Editor-in-Chief, Neil Clarke; Editor, Sean Wallace
Non-Fiction Editor, Kate Baker; Reprint Editor, Gardner Dozois
Conglomerate • short story by Robert Brice *
Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus • short story by Bogi Takács *
Left of Bang: Preemptive Self-Actualization for Autonomous Systems • short story by Vajra Chandrasekera **
Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth • novella by Juliette Wade ***
The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales • novelette by Fei Dao (trans. by Ken Liu) *
Thing and Sick • reprint novelette by Adam Roberts ***+
Ancient Engines • reprint short story by Michael Swanwick ***
Giraffe Mech • cover by Eddie Mendoza
Narrative Perception: A Study in Interspecies Stimuli • essay by Calden Wloka
Enlightenment Voices and Norse A Cappella: A Conversation with Ada Palmer • interview by Chris Urie
Another Word: Being James Tiptree, Jr. • essay by Kelly Robson
Editor’s Desk: It’s Real? • editorial by Neil Clarke
The fiction gets off to a poor start this issue, with the first three short stories failing to impress. It would have been better to open the issue with Juliette Wade’s novella.
Conglomerate Robert Brice is about a human spaceship crew who are in digital form. They are about to survey a distant planet to see if it is suitable for colonisation. However, it takes a while to work this out as the prose is overly dense and wildly overwritten. Take this passage where the humans, who together form a ‘Conglomerate,’ split into their separate identities:
The Conglomerate confers with itself momentarily, before we decide to join him. We delineate from the amusing kilopedal shape that we have been wearing, and join Redondo in our pre-upload states. Consciousnesses disentangle, collective intelligence particulates, and one mind becomes thirteen. I feel sectors of my psyche shear clean away, whilst others previously nullified by more dominant traits in the other Conglomerate members unfurl from dormancy like the fronds of sea anemones. Attitudes and assumptions transected from the most rational sectors of thirteen minds become vague and recondite, their studied rationality becoming clouded as my own opinions return to cognizance. Still, bleary psychogenic residue from the metabrain remains tangled with my consciousness, embedded cerebrations that don’t belong to me. We stand together, shivering; thirteen naked humans surrounding Redondo’s prone form on a hyperboreal sea. On the horizon, the white Arctic sun slowly sets. p. 2
This amounts to ‘The Collective consciousness disassembled. During the process parts of my mind fell away, while others resumed their usual prominence. Although I lost access to the common attitudes and assumptions and thoughts of those thirteen minds, echoes remained. We stood together, shivering, etc.’—after it has been machine-gunned to death with a loaded Thesaurus, that is. Wading through this kind of thing for page after page was about as much fun as reading a technical manual.
I wasn’t surprised to discover that the writer, who deploys ‘delineate,’ ‘kilopedal’ (not in my OECD), ‘particulates,’ ‘transected,’ ‘recondite,’ ‘cognizance,’ ‘psychogenic,’ ‘cerebrations,’ and ‘hyperboreal’ in a passage less than two hundred words long, is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. I don’t want to be overly harsh on a first story that shows some promise (there are a couple of interesting sections later on: where they arrive at an armoured planet; and the later discovery of evolved life in the Collective’s simulated world) but the sooner this overwriting is out of his system the better.
Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus by Bogi Takács has sentient octopi attempting to discover what is inside several odd metal objects located in their environment. Eventually they open one and find a human inside. Once they learn to communicate with it they learn they are there to clean up the ocean.
There is the germ of an idea here, but the field effect the boxes emanate is never fully explained and, more generally, I didn’t understand where the story was trying to get to. It’s a lot more readable than the last piece though.
Left of Bang: Preemptive Self-Actualization for Autonomous Systems by Vajra Chandrasekera is a short-short about a robot put through repeated assassination scenarios as part of its training.
Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth by Juliette Wade is a traditional SF story that could have as easily appeared in Analog as here. The story takes place in an alien society on the planet Arruu, and it is narrated by one of the natives, Rulii. He is a member of a group called the Aurrl, who are under the unwanted rule of the northerners. The society he inhabits exhibits dominance/submission behaviours:
As I walk through the tunnel, however, I scent the new arrival. She is a stranger to me—but mixed with her identity drifts another, foul and familiar: the favor-scent of the one who sent her.
My skin prickles, and my mane-hackles rise. This messenger seeks me, in singular, for Majesty would never dignify humans with a direct message. He shows impatient of their very presence on Aurru. With this messenger, Majesty must intend to enforce Cold dominance upon me, even here in the Warm lands.
My lips curl away from my teeth, but I force them closed as I reach the slotted door. With my right thumbs, I disentangle from my mane the lock of Rank-beads that mark me Royal Liaison, so it hangs before my shoulder.
“Bow-bow!” I command through the slots. “Name your intent. Will you grapple?”
“Belly to you, Liaison Rulii,” she replies, her Warm words accepting my higher Rank. “No challenge oﬀered; only words. Suﬀer me to tread your territory.”
This is fortunate, since I am too ill to fight well. The humans’ cushions may yet survive. “Bow-bow: make welcome; I come.” The messenger bows to haunches before me. False humility. She knows her own beauty: a strong fine muzzle, dense fur, and a mane streaked with white. She carries her short ears with the Cold pride of the superior race. Beneath the stink of Majesty, her odor is tinged with distaste. Does she disdain my scars, scarcely covered by my Lowlander’s fur? Bite-bite—but I hold back the urge to anger, for she will bear report of me back to Majesty in La-larrai City. p. 28-29
The creatures are never specifically described but, as well as the manes described above, they can stand on their hind legs, run quickly on all four, and have a powerful bite (I presume they are a dog/bear analog).
The problem Rulii has is that Majesty Gur-gurne wants to talk to Par-parker, an Earthman who is part of a team sent to the planet. Unfortunately, Parker has gone to speak to a barbarian tribe called the Hnn-hnnwan, which Majesty Gur-gurne, and hence Rulli’s tribe, are at war with. Rulli goes into enemy territory to get him back before Majesty Gur-gurne finds out.
The strengths of this story are the convincingly described alien society and the domination/submission relationships that these aggressive creatures have. The weaknesses include a lack of clarity about the political manoeuvrings that take place when the barbarians capture Rulli and he is taken to see their leader. The story could have done with another draft, and perhaps some length reduction too.
The last of the original fiction is The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales by Fei Dao (trans. by Ken Liu). This story begins with the king of a peaceable land trying to work out what to do about his son, who is a continual liar. The problem is still unsolved as the king dies and the son succeeds him. The son then tasks one of his soldier robots to go travelling, and learn enough tall tales so that he can replace him as the biggest liar.
The rest (and bulk) of the story details the robot’s many travels and encounters (one moment he is talking to three men who each have a tale about how they cheated death, the next he is in a black hole, etc.). The problem with this is that it is one of those stories where anything can happen next, and does, and that randomness can become quite boring unless there is an obvious narrative or other arc. In this case there isn’t one—and if there was the story lost me long before it became apparent.
The reprint stories, inevitably, overshadow the originals. Thing and Sick by Adam Roberts (Solaris Rising 3, The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, ed. by Ian Whates, 2014) is a breath of fresh air. This one starts with two Brits, Anthony and Roy, who are in 1980’s Antarctica carrying out a SETI experiment. Whereas most stories would clutter up the beginning of the story with a lot of data dumping, this one entertainingly describes the way that Roy gets on Anthony’s nerves:
He used to do a number of bonkers things, Roy: like drawing piano keys onto his left arm, spending ages shading the black ones, and then practicing—or, for all I know, only pretending to practice—the right-hand part of Beethoven sonatas on it. “I requested an actual piano,” he told me. “They said no.” He used to do vocal exercises in the shower, really loud. He kept samples of his snot, testing (he said) whether his nasal mucus was aﬀected by the south polar conditions. Once he inserted a radiognomon relay spike (looked a little like a knitting needle) into the corner of his eye, and squeezed the ball to see what eﬀects it had in his vision “because Newton did it.” He learned a new line of the Aeneid every evening—in Latin, mark you—by reciting it over and over. Amazingly annoying, this last weird hobby, because it was so particularly and obviously pointless. I daresay that’s why he did it.
I read regular things: SF novels, magazines, even four-day-old newspapers (if the drop parcel happened to contain any), checking the football scores and doing the crosswords. And weekly I would pull out my fistful of letters, and settle down on the common room sofa to read them and write my replies, whilst Roy pursed his brow and worked laboriously through another paragraph of his Kant. p. 98-99
The friction between the two worsens when the Anthony agrees to sell one of his letters to Roy (who never receives any). Anthony later regrets this but Roy refuses to sell back the letter or, indeed, reveal any information about who it is from, or what the subject matter is.
Later, the focus switches to Roy’s explanations about Kant’s ideas on reality (he has been slowly progressing through a book by the philosopher) and, before long, there is skullduggery afoot and (spoiler) what you could perhaps describe as a first contact.
What is particularly refreshing about this story is not only its British voice, and it’s entertainment value, but that it effortlessly uses a complicated concept in its storyline (Kant’s theory of the real world, the ‘ding-an-sich’). There is also a Who Goes There1 vibe too, something that is explicitly referenced at the end of the story when John Carpenter’s The Thing is mentioned.
Ancient Engines by Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 1999) takes place in a future bar, where a drunk attempts to pick a fight with an android. After the drunk is seen off, an old man sitting nearby invites the android to join him and his daughter. A hypothetical conversation follows about the events that would occur in an immortal android’s life. A low-key but thoughtful tale.
The cover for this issue, Giraffe Mech, by Eddie Mendoza, is a good image, but it seems rather washed out and overly dark to me.
Narrative Perception: A Study in Interspecies Stimuli by Calden Wloka is an interesting if dry article on our senses, and how aliens may perceive reality in a different way.
Enlightenment Voices and Norse A Cappella: A Conversation with Ada Palmer by Chris Urie is an interesting interview with the 2017 Hugo finalist author. Her books, Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders sound promising.
Another Word: Being James Tiptree, Jr. by Kelly Robson is an article about the SF writer Alice Sheldon’s use of a male pseudonym, James Tiptree Jr. I should probably point out, for younger readers, that the discovery that Tiptree was a woman, forty years ago, caused some considerable shock, probably because a few prominent (male) observers had opined that the person behind the pseudonym was a man. Personally, I couldn’t have cared less then, and am even less interested now. It didn’t make any difference to what I thought of the stories I’d read to that point, nor did it make any difference afterwards.
I’m not sure this article will be of much use to those who are interested in the subject, as it is difficult to separate Robson’s feelings about the subject of gender from Sheldon’s reasons for using a male pseudonym.2
Editor’s Desk: It’s Real? is a very short editorial by Neil Clarke, where he talks about how he is adjusting to being a full-time editor (and carer and cleaner).
An average issue.
- Who Goes Here? by John W. Campbell Jr. was published in the August 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. It was later turned into the movie The Thing (one of my 80’s favourites) by John Carpenter. The Thing at imdb.com.
- That said, it is hard not to have some sympathy for the writer when she has to deal with this kind of thing:
In 2013, my wife Alyx and I blew up our life, lunged across the continent, and started afresh in Toronto. After twenty-two years of comfort and stability in Vancouver, we were on the hunt for a new home and new jobs, and had to renegotiate all the relationships one takes for granted when one is settled: doctors, allergists, ophthalmologists, dentists, dental hygienists, massage therapists, chiropractors—an entire battalion of life-maintenance professionals. As a lesbian couple, this meant coming out to various strangers.
It’s not a terribly big deal. Usually coming out to a stranger goes well. Most humans are fair-minded, but you always run the risk of getting punched in the nose by ugly prejudice.
We also needed a new accountant. A friend recommended someone and when we met him, we were thrilled to find out that he’d long been involved in science fiction. Of course we immediately began talking books. Which went fine for about thirty seconds until he said:
“I don’t read women writers. Ever.”
This was not the punch in the nose I was expecting.
The book talk shuddered to a halt. We went back to talking about taxes. I was offended, but I swallowed it. Alyx and I are pragmatists. Nobody has to pass a reading preferences test to do our taxes. p. 141
Perhaps, but I am sure there are equally qualified people who don’t express themselves in such an emotionally unintelligent and tactless manner. And as for never reading woman writers, that is just idiotic on so many levels I hardly know where to start. Apart from the obvious objections, how can you tell for certain who is behind any byline?