Variations on a Theme
WHEN 21ST CENTURY AUTHORS speculate on Space, the Final Frontier, the awesome “Star Trek” theme song can be heard segueing into a heart-pounding “Jaws” riff. Space elevator disasters, unwelcoming aliens, medical clones, low gravity surgical suites, and the end of civilization brought ten authors together in “Visions I: Leaving Earth,” the first anthology in a series edited by Carrol Fix. In “Visions II: Moons of Saturn,” twelve authors showed us space colonies, ice mines, mutant monsters, time travelers and more. With “Visions III: Inside the Kuiper Belt,” seventeen international authors take us farther out to the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. At the rate this has been going, I’m afraid to see what Visions IV will bring.
For better or worse, “Visions III” shows human nature as a constant across centuries, light years, and technological leaps. The themes are varied: long-distance romance; the tragi-comically inept boss nobody likes; the rich show-off taking his buddies on a trophy-collecting expedition; the treasure hunter picking up something from a strange place only to find the souvenir is lethal. The risks are great, but so are the rewards.
“Astronauts are brave people,” Ellen Denton reminds us in the haunting story “Snow White.” We “look to the skies and the stars as crucibles out of which answers would eventually come. And looked to those things as portals from which the future would be born, because when man looks into any vast unknown, he thinks not of the past or present, but of the future. He thinks about where that mysterious door might lead him, once he steps through.”
Two men star in this cold, dreamy tale of a research station on the surface of OR-10, affectionately named “Snow White” by astronomers. The dreamy part turns to a nightmare, but all is not lost. “I felt proud to be human,” Ryan concludes, “proud to be part of something that was greater than human … Who knew what truths and changes now stretched out before us as we stepped through one door after another in the frontiers of space?”
Landing in a new world, I’d be the first idiot to start collecting rocks, which could very well turn into the last thing I did. Then again, the crew of a research vessel is sent to KBO 2039, a “planetesimal of rock and ice beyond the orbit of Pluto,” apparently to see what minerals and metals are there to be mined. Dusting the regolith off a rock, seeing a shiny black stone beneath, who wouldn’t bring it on board? Who knew a mere rock could turn a routine mission into a psychological thriller? The “Kuiper Belt Threat” by Eric T. Reynolds delivers escalating tension, mystery, and an epic heroine. Readers won’t soon forget a pilot named Adrienne.
Having randomly chosen two of the most chilling tales to read first, I was ready for something on the lighter side. Ooh, Jeremy Lichtman’s Wilbur and Fox are back! That should be the pick-me-up I need, right? In “Tombaugh’s Frozen Heart,” Wilbur’s meddling mother tries to play matchmaker. Fox tries to keep the eligible bachelor out of trouble even as Wilbur rockets to Pluto to escape Mom’s machinations. During their approach, the famed heart-shaped landmark of Tombaugh Regio comes into view, inspiring some witty repartee between Wilbur and Fox. A grumpy Ph.D. candidate who gets roped into playing tour guide dismisses the shape as a “parametric plot of a mathematical curve,” and Wilbur, as usual, rarely manages to finish a sentence. He does manage to leave an impact of his own on Pluto. The story is comical and witty, as I’d anticipated, but not lighthearted. I love/hate it when an author surprises me like that.
The biggest delight in this anthology was Timothy Paul’s “Gypsy in the Belt,” given a pet peeve of mine that authors can exploit the “gypsy” stereotype with no fear of being labeled politically incorrect. As if the name Spooky Lupei isn’t bad enough, the woman is “a full-blooded Romanian gypsy with master’s degrees in geometry, astronomy and astrophysics,” and she relies “more on psychic intuition than instrument panels for navigation.” I was all ready to hate this story. Tough-talking blonde Captain Carlotta Jones has low expectations of the crew assigned to her on a deep space mission: Sandy, who is “either a very butch girl or an effeminate guy,” buck-toothed Rocky, simple-guy Bullwinkle, Spooky Lupei, and Mitt Hester, the captain’s second in command.
The “gypsy” navigator may rely more on her intuition than on technology, but the whole crew is packing good luck charms and rosaries in an era when excursions into deep space seem to have revived irrational human fears and uncertainty. It’s no surprise that Spooky Lupei’s hunches serve the mission in ways that technology cannot, but it’s personal experience more than intuition that helps her steer clear of trouble in the Kuiper Belt. Action, suspense, clever dialogue, and well-developed characters take this story to a level I wasn’t expecting. I look forward to more from Timothy Paul.
Ami Hart brings humor, lots of surprises, and another happy ending to this mixed brew. Lancelle, the incompetent boss nobody likes, “rewards” Ned with a one-week vacation at the boss’ retreat. “The Hope Incident” would be great as a sit-com. It’s also a great read, in spite of a surprising number of typos.
Another rich guy entertains his buddies in “White Whale of Europa” by Mark Mellon.
Snarky dialogue between a medic, Sibyl X, and her two-headed snake, Sylla, reveal the antics of the Lord Autocrator, D’Souza, who seems to be a leonine mix of The Donald and a mad scientist. Thanks to Jupiter’s radiation, Europa’s sea holds nothing but bacteria—until D’Souza’s lab gets hold of a “phyloplankton swarm, evolved from indigenous bacteria, each microscopic blob striated with multiple strands of DNA, constantly replicating itself and drawing nourishment from the very radiation that simultaneously tears it into pieces.” D’Souza’s engineered “whales” provide the sport and trophies these fat, rich spacers have been missing. These Autocrators miss a lot of things, though, and underlings who are smarter than their masters carry the story to a startling conclusion.
In “Star’s Edge” by Tom Olbert, we see again the bright, heart-shaped surface formation of “Tombaugh’s Frozen Heart,” but here “the ancient impact crater” is a portal to the Plutonian underworld. An underwater city fills half the volcanically warmed, subterranean ocean of Pluto, a marvel of science and artistry, “More wondrous than the glass-domed garden cities of Mars, or the floating sky cities of Venus. Quite literally, a city of art, created by science beyond anything currently possessed in the inner Solar System.”
Underworld, of course, has dual meanings. Richard is an undercover agent posing as a businessman. The impossibly beautiful Lady Star Gem and the unbearably pretentious Lord Rising Wave welcome Richard to the Imperium of the Enlightened, where peace reigns and artificial intelligence has been banned. “Machines became conscious, posing a threat to human survival. Some say there is no human life left in the Oort colonies today; only intelligent automatons.” Savvy readers know this can only mean that AIs lurk among the city of marvels, where peace has been won at the cost of basic rights and freedom of thought.
Via the cybernetic implant in his brain, Richard receives a reminder from his Director: do not fall under their spell. The magic of the city dulls a little when he realizes the place was built with slave labor, many consumed in the heat of the tunnels, killed in the mines or simply worked to death. The slaves Richard meets deny what they are, on pain of death.
Richard’s mission becomes even more challenging when a third contender appears in this covert war to see who will dominate the solar system. Beyond the misty-white region of the Oort Cloud lies “The Edge of Darkness,” where pure evil lies. Some dare to call the region by its forbidden name, Star’s Edge.
There’s a lot more to the story, but reading it is better than hearing about it from me. “Star’s Edge” is a geek fest of technology unknown to 21st century humans. I haven’t even mentioned the moon-sized constructs orbiting Sedna with subspace radio arrays, nor sentient minds the size of planets. This is the fun, futuristic kind of stuff I love about this genre. It’s the best and worst of humanity, with tyrants and slaves versus freedom, artistic and scientific creativity, and the human drive to explore.
John Moralee’s “Signal” is a First Contact situation. Xena Prime colonists are the only humans in their section of the Kuiper Belt, until a strange signal is detected from some form of alien life. David organizes a research team to determine the signal’s origin, while Alice the worrywart wants to keep him home safe. When that fails, she insists on coming with him as backup, which amuses her scientist-husband, but she’s good at one-upping him, especially the way she can speed-watch movies inside her head. (I love their repartee about horror flicks.) For all the creepy-scary parts, the story ends well. No, this is not a spoiler. If the wife’s worst fears had been realized, the story would be predictable as well as tragic, which would have me withholding stars from the overall rating of this book.
“Corner Of His Eye” by Duane Brewster may not be tragic, but it’s definitely haunting, horrifying, and surprising. I do not like these surprises. I do, however, have a new appreciation for the time I was stranded in a barren stretch of Colorado at the mercy of mechanics replacing a transmission. That three-day hitch in our family vacation now seems like a trip to paradise compared to mechanical problems in a starship thousands of light years from anything.
As if Brewster’s story wasn’t scary enough, there’s “Waters Above The Heavens” by Kara Race-Moore. The mother. The children. The tension at the dinner table! The Biblical overtones, the religious zeal. How far one will go to root out heathens who fail to embrace True Faith. This is dark stuff, not for the faint of heart.
“Karl’s Ride” by W. A. Fix is a lighter tale, though it starts out with oppression, injustice, workers exploited by corporations, and self-serving backstabbers. Gradually the payoffs shift from the rich jerks who don’t deserve the spoils to a band of free-spirits who use teamwork to orchestrate an incredibly ambitious heist.
“Aphelion” by Bruce Davis is a quieter tale with only two characters. Mike has congenital SCID, Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Syndrome, which has him confined to a protective bubble for his first eighteen years. Jenny loses her face and legs in an explosion, but the “witch doctors” from a mysterious “Company” offer her life in a biotank as an alternative to being dead. What good are Jenny and Mike to society? Pair them on a mission to outer space, with VR, and what more could they ask for? The answer is sweet. Or bittersweet.
In “Circus Maximus” by Mike Rimar, a troublemaker named Jump has lured his buddies, or partners in crime, on a few too many dangerous missions. They don’t trust him. One of them, however, has a huge crush on him. Jump’s latest gig promises such immense rewards, his crew decide to risk one more job. The puns, the dialogue, the big reveals are fun, but the way these characters interact with each other takes the story to a whole new level. Well done.
I love the woman pilot in “Races” by Gustavo Bondoni: “Her craft was built to match her personality. It had the biggest engine anyone had been able to build without blowing themselves up.” The racecourse is set inside an asteroid belt, sure to supply viewers with plenty of smash-ups, but for racers, “life wasn’t worth living unless it hung by the slimmest of threads.” Pat, however, disappears from the story for a long time when Kavi, a male race-spaceship driver, crashes into an asteroid. Or whatever it is. Eventually Pat resurfaces, and Kavi wins something more important than an air race. Still, I’d like to see more of Pat the woman pilot with the biggest engine on the course.
“Wake-Up Call” by S.M. Kraftchak is a humorous tale of a spaceship pilot whose cargo consists of one prisoner. The ship’s AI, Norma, makes the mistake of talking to the con artist, Larak, who convinces her she needs a paint job and other upgrades. Kelvin soon wearies of the AI’s status updates and escalating demands. Who will prevail? The battle of wills and wits makes this a tense but entertaining romp in space.
“Devil’s Spit” by Mary Madigan is a time travel story narrated in second person. “You didn’t consider the darkness” is the opening line. “You could be laid flat on the back ice of Devil’s Spit, an asteroid in the dark side of the Kuiper Belt.” Or not. “Only one thing is certain. You’re lying there, trying to answer the question that’s vexed you your whole life. Can a living organism be in two places at the same time?” The answer takes time, as well as some give and take between father and son, and a disturbing visual involving high-tech eyeball upgrades.
“The Father and the Belt” by Amos Parker shows God and the Devil in an unlikely reunion, both of them old and weary. They have plenty of time to reflect, speculate, ignore each other or challenge each other as they travel in a spaceship looking for something to do, now that global climate change has killed off the last humans on Earth. Most readers will likely find this clever and amusing, but for me it was a jarring fantasy departure from rest of the anthology. It also reminds me, somehow, that the Book of Job is not original to the Old Testament, but is based on an older story straight out of Egypt. This exhausted, anthropomorphic God lacks the quirkiness of George Burns in the movie “Oh, God!”, but the devil catches a second wind and inspires more empathy and admiration than God does. The surprise at the end isn’t much of a surprise, but it’s gratifying.
For me, the fun of this anthology is more in the science than the humanity. Tell me more about Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs)—ice, asteroids, planetoids—and the dwarf planet Pluto. I’ve had my fill of “no matter where we go, we take ourselves with us,” and “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” but I can’t get too much of starships, hotels scooped out of asteroids, or scientists who speak of an Oort Cloud so vast that even traveling at nearly a million miles a day, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft will take 300 years to reach it and 30,000 more years to exit the other side. (“Visions III: Inside the Kuiper Belt,” Edited by Carrol Fix, Lillicat Publishers) —Carol Kean
Originally published March 2016 on http://www.perihelionsf.com/