Oceans of the Mind, #16, Summer 2005

Saturday, 06 August 2005 16:07 Michael Fay
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"Striders" by John Alfred Taylor
"Alekhine's Defense" by Cherith Baldry
"Killjo" by Terry Dartnall
"Retirement" by Terry Bramlett
"Mississippi Dragons" by Scott W. Carter
"Congestion" by Andrew Burt

The Summer 2005 issue of Oceans of the Mind is dedicated to sports-related stories. However, don’t expect most of these offerings to be about the featured sport. Often, it's simply a backdrop.

The first story, John Alfred Taylor’s "Striders," is about an exoskeleton-assisted race on the moon. Chris is rich and so can afford to sponsor his own team and design his own strider to enter the Lunar Loop, a stage race across the surface of the moon, making him the only amateur entrant in the race. "Striders" follows Chris and his two main competitors, Denis and Mohamar, as they cross the lunar surface.

"Striders" is a pretty straightforward race tale. The competitors encounter technical and equipment problems, and the main characters carry on a lively banter, reminiscent of that you might see between well-matched opponents. One nice feature with the story is the included map at the end that shows much of the lunar terrain over which the race takes place, allowing you to see where most of the stages are run. Good light entertainment.

In "Alekhine’s Defense" by Cherith Baldry, Captain Denver is a known smuggler who brings his ship to a planet that has a popular export, a multi-colored amber. He is there to let his ship’s doctor enter a genetically modified hermit crab, Alekhine, in a chess tournament. Predictably, the crab is denied entry, although he appears to play a pretty mean game, specializing in the difficult Alekhine’s Defense.  To make things worse, Denver is constantly harassed by customs officials, thinking he is smuggling amber out of their system.

"Alekhine’s Defense" is a fun little caper story, but make no mistake, it is a caper story. The sports idea is used as a cover.  It's also very short, which allows for only a limited number of possible endings that make sense. As such, I found it predictable.

Terry Dartnall’s "Killjo" speculates on the entertainments of advanced cultures. A new sport has swept Earth: Killjo, a deathmatch game played in simulated environments. The boring Johnathon Harrison decides to take up Killjo when he bores himself as much as he bores those around him. And he's unusually good at it. He retires from the game, eventually, with over a thousand kills.

Nobody expected the Arcadians to be interested in Killjo. Of course, nobody expected the Arcadians at all. When they propose a Loser Dies game of Killjo, Earth doesn't see that it has any other choice. So, they call upon the "small dapper man who taught English and botany in a Vermont high school," Johnathan Harrison.

Couched in this humorous tale of blood sports, Dartnall has a subversive message: the more advanced a civilization becomes, the bloodier their sports become. The Arcadian ambassador explains it thusly: cultures progress from wars to economic conflict to Killjo. And if you think about it, it makes a certain sense that such a progression exists. Every culture needs an outlet for aggression. If you no longer war, and no longer have economic needs, you will have an activity evolve that provides such an outlet. If only our earthly civilizations had reached such heights.

Dartnall’s story is darkly humorous, written with a deadpan presentation that highlights the absurdity of the situation. And it has a twist that, though it might be quickly predicted by some, still is fun in a car wreck watching way.

Another very short story, "Retirement" by Terry Bramlett takes a look at a future filled with clones in sports. Mickey—we assume Mantle— is relaxing after the last game of the World Series where he hit the winning home run. The problem is that he has just finished his fifteenth year in the majors. And that’s all she wrote. They only get fifteen. So, he gets released.

As I said, "Retirement" is a very short story. It is essentially about the fear of people becoming disposable in a world where they can just make a new one of you anytime they want to. Undoubtedly, the sentiment will resonate with those who urge caution in the latest experiments we see in cloning.

"Mississippi Dragons" by Scott William Carter is set in an arena of robot warriors controlled by a central computer and the computer’s main programmer. Sandra has refined and pushed the system that runs Fighting Anachronisms, the robot arena that pits great names from history against each other in gladiatorial death matches. It develops an unusual glitch that interrupts the simulated blood sport. That glitch? Well, the system has developed into an Artificial Intelligence. Sandra is thrilled, but her boss isn’t happy, fearing the loss of his equipment and interruption of his business. He pressures her to undo whatever brought the AI forward.

Still, that problem is easier for her to deal with than her grandfather. Sandra is of mixed race parentage. However, her African American grandfather pushes her to play up her black heritage. And, to Sandra at least, it seems that the race card is his favorite play in almost any situation. 

Couched strongly in the rhetoric of the civil rights movement, "Mississippi Dragons" is ostensibly about the independent rights of sentient beings.
If I have a complaint, it’s that the limited race relations in the story are nearly caricatures and thus do little to support the basic idea of the story. Gunter is a dirty white man with deep set prejudices. While he is never overtly racist, his contempt for "machines with rights" certainly makes a clear stand-in. Sandra’s grandfather, on the other hand, is a tall, precise black man who sees oppression in everything not directly related to his world. I think Sandra, as a balance, is fine, but she only works in relation to the AI. Opportunities to examine the race aspects that are inherent in this story are lost, making the story less than it could, and possibly should have been.

Andrew Burt provides the final story, "Congestion." Gunther Staatz is trying to win one hundred million dollars in a race that is designed to test the most efficient transportation method.
"Congestion" is primarily about how old technology might best be used to defeat new, and the consequences of forgetting the past. The ending is a humorous twist that I didn’t expect.

Overall, this issue of Oceans of the Mind was good.  It was, by far, the shortest issue I've reviewed, and some of the stories could have as easily been set in a venue other than the sports world. Still, Oceans of the Mind continues to maintain a consistent quality.