world-wide catastrophe. However, the story is also filled with long, slow sections covering background exposition about the evolution of dream research and Josh’s teacher’s own precog dreams as a child. Suffice it to say that the pace is draggy and the tension absent. I never felt anyone was really in any kind of danger. Now, if the dream interpretation had been flawed and the disaster barely avoided at the last minute by realization of that, then the story could have thrilled. I was disappointed.

In Marie Brennan’s “Mad Maudlin” Maud quickly presents as a potentially terrifying creature: Her eyes “could have driven nails into a concrete wall” while her gap-toothed mirthless grin, ragged hair and filthy appearance repel even the most experienced staff at the psych hospital. She’d been admitted to the ER, ranting and covered in blood. Now she tells Peter of wars, the stars fighting each other, not knowing how old she is, losing Tom and making mince pie out of children to feed the fairies. Later, after their interview, Peter recalls old ballads about Tom o’Bedlam and Mad Maudlin, sees connections with many things Maud had said, and decides that “Tom” must be some unresolved part of her own self. But, when he takes her to the roof and promises he’ll help her find Tom, she calls her entourage of fancies and leaps off the roof into otherwhere. With the Moon sitting serenely across the field and hosts of other worldly creatures around them, Maud asks Peter “what now?” Only then does he realize that Maud hadn’t been following the song, but the song had followed her. “The only way out is through,” echoes in Peter’s mind as he struggles with all his professional training to make sense out of everything and reconcile Tom and Maud as parts of the same person. But that success changes Peter forever, making him into something different.

Maud is quite the compelling character, and the story is filled with lots of edgy tension. I was pleasantly never quite sure how the story might turn. Definitely recommended.

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Kathleen Ann Goonan is an intricate tale about emergence, the “cooperation of things of unlike kinds . . . self-organized and unpredictable.” In a world where DNA plasticity drugs allow the blending of human and animal genomes, Meitner, an African Grey Parrot, demands the right for all species “to accept or reject technological changes to our fundamental being.” What unfolds is Meitner’s story: How he was the product of a gene plasticity lab then rescued by Dr. Jean Woodward, who wanted to build a communication bridge between humans and other species. Jean raised him for ten years as an equal sister to her daughter. After Jean was murdered by a flock of wild African Greys, Meitner vanished, spent decades refusing to speak, while closely studying humans and writing breakthrough papers on flocking mathematics under a pseudonym, until joining a new space research adventure and once again making his presence known.

Actually, Meitner’s story weaves together three intricate tales: The emotional journey of two inseparable sisters torn apart by the brutal death of their mother, only to rediscover and reconcile with each other 25 years later; the love story between Jean, her husband and their two daughters, Leilani and Meitner; plus an exploration of how emergence might change us all with the use of non-linear, non-human ways of thought to discover things we can’t even imagine.

I appreciated the author’s brilliant avoidance of questions like “what do we eat, now that all animals have legal rights to sentience?” It’s simple, she neither addressed nor avoided it. It just wasn’t within the scope of the story. Instead, she focused on how Meitner had evolved and, as a consequence, both his human family and, eventually, humankind as a whole changed.

I have three quibbles, though. First, the story would have instantly captured my attention if the first sentence started with “I hear my dead mother on the radio…” instead of just “I hear her.” Second, I struggled for a while with the long flashbacks, until I got into the rhythm of the story. Lastly, there is mention that Meitner’s revolutionary work in flocking mathematics could yield clues to practical space-time travel. While an event unfolds late in the story to suggest that he had indeed found practical applications to his ideas (spoiler), I saw it as an undeveloped aspect of this tale. But then, exploring those dimensions (no pun intended) would probably convert this to a full-length novel. I hope there is more on this topic in a later work from this author, for I was deeply impressed with the scientific complexity embedded in her story. Highly recommended.

PS: There is, of course, the whole debate about how much brain mass is needed for a species to attain sentience, and whether a parrot could ever have enough. But, this is an SF story, after all, and who knows whether Meitner’s intelligence was purely as a single entity or also the result of a distributed, species-wide global awareness. That debate could fill many pleasant hours of discussion over a beer, ale or single malt Scotch, your choice of drink.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s “The Tallest Doll in New York City” is a fun read. It tells of the night of Valentine’s Day, 1938, when the Chrysler building finally got tired of waiting for the new Empire State building to notice her and took a cross-city stroll to nudge him until he did. The tale is told from the POV of a waiter in the Chrysler building’s 66th floor Cloud Club, an exclusive establishment where the staff keep their aplomb as the spirit of Valentine brings the city’s towering edifices to life, and everyone “kisses like fools in the . . . pale orange dark of New York City.” You’ll enjoy this.

“The Price of Doing Business,” by DB Jackson, is the tale of a mid-18th century thieftaker and conjurer, Ethan Kaille, as he struggles to make a living. Thieftakers recover stolen goods. With times tough, there is lots of competition for what he does. But one job puts him in conflict with Sephira Pryce, the so-called Empress of the South End, the best thieftaker in Boston. As he searches to recover his client’s stolen goods, he’s drawn into Pryce’s web and must use all his talents to retain both his reputation and life. A pleasant read against a detailed backdrop of colonial Boston places and times.

Adam Christopher’s “Cold War” is a snippet from a conflict between humans and Spiders, a machine gestalt swarming across the galaxy in a war humans are losing. A squad of marines, working with a Psi-team, are dropped on a frozen, lifeless world to rescue a missing Special Ops group. Except nothing goes right. All communications are interrupted by heavy interference, the search team begins to disappear one by one, and then a giant creature surges from under the deep snow and ice and attacks them. While getting off this world still alive is a priority, it’s not as critical as determining why a Spider is here and what it did to the missing Psi-Ops specialists, an answer that may make a difference in the outcome of the war.

This is a good, solid war story with lots of conflict and death, leaving as much unanswered as explained. Enjoyable, although I think the full novel would be more satisfying.

“Jubilee,” by Karl Schroeder, is a Romeo and Juliet love story, with lots of intriguing twists absent any mutual suicides, between two lockstepper teens whose separate cities slumber in hibernation for 30 years at a time. Except, these two cities hate each other, so one hibernates 360 months while the other 372 months. Meanwhile, the rest of the world lives on in real time as realtimers. These two teens—Chinen and Margaret, the Author and the Authoress—exchange letters, entrusting them to realtimer couriers to be delivered when next their love awakes. Because of their mismatched wake cycles, the two teens will not meet again for over 900 realtime years. As a result, the world has developed an entire culture around these two and their letters—forming competing courier clans and creating Societies to debate and discuss the letters—all for the honor of delivering the next letter.

Lauren has waited 28 years to deliver the letter from the Authoress. But, when Chinen’s city awakes, the young man’s father intercepts the letter, destroying it and proclaiming that the young man and woman are never to speak again. This sends shockwaves throughout realtimer society and sends Malak, the young man in line to be the next courier, into histrionics. What will happen to Lauren, Malak and the competing courier clans now that their purpose is gone? Is the almost 9 century love story over? Not if Chinen has anything to say about it, because he sneaks out of his city, just before it closes up for another 30 years, intending to meet his beloved once she awakes. Except now someone wants Chinen dead.

An intriguing tale, contrasting realtimer and lockstepper societies against a background of Lauren’s own personal struggles to redefine her purpose in life.