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

Compelling SF #12, Winter 2018

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Compelling SF #12, Winter 2018

"The Lonely Dark" by Deborah Davitt

"False Identity" by John M. Campbell
"The Mojo Economy" by Jim Meeks-Johnson
"The Forest Eats" by Santiago Belluco
"Utility" by Jack Nicholls

Reviewed by Jason McGregor

Compelling's second issue from its current semi-annual schedule brings us five more science fiction short stories, most of which deal with varieties of economics and/or forms of biotech and most of which have some interest, including one recommended story.

"The Lonely Dark" by Deborah Davitt

After his wife's unplanned pregnancy on the way to Mars in a society of enhanced corporate servitude, Emory Raske must go to Ceres to earn triple-hazard pay to make up for the costs of the baby. Three years into his five year hitch running mining drones, he gets some bad news from home before getting even worse news right where he is. An asteroid has hit the other side of Ceres, the effects are making it to his station, and these desperate times call for desperate measures.

A story set on Ceres is uncommon enough to have automatic interest and the situation the protagonist finds himself in is also interesting in the abstract. However, the first part of the story which conveys that situation is all infodump and the second part is all action but doesn't end in a satisfying way or at least isn't satisfying as depicted.

"False Identity" by John M. Campbell

Detective Ronald Munson catches a strange case in which a man confesses to having killed someone who is still alive. A shrink assures Munson that the man is sane, so Munson proceeds to investigate, uncovering a tangled web of infidelity, AI brain surgery, and Nobel prizes which leads to more trouble for Munson than he expected.

There are all kinds of little problems with this (for example: the confessor being given two reasons for confessing; another confessor admitting something he shouldn't; what would seem to be a desirable side-effect of the surgery being presented as negative and not being achieved when you'd most want it to be; people being emotional when they shouldn't be) which make me suspect I'm missing even bigger problems, but these are all minor quibbles. A possibly more significant quibble is that I thought it was going to go for a particular and bigger ending than it did. Avoiding that has the advantage of unpredictability but has the disadvantage of the relatively small ending possibly being underwhelming. All that aside, the tale started out well and kept me involved in the puzzle throughout so I enjoyed it.

"The Mojo Economy" by Jim Meeks-Johnson

Aliens have arrived with "mojo" and people are signing up to replace the money-economy with a sort of Barter 2.0 or variant of a service/gig economy based on the skills the alien tech gives them. We see this through the eyes of the young protagonist who has to deal with a sick grandfather who distrusts the aliens.

There is much of magic about the tech and the rules surrounding it seem arbitrary. The first-person protagonist seems to be nearly of high school age but the story reads more like he's in elementary school. The story does discuss interesting ideas, though, and did have a bit in it that made me laugh harder than I have in a while. (I won't spoil the joke but it's the scene where the kid first tells the alien what mojo he wants.)

"The Forest Eats" by Santiago Belluco

One man's trash is truly another man's treasure. After biotech (including nano) gets out of hand and is outlawed, it's all gathered up and dumped into a giant toxic bizarre dump of a quarantined forest. Felton is looking for the cure to a relatively obscure disease, so gets his ultra-hazmat suit and, monitored by a bunch of bureaucrats who have the power of life and death and exile over him if anything goes wrong, enters the forest. He hopes to find something in the wild, mutating biotech that will respond to the disease microorganisms but, instead, something goes wrong.

Felton seems to be doing this from selfish motives as much as altruistic ones and is revealed at one point not to be perfectly honest so isn't necessarily the most appealing protagonist but he's still easy to connect with. I'm not sure if the exposition should be called "demanding" or "opaque" but I was able to guess what was going on and eventually have it confirmed. So those are mixed elements. On the plus side, this was wildly imaginative with a clever twist on "biodiversity" and it captured a very creepy feeling very well—not quite horror but always on the edge of it. It also engaged with serious topics in a dramatic way. For instance, should science go wherever it can when that can have tremendously negative consequences? If not, how to deal with specifically trying to cure disease and generally trying to understand the universe with one arm and half your brain tied behind your back? Good stuff.

"Utility" by Jack Nicholls

In a posthuman future, the sole survivor of an old interstellar expedition returns and the posthumans try to make him comfortable and get him ready for Apotheosis which is hard to do since the planet and all beings in it have been turned into a magic soup.

This is going for humor so perhaps it doesn't matter that the entire scenario makes no sense. Some of the humor is supposed to come from the difficulty of one (superhuman!) entity trying to pretend to be a planet but, as "ze" even notes with relief while in a car, ze "only had to run a liquid layer across the windows rather than create the whole city free-form." So why not tranq the returning astronaut and run a liquid layer over his skin and eyeballs? Or just apotheosize the guy with a structured Dream which gradually explains what's happened? But, if that doesn't bother you and you appreciate that the rest of the humor makes fun of the American astronaut and serviceman as a gung-ho paranoid authoritarian, then maybe there'd be something here for you.


More of Jason McGregor's reviews can be found at Featured Futures.