Back to the science fiction default with a retro review from March 11, 2013.
This review copy came from the author.
Review: Space Magic, David D. Levine, 2008.
Collections are a way for authors to pound their reputation into your head.
I’ve been reading David Levine on and off for almost nine years. He even did one of my favorite stories in this year’s Armored anthology. But it wasn’t until I read this set of science fiction, absurdist, and fantasy tales that I finally have a permanent set of brain cells with favorable associations to his name.
Levine is an author of many different styles. One gets the sense that he’s doing riffs on some classic themes. But it’s not a sense of parody or homage or pastiche or Levine checking off some to-do list of fantastical subgenres. There `s too much emotion and playfulness in these stories to feel he’s just doing variations on old masterworks.
“Wind From a Dying Star” is a far future story that has a primitive feel to it akin to the millennia we spent as hunter-gatherers crossed with an elegy for a soon-to-be-dead Earth crossed with transhumanism. Its characters are a nomadic band that inhabit – without any artificial aids – interstellar space. Old John, perhaps the oldest “human” in existence, has heard Earth’s star is dying and wants to visit the “headstone of Humanity” one last time before he dies. The rest of the tribe has to decide whether they will accompany him on this dangerous journey. Surprises await.
“Nucleon” is about a magical junkyard that supplies the heart’s desire – even for a nuclear-powered car.
“I Hold My Father’s Paw” is an emotional story produced in the Levine Mixmaster. Here the old human-animal hybrid story is combined with something roughly akin in feel to transsexualism. The protagonist gets a message from the father who abandoned his family decades earlier. His father wants to speak to his son one last time before he completes the “transpecies” surgical process which will turn him, mentally and physically, into a dog. Sure, the details of the alternate transpecies lifestyle are interesting, but it is the son dealing with his abandonment, past and future, that is the heart of the story.
I don’t know if Levine invented the magical system of “Zauberschrift“, which places prime importance on the manuscript that records a magic spell, but I found it novel. The plot has a wealthy man being asked by a village to help them after their mage, a man the hero studied under before abandoning magic, has died.
“Rewind” is a clever story of time travel and a tyrannical America. (It seems, in tone, a response to United States’ security measures post-9/11, but a careful reading of the story and the date of its first publication suggests otherwise.) Its hero is a member of an elite military unit who can “rewind”, go back in time a few seconds while preserving their memory of a future that never existed, to win tactical engagements. For personal reasons, he has run afoul of his commander. A price on his head, he finds himself having to throw in with the dissidents he once hunted.
“Fear of Widths” is a light fantasy piece on the anxiety produced in its hero by the wide open skies of Milwaukee!
“Brotherhood” brings a novel setting to a ghost story: 1937 Pittsburgh. Its steel-working hero must decide what to do about the warnings from his dead brother who was killed in a mill accident. Specifically, he must decide whether to continue working as a spy for management against his fellow workers. It was one of my favorite stories here.
“Circle of Compassion” is a Chinese fantasy about battling warlords and a priestess who aids one with the help of a magical bracelet – and her clever solution to a problem at story’s end.
Another story that ends with a protagonist in a potentially deadly trap is “At the Twenty-Fifth Annual Meeting of Uncle Teco’s Homebrew Gravitics Club“. It has a science fiction convention vibe to it except this group are hobbyists who design their own spaceships and power them with gravitics – a technology that regular commercial spaceflight seems to have passed by. Awkward reunions, old animosities, and new romances are played out.
I don’t try to figure out what makes one story an award winner over another. “Tk’Tk’Tk” won a Hugo award, but, while I enjoyed it, it was not my favorite story here. The plot has a human salesman on an alien world he doesn’t understand and detests, his money running out. And then, one day, he actually finds some place where he can be somewhat comfortable.
“Charlie the Purple Giraffe Was Acting Strangely” was another of my favorites. Charlie inhabits a comic strip and tries to warn his fellow characters on the true nature of their world.
“Falling Off the Unicorn“, co-written with Sara A. Mueller, is set in a world like ours except for unicorns. And, of course, where you have unicorns in a story, the matter of sex, virginity specifically, usually crops up. Here the heroine has a pushy stage mom who can, at last, taste victory in their unicorn show competitions. But will the heroine’s new attraction for the unicorn trainer endanger everything?
“The Ecology of Faerie” had a nice undercurrent of menace in the diminishment of frogs croaking its teenage girl protagonist notices around her home. It also favorably reminded me, with its rural setting and its heroine having to deal with a frequently hospitalized mother, of the movie My Neighbor Totoro.
“Love in the Balance” certainly had plenty of action – to say nothing of lots of zombies and zeppelins, but I don’t think I felt the intended emotion at the end of this story. Its hero must decide whether to break political rules and conventions and start a war with a royal house growing in power – and also possibly destroy a zeppelin that hosts an artificial sentience he was once friends with.
“The Tale of the Golden Eagle” was the only story here I had read before, but it’s one of the best. It reminds one, in its tone and the odyssey of golden eagle’s brain used as part of a starship’s cybernetic control system, of a fairy tale and Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang.
There’s not a bad story here, several good ones, and enough variety to suit almost any palate.