Wednesday, April 30, 2008

April F&SF, Pt. I

April's F&SF starts with two good but completely different stories. The first, "First Editions" by John Stoddard, is a tale of sentient books. A magician has been transforming people into books and keeping them in his private collections. Our hero has suffered this fate, and rails against it. He talks with the other books, learns about them and falls in love. In this story the metaphor for sex is reading each other's intimate passages (as it were). I believe I've said before that I'm a sucker for stories about books, and this one is well done. It's interesting and exciting, even when not much is happening. It's not cutting edge stuff, but it hangs together nicely. Very enjoyable.

The next story is the stand-out from this issue. "Five Thrillers" by Robert Reed is a truly disturbing take on the thriller genre and its dubious moral values. Our "hero" is a genetically engineered man, handsome, fast, strong and intelligent, but completely lacking a normal moral center. We follow his adventurous career through five episodes. We first meet him on a doomed cargo ship, manipulating the officers and crew of the ship in order to secure himself a spot on the lifeboat. There's no doubt that this man is at least a sociopath, but a very effective one.

After the lifeboat episode, he connives his way into the clandestine services. The main source of conflict through these stories is humanity separating into different tribes, almost different species, as they genetically modify themselves. In the second episode he ruthlessly deals with "rebirth" terrorists, later he will infiltrate the orbital colonies of different rebirth species and strike a blow for "humanity." After surviving an extended period in the depths of space, he is rescued and, now an internationally known hero, gains more power than ever before.

In each vignette, Joe gains more power and commits ever more outrageous acts. Reed makes in clear in each sub-story that Joe is acting in completely unethical, immoral and frankly evil ways. However, he is simultaneously showing off all the traits that we celebrate in our thriller heroes: survival through strength and cleverness, self-sufficiency, and an ability to get the job done no matter the obstacles or the cost. Some of the situations he finds himself in lead to real ethical dilemmas: when the lives of billions of people are on the line, can we condemn evil acts taken to save them? Are there tactics that should never be appropriate?

Obviously in this day and age these questions are more important than ever. I applaud Reed for writing a story that tackles them so well (and again, I admire his ability to raise these issues without losing sight of telling a really good story). He's also raised some questions about the things we take for granted in our beloved action movies, things that have been making me uncomfortable since the first Matrix movie came out. ( When Neo shoots up all the guards in the building lobby, aren't those real people? And don't get me started on the end of the trilogy: it's OK to leave 99% of humanity enslaved in the Matrix because "they're not ready?" How can they be when no one's told them the truth or their options? ) The only quibble I have with the story is that it seems that Joe buys into the humanist mission even to his own detriment, something that needs more explanation with a character this self-centered. However, that's a minor detraction from an amazing story. Another one that I'll try to remember come awards time.

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