The Charles Sheffield series continues.
Raw Feed (1997): Georgia on My Mind and Other Places, ed. Charles Sheffield, 1995.
”Introduction” — Short, no nonsense, no-frill introduction for a collection of stories ranging from “silly to personal and serious.”
”The Feynman Solution” — This is a fantasy. The mechanism of time travel is never rationalized beyond the point of artist Colin Trantham saying he’s a sort of positron which physicist Richard Feynman described as an electron traveling back in time. The story involves Colin, suffering from a brain tumor (the major scientific interest of the story is the descriptions of cancer therapies, their successes, methods of operation, and failings) and seeing visions of increasingly ancient and mostly extinct life which he draws with his usual precision. The relationship between Colin and his paleontologist sister Julia and his oncologist James Wollaston (eventually Julia’s lover) was well handled. The Tranthams, like Bey Wolf in Sheffield’s Proteus novels, love to quote all kinds of things from Samuel Johnson to movies. I suspect Sheffield does this too.
”The Bee’s Kiss” — Like Sheffield’s “C-Change”, this story involves aliens who are concealing things. A very skilled voyeur is forced by a tyrant (after the voyeur is caught spying on him) to spy on some enigmatic aliens, the Sigil. It turns out the aliens have become alarmed after learning humans use sexual reproduction. The Sigil are asexual and use a parasitic means to reproduce like Earth’s sphinx wasp. This story has good psychological insight into a voyeur.
”Millennium” — Minor story about a Christian survivalist (at least he thinks he can make it through Judgement Day long enough to gloat at the unpleasant judgements he believes his neighbors and acquaintances will get) about God bringing Judgement Day to different religions at different times because they don’t all use the Christian calendar.
”Fifteen-Love on the Dead Man’s Chest” — Humorous story about tennis and lawyers on the moon and the search for a putative immortality serum hid by a dead man. The notes for this story indicate that in the late 1970s Sheffield’s kids gave him a list of topics they found funny (they were young kids so the topics tend to be disgusting). Sheffield promised to write a story on each topic, his “sewage” series, and so far has written 10 stories, including this one, featuring the lawyers Henry Carver and Waldo Burmeister.
”Deep Safari” — Third time I’ve read this exciting tale of big game hunting on the miniature level.
”Beyond the Golden Road” — Sheffield claims this story is “pure science fiction” though it appeared in the fantasy anthology Arabesques originally. I say it’s straight historical fiction since, as Sheffield points out, it has nothing in it that was not known or believed in about 1250. Specifically, this is the story of Johannes of Magdeburg, a man of shaky faith and great learning (and quite taken with the concept of zero imported into Europe by Fibonacci in 1202), sent by a papal legate to investigate rumors about Kublai Khan (worms that spin golden thread, intelligent centipedes that guard a temple, and fabulous animals including man-size ants who operate diamond mines). The story is set partly in the Taklamakan Desert of western China, an area Sheffield says he is obsessed with and used for his “The Courts of Xanadu”. Accompanying him is the gifted linguist and slave Dari who invites himself along to help the 28 year old Johannes whom he admires greatly. En route to the Khan’s court, they meet the beautiful and intelligent woman – Dari is convinced she’s a “witch-woman” – who immediately becomes interested in Johannes (though only Dari sees that she’s interested in Johannes and how she gets closer to him). Nataree is destined to marry the Khan, and Dari finds her talent for learning languages is even greater than his. It is towards the story’s end, when Dari and Johannes save the Khan’s life from a poisoning attempt, that all the talk of Dari’s love (he is the narrator) for Johannes is revealed to be sexual and not platonic. Dari Mangu is adopted as the Khan’s son, and Nataree and Johannes goes away with Nataree and abandons the Church. Dari is resentful that he has lost Johannes to a rival when he could not even speak his love to Johannes due to Christian prohibitions about homosexuality,
the Church, with its cold Christ, its stern laws, its bleak Heaven. … nothing for anyone who loves.
The best, and very memorable line of the story is about Nataree: “But now I suspect every woman is a witch-woman, casting their spells on men.”
”Health Care System” — This is a very frightening story that reminded me a bit of Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands” in that it is a tale of technology created for a good – here a variety of medical technologies from organ transplants, medical databases, and new drugs to sinister mind control implants – but ends up horribly oppressive. Granted, this is a technology perverted by Miriam Greenwood and not robots, and she preys on Thomas Matlock’s obsession with money and women to support her obsession with life extension. Justifiable motives – sex, money, and life – here lead to thorough moral and physical corruption.
”Humanity Test” — In his afterword, Sheffield says this story was a response to Tom Godwin’s classic “The Cold Equations”. Genetically engineered chimpanzees are on trial for horribly mutilating a starship’s crew, killing others, and sabotaging the ship. It is revealed at story’s end that the mutilations (amputations) were done to save the crew members who survived a catastrophic accident on the ship. (Amputation as a way to lessen the load on a life support system is probably the part of the story that is a response to Godwin’s story.
”That Strain Again … “ — Slight story about aliens from a planet on no axial tilt. They come to Vermont in the fall and, upon seeing the turning leaves, think they have infected Earth’s biosphere with a microorganism. They leave Earth.
”Destroyer of Worlds” — An exciting mystery involving a biologist’s disappearance, the private detective hired to find him, the wealthy philatelist she enlists to help her, and the fanatical group of space enthusiasts who are creating their own biosphere. (I was surprised to learn the first sealed, self-sustaining biosphere was created in 1967. I have no reason to doubt Sheffield on this.) Most of their biospheres are less efficient than Biosphere One – Earth. But one is more efficient and threatens to take over Earth’s ecology if it is loosed. Narrator and detective Rachel Banks develops a gradual fondness for Tom Walton, the philatelist (after some understandable resentment at his wealth and how it causes him to prescribe courses of action only available to the wealthy – like turning down her client because the biologist may not want to be found). However, after Marcia Seretto (the charismatic leader of the biosphere cult) dies after Walton and Banks destroy Biosophere Nine, Walton takes over Seretto’s work, although more cautiously. I don’t think the story quite justifies the parallel Sheffield tries to do at story’s end: Walton becoming Seretto, and Banks looking upon Walton’s change in personality as a monster she’s created like Seretto’s Biosphere Nine. She fears she may come to understand Seretto’s reluctance to destroy her project, her child, her monster. The parallel seems strained, and Walton seems much more responsible than Seretto and merely administering an area of science too dangerous to be left to casual, hidden amateurs.
”The Fifteenth Station of the Cross” — Sheffield, in his afterword, gives the exact date and origin of this story: April 5, 1992 reading of Harlan Ellison’s “Corpse” with the sentence
The years from twelve to thirty during which nothing was heard of Jesus of Nazareth. They are known as the ‘lost’ years of Jesus.
In this story, Jesus spends part of that time in the future, snatched by Puladi, tyrant and controller of the world who can see everything via his monitoring technology. He hopes Jesus will heal him, which he partly does physically. Morally and spiritually, Jesus effects his salvation, and Puladi lets himself die after dismantling the “world control system.”
”Trapalanda” — This story is a great deal like Sheffield’s “The Courts of Xanadu”. Both concern anomalies (here an inexplicable vortex of winds sustained by an unknown source of energy) of possibly alien origins. This particular anomaly rests around the Argentina-Chile border in the area called the Kingdom of the Winds. Trapalanda is “the Patagonian version of El Dorado”. Both stories are narrated in the first person and are as much concerned with the relationships between expedition members and sponsors as in finding the treasure. Here the blind, brilliant John Kenyon Martindale (named after Sheffield’s father-in-law, John Kenyon Martindale Sanderson, who is a sf fan and knew H. G. Wells) spots the anomaly. He hires narrator Klaus Jacobi to guide him to the legendary Trapalanda. His wife Shirley finds Martindale too thoughtful and gentle and seeks the bed of Jacobi whom she somewhat incorrectly thinks is cold, selfish, and sexist – she likes these traits. Jacobi’s sexual relations with his own wife Helga are even more strained. She was tortured as an infant and sexual intimacy is not pleasant for her, and the couple no longer has sex. As is usual in these stories (and sort of true in “The Courts of Xanadu”), the quest is successful. Trapalanda does hold an alien artifact: a instantaneous transport device to another part of the universe and powered by a “gravitational line singularity”. Finding it has two effects, Klaus’ exposure to it ages him 35 year. Second, and more important, Martindale and Helga go through the portal. Klaus is troubled by Helga, whom he does seem to love, being physically more comfortable with Martindale and leaving with him. He vows to return to Trapalanda and go through to portal to find Helga. I don’t think Sheffield fully justifies the poignancy he’s going through for at story’s end. It’s not quite clear whether Klaus is worthy of Helga’s love or why, exactly, Helga prefers Martindale. Perhaps Martindale really is more gentle and better than Klaus but this isn’t fully shown. Perhaps both come together because they are crippled in some way. Of course, Klaus is also troubled by the ambiguity of the situation, and the above questions so perhaps Sheffield wanted some questions unresolved. Helga may have accompanied Martindale out of a sense of adventure too.
”Obsolete Skill” — An amusing story that says a lot about the world of sf and its writers. A sf writer wakes up after a cryonic suspension (paid for by fans) of 197 years. He is the author of several named works that are sf works slightly renamed: Tales of New Space (Larry Niven’s Tales of Known Space), Spaceship Troopers (Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers), The Nude Sun (Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun), and Timeskip (perhaps Gregory Benford’s Timescape). Unfortunately, all his polymath knowledge is of little use because knowledge, due to electronic brain links with massive databases, is an “obsolete skill”. But our author hero refuses a life of living on the future dole and finds one bit of his acquired knowledge to be of use: hypnosis. He uses it to control his reviver. The afterword to this story is revealing. As the protagonist in Robert Sheckley’s Immortality Inc found out, suddenly being catapulted into the future is humbling since it’s very unlikely any of your skills will be in demand. Sheffield thinks the only people future generations will think worth reviving are those who “have spent much of their lives thinking about the future”. Responding to questions about who the story’s narrator is based on, what sf polymath – Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Larry Niven, David Brin, Sheffield himself – Sheffield responds that it’s “every SF writer”, and he doesn’t mean just males.
”Georgia on My Mind” — This is a good story (it won the 1993 Nebula for Best Novelette) and reminded me a lot of Michael Flynn’s In the Country of the Blind (in both novel and short story) in that both tales involve the cryptohistory of the use of the Babbage Engine in the 19th century. (I was also reminded of Flynn’s “Eifelheim” in that both stories involve uncovering historical traces of aliens). The story of the historical account of building a working Babbage engine and discovering the alien Heteromorphs, the detective work substantiating these claims, and the possibility that the aliens still exist on South Georgia Island are all exciting and intriguing. What makes the story really unique, though, is its peculiar mixture of autobiography, reality, and fiction. A piece of Babbage’s Difference Machine really was discovered in New Zealand by one Garry Tee, the inspiration for the Bill Wrigley character. Other real scientists show up barely disguised (Sheffield gives their identity in the Afterword) or not at all disguised. The Gene character is Gene Golub, the “world’s best numerical analyst” (he decodes a list of numbers to uncover the location of a possible alien base on South Georgia). Computer scientists Marvin Minsky and Danny Hillis (involved with the neural network the Connection Machine) were inspirational. Also mentioned are Ada Lovelace and, of course, Charles Babbage. Sheffield says the narrator is not him with two exceptions. He really did work with the “early and intractable” digital computer DEUCE described at story’s end. Second, the pain the narrator feels at the illness and death of Louisa Derwent (her and her husband Luke are half-brother and sister and flee England due to the scandal) mirrors the pain and loss Sheffield experienced at the death of his first wife as he has briefly mentioned elsewhere.