Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Baen's Universe does fun, poignant

Baen's Universe (Vol. 2, No. 6) starts off with a strong action story by Tobias S. Buckell, "Manumission." The protagonist is a man without a past, enslaved to a shadowy intelligence agency he doesn't necessarily understand. He's assigned to track a woman, and she turns the tables on him. She makes him an offer he can't refuse and can't accept. It closely follows the conventions of action/thriller movies such as the "Jason Bourne" movies, where the hero goes rogue against a no-name agency implied to be evil. It's well written and engaging. Does it answer any fundamental questions of existence? No, but that's not its purpose.

Next up is a fun story, "Virtually, A Cat" by Jody Lynn Nye. A computer programming genius has been assigned to the first interstellar flight, just in case anything goes wrong with the software. He is shattered when he learns this will mean leaving his beloved cats, Parky and Blivit, behind. He goes, but torments all his crew mates with incessant stories of his cats and their doings. When every single person on board finally tells him to shut up about the damn cats, he falls into a depression. Fortunately, the crew figures out a solution. They put him in a full-body tactile suit (used for maneuvering robots outside the ship) and program the suit to act as if there's a cat there. The geek is overjoyed, and goes back to being a useful (and less annoying) crew member. The crisis comes when they get to the new star system. They record so much information that they start deleting anything non-essential from memory to carry more data home. Obviously, the cat program has got to go. The geek's reaction to this is refreshingly not what you'd expect from the geeky stereotype personality. It's both refreshing and satisfying. My only fault in this story is that it ends rather abruptly. I'd have liked to see him return home to his real cats, but the story ends with him still in space. It's a minor quibble, and as a rule it's better to leave readers wanting more. Although I'm significantly more of a dog person than a cat person (see below), this was a really fun story.

"Indomitable" by Jack McDevitt is a very short story that almost perfectly distills an important aspect of the psyche. A young boy is touring a museum with his father. He knows, with the obsession of youth, the names of all the spaceships and all their crews - all their flights and their fates. He particularly wants to see the Indomitable, one of the last of the interstellar explorers. It's in pieces now - a historical preservation group is trying to raise funds to restore her. Ships like that aren't needed now. We've gone about a thousand light years all around our solar system and found tons of planets that can support life. Enough to support human expansion for the foreseeable future. No aliens, though. So why do any more exploring? Why waste the money? The little boy knows why. This story reminds us all of the belief that exploring is intrinsically worthwhile, even if there's no immediate profit to it. It may be the faith of a child, but it's one I hope we never lose.

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