Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lots of Cliches and Some Very Poor Pacing

The December issue of Baen's Universe offers a decidedly mixed bag. It has some good stuff, lots of cliched stuff, and one seriously flawed bit that just makes you shake your head.

The leading story, "Moon Race" by Ben Bova falls into the "cliched" category. A guy enters a race to prove that his robotic walker can beat the usual car-type moon buggies used for getting around on the Moon. The consequences for failure are repeatedly emphasized: if he doesn't win the race, he won't get any investment funding, he'll have to go back to Earth, and his crippled partner will be stuck for life. He plans to take a shortcut to the goal that the buggy-vehicles can't take, but when he does so the race marshall disqualifies him. He finishes the race his way anyway, and beats the other vehicles, but he thinks that all is lost. That the character can be so incredibly blind to the happy ending racing at him like a freight train is unbelievable, but otherwise this story is fine. It's also totally aware of its antecedents, repeatedly referencing the John Henry tall-tale legend.

Next up is "Pumpkin” by Bud Sparhawk. This one also has 'cliche' elements of the Western and Sea story varieties. A guy runs a ship on Jupiter that goes into dangerous storms to try to capture raw materials (asteroids and such) that well up from the depths during atmospheric upheavals. It's incredibly dangerous, and his girlfriend keeps trying to get him a stable job on one of the stations. He repeatedly avoids these opportunities--he's addicted to the danger and to trying to find the "one big strike" that will make him rich. Much of the story involves his close brushes with big ones that get away. It's a fun enough story, (Sparhawk has a talent for action scenes) but it's been told many times before.

"Loki's Net" by Marissa Lingen is not terribly memorable. It has a nice hook, in a near future where story-telling emerges as a major entertainment form. The main character is an assistant to the star diva story-teller, who obsesses over finding a missing scientist. Turns out the guy developed a serum that allows one person to truly experience what it's like to be another person (for instance, a male), which is probably every actor's dream. The scientist decides that this is too dangerous to exist and tries to disappear, but eventually the actress tracks down the serum, which he'd tested on himself (of course). This story centers on the idea of being able to be someone else, not on the characters, and certainly from a plot logic standpoint it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. However, this is a nice examination of the thesis.

"Some Events At the Templar Radiant" by Fred Saberhagen is another Berserker story. The setting is the post-Berserker future, where all research into their tech is verboten. Of course, that won't stop some curious scientists who don't understand the dangers. More cliches show up as the scientist works to both investigate and hide his investigations, and of course gets destroyed by his own hubris, both professional and personal. I suspect that if I were more immersed in the Berserker mythos I would recognize more nifty tidbits here to entertain me. Nevertheless, Saberhagen spins a satisfying, if foregone, conclusion.

The second installment of David Brin's "Shoresteading" continues to entertain. The plot follows the Chinese man, Wer, who can talk to an alien artefact as different factions use force and subterfuge to capture both him and the artefact. It's a big ol' game of capture the flag from the flag's point of view. I kept feeling like Brin was drawing out some of his scenes too long; once it's obvious where the next step is sometimes it felt like it took to long to get there. However, he brings in the concept of the smart mob that he's used in some of his zeppelin stories to start to help Wer gain some control over his fate... or perhaps just another capricious master. I'm considering following this story even if I'm not reading/reviewing the rest of the Baen's issues; I'm a sucker for Brin's idea-rich near futures.

The story that I had the biggest problem with, and ended up skipping, is "The Gossamer Mage: Intended Words" by Julie Czerneda. I'm surprised by this, since I had heard nothing but good things about Czerneda in the past. Most of my objections stem from the fact that this feels like a novel beginning instead of a story. The first section is simply being character and world building with no plot elements and no indication of why we should care about either the world or the character. But I got through that. The next section opens up with some plot! A mage is summoned to see the duke, who is apparently a very bad person to be on the wrong side of. So the mage goes hurrying off... only to be stopped in the middle for a whole bunch of paragraphs of world-building info-dumps. Let me give you the start of the action, then the paragraph starters that come afterwards:
"Saeleonarial puffed as he hurried down the wide, too-empty hall. No one came late without consequence to an audience with a hold lord, not even the head of Tananen's only magic casters. There was malice in the delayed summons. Well done, Harn.

"In this part of the new wing, the floor was polished marble, so smooth he had to be wary of a slip...
"The merchants and seamen who came on the ships were polite but curious, their heads stuffed with rumor and wild tales...
"For freight was welcome up the Helthrom, but not foreigners...
"Tiler's hold lords kept it that way..."
"The latest, Insom the Second, was more than watchful...
"He would indeed demand answers...
"Saeleonarial's hasty steps and puffing filled the space... [no, he's still not actually at his audience yet, he's still in the hall]
'He was too old for this...
"The bells around his ears laughed at him."
And in fact at the end of the scene, he still hasn't gotten to the dreaded audience. That's where I gave up. If the author doesn't care whether the character gets there despite all his huffing and puffing, why should I? His urgent journey shouldn't be interrupted by a geography and history lesson! This is a page-long example of something that Samuel Delany pointed out in his book About Writing, but he did it in a single sentence: "After almost no time at all the string on which he had been pulling and pulling came apart into two separate pieces so quickly he hardly realized it had snapped." If you say that something is happening quickly, or urgently, your prose & diction needs to reflect that. Multiple diversions and digressions suck all the life out of the narrative. Again, this may be tolerable at the beginning of a novel, where the reader is expecting a slow build-up and is invested in seeing it through, but no way could this work at any shorter length.

After that we get a short and silly story by Mike Resnick, "A Very Formal Affair: A Harry the Book Story." Harry is a bookie in a magical version of Prohibition days, and he investigates some oddities surrounding a dance competition. Resnick, of course, has no problem getting into and out of a story quickly.

From new authors we get "In the Light of the Hunger Moon" by Kevin J. Cheek and "Johnny Plays 'Round Saturn's Rings" by Jason K. Chapman. "Hunger Moon" is a good story of religious and racial tension in a world of humans and trolls in which plague looms large. Lorgash's entire tribe was wiped out by plague and he's heading into the mountains to die, but instead he winds up helping a widow and her son hold out against a power grab by both humans and trolls. There are some silly made-up phrases (why 'turned-out' instead of exile?) but generally this is a good, well-rounded story. "Johnny Plays" is the story of a kid coming to accept that androids made from people's memories are real people too (his dad is about to become one) after one of the androids saves him and other people from a pressure leak on the space station they live in. So many of these android stories have a 1950's feel to them, and this one is no exception. In fact, it puts me in mind of the Twilight Zone episode "I Sing the Body Electric" (written by Ray Bradbury) in which a robotic grandmother persuades a young girl to love her after saving her from being run over by a truck. Nothing new under the sun, I guess.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

In Which Suspension of Disbelief = FAIL

Analog's December 2008 issue starts out in a less-than-promising way. "Misquoting the Star" by David Bartell begins: "No one wanted to be remembered as The Voice at the End of the World, so when the asteroid nicknamed "Big Bastard" exploded into the Earth, the event went unnarrated. No one wanted to direct the angles from the cameras on the Moon, on the Earth, in their orbits and Lagrange points, so the video feeds cycled mosaics of them all, automatically." This didn't help me suspend my disbelief for the story; it is my fervent belief that a number of journalists/newscasters secretly hope that the world will end someday, just so they can report it. In my own personal experience I've heard paramedics wish for a jetliner crash, just so they can respond to it--same concept.

After that opening, I never fully trusted the story. The basic background, that a handful of people escaped the Earth before it was wiped out by a dinosaur-killer asteroid, was no problem (and apparently was described in a previously published story). However, this story centers on a woman who administers one of the colonies. She starts to fall for an African guy. Then she discovers he's got AIDS (all the people in the colony were supposed to be screened against this sort of virus, but his father had given up his seat for him). Aaaand she discovers that it's still incurable, despite a quack doctor's attempt to do so (not quite sure how that was necessary to the story, except to delay the inevitable). But here's the part that I really had problems with: she eventually understands that when they resettle Earth, things won't be perfect no matter how much she wants them to be, so she will eventually let this guy return to Earth instead of forcing him to stay on the Moon forever. Really? You're going to let a guy with AIDS possibly re-introduce this deadly virus to an otherwise virus-free population (maybe you'll ask him to promise nicely not to have unprotected sex?) just because the future won’t be a utopia? There's not-perfect, and then there's being stupid, and I felt that this character ended up on the wrong side of that line. Oh well.

Next up is a story by Jason Sanford, whose work I had previously enjoyed in Interzone ("The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain"). Here he gives us a story with another interesting background. This near future Earth has a made-up religion, and its members are terrorists trying to keep people on Earth, away from space. Before the story started, they exploded a bomb that damaged a lot of satellites. This keeps a woman raised in this religion from becoming an astronaut. She's pretty disillusioned, but eventually agrees to help one of her co-religionists with a repair mission (they've been challenging the blockade with high-altitude aerostat balloons). However, she realizes that her repair mission is supposed to be one-way, and would threaten a NASA installation. She eventually saves the day, causes her priest and employer to be arrested, and winds up back in NASA's good graces. This is a good adventure story, no doubt, but I felt like the world-building could support a deeper examination into religious fanaticism, and I was a bit disappointed that it didn't happen. No worries, Sanford's world-building skills are good enough that I'm sure he'll get there someday.

"Moby Digital" ended up being a "skip" story for me. It features a VR environment where students can immerse themselves in a fictional world. A group of students gets trapped there while examining "Moby Dick," and a tech has to go in to save them. They'll die if he doesn't, because when the power runs out on the VR modules they contract and crush the user. I refuse to follow a story motivated by incredibly bad/stupid/unsafe engineering (especially in our time of over-engineering and over-warning-labeling everything because of liability issues). Basically, if the engineering of the modules was half-way competent, there'd be no story. I’ll pass.

Lastly, we get the second installment of Robert Sawyer's new serial, "Wake." I reviewed part one and liked it, and I liked this section as well. It introduced a new plot thread in having two sign-language capable simians talk to each other over the Internet, and a chimp subsequently developing the ability to paint figures instead of abstracts. The math-whiz blind girl develops more abilities with her new implant, and also deals with a boorish high school dance date. There's an unfortunate moment when a sulky walk home could have been avoided if she'd brought her cellphone, and it's hard to imagine a Western teen being without one even at a dance, but I still like the way the character is written. I'm waiting to see how all the plot threads connect; I can see their thematic similarities, but they're not meshing yet.

I'm not planning to continue this project of keeping up with this much magazine short fiction in 2009, as I've already mentioned. However, I am considering finishing "Wake" and also the serial that David Brin is running over at Baen's, "Shoresteading." These are reliable authors, good storytellers, and I'm always curious to see what they'll come up with next.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Even the Good Stuff Has Flaws.

This issue doesn't have anything outstanding in it--even the stories I liked seemed flawed. Consider "Way Down East" by Tim Sullivan. Two lobstermen allow their boat to be chartered by a visiting alien (or more accurately, its support staff). The main lobsterman is at first horrified by the alien, then comes to terms with it, even as the alien chooses their boat as its place to quietly expire. This parallels the man’s estrangement from his openly gay son; at the end he appears ready to reconcile that relationship as well. This is one of the most explicit pairings of Gayness with Alienness/Otherness I've ever seen, and it's generally a lovely story. The flaw in it stems from the protagonist. A lot of the story deals with his internal state and his own introspection. It's a little hard to swallow that such a reflexively introspective man would need the prod of coming face to face with an alien to get over his knee-jerk dislike of gayness. Basically, this story sold us too well on the man he becomes to convince us of the difficult transition from the man he was.

"Welcome to Valhalla" is a story by Kathryn Lance and Jack McDevitt. I'm a fan of McDevitt's work (I’m unfamiliar with Lance), but this story struck me as too simplistic by half. A valkyrie visits Richard Wagner on the eve of the debut of the Ring cycle opera. She shows him the horrors that will be perpetrated by the Nazis, and asks him to kill his own epic saga—to cancel all performances and bury it. She admits that this will not stop the Holocaust, but she's offering him the chance to not have his name associated with that period. Wagner refuses (and who can blame him?), and the show goes on. Basically, this story throws a premise against a wall to see if it'll stick; it doesn't examine its thesis in any depth.

Steven Utley gives us "Perfect Everything," another story that didn't quite work for me. It has some clunky dialog, but the main problem is that its two plot threads don't reinforce each other. In one, a man is on a spaceship that is heading back to Earth after failing in their mission to look for extraterrestrial life. To help pass the time, he spends his off-duty hours immersed in a tech-enabled dream world, where he and his perfect girl lounge around on a perfect beach. Unfortunately, all has not been well back home, and when they return they find Earth under siege by aliens. In the course of the story, his dream-bauble gets damaged, and his perfect girl, based on someone he knew in real life, starts rebelling. It turns out that she never liked him "that way" back on Earth, but he's so pathetic that he couldn't let it go. Knowing how he's built her up in his mind, she feels a bit used. Anyway, he volunteers for a mission to go down to Earth and see what's left. The end. So you've got this alien invasion/Earth's been destroyed story playing backdrop to a "Dude, she's just not that into you" story. This leaves the story with skewed priorities, and the additional problem that the reality thread and the dream thread don't reinforce each other terribly well. They do in terms of tone: normalcy on the ship is broken by the aliens, normality in the dream world is broken when it gets damaged. However, the whole invasion plot ends up seeming like an excuse to break the bauble and then an excuse for the guy getting all distraught over the possibility that the real girl is dead. That seems like a flimsy reason for killing off most of humanity, I'm afraid.

A story that works much better (and is easily the best of the issue) is "In Concert" by Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem. They describe a woman who has always had (or suffered from) telepathic glimpses into other minds, totally at random. She is getting towards the end of her life, but she starts seeing situations that indicate that she is making contact with an astronaut who has gotten lost in space with no hope of return. She contacts the NASA-equivalent at his behest, and is able to convince one of his co-workers of the reality of this connection, thus giving the astronaut the chance to pass on final messages. Both the astronaut's and the woman's grasp on life is tenuous and fading. It is in this beautiful duet of plot and character that the story works so well. It's not Earth-shattering; it's all very quiet and sedate, but quite moving.

Geoffrey Landis gives us "Still on the Road," a purely stylistic exercise of putting the beat poetry style of "On the Road" into space. Unfortunately, I'm not up on that style of literature (my catching-up-with-literature-project, both genre and "mainstream" is currently around 1920 for the former and ~1200 for the latter), so I can't say how well it worked.

Unfortunately, the issue fails to end on a high note. "The Flowers of Nicosia" by David Ira Cleary never resolved into a story I liked. It's got a silly premise: a band ('Downtown Dharma') of middle-aged rockers obsessed with Nirvana and Kurt Cobain are close to an outbreak of Islamic terrorism. Their response is to try to use rock music to heal the rifts. Thanks to the lead singer's aunt in the State Dept., they get to perform in divided Cypress, especially on the Turkish side of the island. They meet lots of interesting people: a Muslim woman who also fronts her own rock band, and older rejected lover of hers that acts as the band's manager, and other characters on both sides of the cultural divide. They have some success in their two concerts, but there is a severe bioterrorism outbreak on the island and in the end there's nothing they can do to help. The drug-addict drummer had hooked up with the woman, but they both succumb to the disease. In reading the story I was afraid that the characters were being set up to fail, and it disappointed me when they finally did. It takes a long time and a lot of whingeing about by the main character/lead singer to get there, and if the message is simply that well-meaning people can't actually do anything to help solve the tensions between the Americanized West and the Islamic world, that's the kind of nihilism I can do without. I got to the end of the story and wished I'd skipped it.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

RIP Paul Lawrence Burnham

Paul Lawrence Burnham (1939-2009), father, husband, aviator, historian, astronomer and engineer, has passed away. He began his life in Naples, Maine and graduated from Bates College in 1962 with a degree in history. He served in the Navy from 1962 to 1969 as a Lieutenant and pilot, marrying Linda Anne Harris in 1963. After leaving the Navy he returned to Maine to raise a growing family: Christopher (b. 1965), Michael (b. 1967), Jennifer (b. 1971) and Karen (b. 1979). He worked many jobs in and out of the Aerospace industry over the years, culminating in his work on the Mars Pathfinder mission which landed in 1997. Moving to California in 1985 he was hard hit by the industry downturn of the 1990s, eventually retiring to Arizona.

Throughout his life he maintained a number of diverse interests. Devoted to reading, he and his wife raised their four children (all of whom have college degrees) similarly. He was an avid amateur astronomer, joining the South Bay Astronomical Society in California and the Moonsighting Committee Worldwide from Arizona. He maintained an interest in model railroading and also history, where his speciality was the American Civil War. As he went into the hospital for the final time, he was re-reading a 1825 edition of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" that he had specially re-bound, as well as a book on the art of Edvard Munch.

The world needs polymaths to keep things interesting, and Paul was one of them. There was almost nothing out there that he didn't find interesting in one way or another. In our trips into the backcountry to find clear skies for astronomy, we often found many other interesting things. Monuments, ancient trees, bird and lizards, local history museums. Likewise, there was almost nothing that he didn't find worth reading; he introduced me to, amongst others, Hitchhiker's Guide, Cordwainer Smith, Isaac Asimov, Robert Service (when I was particularly disgusted with poetry as taught in high school), and Carl Hiaasen. He also valued diversity whereever he found it, reveling in the multicultural atmosphere of Los Angeles in particular.

He was always encouraging in our pursuits, from my brother's photography to my fencing. He had to be the best parent in the world to brag to; no matter what you were doing (engineering, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Wicca, D&D) he thought it was neat. He was happy to see me get a physics degree and follow him into engineering of sorts. If he was disappointed that I didn't stick with my original PhD-in-Astronomy plan he never showed it. He was also pleased by my branching out into sf critcism and editing, continuing the polymathic tradition of the family.

He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996, and only narrowly survived. We were all lucky to be granted 12 extra years to spend with him. In those years we got to see 6,000 year old trees, a cat licking our dinner pot clean outside an abandoned mine, a narrowly-missed new Moon on Mt. Pinos, and had more conversations about more topics than you can imagine. If I'm now sad that he won't get to see my sister get her Bachelor's degree, my house in Texas, or more of his grandchildren, I'm still grateful for all the extra time we did have.

If you ever wanted to know how someone becomes an engineer who is also a literary critic (at least in the 'backwater' of sff), one need only look at the sort of parents who always took time to answer 'why' questions, never bullshitted around about stuff, encouraged us to read anything we wanted at any age, and always encouraged us to ask questions and find solutions. Quirky? --Yes. Perfect? --No. Successful? --Hell yes. Four kids with college degrees, good families (three grandkids), a paramedic/firefighter/gunsmith, photographer/salesman/entrepreneur, a historian/archaeologist pursuing her dream, and me. Polymaths (and generally nice people) all, helping keep the world a more interesting place.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Analog Broke out of its Stereotype in November

Two of the stronger stories in November's Analog (by Alan Dean Foster and Oz Drummond, and even one by Richard Lovett) were quite atypical for that magazine; I'm a bit surprised that this didn't make a somewhat larger impact. Do any reviewers actually read Analog anymore? (Of course since I'm going to stop reviewing it in 2009, I suppose I'm not one to talk.)

Before getting to those, this issue of Analog leads off with the first installment of a new serial by Robert J. Sawyer, titled "Wake." Remember that his last serial in Analog, Rollback, was nominated for a Hugo. “Wake” lacks some of the initial momentum of that one; Sawyer takes a little longer to get to the central motivating plot. The story is told in two threads. In one, a blind teenage girl has recently moved to Canada (no surprise, given that Sawyer is probably the most Canada-centric of today's genre authors). We learn about her and her life, and then some researchers in Japan contact her about her blindness. Due to the very specific nature of her condition, there is a chance that a hardware/software implant could successfully translate between the input her eyes receive and the neurons needed to interpret the signals. At first the implant doesn't appear to work, but it provides the cliff-hanger ending to send us off, looking forward to the next installment. The other thread involves the Chinese government cracking down on their nation's internet access when they resort to less-than-humanitarian means to control an epidemic. As well as throttling pro-democracy bloggers, this sudden severing of connections also appears to inconvenience some sort of nascent intelligence... it probably won't take experienced genre readers long to see what Sawyer is building up to here.

I found “Wake” interesting and readable, although without the emotional resonance of Rollback. I'm a bit dubious about the blindness cure offered by the researchers; it didn't line up well with what I learned recently in a Neuroscience graduate class. On the other hand, I'm totally willing to believe that Sawyer has read more recently published research than I have. So far my biggest problem with the story is that the two threads don't seem to connect well. They will likely mesh more smoothly in the later segments of the story, but in this one they seemed completely unrelated. That makes it harder to credit the internet-consciousness trope (and Sawyer's going to have to work mighty hard to top what David Brin did with that idea in Earth, still one of my favorite sf novels). Still, it will be interesting to see where he takes it. With Sawyer you know you're in the hands of a good storyteller, no matter what.

To address all the middling bits, "Greenwich Nasty Time" is an implausible story about a physics experiment throwing things around in time. Given that it doesn't examine its consequences deeply or do much with the characters, its implausibility is fatal. "Mea Culpa" by Stephen Burns is a pure in-joke story for Analog fans. The weakest story was "Unburning Alexandria" by Paul Levinson. This starts out as a typical save-the-library-at-Alexandria time travel story, but turns out to involve Socrates and the cure for some sort of disease, and then just sits there, doing nothing. I ended up skipping it after it had a few strikes: the characters assert that they took Socrates into the future instead of leaving him to his death sentence. Having read Plato's Crito and Phaedo this is an insult to the man; Socrates appears to have spent the last days of his life persuading his friends not to save him, that he'd rather die than live a less-than-perfectly honest life. To rescue him anyway seems like a slur on his memory. Next, the characters appear to be looking in Ancient Greece for the cure for some sort of disease; what the heck they expect to find in the days before germ theory that might help them is beyond me. Third, there's hints of some sort of nefarious bad guy who acts to thwart the good guys’ interests--the way it's described it appeared to be setting up a big ol' cliche. Then there's the fact that the story completely runs out of narrative drive even when the heroine finally gets to go somewhere and that was it for me.

Now, on to the more atypical entries. "Cold Fire" by Alan Dean Foster is a neat story about a man in Alaska, saved from the elements and his own stupidity by an Inuit. Upon waking in their home, he discovers a secret about the daughter of the family, but eventually realizes that he should leave well-enough alone. It's a solid story, told with warmth and humor, and with some things to say about race relations. My biggest quibble is that it might as well be a fantasy story for whatever minor hand-waving Foster does with the speculative element, but while that's odd for Analog it's fine with me.

Richard Lovett's "Bug Eyes" provides a nice twist on first contact coming to a probe on a Jovian moon. The probe's been running for years and doesn't have any AI capability. When the researcher driving it sees something amazing, he assumes it's a hoax. Then the time-delay for commands causes additional complications. The story moves on from there, backing away from the improbable first contact and focusing on how it affects the researcher's life. He undergoes real character change as a result of his experiences. Thus when the aliens show up again, he's more prepared. A nice story of how mutual misunderstandings don't have to be the end of the world when it comes to aliens, and also a good illustration of how even scientist-centered hard sf can do character well.

The best story in this issue is "Recreation" by Oz Drummond. It describes a woman in some sort of VR world. She is the ultimate gamer--her every encounter with the mysterious "Him" involves her trying to figure out how to beat him in some game or other. During this introductory phase, Drummond does an excellent and unsettling job of conveying sexual tension (did I mention it is atypical for Analog?) that is obvious to the reader but not, apparently, to the woman. Eventually "He" leaves her alone for a long time, during which time she develops on her own. When "He" finally returns, He gets to find out what exactly she has been able to do for herself. This story combines insights into the gender relations in video games with the ethics of Pygmalion and conveys the strong and much appreciated message that some things aren't OK, no matter how innocently meant. (I'm afraid that I'm being almost unforgivably vague here, but I decided it was worth it to avoid major spoilers.) I was very glad to see a story of this type, with these strengths, in Analog. It will be very interesting to see how it is received by that fan base.

Friday, January 2, 2009


OK, this is just bad, but I can't deny feeling very [squee!] about it. John Anealio has actually written a song (click to download the mp3) including the names of a bunch of the SF/F reviewing sites that were collected by Grasping for the Wind during his SF/F/H Book Reviewers Linkup Meme. And Spiral Galaxy is in it! Specifically, it's in the key-change verse with several other blogs with names ending in "Review," but I'll take it!

It's always a bit of a thrill to be name-checked in the same places as people that I really respect. W00t!1!

Gimme That Ol' Time SF

Baen’s Universe, in it’s freshest-but-one issue, continues its rather classic sf feel. Its very first story, "Article of Faith" by Mike Resnick, feels very much like an Isaac Asimov story. Its “Real Year” may be 1950 or so. A robot comes to work at a church, and the pastor begins to discuss matters of faith and religion with him. The robot thinks deeply upon these matters and decides he wants to join the congregation. The congregation, driven by racism and suspicion of robots "stealing jobs," ends up beating the robot to death; the pastor gives up his position and goes to work in construction. In one way this is a universal story of people fearing the Other and it is as applicable now with people fearing Muslims or Mexicans as it would've been in the 50's with race issues. However, the whole treatment feels somewhat dated and unsubtle. As always Resnick writes it well, but this feels like older material.

Chuck Rothman’s "A Date with Patti Pleezmi" also feels older--a female bartender on the Moon has established a niche for herself. In her youth a boyfriend exploited her to make her the basis of one of the more popular VR porn characters available. She ran away from her old life in shame, but now the boyfriend has turned up again. She has a conversation with the VR character based on her, and learns that sometimes folks are understanding about past mistakes. There's very little about this story, at its core, that couldn't be written as a Western. Nothing wrong with that, but again it feels dated.

"Shoresteading" is the first part of a new David Brin serial. I read it all the way to the end, and I suspect I will enjoy the whole story. Of course, I’ve long been a fan of Brin’s work. He sets “Shoresteading” in the relatively near future and it feels a bit like his novel Earth, one of my all-time favorites. However, this appears to be a more focused story than Earth's epic multi-character narrative. A Chinese man and his wife and child have claimed some sketchy property off the coast of China--it used to be a beach-front house before the sea levels rose. During his daily scavenging for food and useful things to shore up his tenuous position, he finds a valuable artifact. It may be tied to aliens who have recently come to Earth. Most of this first installment is set-up:introducing the character, the world, the motivations, etc. However, there's also an over-long chase scene that is entirely one-sided; the hero is running away from something he imagines to be following him. It's a bit odd and definitely takes up a too much of the section. I feel like Brin tries to hook readers with some whiz-bang action, but it would've been better if there were external motivation for it. No matter, I'm looking forward to seeing where this story goes.

"The Rings of Ragnaran" by J. Simon tries in a way to emulate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and does so marginally successfully. Many alien species get together, all with the goal of peace, and promptly begin tearing each other limb from limb in the name of diplomatic relations. There's also a super-computer that may be willing to destroy the whole universe to get some peace. It's a clever story, and elicits some giggles, but it goes on a bit too long.

"First Rites" by Nancy Kress has some good elements, particularly an international perspective I appreciate (along with Brin’s, above). A young boy, the product of illegal bioengineering experiments, gets smuggled from America to China by his surrogate mother. He has all sorts of psychological issues, and only medicine sent from America keeps him alive. His benefactor brings him back to America when the surrogate mother dies. The guy then has to deal with his girlfriend, his ethical issues, a difficult child, and the adoption bureaucracy. It all gets very complicated, then a super-giant solar flare approaches the Earth. I liked the story better when the consequences were personal instead of Earth- and Universe-shattering; I didn't feel that this story structure supported such weight very well. The ouroborous-ness of the ending seemed particularly implausible.

"Mudlark" by contrast is a neat little story by Pat Cadigan. A woman's elderly mother goes missing as they are vacationing in London. When she is finally found she is acting completely out of character, like trash-picking along the banks of the Thames. However, the police can do nothing; the mother is acting on her own recognizance and there's nothing the daughter can do about it. She has to learn to let go. The speculative element on this story is almost entirely unnecessary, the message about children letting go of parents as a mirror of parents letting go of children stands perfectly well without the supernatural-metaphor-for-death element that seems tacked on at the end.

"Soul Survivor" is a very interesting sf/ghost story. Following its "one-drop" policy, Baen's classifies it as fantasy, but I'd argue it is sf (about which more later). Anyway, a rich eccentric gentleman is the only survivor of a horrific future battle; he's mostly full of reconstructed parts. He buys some property outside of a decent, all-American small town. The property is crowded with ghosts, and he sets about fixing their problems and seeing them off to their final destinations. All the vignettes are great, and the hero is a Competent Man in the grand Heinlein tradition: hates government and most journalists and knows exactly what his rights are concerning defense of his property. Eventually he finds true love in the form of a totally sexual female ghost made physical again--of course there can't be a happy ending without lots of sex in a Heinlein story. I really enjoyed this, in all its rambling glory, despite some of the eye-rolling bits. (BTW, although I admit that ghosts per se are supernatural, hence fantastic, I see them as a trope of the horror tradition. In my idiosyncratic way of looking at things, horror isn’t a genre of its own, it’s an effect that can modify any other type of story. Mainstream horror, fantasy horror, thriller horror, or sf horror. I know this completely ignores John Clute’s much discussed arguments in The Darkening Garden a couple of years ago, and I’ll happily admit to being less well-read in the genre than he, but I still haven’t quite gotten talked out of this belief of mine.)

To wrap up, "Homo Sylvanus" is a pretty lame story that relies heavily on contrivances to get its plot where the author wants it. The story tells of a society that believes genetic engineering is mostly evil and cloning steals souls, but of course a kid with lots of genetic engineering who is also a clone is still a good kid. And the kid rebells against the system. Whatever. The final story, "Russian Roulette" is flash fiction about precognition. A neat package, but nothing Earth-shattering.