Visions of Delight
THE MILKY WAY IS VAST AND ITS FRINGES out of reach, but reach them we must, preferably in the next hundred years. “Global catastrophe is a constant threat for our war-torn and dysfunctional human race,” Carrol Fix writes in her Introduction to “Visions V: Milky Way,” the latest, and best to date, of the “Visions” series. “The Milky Way Galaxy may allow the seeds of our future to be widely distributed, past the danger of a final extinction,” she adds.
And that’s what sets this book apart from others in an era of existential angst. The world may come to an end, but people will go on in some other part of the universe. And (bonus!) not as zombies.
Ruined planets, speed-of-light space travel, faraway places, friendly aliens, altered humans, hostiles, and more—“Worlds we may well discover as we move beyond Earth and the Sol System into the greater galaxy”—there’s something for everyone in this collection. There’s satire, warfare, humor, xenophobia, pirates, and floating mutants whose feet never touch the ground.
The floating mutants are humans from another world (“It was once called Earth, but it’s gone now”) in Fredrick Obermeyer’s “Dropworld.”
The opening line is epic, almost as poetic as Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “The birthplanes ejected Kareska and several other fallers from their wombs, their glistening forms spiraling down through the pinkish-yellow sky of Dropworld, down towards the Great Below.” Organic parachutes pop out from the backs of these human newborns who fall into the arms of floating sky dwellers. Some of the babies drop to their deaths far, far below, but nobody seems to mind: “It was the way of the birthdrop.”
Kareska is a runt of the litter who lands with a kind, young caregiver named Ilaru. She remains thin and scrawny, but Ilaru senses strength within this humpbacked underdog of a girl. She’s bright and inquisitive in a world where people seem to do little more than float around waiting for food to drop from planes. Kareska alone dares to ask, “What lies at the bottom of the Great Below?”
“I don’t know,” Ilaru tells her. “No faller has ever lived long enough to see what is down there. Some say it is land … Not like the clouds or the air around us, but something hard. Like the planes or our bodies.”
The planes are mysterious, dropping babies with built-in, flesh and blood parachutes, and food. “Fruit balloons” and meatbirds occasionally appear from some unexplained source, and tribe members scrabble to harvest their share. (Raw bird, anyone?)
Young Dukario and his gang of thugs intimidate everyone else, usurping food from the neediest members of this tribe in the sky. For the first five years of her “lifefall,” Kareska does as her carefather asks: she avoids Dukario at all cost. If he demands her food, she turns it over and endures whatever insults he gives her without talking back.
One day, Kareska can no longer stand by and accept Dukario’s abuse. Alone, she cannot stop him, but united, the tribe could put him in his place. They never even try. “Why can’t the others fight back?” she asks Ilaru.
The answer is all too familiar: “Because they are afraid.” Dukario and his gang “will kill their children and them if they resist his efforts. They do not want to get involved and risk his vengeance if they fail … I know it’s not right. But that is the way things are.”
Kareska will not accept ignorance or injustice just because everyone else does. We know she will take on Dukario; we know she’ll find her way to the Great Below; but will she live long enough to see what’s down there?
This story is simple and beautiful, a classic coming-of-age tale that transcends its own genre. I’d love to see more of “Dropworld,” though it is complete and satisfying in and of itself, and that’s something I rarely say of any short story.
Why read anthologies if I prefer the depth and breadth of novels? Sampling short stories is a great way to get to know authors I might not otherwise have time to discover—Leigh Kimmel, for one—a writer, artist, gamer, and entrepreneur with degrees in history and in library and information science.
In “The Shadow of a Dead God,” Kimmel flips the trope of ancient astronauts bringing technology to ancient civilizations on Earth. Instead, Earth is left alone to develop at its own pace, while selected humans are taken from Earth and raised on other worlds. Some are occasionally allowed to visit and study the planet of their origin.
Liu Shing, part of a research team on a future Earth, ventures alone into the night and finds an ancient medallion. Trying to examine it, she’s overcome with vertigo and loses herself in a different time and place. In a vision, Liu Shing experiences the overwhelming fear and determination of Miri and Deek in the last days of the ancient civilization she’s been researching. Liu Shing’s discovery, however, may not endear her to the Star Tyrants or the Faithful of her world.
We get an even stronger heroine in “Greatcloak” by Jonathan Shipley. When an apprenticeship ends and the responsibilities of the real job begin, nothing ratchets up stress levels like a surprise visit from the boss. For Rissa, the most kick-ass Excellenza-in-training of the Imperium, it gets even worse: the Emperor himself, for the first time ever, will be attending a very public interplanetary conference under Rissa’s watch. How will a young novice cope with challenges that most seasoned professionals never have to face? The plot thickens and builds to a splendid finale.
What evils will the human race carry to distant worlds? In “Black Hearts and Blue Skins” by Timothy Paul, it’s an old hatred carried across time and space, through centuries and light years, from the KKK. Who knew racism and xenophia could last so long in the evolution of so many generations of man?
The story opens with an open-minded man in a mixed marriage being framed for murder. His half-Jeroxian daughter is kidnapped, and his only hope of finding her is a mysterious, tight-lipped band of Jeroxians.
A master of Point of View, Paul takes his readers through a story as smoothly as a luxury car. (With an Indy car engine, so buckle that seat belt!) I love the dialogue and word economy, e.g:
After treating his wound, the nurse left and one of the two Jeroxians followed. On the way out he closed the door and locked it. Martin glanced up into the most lifeless expression he’d ever seen on a face, Jeroxian or human. He’d make a good politician, he thought. Or a used shuttle salesman.
“I can’t stay here. I have to go,” Martin said.
The man’s rigid posture assured him that leaving was not an option.
“We’ll take you to another room soon.”
“I have things to do. Things that can’t wait.”
“Understand something. The local politzia are hunting you. You either come with us now, or you’ll be in prison by morning and executed in a week.”
“I don’t understand. Why would you be hiding me from the politzia?”
The biggest surprise for this father is not who we can trust, or how to resolve the issues, but how little he knew about the racism his daughter was already experiencing. The story is a classic, with a high-impact ending.
“If and when our fallen race crosses the great expanse to find new civilizations,” Paul writes in an afterword, “will we carry with us the moral purity of Starship Enterprise, or will darkness in our souls pollute the cultures we find?”
The dark side of human nature is a favorite theme of Timothy Paul’s wife, D. A. Couturier. Her story, “Eighteen Winters,” is one I’d normally skip for being more fantasy or romance than science fiction, but I was pulled in from the first sentence and held spellbound to the end. Like Paul, Couturier is a prose master. One might expect as much of all authors, but these days, literary talent is more a scarce commodity than a given.
Courturier’s protagonist, Broon, is a strong girl who can hunt and fish and do about anything a man can. This is a character whose head is a place I like to be in, as a reader; I totally immerse myself in a world someone else has imagined. If that world is an ugly place, or the protagonist is whiny, weak, or annoying, I’m likely to bail out for a better ship to sail.
I’m afraid excerpts won’t do justice, but this is one of those lines I stop and read again just because of the novelty of this girl and her world:
In all her seventeen winters, Broon hadn’t missed many opportunities to witness first and second morning as (the two suns) rose over the vast valley within minutes of each other. She’d been born during this time of year and felt an odd kinship to the two orbs whenever the anniversary of her birth drew near.
Huen, the man who’s been wooing this gem of a girl, finds someone more lady-like (and endowed with more land). You fool, Huen! (Fists of rage!)
A broken heart isn’t even half the problem Broon faces. With no male heir in the family, Broon must find a mate before she is eighteen winters old or her father’s farm will go back to The People to be redistributed.
The story has a Quaker-Shaker-Mennonite vibe, which is weirdly popular in all genres these days. A big part of Broon’s community involve patriarchal rules and antiquated customs that set my teeth on edge. The People aren’t forced by some dystopian regime to live outside the modern world; they choose to. Under a centuries-old pact with the world government of Jaaren, no ships are allowed in their airspace, except in emergencies. Occasional starships overhead remind Broon that there are cities, where millions live in close quarters, enjoying the fruits of technology, and she could escape to one.
Broon, however, prefers the serenity of a much slower and simpler life in the country. “Only here could she witness the magnificent spheres moving close together to become a synchronous duet and then watch the moment the horizon erupted in a heavenly glow, as though fingertips brushed against one another in a futile attempt to embrace,” Couturier writes. “Broon imagined them as two lovers coexisting in space, yet unable to be together,” but “their affection would last forever and wouldn’t be fleeting like Huen’s love, soft kisses and unfulfilled promises.”
Though the focus is more on old-fashioned courtship and marriage than on futuristic starships and other fun facets of science fiction, “Eighteen Winters” is an engaging story with age-old conflicts and a charming twist at the end. Broon may not change the world, but she makes the best of what she’s given—and what she’s given is better than we dared to expect.
Like “Eighteen Winters,” Sam Bellotto Jr’s “Where the Last Tramz Stops” could be set in our own world in a not too distant future. However, it lacks nothing in the way of hard science fiction. It lacks nothing, period. The high-tech futuristic visuals are as delightful as Bellotto’s scintillating wit and scathing satire. The premise reminds me of something I saw on TV last fall about “The National Enquirer” writing a story that was not only true, but the Enquirer was the first to uncover it.
In “Where the Last Tramz Stops,” fabricating a news item that turns out to be true puts the reporter in a real pickle. Our protagonist publishes this gem:
… Dr. Nine-forty-six had been attempting to create an artificial bunghole through time and space in his West Bendover laboratory when an anomalous infinite loop in the secondary time stream was generated, drawing everything within the laboratory, including Dr. Nine-forty-six himself, into another dimension. The location of this other dimension is undetermined. Remote surveillance feeds, which escaped absorption through the temporary time flux, captured the accident in ultra-def holographic video.
“Hah!” a coworker scoffs. “Bunghole through time-space. Dinosaurs. Secret labs. Clever. Real clever, but you take too damn many risks … You knit a story that intricate, and you’re bound to drop a stitch.”
He drops a stitch, all right, and knits a bigger mess than he could have imagined.
The only solution is to erase the existence of the fictional man who isn’t fiction, after all. Murder isn’t part of his job description, though—or so Bobbob thought.
This solution to Bobbob’s dilemma is dastardly, dire, and ultimately, delightful. The visuals are so … er, frabjous! … I’m not about to share them here. This story is brilliant. The only way to do it justice is to say, “Read it!”
If humor in your science fiction is always welcome (I can never find enough it, myself), “Ships in the Night” by Jay Werkheiser should satisfy. No bloody space battles, no hostile aliens here; just a traveling stranger stopping at a bar in one of those isolated communities on the frontier, where locals ache for news from other places. When space is their frontier, news from afar can stretch into unusually tall tales. “Ships in the Night” has an Old West feel that is fun, and for this genre, different:
“Whatcho drinkin’, offworlder?”
… He appraised me with his eyes and apparently found me wanting. I put on my (hopefully) disarming grin and asked, “What do you guys brew around here?”
The ale is “fermented from a gen-modded rice hybrid.” Ooh, is this stranger gonna try it? Indeed, he does.
Zhake cracked a grin. “Yer all right, for an offworlder.”
“This is the best part,” I said. “Sampling what new worlds have to offer. New cultures, new sights, new tastes … Like on New Hope, where they make a minty liqueur distilled from the blood of some sort of mushroom-shaped trees.”
This story is sheer fun, but also illuminating, which is what I always hope to find in science fiction. We should all be so lucky as to find it in our schoolteachers, too. Werkheiser teaches chemistry and physics to high school students; his stories often deal with alien biochemistry, weird physics, and their effects on the people who interact with them. Can we clone him and replace the sadly large number of teachers who make math and science such awful subjects for too many students?
Humor is not the hallmark of “Rachel’s Fall” by Teresa Howard, but it’s mystical, even magical, yet certifiably science-driven. The “fall” is visually spectacular and (for those more idealistic than I am) inspiring.
Rachel is living the perfect life on a new space colony, until raging fever and vile-smelling skin eruptions start killing colonists of all ages, even though everyone was immunized against the natural bacteria and viruses on Tobar. The Tobar colony is “quarantined and declared off limits by Space Command Central,” which means they’ll send down medical supplies, but no captain would risk contaminating his ship or crew to treat the colonists, much less risk carrying the sickness back to Earth. Ah, the downside of daring to start a colony on a planet far from home. So much infrastructure is missing, but pioneers are nothing if not resourceful.
Rachel unravels the mystery behind the illness and learns how it can be stopped. The story builds to a startling conclusion as she answers the call of a newly discovered, sentient, native species.
I hated it.
Oh, it’s beautiful, and others will love it, and that’s all I plan to say about that—unless we meet over a pitcher of adult beverages to fraternize about fiction and discuss how stories affect us. This is why Cons are drawing fans by the millions all over the globe: what a great way to chat with authors, artists, costume designers, and all kinds of fun people who love our favorite genre.
Dark themes, noble sacrifices, and surprise twists are also the hallmark of “Yellow Star” By John Moralee. For twenty years, Chara Hudson grew up hating her absentee mother, a notorious fugitive:
“The last time I had seen her had been when I was eight … a woman I had admired and wanted to be like when I was older. At work for Sunstone Corporation, Eryn Hudson had been someone else; a powerful executive in charge of a large department, running an ambitious construction project to build a space elevator that would tether to a geostationary space station. The project—when completed—would have reduced ecological damage and improved economic prospects for the whole planet. Would have—but didn’t. Sixteen months into the project, when the space elevator consisted of a sky-tall stalk of twisted cables, the cables snapped at the base and the elevator collapsed, killing nineteen employees. An investigation uncovered a fault in the fabrication process, caused by a deliberate design error. The sabotage was traced to my mother’s department.”
A mysterious package and the arrival of a starship lead Chara into a perilous situation. “There was only one person who knew how much Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland meant to me. My mother—Eryn Hudson. But why would my mother send me a present after so long? She had sent nothing for my last twenty birthdays—so why now?”
Fans of whodunnits and thrillers will have fun piecing together the answers to this puzzle.
Another mysterious package from another absentee parent launches “Unwanted Gifts” by S.M. Kraftchak, but no two stories in this anthology are alike. Taryn, a thirty-year-old medical assistant, tries to refuse an unexpected birthday gift from her estranged father, who abandoned her in slaver’s territory sixteen years earlier. Nothing he can give her now will atone for what he did. Unless, of course, Taryn unwraps more than a package when she accepts her father’s gift.
“The Device” by Tara Campbell explores family ties and social relations, a theme we encounter in “Eighteen Winters,” but this one shows a mother trying to keep her daughter-in-law from making a mistake as a wife and would-be mother. Madame X suspects her daughter-in-law of hiding something. What she learns forces her to confront her own long-hidden secrets. “It was a harsh lesson, perhaps, but one she wished she’d learned sooner: choice meant risk. There was danger in all the most valuable things; like choice, hunting, and love. One had to hunt with conviction, or be haunted by the things one let slip away.” No spoiler here; the moral of the story is not the secret; it’s getting there that keeps the reader turning pages.
“Jessica never saw the bumbler that stung Trevor.” Somehow, that opening line grabs me and doesn’t let go in “Welcome to Your Dream House” by Steve Bates. Desperate to spend more time with her son, Jessica takes a job that supposedly will allow them to be together more: “When she had accepted her job with Dream Homes Limited, the deal sounded reasonable. Hustle around the galactic neighborhood assembling subdivisions for a few years, get some time off with Trevor between assignments, and earn a promotion allowing her to settle in one place—with her son back in her life every day.” Some dreams, however, aren’t meant to come true.
“When Unknown Gods Leave” by Margaret Karmazin is a clever tale about two dominant species who can’t co-exist on the same planet. In a case of “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us,” which species will win?
Lest anyone fear there’s too much “soft” science fiction in this anthology, here is an example of how much you’ll find of the hard stuff. I love the opening line: I hid beneath a kitrine rock formation, one of thousands in this eastern coastal area of Masween. We had briefly stepped outside in order to transmit more efficiently to the nearest receiving station in space.
And here is a more detailed summary of the theme: The vast majority of known planets that harbor sentient life have one ruling species. We know of three that break this rule: one in which the dominant two species have barely reached the stone age; another is closed off to interaction; and Masween, where I landed twelve days ago. Less than one Masween year ago (equivalent to sixteen Affiliated Planets Months), their mysterious overlords, the Abbas, who had held their world in a state of peace since the beginning of their recorded history, left without explanation.
The protagonists aren’t so nice in “Claim Jumpers” by Doug C. Souza, where two con men learn the “barren” planet they’re selling to a cold-blooded Mafioso may actually be inhabited.
The opening lines are attention-getting, and I can’t help but be drawn to the voice, even though I normally refuse to hang out in the heads of fictional thieves and con men. The con game goes bad from the first sentence:
Bulky and cumbersome, like it belonged on some ancient submarine. Instead, it sat smack-dab on the barren surface of New Hygiea. Pockmarked and barren, the onyx terrain screamed, “Free property for those who get here first!”
Prime to be seized, had it not been for that stupid ugly hatch.
You see … hatch meant inhabited.
The con game quickly goes from bad to worse when the cons realize they’re being conned by their intended victims. Oh, and it can always get worse. A misty blue nebula starts messing with their minds.
Then again, keeping sharp is what separates the pros from the amateurs.
In “End Around” by E. J. Shumak, a bear-like hominid, Bersim, is forced to leave behind her four kits to go search for their daddy. Bersim had paid her dues and earned time off to be a mother, but her husband is missing and presumed dead, forcing Bersim to return to active duty. It’s a tense, action-packed tale with a satisfying conclusion. Authentic characterizations and convincing point of view of a large, furry mammal may reflect time the author spent as big-cat sanctuary operator.
The song “39” by Queen came to mind as I read “Pan Ad Aster” by Bruce C. Davis. A young woman is torn: space travel is her dream, but her parents would be dead by the time she returned while she would age hardly at all. If she refuses to abandon her parents, she’ll lose the man she loves and would marry, because he’d come back to find her an old woman. What kind of choice is that, and what will be the final outcome?
“First Sunrise” by Marie Michaels is about a mechanic with nothing to live for but the dream of leaving his cold lunar world with the woman he loves. Nobody leaves Fontus alive, his daddy warned. Will he ever make it to the jade world of Maia that hangs just beyond their poisoned sky?
“Bright Horizon” by Thomas Olbert shows two radically different post-Earth societies battling each other for the colonization of an alien Solar System. One fights to save the indigenous population, the other to exterminate them. What if the exterminator cannot bring himself to finish the job? For two star-crossed lovers separated by the war, an enemy with a heart can do more than just keep Tari from losing Lynn.
“The Mirror Dialogues” by Richard Zwicker is a classic. I’m no fan of thieves, so I have no sympathy for Josiah Spaulding when he steals the wrong cargo from the wrong aliens. A tracking device from hell forces him and his two-person crew into hiding on a remote planet. But when mirror images of themselves start talking to them, the thieves face an even bigger problem: how to escape their doubles without getting themselves killed in the process. It takes a thief to catch a thief, as the saying goes, but it takes even more daring and originality to get out of this extraordinary dilemma.
“The Drive” by W. A. Fix is a fast and furious ride with pompous Captain Dill and cool, competent Commander Wicks, and a science-fictional accoutrement of Warp coils, liquid helium, Plasma Engine Generators, and a very tricky flight plan.
But don’t take my word for it: read these stories and see for yourself how far you can go, how much fun you can have, how many perils you can survive, without ever leaving the safety of your favorite place to devour books. (“Visions V: Milky Way,” Edited by Carrol Fix, Lillicat Publishers) —Carol Kean
Originally published January, 2017 at http://www.perihelionsf.com/