First published in October 2013 Perihelion Science Fiction
BUYING A BOOK FULL OF SHORT stories by various authors is a risk I seldom take, but with so many Hugo and Nebula winners writing about my favorite theme—space, the final frontier—I took the plunge. All eighteen contributors explore issues of colonizing off-planet in “Beyond the Sun,” edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt. The themes and messages vary, but most suggest that humans wreak havoc wherever they go. Space pioneers must be brave, resourceful and self-reliant, but they also may be greedy, ruthless, rash, and destructive.
One author spares us the self-loathing and gives us humanity at its best, which is to say, foolish but endearing. In “Observation Post,” Mike Resnick reminds me I want authors to do more than make me care. Make me laugh, too! Yes, people are terrible, but sometimes we triumph by sheer dumb luck rather than power and might, and some things, as Niels Bohr said, are so serious they can only be laughed at.
It’s the last story in the anthology, but Resnick delivers line after line of humor from the first page, when Kragash the scout explains why his Empire has sent him to assess a planet called Earth. Our math skills alone make us look like an easy target to annex, but Kragash reminds his superiors of that other planet with strange-looking inhabitants who looked like corn, which led to them being—well, it’s funnier if you hear it from Kragash. The memos he sends, and the Commander’s replies, are as comical and disturbingly believable as a Dilbert cartoon.
Kragash taps into the transmissions of a television station and is amazed to learn earthlings have spaceships that travel at warp speed. The Commander isn’t worried about Kirk and The Enterprise. He aims a massive, killer asteroid at the Earth, and Kragash has only 100 days to find a reason to divert it from its path. Kragash sends a series of alarming reports about The Force, Flash Gordon, and The Terminator, a great killing machine destroyed by a single human female. To say more would risk a plot spoiler, but this is one of the most delightful, witty and authentic tales I’ve seen in forever.
Second to last, a reprint from 1972, “The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV” shows why Robert Silverberg is one of science fiction’s most prolific and beloved writers. The characters ring true even as they deadpan their lines with such perfect timing. I want to see this acted out on stage. Silverberg’s level-headed Jews, tired of fighting for their homeland, have started over on a new planet, where they get along well with the fuzzy, four-legged natives and happily ignore the neighboring colony of Hasidic Jews with their mysticism and dreadlocks. When the spirit (dybbuk) of a recently deceased Jew possesses the body of an alien native, all humor breaks loose. The dialogue is brilliant, the insights poignant, the ending positive.
The great prose, humor and hopefulness of the two final stories are a welcome counterbalance to the first sixteen. Hugo and Nebula-winning Nancy Kress leads with “Migration,” a cautionary tale of people carelessly adopting animals as pets. Taken from their natural habitat, the pup-cats suffer, but they’re so cute and fluffy, and there’s so many of them, people simply must have them! The mysterious Lukas fights to stop their removal from their native habitat, and his reasons include a surprise twist.
Kristine Katheryn Rusch delivers a sharper surprise twist in “The Hanging Judge.” A terrifying female judge tours the galaxy with her portable prison, administering justice—until she’s captured on her least favorite planet and judged by her own harsh standards. When it’s a matter of resources, “some lives are worth more than others,” and her values come back to haunt her.
The theme of Queen’s “39” song could have inspired “Flipping the Switch,” Jamie Todd Rubin’s tale of a jet-setting space traveler whose wife and children grow old while he remains young thanks to the space-time continuum. He misses out on weddings, funerals and other big events in the life of a family, but that doesn’t bother him, because he can switch his emotions on and off—until his granddaughter decides to follow in his footsteps, and the “switch” doesn’t work the way it used to.
If the first three stories feel dark and depressing, Brad R. Torgersen steps in at the right time with “The Bricks of Eta Cassiopeiae.” The story starts out heavy and bleak, with prisoners doing hard time by making bricks on a planet being readied for colonists. “The work was arduous and filthy—the kind of soul-mending stuff reformists had been foisting on the incarcerated for many centuries, going all the way back to Earth,” and one new prisoner, feeling the Miz, rebels. In a short but satisfying space of time, evil is punished, virtue and effort rewarded, and hope of a new beginning for a man and woman is promised. Finally, a work of fiction that isn’t demoralizing or depressing! There may be hope for humanity after all.
Alas, hope is harder to hang onto in Alex Shvartsman’s “The Far Side of the Wilderness.” Cave-dwelling colonists have been away from Earth so long, they’ve idealized it and can only dream of somehow, someday, finding a way home to paradise, with its legendary skies of blue and clouds of white. One day a space ship crash-lands outside the cave, leaving no survivors. One colonist fixes the plane, learns to fly it and leads a team of twelve young volunteers to fly off in search of The Promised Land. Like Moses and the wandering Israelites, our heroine delivers grumbling tribesmen “to the far side of the wilderness,” visiting “dozens of planets: heavens and hells and everything in between.” The story is well-written but wearying as the eternal longing for home is repeatedly thwarted.
Autumn Rachel Dryden spins a more uplifting, though gruesome, tale of pioneers venturing into unknown territory on a strange planet. A man and his pregnant wife travel by covered wagon watching out for “scupp” shells. Do not read about these things at bedtime. “Respite” sprang from one of the author’s nightmares, which makes the story especially vivid, riveting and terrifying. Add some deft plotting and crafting, and a horror story comes to life. The clock ticks. The wagoneers must travel to safety before the scupps hatch, but a wheel breaks, and the wife goes into labor while the little monsters emerge from their shells. One person makes the ultimate sacrifice while another discovers the key to surviving future scupp attacks on this harsh new world. The ending is a classic, not surprising, but very satisfying.
While Dryden gives us brave, resourceful pioneers, Jean Johnson in “Parker’s Paradise” reminds us of the greed that can draw settlers to new worlds. Consumerism, religious cults, propaganda, politics, it’s all there. Even when Earth’s well-educated humans start anew on another planet, it’s the same sad story all over again, and our narrator wonders “what future students will say about this whole mess” when they learn about the founding of their world.
In Jason Sanford’s “Rumspringa,” a new world has already been established. The techno-blessed inhabitants have sockets in their heads and applications for every crisis under the sun, but there’s some business they must tend to on a planet full of leftover Luddites in search of religious freedom: the Amish. Technology has been offered to them, but they disdain it. Why use a “socket” app to fix a broken gear when a man can waste six hours repairing it by hand? A crisis involving a comet threatens their conviction that “everyday work was an act of devotion” and socket trickery would only corrupt them. The characters seem to celebrate a happy ending, but I wasn’t buying it. As someone who’d gladly volunteer for the socket, I just couldn’t embrace the Amish ideals that apparently triumph over evil technology.
In the next colony story, Cat Rambo delivers a man and his husband in “Elsewhere, Within, Elsewhen.” David, unable to forgive Carlo for a past infidelity, plots a new life for himself on a space colony. A surprise twist has Carlo chosen for the colony, and David merely allowed to tag along as a spouse. Sulking on the new world, David discovers the rocks are sentient, and the tale they tell is cautionary. David must learn to trust again or be petrified, like the sentient rocks.
After that heavy, emotional tale, a little humor is in order, even if it’s dark and ironic. Technology comes under fire once again in Simon C. Larter’s “Inner Sphere Blues,” when fuzzy radio signals and a delay of ten years lead to trouble. Chen the freelancer skirts civilization, “trading in violence and mined exotics,” but freedom from authority is a hand to mouth existence, and he longs for a bed and a routine. Instead, he must respond to an S.O.S. call. Fuzzy radio signals complicate his mission. Grace, the artificial intelligence who resides in Chen’s head, makes the narrative ironic and comical. Summoned to rescue colonists from violent native cats, Chen and Grace bring humor to a trag-ironic tale of rash heroism.
Misunderstandings like Chen’s haunt people in Jennifer Brozek’s “Dust Angels,” until a child takes the first steps toward understanding the actions of the natives. A truce comes with a small self-sacrifice and a note of foreboding. The little girl, now an old woman, tells children the story of their world but doesn’t mention the true cost of peace, nor who will pay that price when she is gone. The vivid imagery and the premise are startling and lovely, but the wording is often awkward. E.g., “The land was hot, hard and thirsty. It made all of us like it.” However, Brozek strikes exactly the right note here: “Is there anything more interesting than something that frightens your parents?”
Maurice Broaddus, in “Voice of the Martyrs,” smuggles some even stranger syntax past the editors. Too many odd lines like “Despite its deceitful bulk” (should be deceptive) can pull a reader out of the world the author has been building. So too can a typo like “I strained my neck, popping out the kings” (kinks). Broaddus writes, “I couldn’t call myself investigating the native” instead of “I couldn’t claim to be investigating the native culture.” He does employ some interesting high-tech devices, like that socket in the back of the skull. I had to wonder if his characters got them from the same planet as the Amish colonists, unbeknownst to the authors. This story had the potential to be funny, but the focus is on cultural bullies “sending out well-intentioned missionaries using the gospel to impose themselves on indigenous cultures,” and, even more chilling, spreading the gospel by viral transmission. It’s a familiar tale that bears retelling, if the author puts a fresh spin on it. This one didn’t do it for me.
The horror of being human can be stale and tedious news, so I was ready for some non-human antagonists in Janeta Clegg’s “One-Way Ticket to Paradise.” Or so I thought. A woman colonist in her protective suit ventures out, never dreaming the ants, moths, and golden pollen are not only sentient, but master military strategists. Like “Respite,” this story seems to come straight out of a nightmare, and I would not read this one at bedtime. The ending employs a well-worn trope from the horror genre: it may be possible to escape the monsters, but for how long?
A somewhat less horrifying alien brings an alternative point of view to “The Gambrels of the Sky.” Author Erin Hoffman, a ludological writer and video gamer, says game structures influence her writing. This story is a little hard to follow, and it is not a cheerful testament to the courage of space colonists, nor to the endearing foibles of humankind.
Man’s ability to look at the bright side shines in Anthony R. Cardno’s “Chasing Satellites.” A team of colonists have lost the satellite signal providing their only link to Earth. Racing the clock to make repairs and get back to safety, they face a worst-case scenario. What if they end up trapped on this new planet? This tightly plotted story reminds me of conventional wisdom about technology: can’t live with it, can’t live without it … or can we? Making the best of a bad situation is what I like best about the spirit of pioneers who leave civilization behind to make a better life in a new word. This story ends with a sort of rainbow after the storm.
Nancy Fulda satirizes the rash judgment of earthlings in “Soaring Pillar of Brightness.” A biologist despairs of being able to free a people of their primitive beliefs. He risks his life, and the lives of others, to open their eyes to the truth—but whose truth is right? Vivid, violent, memorable images and dialogues lead us to a startling conclusion. “Incomplete knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance,” says wise Rukha, the native alien. And something as old as Eve leads to incomplete knowledge.
The last two stories are far and away the best in the book. Robert Silverberg “owns” the short story medium like no other, and Mike Resnick brings the rare gift of laugh-out-loud humor to his fiction. Still, the other authors are well on their way. In all, “Beyond the Sun” delivered a good return on my investment. I didn’t come away wishing for all those lost hours of my life back.
(“Beyond the Sun,” Brian Thomas Schmidt, Ed., Fairwood Press) —Carol Kean