Year’s Best SF 6

And the Norman Spinrad series concludes.

I’ve read his collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and the novel Bug Jack Barron, but I made no notes on them. The notes I did make on his novellas “Journal of the Plague Years” and “Riding the Torch” really aren’t very useful even by the standards of my Raw Feeds.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 6, David G. Hartwell, 2001.years-best-sf-6

“Introduction”, David G. Hartwell — A bit more information than Hartwell usually gives in the introductions to this series. He talks about the importance of the Scottish and English sf magazines and important new, non-English language, sf writers emerging.

Reef“, Paul J. McAuley — This story had most of what you need for an entertaining sf story: interesting scientific speculation, adventure, and interesting social speculations. The science part was provided by an experiment in trying, through accelerated evolution, to develop lifeforms which live in the vacuum of deep space. The wreck of an old research facility is infested with those lifeforms which have developed, through a parasitic intermediary, a clumsy but effective means of sexual reproduction which has greatly facilitated adaptive radiation. The interesting social speculations comes with a typical asteroid society, supposedly resembling an old Greek city-state, in which the citizen shareholders live in luxury while the real work is done by poorly paid maintenance workers and scientific contractors, both of whom are played off against each other in competition for better wages and living conditions. (The citizens manipulate the money supply and conduct massive surveillance, amongst other things.) The adventure comes in when scientific contractor Margaret Henderson Wu tried to penetrate to the depths of the titular reef in space, the fissure in the Enki habitat where the vacuum organisms have evolved to their highest state. Wu is not only, by the standards of her time, an ugly and sickly woman, not being genetically engineered and born on Earth, but the child of disgraced parents who fell from citizenship status when they, as environmental engineers, allowed an alien fungus to destroy the ecosystem of a space habitat. (McAuley, in passing, does a nice job outlining some of the complexities of designing artificial ecosystems for space habitats.) Her insistence of exploring the reefs depths cause her to not only run afoul of the ambitious geneticist Opie Kindred, who wants to become a citizen by sucking up to the ruling elite of the habitat Ganapati, but also Dzu Sho, head of the habitat, who seems to think that the lifeforms of the reef might break the monopoly habitats like Ganapati have in supplying the carbon necessary to plant colonies on the planetoids of the Kuiper Belt. Wu is successful at the end, but the only complaint I have at the end is that McAuley should have provided an more precise economic explanation as to how the lifeforms of the reef enabled a revolution against social setups like Ganapati.  (Oct. 20, 2001)

Reality Check“, David Brin — Hartwell’s introductory notes claim this story, one of several sf stories the science journal Nature commissioned for 2000, is a humorous tale. I saw little evidence of that. I also found it a bit obscure. It’s premise, if I’m reading it right, is rather clever — addressing the reader directly as a citizen inhabiting a vast computer simulation of the Transition Era which is to say a simulation of our 20th Century, that time of drama and myth where the future — and cataclysmic failure — and much else seemed possible. A time much different that The Wasteland of Reality Prime Level, that is a world of plenty and longevity and access to all knowledge and also a world of boredom where the possibilities have been mined for life’s purpose. It’s an interesting notion, and it’s thematic relationship to the film The Matrix makes me wonder if Brin intended this story has some rejoinder or playful reinterpretation of it. Brin also postulates that the vast retreat into colorful simulations of the past is the reason behind Fermi’s Paradox —  other alien races have felt into the same decadent trap. That answer for Fermi’s Paradox may be new, but the idea of man decadently retreating into a virtual reality playground has shown up elsewhere: Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, James Gunn’s The Joy Makers, and, to a certain extent, Charles Platt’s The Silicion Man. The story’s narrator challenges the reader to wake from his dream. The story’s last four sentences do have some wry significance from being printed in the context of a scientific journal: “Go back to your dream. Smile over this tale, then turn the page to new ‘discoveries.’ Move on with the drama, this life you chose. After all, it’s only make-believe.”

The Millennium Express“, Robert Silverberg — A psychologically fascinating tale from Silverberg. The plot is simple enough. Citizen of the late third millennium, Strettin Vulpius, encounters a conspiracy, in about 2998 to destroy all the great treasure’s of humanity: sunken Istanbul and New York, a museum of “medieval” artifacts (that is, from about our time period), the Taj Mahal, and the Parthenon. At the beginning of the story, those acts have all been carried out and the Louvre is threatened. Vulpius knows who the conspirators are: clones of great achievers from the past: Einstein, Hemmingway, Picasso, and Vjong Cleversmith (a famous architect who lived from 2683-2804). He’s just not sure what to do about it being a product of his time. Though Hartwell doesn’t make any connections to David Brin’s “Reality Check”, the proceeding story in this anthology, both feature worlds reeling under the dead hand of the past, worlds of plenty and justice and perfection that have been rejected by some or, in the case of Silverberg’s story, at least four of its inhabitants. The world of this story is described as an Eden of plenty where war and even common homicide have ceased to exist, where lifespan is now about 200 years, where the climate has been tamed to tropical perfection pole to pole, the environment saved, leisure available for all (Vulpius volunteers his services to what passes for a police force in this world). The most interesting part of this story is when Vulpius is confronted by the conspirators who want him to decide whether they should destroy the Louvre in an explosion or implosion, but they also explain their motives. At first, they use an argument all too familiar from some radical critics of Western Civilization: that the great cultural works that they are destroying were made possible by oppression and tyranny. Vulpius reasonably points out that the evils of those past societies have been eliminated and that the beauty they produced should be appreciated. (Silverberg, in what I have read of his fiction and non-fiction, doesn’t strike me as a political writer. Indeed, I have no real idea what his personal politics are.  But, given his travels and interest in art and history, I don’t think he’s a fan of destroying and denigrating the works the conspirators of this story do.  He may, just may, be taking a swipe at the radical politically-correct crowd.) Then the conspirators begin to explain that the world they live in is just too easy and too soft and that even they, the clones of great artists and men, are inhibited from accomplishing anything in such an environment. Vulpius is cowed into going along with them at story’s end when they blow up the Louvre, and he and many others feels some thrill at wiping away some of the dead weight of the past (a weight that many artistic types have felt even in our time). The story’s final sentence, “The new era will begin with a clean slate,” sounds uncomfortably like the Year Zero schemes of the French Revolution and the Khmer Rouge. Yet, Silverberg is making a provocative, if not new, statement about the need for struggle and dissatisfaction being necessary to keep a society vital in some spiritual and artistic sense. (For instance, Vulpius isn’t even sure, exactly, what physics is.) The story, being read by me for the first time after the World Trade’s Center, a landmark of the modern world, was destroyed on Sept. 11th, 2001, has some unintended resonances now.  Osama Bin Laden and his gang, more murderous versions of the four conspirators in this story, also feel that destruction is necessary to revitalize their world. Their cohorts in the Taliban have even been destroying ancient treasures.

Patient Zero“, Tananarive Due — An effectively told story about an imprisoned child held in a research lab in hopes that he will provide the cure for a devastating plague killing millions. He is one of the very few who has survived a bout of the Virus-J. Now a carrier, he must remain in quarantine. Due (this is the first story I’ve read by her — she’s evidently well-known as a horror writer) makes effective use of her narrative device of having the story told as the child’s intermittent diary. (He’s not really Patient Zero, as he tries to tell the doctors, his father and his co-workers picked up the disease in Alaska.) The innocent narrator doesn’t pick up all the signs of civilization crumbling outside the walls of the hospital. There is also something of George Stewart’s Earth Abides in the nice relationship the narrator has with his tutor (and ex-Center for Disease Control worker), Ms. Manigat. A Haitian, she gives up trying to teach him the traditional academic subjects and social graces. Instead, as she realizes humanity probably can’t be saved, (of course that is implied — the narrator never hears her say that), she decides, like the hero of Stewart’s novel, to simply try to pass on some basic survival skills — here what local herbs are edible and how they should be prepared and when harvested. Eventually, she gives the narrator the code to unlock his room and go into the wider world. The story ends with us not very hopeful that he will find civilization or many people still alive outside.

The Oort Crowd“, Ken MacLeod — In the introductory notes, MacLeod has quoted that he started out writing sf short stories, never sold any, and turned, much more successfully, to novels. This is his first short story sale, and it was one of those commissioned for the science journal Nature since it lacks dramatic structure and is sort of a future history/journalism (a genre I like). It’s a rather jokey piece. The central idea, that life evolved in carbonaceous chondrites and comets and that the colonies in each such body are intelligent and communicate with others via the electromagnetic spectrum, was interesting. So was the notion that they are “gods” since they can control the movements of their homes and also steer comets and asteroids toward Earth. They furthermore take steps to deny man the use of space resources and usher in the “stationary state” mentioned by John Stuart Mills. (I’ll take MacLeod’s word on this. His strong point is a knowledge of political and economic philosophy.) But the story takes a cheap humorous turn with its final speculation that the extremophiles in Earth’s mantle may be intelligent and that, as the last line says, humans need to “Watch the ground.”

The Thing About Benny“, M. Shayne Bell — It’s been awhile since I’ve read Bell, and then it was at the beginning of his career, but I fondly remember his “Nicoji”. This story features the inspired juxtaposition of searching for extinct (at least, in the wild) plants in the pots of office buildings and ABBA. The titular Benny is a genius who searches for those plants and who seeks inspiration in the music of ABBA (one song a week, played over and over every waking moment in his headphones). He eventually realizes his dream of discovering a new plant species and naming it after ABBA member Agnetha.

The Last Supper“, Brian Stableford — Another of Stableford’s bizarre stories about some ramification of genetic engineering. He sort of ventures into social satire (Iin the stuff I’ve read of his, any satire seems gently directed toward sf) with his gushing Tamara, a biotechnologist who represents the worst in pretentiousness and bad thinking via analogy. (She waxes about the difference between the useful and important and female biosciences — agriculture and weaving being the first — and the not very useful, masculine technologies of hard materials. Her theory that civilization is the product of men trying to comply with female requests is justly termed the self-serving justification of a domineering bitch by the narrator’s friend.) The narrator takes Tamara, his hoped-to-be-fiancé, to Trimalchio’s, an elite restaurant lorded over by superstar chef Jerome. Jerome serves strange and sometimes disgusting food, the product of genetic engineering, to his clientele — and he doesn’t give them a menu, the whole course of the meal is dictated by him. Tamara thinks that the true artist should be able to inflict his vision on others, regardless of their untutored tastes, and concurs with Jerome’s pretentious notions of genetically engineered food releasing man from the constraints of his nature and food as mere sustenance. Jerome gets shut down by the anti-genetic modified food crowd (he serves whatever he wants, regardless of if it has passed government safety tests — he experiments on himself) but not before he infects the narrator and Tamara and the rest of his patrons with substances that alter their body.  (Exactly what they do is unspecified. The narrator just reports feeling better.) The narrator and Tamara never do get together. She refuses to suffer the oh-so traditional burden of matrimony (not to mention childbirth, which she hopes will be eliminated via artificial wombs) even when the narrator gets some unspecified work down on his tongue and penis at a sex clinic. That isn’t the only weird background detail. Sheep brains, given to young children, are IQ boosters, and the semen of rich Americans is converted into a “nutritive augmentation”. Stableford has said he sees dangers in the coming revolution from genetic engineering but that he thinks humanity can and will survive the perils to realize, and should realize, the more bizarre ideas he puts forth in his stories. That explains why, despite being an unwilling guinea pig to Jerome’s experiment and his proposal to Tamara refused, the narrator’s glad both happened. He feels better and the stridently pro-genetic modification crowd has Tamara for a leader.

Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN“, Joan Slonczewski — This story has an interesting premise: nanocomputers, to monitor and heal the human body, are inserted into bacteria which then become intelligent. However, the story is hurt by mainly making old satirical attacks on the wickedness of man. Sure, tuberculosis bacteria killed millions — in self defense — and trashed their environment (their hosts) but not any more, it’s argued than humans. Besides, they’ve been persecuted by biologists and doctors and acted out of self-defense. The point about how bacteria colonies, in their biofilms, are models of democracy, was good. And it was interesting to see Slonczewski, a practicing microbiologist, take a swipe at the National Science Foundation, in a story commissioned for Nature, for not funding antimicrobial research. (I have no idea if that’s true.  Hartwell’s introductory notes that Slonczewski just got a grant from the NSF to study E. coli.) I am now curious to read her Brain Plague which more seriously looks at the idea of intelligent bacteria.

Our Mortal Span“, Howard Waldrop — This story reminded me of Waldrop’s better “Heirs of the Perisphere” in that both feature intelligent amusement park animatrons. Here an accident dumps a bunch of information into the memory of the Troll animatron in the Three Billy Goats Gruff scenario in Story Book Land. He goes on a rampage destroying the exhibits and trying to tell people that the place is built of lies: lies about the tales, lies about their tellers in Grim, Anderson, and Perrault, and that the stories serve to perpetuate a feudal society. It’s a cute idea, and I assume that Waldrop, given his obsession for research, got the details right about the above authors, but even if the claim about fairy tales purpose is true, so what? (So what is a feeling I often have after reading Waldrop, though less so for this story.)

Different Kinds of Darkness“, David Langford — This is an interesting story about conducting terrorism via the printed page, specifically in the form of the Berryman Logical Imaging Technique or BLIT. It assumes that the human mind works like a computational system processing the data of the senses using certain rules. Godel’s Theorem says that (if I understand it correctly) all computational systems have problems they can’t solve, that crash the system. A BLIT presents, in a visual form, a problem (in the form of a particular picture) that causes the mind to crash. Most of this can be read from the story, but I’ve also seen a fake Nature article by Langford on this, as it was called there, “basilisk” technology. The article also mentions sf antecedents though none work out the idea as logically as Langford. Though he only mentions the example of epilepsy in passing, it is a type of mental lockup caused by visual intake of certain flashing light patterns and frequencies. The idea of the mind as computational system is, of course, one with a great deal of scientific respectability these days (if not proved). Both the story and the article mention one Vernon Berryman, the mathematician who came up with BLITs. Langford, an ex-physicist who worked in weapons research, has also been known to write up hoaxes of a scientific and pseudo-scientific nature. The story itself involves a group of high schoolers trying to puzzle out the two kinds of darkness their lives are full of. They eventually discover they have implanted biochips which simply block out the visuals from much of the world in order to protect their brains from the BLIT symbols that have killed so many. Through a secret initiation rite for the Shudder Club, the students have built up something of a tolerance, which proves handy at story’s end, to BLITs. Essentially, they stare at them for a few seconds at a time and vaccinate their minds.

New Ice Age, or Just Cold Feet?“, Norman Spinrad — I’m not really sure what the point of this story was. Humor, obviously, but I didn’t laugh that much. Most of the humor is simply a reversal of present debates on what to do about the putative Greenhouse Effect. In the future of 2322, a warming of the atmosphere has been reversed — some argue reversed too well. Various entrenched agricultural interests (and others) who have benefited from the warmer Earth protest the “anomaly” of glaciers and pack ice inhabiting their present zone. Those who want to continue efforts to engineer a cooler climate accuse these people of simply wanting to preserve their economic interests. It’s all reminiscent of those who deride global warming as a problem being accused of selfishly preserving their old interest.

The Devotee“, Stephen Dedman — An interesting near future sf story about a rich amputee fetishist (the “devotee” of the title), why he loves his girlfriend (weird fetish or strong need to help and be wanted and needed and rescue), and, best of all, the uses to which post-Castro Cuba is put as a haven of drugs and medical procedures and experiments banned in much of the rest of the world. It’s all narrated as a first person detective story.

The Marriage of Sky and Sea“, Chris Beckett — The thematic point of this story seems to be to not, like its “literary” protagonist (his personal artificial intelligence seems to do most of the work of composition), view life as a source of symbols to be manipulated and juxtaposed in dramatic ways that have little to do with the reality they are part of and to not analyze everything and strive for affect instead of  just living life without pretension and with some attachment to someone else. Clancy, trapped in a marriage on a primitive world, oddly, at story’s end, feels free because he’s cut off from a life with all those bad attitudes. I didn’t find this one annoying or dull (it wasn’t long enough for that), but I certainly didn’t see anything inventive here, in terms of sf, or even, thematically, all that interesting.

In the Days of the Comet“, John M. Ford — A rather odd story, reminisces by an artificial intelligence on a ship exploring the outer reaches of the solar system looking for prions that have encoded messages or are the tools of an extra-terrestrial intelligence. One crew member is killed by such a prion but not before he utters some cryptic remarks that will provide grist for a lot of thought and conversation for the human and AI crewmembers on the way back to the Moon. An odd story in that it celebrates a mystery, and celebrates it in terms of providing a nice, diverting puzzle, one that is never solved.

The Birthday of the World“, Ursula K. Le Guin — A dull story too long for what seems to be a rather unremarkable and familiar point: that a society that looses its religion due to aliens landing (in this case, they seem to be humans) or internal political conflicts or a society that looses its myth of political legitimacy will disintegrate.

To Cuddle Amy“, Nancy Kress — Kress once again presents a too plausible and bad use for genetic engineering. Here a couple uses the fertilized embryos, all genetically identical, of their daughter as both an escape hatch from the difficult task of parenting a teenager and as a way of having only the desired sort of parenting experiences with only a desired child. In this short short sf story, a couple turns their difficult daughter out of the house at 14 (the age of adulthood) and makes plans to get out another embryo and try to have a better relationship with the next Amy.

Steppenpferd“, Brian Aldiss — An interesting story marred by an obscure ending. A priest goes about his business of trying to renovate a church in a recreation of 19th century Norway. The recreation seems to be in a sort of Dyson sphere enclosure around the old and dead sun of the alien Pentivanashenii. The priest knows he inhabits a recreation and that most of the workers and tourists at his church are seven-legged aliens in disguise. A novitiate confronts him with his gnostic like theory that the world belongs to an evil force, was created by the devil. Both men know they live in a recreation of a dead time and place, and the priest regards the aliens as evil.  Yet, the priest refuses to believe in an evil as typified by a person.  Evil, to him — as he states when he sends the novitiate away after rebuking him — is an absence of God. Throughout the story (and this may be the simple point despite too many paragraphs describing either a mystical experience, an effort at mind control, or just the sensation of the Pentivanashenni moving the sphere) the priest seems to have accepted his station well, is routinely cheerful and determined to carry on his duties no matter where he finds himself. However, at story’s end, after the novitiate leaves the church, he reveals his despair, that God save him, saying, to God, “I’m all you’ve got!” The priest seems to think, with the novitiate’s leaving, he may be the last human alive in the universe, the last potential beneficiary of God’s love.

The Fire Eggs“, Darrell Schweitzer — I’ve always liked tales of enigmatic alien objects just showing up on Earth and serving as sort of Rorschach tests for human fears and desires. This story is a fine example of that as Schweitzer spends a lot of time detailing the 35 years of reaction to the enigmatic (and, as is usually the case with this sort of thing) immoveable and untouchable and indestructible (someone is even rumored to have nuked one) Fire Eggs that hover in the air, never move, and ripple, Lava Light-like, with colors). This history of reaction is related by the narrator who has spent his professional life documenting the rumors about the Fire Eggs and their effects on the arts. His uncle is a noted, Carl Sagan-like skeptic who, with the narrator, has debunked a lot of notions about the powers and purpose and communication (or lack thereof) of the Fire Eggs. His aunt, another skeptic, has taken, in her dying days, to claiming the Fire Eggs (she coined the term) talk to her. As is sometimes the case (the reader expects these sorts of story to deal with the central issue of the enigma — either to explain it at last or preserve the mystery), Schweitzer hints that the truth of the Fire Eggs is that they are sort of a roach motel which lure people to their deaths and then remove their bodies — inducing an amnesia amongst anyone around at the time. They may be slowly clearing the planet of humans.

The New Horla“, Robert Sheckley — Not a particularly funny tale from Sheckley but, as to be expected from him, a satirical one. A rather yuppish narrator confronts, while recovering from a skiing accident in an isolated chalet, an invisible being which disturbs him since it provokes the sort of examination of the world and himself that he has carefully avoided under the guise of self-discipline, the self-discipline of not examining the worth or joy of his job and simply devoting himself to the idea of accruing money and, he hopes, decent retirement. The narrator talks about the experience with his fiancé Janie. They both agree not to talk of the incident, that talking about it will cause the stockbroker narrator clients (as if he has to talk about the experience at work or not at all). However, at story’s end, it seems the presence of Janie is just a psychological crutch for the narrator to blame someone else for killing the Horla and, less explicitly, arguing for his materialistic life. At story’s end, he realizes that it was him that killed the alien Horla, which was probably trying to heal his wounds. The story is, of course, inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s “Le Horla”, which is quoted at the beginning of the story.

Madame Bovary, C’ est Moi“, Dan Simmons — Simmons masters the lingo and jargon of quantum mechanics and theories about its function in human consciousness and the notions of quantum computing to cleverly rationalize the conceit (he’s not the first one, I believe, to use the idea) of fictional universes from literature achieving physical reality. Simmons, though, cleverly uses the old saw about an author creating an entire universe for the reader to postulate that human consciousness can quantum-teleport itself into fictional worlds. Though a short short story, Simmons wittily says the technology settles all sorts of arguments about how well an author evokes an alternate reality. Shakespeare’s works supports all sorts fictional universes a person can live in. Alice Walker supports none. Neither does D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover for that matter despite millions of requests to go there. Simmons mentions many other authors including Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Dante. None of the fictional characters in these universes know they are imagined creations nor do they know who is the main character. As a final twist, the mock article wonders “So who wrote our universe?  And who are the central characters?” The central idea is not new but Simmons, to my knowledge, comes up with a new rationalization for it and, in an original way, combines it with discussions of literary aesthetics and the old question about whether we inhabit someone’s dream.

Grandma’s Jumpman“, Robert Reed — Hartwell’s introduction rightly says this story is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury in its rural setting and viewpoint character of a child who does not know exactly what’s going on. It was an evocative and interesting story about the protagonist’s relationship, in the wake of an interstellar war that killed billions of humans, to an alien prisoner of war kept as a worker by his grandmother. The alien has accepted human ways, human culture, and does not want to return to his people. The boy, who wants to grow up to be a general, doesn’t like the alien but, in the course of the story, comes to like him. The boy picks up on the notion of some strange relationship between his grandmother — a realistically tough farmer who tends the farm in the wake of her husband’s death long ago — and the alien. We are given strong hints that it is not only a respectful and caring one but, possibly, a physically intimate one. The weak point of the story is Reed’s brief explanation of alien tribal politics to justify a commando team of human turncoats who attempt to find the alien (who was officially pronounced dead by the human government when a peace agreement was made) and return him home. The violence of the commando team precipitates the boy’s change of attitude. I did like how the local governmental figure did not treat the alien with contempt but rather with care and respect, and he also suspects a physical relationship but isn’t repulsed. Indeed, he warns, after the commando team attacks the prison, the woman and alien of potential trouble. The attack hints at future troubles between the Jumpies and Man, and Reed could probably return to this world, and I’d be interested if he did.

Bordeaux Mixture“, Charles Dexter Ward — This decidedly slight story was written by Henry Gee. Behind the Lovecraftian pen name is the editor and instigator of the series of short sf stories Nature ran in 2000, and that’s where this story was published. It’s about little more than the wonders of future tomatoes and how the narrator feels close enough to them that he mists them with wine periodically because he thinks they’ll like it. As Hartwell’s introduction notes, the influence of poet Andrew Marvell shows up here briefly. At the end, his language of vegetable love is evoked. That plays in to the one interesting idea here: putting genes that encode for human pheromones into plants. That turns the opponents of genetically-modified plants into fervent advocates and, of course, plays into the vegetable love aspect.

Built Upon the Sands of Time“, Michael Flynn — Hartwell, as he often does, compares this story to another in this anthology: Nancy Kress’ “To Cuddle Amy”. To be sure, they are thematically linked in that both are about extreme ways, facilitated by technology, of getting rid of literal problem children. (Kress’ story has the teenager kicked out of the house and another embryo thawed out. Flynn’s hero alters history to eliminate his marriage that produced his problem son.) However, I saw this story as more of a detailed version of those stories where a hero has, in dreams, tasted another world he longs to get back to but finds himself irrevocably cut off from. The hero here postulates an elaborate theory, involving quantum mechanics, as to why we sometimes misremember events and misplace and lose small objects. We are remembering two separate trains of causality. Disturbances in the quantum foam of spacetime produce, occasionally, new universes new chains of causality. The wave of the change propagates through history till in catches up to us. Sometimes, we remember two chains as the wave passes through our spacetime point. Flynn does an ok job of evoking the hero’s emotion at using a “chronon projector” to get himself out of a troubled marriage and away from his wayward teenager — and his regret and guilt at not trying to save both and, in some sense, killing his son (though he believes his wife to be alive). Off course, at story’s end, Flynn can’t resist having the world of his narrator (this story is also a bar story) unknowingly change.

Seventy-Two Letters“, Ted Chiang — This story, another classic from Ted Chiang (a very high percentage of his sparse output are classics), can be considered to be fantasy or, as Hartwell argues in his introduction, an “alternate science alternate history”. You can argue that it’s fantasy because none of the fantastical elements of its “technology” can be regarded as science. (At least, not by real, practicing, orthodox scientists. It’s kabbalistic aspects, I assume — though I don’t know for sure — are still studied by modern kabbalists.) Yet, its methodology and its tone and its detailed working out of the implications of its alternate technology and science mark it as science fiction. (Rather like certain passages in Avram Davidson’s The Phoenix and the Mirror which describe its magic in very scientific like ways.) Furthermore, most of the fantastical elements in this story were considered, at points in our history, as science: that the male’s sperm contains, in miniature form, all his future generations and awaits only the nourishing of the female’s ovum, her vital principle (thus also evoking the non-material idea of vitalism), to give it full form.  Evoking the historical idea that a woman’s mental state can affect a fetus, mental agitation can produce deformities. And the woman’s cultural outlook impresses certain mental traits and tendencies on her child. (An aristocrat uses this to argue that the reproduction of the lower classes be regulated since their cultural milieu has been impressed on their mind and will reproduce itself in their children.) The mother’s knowledge of a child’s father accounts for the resemblances of the child to the father.) geological catastrophism is the accepted theory for extinctions; divine intervention accounts for the beginnings of new species; certain lower forms of life spontaneous generate from heated matter. The one central idea in this story — the central idea which the title alludes to — is the whole notion of the Kabbala and the importance of names in animated inorganic matter and imbuing it with certain traits. Furthermore, the names can be assigned mathematical equivalencies and factored and integrated to derive specific traits from form of life and assign it to an automata or combine it with other traits in an automata. Creating golems for sexual purposes — including a story about Joseph’s brothers creating a female-like golem to use sexually — has a great deal of study behind it. The idea of golem and automata move from the mystical Kabbalists, who contemplate the nature of God by contemplating names that evoke ever more human-like traits — man being God’s highest creation — to industrial processes and development of mass produced automata which is what the protagonist does. This story originally being from Ellen Datlow’s Vanishing Act anthology about species extinction, the question of man’s survival becomes paramount when scientists discover that man will become sterile in about five generations. A crash program is undertaken in secret to develop means of using this automata and kabbalistic knowledge and techniques to enable man to artificially reproduce himself — to overcome the sterility of human males by impressing a fully developed name for humanity on human ovum. (The protagonist briefly speculates whether this will enable the creation of lesbian societies.) Besides the fascinating depiction of this alternate technologies, Chiang throws in labor and social troubles as the protagonist’s goal of creating small power plants so textile workers can again work at home runs into (because the highly sophisticated automata that would mass produce such power plants could replace the craftsmen “sculptors” who make the molds for automata) trouble with a violent union. Chiang and a fellow scientist also become disturbed that the secret government project they are working on to develop artificial reproduction might be used by the English aristocracy (the story is set in England in what seems to be the 19th Century) to limit the birthrate of the lower classes. I also liked the interesting variations on our laws of thermodynamics. In this world, automata increase order within their body.  (Which, in one sense, is a distinguishing character of life which makes it not that much different than our world.) A very unique and memorable tale.


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