Fifty-three Moons and Counting
“EARTH. I’VE NEVER BEEN, BUT SOME OF the older troops say it was a great place to live.” This haunting line from Tom Tinney underscores a theme in “Visions II: Moons of Saturn.” On the bright side, post-apocalyptic dystopia is not the focus that unites twelve international authors in this anthology, edited by Carrol Fix. Some of the stories show humanity at its worst, but the overall sense is one of hope and progress.
NASA’s Cassini mission tantalizes and inspires us with stunning images of Saturn’s mysterious rings of ice and rock, not to mention the fifty-three moons that have been officially named. How many “unofficial” moons does Saturn have, and why did Earth only get one? No matter. Science fiction writers are plotting, speculating, dreaming, and teasing us with visions of colonization and mining opportunities in the Saturn system. “Visions II: Moons of Saturn,” the second anthology in the Visions Series, unites W. A. Fix, Tom Olbert, Thaddeus Howze, R. E. Jones, Bonnie Milani, Tom Tinney, Jeremy Lichtman, S. M. Kraftchak, Ami Hart, Timothy Paul, Duane Brewster, Amos Parker, and Carrol Fix (Series Editor).
The idea of Earthlings expanding throughout the solar system may traumatize the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEM), but what a waste if humans die off without getting to see more of the universe. I am not opposed to “improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by using technology to eliminate aging and greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities” (Nick Bostrum, 1999). Faustian bargain? I vote we deal with that devil.
Speaking of devils, there’s “Nothing like the diversity of conquest to brighten mankind’s singular soul,” says the Time Traveler in Amos Parker’s “A Moon of Saturn.” Parker’s traveler is one of those villains we love to hate, and not just for his purple prose—“God I love transparent aluminum!” as he takes in a 360-degree view of Titan—“Titan! Saturn’s largest moon. Large, and in charge … Moon-ally speaking.” Fans of Milo Fowler’s Captain Quasar will appreciate the traveler “crossing his bare, muscular arms,” feeling like a god astride his “precious and precocious” time machine, Rubicon.
Let us pass over in silence the Traveler’s lecture on “the tiny, squishable mammals who’d shared humanity’s chronological nook” and the carefully choreographed ballet of things that go smashing and crashing in the mad Traveler’s matter storm. My mission is not to support the view that humans deserve to go exinct.
Parker’s story is filled with allegorical characters, from the Anthropologist who views humans as the enemy, to the Economist, Banker, President and Compatriots who applaud “the gravity of profit. The singularity of money.”
The story is not only purple, over the top, and absurd, but gross. The Taxidermist has merged the head of a wolf with the torso of a bear, the arms of an ape and legs of an elephant, and “preserved the thing’s maggots” as well.
The ending reminds me of an old joke, but what I like most about Parker’s story applies to the whole anthology: the authors have done their research. Tucked into assorted action scenes are science facts, historical trivia, and cultural references.
In “Janus: Double, Double Toil and Trouble,” R.E. Jones reminds us of Guy Fawkes, a real-life English Catholic “who took part in the failed Gunpowder Plot in 1605 to blow up Parliament.” The fictional Benedict Fawkes is on a top-secret mission to make an obsolete rocket fly again. An interesting aside has Fawkes cracking the “Newton Code,” a strange 13th century document said to be a forgery (“Fawkes thought otherwise”) in which Isaac Newton predicted the discovery of Janus. For his efforts, Fawkes earns the nickname “Nostradumbass.” After two years and a billion kilometers, Fawkes and the crew of Audouin Dollfus have reached the moon Janus. What he finds there is something not even Nostradamus could have predicted.
Jones’s wickedly fun plot-twist has a parallel in Bonnie Milani’s “Hot Day on Titan.” On the inhumanly cold surface of Titan, ex-hero Gerard Rutgers leads a team of warriors to talk peace with the dreaded Katrina. She’s the mastermind of a rebellion among Lupans, humans genetically engineered to have dog traits. Rutgers has no interest in peace talks with “dogs,” as he contemptuously refers to them. When a Lupan scout is assigned to help his team reconnoiter a passage through the icy peaks and geysers, he dubs the scout “Fido.”
The landscape is horrific but beautifully rendered. Ice glitters on Dushara’s brilliant spires, but chattering teeth and the whine of a space suit’s stressed heater take the fun out of this scenic hike. “In pure vacuum,” Milani writes, “neither Titan’s methane atmosphere nor its minus two hundred degree cold would challenge his armor’s support system.” Setting foot on frozen rock, however, “sucked heat out through their soles, drove the cold up their legs until it frosted their suits’ receptors.” Did I say “sign me up” for a one-way trip to the Saturn system? Nevermind. As Mark Twain said of Wagner, “his music is better than it sounds.” The lunar landscapes around Saturn may be better experienced from afar. But do experience this story, especially if you love clever tales of revenge.
A much sweeter plot-twist makes Tom Tinney’s “Pest Removal” a lovable tale. In the dark recesses of interconnecting tunnels on Dione, an old soldier leads his troops to protect ice mines from a slimy invader known as ABUT. The giant, single-celled creature is amorphous, wiggling and jiggling, excreting a goo that hardens and seals off tunnels. The soldiers have names like RP10637 because IDs and numbers keep it professional, while names make it personal, and these troopers face a high mortality rate. It’s a bittersweet tale but fun as well.
Like Tinney, Jeremy Lichtman delivers a surprising and endearing character in “The Archetypes of Titan.” Wilbur, a comical protagonist who seldom finishes his sentences, is rescued from a dull dinner party on Titan–but at the cost of slogging through a cold, hideously reeking tunnel to rescue his friend Fox. Fans of the engineering side of science fiction will get their fill. I’m in awe of the way human colonists have tunneled into Titan’s ice: “take a large, circular heating element, and push it up against whatever happens to be in the way. Then use a vacuum to suck away the resulting melt.” The ice miners leave a pool of sludge that surfers actually ride with giant boards and parachute-like sails. It’s a memorable image.
An even more riveting image is the thing in the tunnel that peers up from the mold. “A pseudopod, with what looked almost like an eye, extended itself upwards, and then rotated first one way and then the other. The eye withdrew, and the mold slowly, painstakingly began to move in the opposite direction.”
There’s a happy outcome to the reeking problem in the tunnel, and it’s one of the best scenes I’ve seen since E.T. called home. But there’s more, much more, to this story of Wilbur and Fox mucking through a tunnel and rejoining a dull dinner party.
In “Springboard,” S.M. Kraftchak brings a fresh twist to the old joke about men who get lost because they refuse to ask for directions. Arnau is determined to save his wife and daughter from his navigation error, no matter how great the personal cost to himself. His young daughter, Tay, is equally determined to help him, but he trusts no one with his long list of equations to calculate trajectory through space. They’re trapped like a golf ball lying deep in the rough between Epimetheus and Janus.
The dialogue is fun. Nissa is a wise wife and mother, but I pity the father: “Sometimes,” Nissa tells Tay, “we just have to accept his imperfect love, because it’s the best he can give.”
The ending may not be a big surprise, but it is a marvelous antidote to all the depressing, dystopian, anti-apocalyptic fare I’ve been reading for the past year or two. Talented authors are telling these darker tales, but I keep hoping for a new wave of more optimistic themes. This book is a big step in the right direction.
“I Had a Dog Once” delivers what I’m talking about. W.A. Fix does not torture me with brutal tales of beloved canine companions dying for their humans (do not even ask me which recent anthology did; I’m still in recovery). Mostly, Fix’s story centers around a close-knit team of mercenaries who start out drinking in a bar, swapping stories about animals they have seen. Most of them have never come face to face with a dog or a pig or any number of Earth creatures that space colonists would miss. Mitch was born on Earth, and the natural light on Titan reminds him of a moonless night in Nebraska. Mitch and his team get to fire the most advanced weapons in existence, with chunks of titanium exploding at 4,000 meters per second, every second. I tend to skip battle scenes, but this one caught my eye with the awesome titanium projectiles ripping into Mech-9s, not that I know or even care much what those are, but it doesn’t matter. The characters carry the story.
Ami Hart may have the most endearing and gratifying story of all with “Refuge.” A boy named Fira is crawling in a dark and stifling maze of tunnels, which seem to be inevitable on any planets or moons we colonize. Fira is a refugee from Earth, which has been harvested by the Raq-Ni who loosed a bio-weapon called the Melt. Fira remembers a life of running, playing, laughing, but those memories are shaded over: “Running took on a new terrifying shape, the dusky grey of a world of chaos.” He may never again see a butterfly or horse, and after the Cleansing, images of the dying animals stay with him longest. When he meets a cute and furry alien in the tunnels, he mistakes it for something like a stray kitten. The consequences could be catastrophic, but this New Zealand author comes up with a much more satisfying conclusion. (Thank you, Ami Hart!)
While “Refuge” is a scenic, character-driven tale (my favorite kind), Timothy Paul’s “Shepard’s Pi” is cerebral, fast-paced and tricky enough for any thriller fan. A shady guy named Brad Shepard breaks into the First Bank of Saturn, is on the run, and in need of money, so he falls for a get-rich-quick scheme that could easily be his last. Fortunately, he recruits some equally shady friends who can help him crack a secret code and improve their chances of surviving this mercenary adventure.
Duane Brewster’s “Profit Margin” gives us a different kind of criminal. A vital object that looks like an egg goes missing, causing panic among scientists at a research station on Mimas. The Egg has caught the eye of a scavenger who has no idea what he could unloose by snagging this thing and selling it to the highest bidder. The climax is staggering, and the closing lines take a poke at corporate profiteering.
Just in time for Hanukkah, Tom Olbert’s “Reckoning at Enceladus” affirms that there is life beyond darkness. I wouldn’t have thought of it except for a Facebook meme I saw today: “When all seems darkest … when it seems that all is blood, and fire, and ashes, and persecution … hope will live on, with laughter, light, and love, long after today’s conquerers are tomorrow’s dust.”
Gene Grey Wolf would rather die than live with the guilt of bombing innocent civilians (nevermind that those who gave him the orders had lied to him about the target). “How do you give back innocent life you’ve taken?” he asks.
“You give back what you’ve taken by giving hope that’s been stolen,” Kayla Constantinedes tells him. And Kayla wants to take back Enceladus from the Mars Combines. With Grey Wolf, she joins the Trans-Solar Resistance to win true independence for Saturn colonies, an end to corporate slavery, “and a return to law and democratic self-government such as our ancestors had on Earth.”
I have to add that Olbert’s father was a fighter in the Polish resistance during WWII. That legacy is apparent in this story. I also have to say I’m smitten with the “very angry-looking young man” who’s really just a kid who’d “been to the edge of Hell and fought his way back.” Ultimately, this is a tale of forgiveness and second chances. Offer me that, and I’ll endure some bloodshed and betrayal along the way.
“Starchild” by Thaddeus Howze offers a different kind of second chance. Commander Mfune explores the great Benai starship, a magnificent construction of alien intelligence, abandoned by its creators. Mfune is sent to decode the secrets of the starship, but on learning what became of the benevolent Benai, he’s not so sure humans deserve to receive the technological gifts the Benai had intended to share. What is the Starchild? You’ll have to read the story to find out. Telepathy, DNA, space travel, human history and philosophy all join forces in this tale full of surprises.
The Visions Series celebrates our urge to venture out and explore the Universe. Space colonies, extraterrestrial moons, aliens among us, interplanetary corporations, ice mining to make other planets inhabitable—where do I sign up? Oh, wait: no cats, no dogs, but lots of cold and ice? Let’s wait and see what Visions III brings. (“Visions II: Moons of Saturn,” Edited by Carol Fix, Lillicat Publishers) —Carol Kean
Originally published December, 2015 at http://www.perihelionsf.com/