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Beckett: Day 29
Spinrad: The Music of the Sphere
Roseman: Bring on the Rain
McAllister: The Messenger
Cornell: The Copenhagen Interpretation
Stephen Kohl is a data analyst on the colony world of Lutania, rediscovered 300 years after its founding by the (Colonization?) Agency. He’s coming up on the 40-day countdown before he leaves for a new posting by “transmission”, a teleporter-like process that causes severe and permanent memory loss. Some people lose their memory as far out as 40 days from their transmission; everyone loses the last 29 days before transmission, and that’s the source of the title. As a result, Agency policy is that employees aren’t allowed to do any meaningful work during this period, nominally because if they screw up, the person at the other end of the transmission can’t legitimately be held responsible. This is a subtle hint that should not be ignored.
Stephen is a tall, blond, red-faced loner, and possibly somewhere on the Asperger’s end of the autism spectrum; he’s very smart, but less wise and far less socially adept than his colleagues, with whom he forms no significant conections. This is exacerbated by how pissed off at everyone he’s become because of his imminent 40 days of enforced idleness. Stephen’s manager recognizes that there’s little he could do to screw up anything in his position, but she’s a rulebook lawyer and unwilling to bend the rules to let him try to do something useful with his time. In a fury, he turns down an offer to go out drinking with his colleagues, and instead decides to walk the 3 miles back to his lodgings in the tiny community of Lisoba. Along the way, he meets three of the indigenes, referred to as “goblins” by the colonists because of their appearance. They mostly leave humans alone, but they’re despised and there are hints that despite their seeming sentience, they used to be hunted as vermin by the colonists before the Agency arrived and put a stop to this.
[Spoilers] The heart of the story is the psychological journey endured by anyone who will be transmitted: If you know that you’re going to lose the last 29 to 40 days of your life before you transmit, what would that do to you during those days? In a very real sense, the “you” who existed during those 29 to 40 days knows that you’re going to die, and that there’s no escaping this. Many people create a detailed diary of their last 40 days, and use it to recall what they’ve lost, but since they have no memory of at least 29 of those 40 days, reading the diary proves to be like reading a book written by someone else because there are no memories for it to resonate with. Stephen doesn’t handle this situation well, though at least initially, he tries. But he grows increasingly petulant as his time approaches. He initially spends his time working to help his landlady and her daughter fix things around their house and farm, but abandons them by day 29, off to the local equivalent of “the big city” to find some way to enjoy his last days of life before his old self dies and his new self is born. Along this inner journey, Stephen’s read us his diary from the last time he was transmitted, and it’s clear the same story arc is being repeated: increasing petulance as the deadline approaches, and clear indications that because he’s been growing progressively less diligent in keeping the diary, he may have redacted much of what he actually did, and that what he did might not be particularly pleasant. This is where that early clue I alluded to suddenly has its meaning revealed: the Agency has learned that in a worker’s last 40 days, the worker may just choose to act out revenge or sabotage fantasies that will only occur after they’ve left, knowing that they can’t be punished for their acts.
The indigenes are interestingly wacky. All the mobile forms are male, and their female partners are the immobile (and possibly nonsentient) trees. Both communicate by microwaves, with the trees serving as relay stations. And sometimes, they appear to be able to influence human thought; since the human brain has not evolved to receive external communication by microwaves and the indigenes would have no way to manipulate human neural tissue, one must assume that the microwaves somehow induce neural changes that evoke thoughts. The leading theory among the xenobiologists is that they induce a state in which your thoughts are mirrored back at you. Sadly, we don’t learn more than this intriguing setup. It’s interesting stage dressing, but could have been omitted without affecting the heart of the story.
Lutania is an interestingly weird world, with pink, yellow, and grey vegetation that has its own unusual (but mostly pleasant) smells—a nice touch, since smell is a detail that most authors ignore. This raises a few interesting SFnal issues that Beckett doesn’t explore (which is fine, since they’re not integral to the story). Vegetation color is determined by the color of the sunlight and by the wavelengths of that light the vegetation has evolved to utilize; all other colors are reflected. On Earth, for example, most vegetation can’t use green light, so it reflects that light and makes the leaves seem green; other forms of vegetation capture that green light but instead reflect red light, and therefore appear red. Photosynthetic pigments evolve to capture the most abundant or efficient light source, so at a guess, I’d speculate that the sun of Lutania is weaker than ours (probably a red giant). This means that the notion of normal green Earth plants growing on this planet, an important component of Beckett’s description of the colony, is questionable; the local light would likely be inadequate for the needs of terrestrial vegetation.
The second aspect is that this environment would have consequences for the human settlers, since we’ve evolved to live on a planet with relatively high light intensity and with a different peak wavelength. Even here, though, people who live in circumpolar areas often need supplemental UV light to avoid severe depression, vitamin D deficiency, and other serious side effects. It would be interesting to see this aspect of other planets explored more often in fiction. For example, much of the old fiction about Venus assumed the planet was a greenhouse swamp, and some of the better stories accounted for the dreary conditions by assuming that colonists needed shelters from the eternal rain and places to receive supplemental light to compensate for the pallid light that leaked through the clouds. Sadly, we now know that Venus is not a Carboniferous swamp stocked with anthropophagic monsters, but other worlds offer many possibilities for exploring the effects of different suns on how humans live.
I’m not sure about some of the science that does play a more important role in the story. The island on which the story is set is essentially a giant mangrove forest, rooted in the bottom of a shallow sea—which is plausible. The notion that the sea is entirely freshwater requires that there be little or no solid land, and thus, no minerals to leach into the water through erosion and subsequently be concentrated by evaporation. But in a case like that, it’s not clear where all the vegetation is getting its nutrients from. The ecosystem would be tenuous at best under those circumstances. But that’s the ecologist in me speaking, and it’s a quibble that isn’t relevant to the story.
Stephen is in some ways a likeable character despite his significant flaws, but it’s hard to keep liking him. He learns Luto, the local language rather than making the locals speak to him in (English?) like most Agency personnel seemingly do, and he forms strong and reasonably close ties with them but not with his colleagues at the Agency. But in the end, he treats them with the same paternalistic contempt they endure from the rest of the agency, even though Beckett portrays them as likeable characters, descended from Caribbean peoples. Though Stephen tries to do the right thing in his final days, and starts out working hard to help the locals, he abandons them when the time of his virtual death sentence draws near, and his petulance suggests that he plans to do things he would deeply regret if he remembered them. As he notes, “the thing about surly adolescents was that, when pressed to tell, they only told the empty shell. What was inside, what was real to them, they kept back.” And rather than striving to find a way to meet his personal death with dignity, he increasingly resents the future him who will live on after he’s dead.
The notion of the “unreliable narrator” of one’s own story is cleverly integrated with an SFnal hook that gives it impact, and Stephen’s journey from striving to failing is interesting to watch. I’m not sure all the details hang together as more than stage dressing, but as a portrait of a very human, very fallible character, Day 29 provides some interesting insights into the nature of identity.
Anne is a young woman in pre-Victorian England, living in a large country estate that has fallen on hard times—enough so that its owners have felt obliged to trade on its infamy by bringing in tourists to supplement their income. Anne is a scion of the de Bourgh and d’Arcy families, who have been “marrying and killing each other since the [Norman] Conquest”, accompanied by many juicy scandals and blood feuds, including occasional royal entanglements and illegitimate children. Like many women of her time, she suffers from a claustrophobically constrained social role, exacerbated in her case by a heart defect that severely limits her activities, a mother who is cold and unaffectionate even by British standards of the time, and a series of doctors who practice child abuse in the form of what passed for “medical” knowledge at the time. In addition to cruel “strengthening” treatments such as immersion in cold water and a limited diet, she’s isolated to protect her from other children, who might overstress her heart, and from standard womanly activities of her time, such as playing piano. Though these measures are nominally for her own good, they make her desperately lonely.
[Spoilers] Anne has only two consolations in her life: a large and well-stocked library, so she can improve her mind and let her imagination roam, and her cousin Fitz, who is reading at Oxford at the time of the story, but who has always been a staunch supporter of Anne and a loyal friend who clearly likes her and helps her escape her prison in small rebellious ways. They’re destined to marry in an arranged marriage, but Fitz loves another and Anne is nobly willing to let him go (though not without giving her jealousy of the other woman free reign). Everything changes when Anne encounters Pug, one of those small lap-dog types of canine, in the garden behind her mansion. Pug becomes both a friend and a guide to a mysterious “door” that appears out of nowhere, granting access to a narrow window of time (perhaps a few decades) and space (much of southern England). Passing through the door gives Anne a way to escape her severely constrained life, since nobody notices her absence. Although she’s unable to interact with most people on the other side of the door (to whom she is invisible), she occasionally meets and befriends others who have discovered the door and passed through, all of whom can somehow recognize each other. One day, Anne meets “the Miss Martins”, Eliza and Mary Martin, daughters of what seems to be a prosperous farmer—and despite the clear class difference, they become friends, filling their times together with speculation about the nature of the door.
Goss captures the tone of such stories precisely, and her prose is rich and mannered in the way of her predecessors (e.g., Bronte, Austen). She creates a convincing sense of the stifling strictures imposed on those who lived in such times, men and women alike, and reminds us of how little we would like living in such a time, despite the clever wordplay and successful search for love enshrined in the Austen canon. Goss manages the difficult task of creating atmospheric prose that never turns overly florid, with nicely tuned descriptions such as the fountain “with its triton perpetually spitting water, while stone fish leap around him in rococo profusion”. Her analogy of Pug leading Anne to the door like a blind man Anne once saw being led by his guide dog is bang on, revealing the liberating power offered by her new pet. Goss also has a neatly barbed touch at times, as in her description of Anne’s mother, who “would never give in to something as vulgar as fact.”
Pug is an elegantly constructed description of a stifling and hopeless life, offering fantasy that allows a sympathetic character to escape that life, however briefly, through the magical door. (Whether the door is real, or only Anne’s unfulfilled dreams of esape, is unclear and unimportant.) Nothing much happens from a plot perspective, but Goss neatly introduces a heroine who finds a way to endure the role she’s been cast in. In the final sentences, Anne watches as a tourist kid complains to his mother about the lack of secret passages in the old house. Anne knows how untrue this is, and how each of us may find our own secret passages.
Rusch tells a deeply affecting tale of a region of space in which warfare—nasty to the point of destruction of entire civilizations and possibly even whole planets—has created a disastrous refugee crisis. The lucky, but more often the wealthy, can flee, but once they reach some point of (temporary) stability, they must cope with the psychologically devastating effects of being uprooted and losing everything they once knew. It’s a scenario familiar to many readers of Asimov’s, albeit at a distance, because this is how many of our families—possibly even ourselves—arrived in our current country. Some of us may even have helped refugees make the jarring transition into a new life.
[Spoilers] Our unnamed narrator is a former soldier, burned out and relocated to a distant space station so far out on the fringes of civilization that it’s been essentially forgotten by its government, let alone by other governments, and is therefore safe from the ongoing conflicts for the moment. I immediately heard the power chords C.J. Cherryh played so brilliantly in Downbelow Station and the associated sequence of novels—chords that still resonate more than 20 years after I first read the books. Our narrator has persevered, and through hard work and brains, has become prosperous enough to own a bar and a comfortable home; rather than simply accepting this as her due, she has expanded the bar beyond what she needs to support herself because in so doing, she is able to hire some of the refugees and give them a new life and new hope. She even leaves the drunks who pass out at the bar in peace, recognizing that this may be the only safe place they have to rest. Amusingly (albeit in a very dark way), her orbital station was once a resort for only the wealthy; now it’s a “last resort” for both the wealthy and the completely dispossessed.
The plot gets moving when people begin arriving at her bar and asking for information about passage to safety in “Dunyon”, a place that doesn’t exist so far as the station databanks know. Yet she discovers a mythical city of that name that may or may not really exist, claimed to have been found once but never again by many searchers over the past millennium. The notion of a perfect and perfectly safe city, safe from the strife of the rest of the universe, is a recurring myth, and one that has echoed down through human history; whether Xanadu or Prester John’s home in our world or Lost Tanelorn in Moorcock’s multiverse, this kind of legend has legs because it speaks to something deeply rooted in our collective psyche, specifically the knowledge that any place we live is only provisionally safe, and only for a time.
The current ferment over Dunyon was caused by an explorer who claimed to have recently rediscovered the city, and who has put a downpayment on a generation ship (i.e., a really big ship) so he can bring everyone to safety. Unfortunately, he died a few days earlier in the narrator’s bar (as many do, succumbing to a combination of killing stress, despair, and a lack of funds for adequate medical treatment), and rumors have begun to circulate that he was offering 500 free tickets aboard the ship. Whether this is all a scam, or an example of someone else as noble as our narrator, is not revealed, but Rusch’s story environment is rich with dramatic potential, and we can hope we’ll learn the answer in a future installment. When the bar is swarmed by desperate refugees hoping to gain the free tickets, the narrator finds a clever solution: she climbs onto the bar and announces that the tickets have already been given away. Resigned to an endless string of such disappointments, the refugees accept their loss and move on—possibly a bit too facile a solution, but since that’s not the key plot point in the story, an acceptable one. Whether this dashing of their hope yet again is justifiable under the circumstances is also open to question.
There are many wisdoms, large and small in this story. For the larger wisdoms, consider the following description of a refugee’s state of mind: “After you’ve been here for a while, after you’ve finally accepted that your home is gone, you have no family left, and nothing is ever going to be as it was, you go somewhere else, figuring you’ll start new, figuring you have at least a fighting chance of rebuilding some kind of life.” And then there’s the larger consequences of the situation: “At some point, it really will be us against them. And we will lose. Because there are too many of them, desperate and terrified. And there are too few of us, pretending that civilization will go on.” Rusch’s scenario will become increasingly real as the effects of climate change begin to be truly felt, leading to relocations of refugees on a previously unimagined scale. Some readers of Asimov’s are likely to live long enough to face this situation. How will they deal with a world overflowing with refugees?
Lesser wisdoms include how the narrator knows when another world has fallen: the flow of reliable information is cut off, and the flow of rumors increases dramatically, followed shortly by a new wave of refugees. I also particularly liked the notion that after 600 people have asked the station computer the same question, the computer is smart enough to ask our narrator whether she wants to receive the same answers. I dream of the day when my laptop is that smart; it would save me hours each week performing repetitive tasks the software isn’t smart enough to automate for me. The refugees are kept in “pens”, much like modern refugee camps but locked down more tightly, because there’s nowhere else to put them and serious risk of rioting and plague. The one significant mis-step is the hoary old notion that a human bartender is needed because machines can’t mix the drinks right. That’s nonsense, since mixing drinks is simple chemistry and physics: get the proportions right and master the mixing process, then encode both in software, and you can regenerate the identical perfect drink time and again. It’s the human chemistry provided by a bartender that is the key point here.
The tone is noir-ish, with the tough but noble protagonist expected of this genre. It’s annoying (as a reviewer!) not to have a name to pin on the narrator, but in fairness, how many of us who aren’t Bob Dole refer to ourselves by name when we talk to or about ourself? On the whole, a rich, strongly affecting story, and one of Rusch’s best efforts in recent memory. Best of all, one that opens up a whole new universe of narrative possibilities.
Spinrad spins one of the more unusual first-contact tales I’ve read, unusual because how simultaneously familiar and alien the subjects of the communication happen to be. Mario Roca is an experimental musician, a Renaissance man interested in pushing the limits of music as far as they’ll go without sacrificing esthetics in the service of theory, and successful enough at his work that he’s not wanting for money. Caroline Koch is a cetacean researcher, obsessed with the challenge of learning their language. Mario is seeking ways to go beyond the traditional indirect emotional impact of music by finding ways to play sounds below the frequency range of human perception to directly evoke emotions without consciously hearing the notes, a technique that has (according to rumor) already been weaponized by the real-world military. Caroline is, of necessity, studying the subliminal notes the cetaceans use for their own communication. As the story progresses, their paths interweave like those of different instruments in a symphony, eventually merging to create surprising and synergistic results.
[Spoilers] Mario is able to create a successful musical piece in the key of C, then as part of his theorizing, down-keys it five octaves lower to test his emotional impact. He’d love to actually test his theory that such music will act directly upon human emotions without being consciously heard, but the tech boys tell him that creating the speakers required to perform the test would be prohibitively expensive; enough to bankrupt a small banana republic, as Spinrad wryly notes. Rather than admitting defeat, he launches upon a massive fundraising effort to gain the money required to perform the test. In the meantime, Catherine has made a conceptual breakthrough: humans have failed to understand cetacean communication thus far because we’ve been limited by our metaphor for communication: we humans are so strongly dominated by words that we forget how dominated cetaceans would be by the sonar they use to create 3D images of their world. Having made this conceptual breakthrough, she quickly parses enough of the dolphin language to explain it to her technicians, who create a means of converting the tones into 3D images—and the images are breathtaking, albeit in grayscale rather than color, and make it clear that dolphins are not only sentient, but are every bit as interested as we are in creating fictions ranging from purely objective narrations of their world to detailed pornographic scenarios—the latter being something that fits with what I’ve read about dolphins. Though Caroline’s initial attempts at communication are predictably primitive, evoking rude and dismissive replies from the dolphins, she eventually manages to establish more serious communication with the dolphins, sharing images of the nature of our respective worlds.
About the time she learns that the dolphins have a deeply reverential attitude to the whales they share the oceans with, a chance encounter with Mario on the talk show circuit creates the synergy required to advance both their work. Mario’s marketing clout gathers enough money to build his mega-speakers, in exchange for front-row seats at the performance for the donors and merchandising spinoffs for various investors. But having spoken to Caroline, his goal is to play his music to the whales rather than just the dolphins. And when the day of the concert comes, he’s able to attract the attention of migrating whales, lure them inshore, and play them his composition; they respond in turn, revealing the source of the story’s title, which derives from the old philosophical notion that the movements of the planets create “the music of the spheres”. Here, the emphasis is on the one sphere we’re intimately entangled with, namely Earth, and we learn that the whales themselves are merely passing along the greater note that is the metaphorical heartbeat of Earth itself. It’s an uncommonly sweet ending for a Spinrad tale, though I confess that time and tides rather than any deliberate choice have prevented me from reading any of his recent work, so I can’t say whether he’s mellowed with age.
The story is deeply true to how scientists often see only what they’re focusing on instead of what may actually be there. Elephant communication by infrasound is one particularly relevant example of how we failed to notice something that was hidden in plain sight (to shamelessly mix metaphors). In his gentle musings on the deeper spiritual and psychological effects of art and music, Spinrad also reminds us of the importance of art, and particularly that artists both visual and oral do a lot more thinking through their efforts than most non-artists realize. (He also makes a subtler point, namely that the modern ability to sample, resample, mix, and match sound from a variety of sources does not obviate the need for artists to determine how to do so. Left unmentioned is the true loss that would result should we entirely abandon using actual instruments in favor of synthesizers, namely that much of the magic from live performance is how the song is never the same twice.)
The story is also very true to what we’ve increasingly begun to realize about the limits of knowledge and perspective, namely that great breakthroughs come when scientists from different disciplines collaborate—and that future collaborations should perhaps include artists rather than scientists alone. Diverse perspectives can together provide a gestalt understanding that far surpasses what any one specialist could achieve on their own. As a lesser but still thought-provoking example of this notion, consider how SF/F as a literary field has influenced the research and achievements of generations of real-world scientists. Although I doubt Spinrad was inspired by the infamous five-note sequence from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the thematic similarity of the two story lines (i.e., music as communication) amused me; unlike Spielberg, Spinrad took the notion seriously and explored it rigorously.
On an interesting note, I found myself instantly recognizing Spinrad’s writing style from his book reviews that appear periodically in Asimov’s. There’s something about his rhythms, and particularly his use of one-sentence paragraphs as punchlines, that is an unmistakable signature of his work. I’ve always thought that Spinrad doesn’t receive as much critical attention as he deserves for the quality of his prose and the rigor of his thinking, and although I doubt this story will remedy that situation all on its own, it’s still a fine addition to his body of work and a reminder I should seek out some of his longer works.
William Portis is a meteorologist and Lieutenant in a paramilitary convoy of 50 ships—land ships, most seemingly created from seagoing ships—traveling over a desertified future North America in search of water. The story’s seemingly set some time within the next 100 years, after an intense solar storm that lasted 2 days has killed three-quarters of the world’s population, and life has become desperate and precarious, leading to battles between the survivors over what little water remains. Like modern storm chasers pursuing tornadoes and intense thunderstorms, William and his colleagues in other nomadic colonies travel North America in search of storms that will provide the water they need to survive. To achieve this, the former seagoing vessels have been equipped with huge wheels so they can roam the prairies like a modern day version of Windwagon Smith’s land clippers. As in steampunk tales of airships, it’s an intriguing conceit if one doesn’t look too closely at any of the scientific or technological underpinnings of the story—something I’ll return to in a few moments.
[Spoilers] William lost his wife, Rina, years ago to initially unspecified causes and is now living with Andie, the first officer of his ship, the Mighty Mississipi—oddly, a paddle-wheeler that still retains its useless paddle. We soon learn that Rina was lost and presumed killed in a skirmish with the Jairasu, the most heavily armed and intimidating colony still roaming North America. When William and his colony cross paths with the Jairasu en route to a storm that will replenish the colony’s water supply, the two colonies arrange a parley—and William discovers that Rina is still alive and has joined the Jairasu. A fellow meteorologist, she warns him that his colony should leave the stormwaters to the Jairasu to harvest. Given that the Jairasu have wiped out other colonies that defied them, and given that we’ve been given no sense that William’s colony is desperate, the logical thing would be to wait for the Jairasu to move on and then gather what water they leave behind. But logic doesn’t prevail, and there ensues a disastrous running battle between the land ships—all very Mad Max, right down to suicidal motorcyclists—in which William’s colony is nearly destroyed (half their ships and hundreds of people are lost). Andie dies in the fight, and William vows revenge, knocking down his leader (the colony’s Commodore), ranting at him about his foolishness for forcing the conflict, and stealing one of the colony’s few remaining gunships and its crew to pursue the enemy flagship in what will clearly be a suicide mission. The story ends before we learn William’s fate. That’s an acceptable choice, because the point of the story is to show William’s inner journey from pacifist meteorologist and reluctant officer to angry seeker of military vengeance.
Roseman’s writing is generally skillful, though he leaves too many unclear bits and seeming inconsistencies. For example, we’re told the ship was built in the 1990s and that the Commodore’s chair is more than 100 years old (i.e., that the story is about 100 years in the future), but William alludes to World War II as “a couple hundred years ago”. In several places, too much is left implicit, forcing us to spend more time than necessary wondering what we missed and whether it’s important. There are some nice human touches, such as the Commodore’s cabin being packed with books—we find ways to bring the things we cherish, even when space and resources are tight—and the fact that the Commodore doesn’t trust his Lieutenant enough to let him into the cabin with his sidearm. William’s discomfort with military life is clearly portrayed; he accepts his rank as necessary, but only occasionally uses it to get his way, such as when he goes to the bridge uninvited to see Andie.
But William’s conversion into Mad Max and other key human details mostly fail to convince. When William and Rina meet again, she shows no affection for him, suggesting later (over a communication link, with no dialogue and no chance for William to rebut her accusations) that she felt abandoned by him when he didn’t come looking for her—never mind that he had no reason to believe she was alive and that chasing after her would have been suicide. Possibly she’s just that petty, but we’ve been given no reason to believe this. Most egregiously, there’s no reason to believe the colonies would engage in a vicious, self-destructive death spiral of competition over water, particularly since banding together to share resources would make far more sense. Lastly, the closing scene simply fails: a Commodore who strips visitors of their guns before letting them into his cabin wouldn’t let himself be physically or verbally abused by William; his guards, waiting outside the cabin, would certainly intervene. Nor would he allow William to steal one of the colony’s few remaining powerful ships—which they’ll need to survive.
In a story for which the science and technology or their implications are secondary (stage dressing rather than essential to character and plot), I can generally roll my eyes, ignore the science, and focus on the plot, the setting, or the people if the author does a credible job handling these aspects. But here, too much suspension of scientific disbelief is required. A 2-day solar storm severe enough to end civilization would eliminate all of the satellites a meteorologist would need to predict the weather reliably. How, then, is William predicting where rain will fall? Such a solar storm would not bake all the surface water off the Earth permanently unless it was so strong it also boiled off most of the atmosphere, in which case the survivors would have more things than water to worry about. More likely, the hydrological cycle would be restored within weeks, if not sooner, because evaporation from the oceans and precipitation over continents is the primary driver of that cycle. Many areas would be severely droughted, but not the entire continent, so there would be many places for people to gather around permanent sources of water. Neither would such an event eliminate the deep aquifers that many cities rely on. Any significant rainstorm, particularly one delayed for weeks or months, would generate far more water than any one colony could possibly use, thereby eliminating any need to fight over the water. A throwaway line that climate change was the final straw is neither here nor there; it seems unlikely that with three-quarters of the population dead, greenhouse warming would continue to be an issue for long.
The technology also requires too much handwaving. William’s colony is said to have stolen solar collectors from a city in “what used to be Arizona”, but the energy density of solar radiation is insufficient to power anything as large as a ship—let alone one that travels at speeds greater than "100" (whether km/h or mph is never stated). If you posit a level of solar radiation sufficiently intense to power the ships, despite the tiny area of solar arrays they’d be able to deploy, humans aren’t going to be walking around without radiation armor. Of course, traveling at such speeds wouldn’t be feasible without paved roads, even with Really Big Wheels and the Shock Absorbers From Hell. If you’ve ever traveled cross-country on an ATV or 4WD truck, you know what I mean. Most egregiously, if civilization has fallen, where are the colonists getting their food, and who is manufacturing replacement parts for the ships, let alone the ammunition they need for their frequent battles? Most non-engineers have little understanding of the complexity of the supply chains that sustain modern life—though a quick look down a 50-yard aisle of screws in any big-box hardware store provides a strong hint that if civilization falls, most of our complex machines won’t outlive the first generation of survivors. (I have this sneaking suspicion that any society that requires more than a dozen types of screws is far too complex to survive in the long term.) Lastly, a convoy of 50 ships, even if each can hold 1000 people, simply can’t afford the kinds of battle losses Roseman describes. Unless the colonies are more draconian police states than Roseman tells us, the citizens would rebel rather than simply tolerating this kind of foolishness.
Although the stage setting is interesting (the ships make a great Hollywood special effect), Bring on the Rain failed to provide a convincing human story, paid insufficient attention to its internal story logic, and violated so many aspects of basic science and technology that it threw me right out of the story. These are all things that could be fixed without major surgery: expand the story by a few pages to give room to reveal more details of the human interactions (e.g., by having William respond to Rina’s accusations of abandonment), think through the implications of the scenario more carefully (e.g., after a solar storm that killed most humans, a lack of viable vegetation communities would be a more important survival problem than water), and polish up some of the writing so the implied details are clearer. But in its present state, chalk this one up as a story that should have been sent back for major revision.
Darla Tappin is a “twelver”, a child born after 12 months of incubation in an artificial womb instead of the usual 9 months that produced her classmates. This is a plausible-sounding technological solution to the conventional theory that human children are born at least 3 months prematurely simply because if we stayed in the womb any longer, our head would be to big to emerge during childbirth without killing our mother. Also, in theory, the additional maturity conferred by an additional 3 months of sheltered growth would produce children with greater equanimity who are less troublesome to their parents. As a young teen (about 13 years old), Darla’s going through all the challenges such kids face, including ostracism at school because she’s different. It turns out there was a problem with all that theory: the additional gestation produced a lack of emotional affect in the twelvers. It’s not that twelvers don’t feel emotions every bit as intensely as the rest of their classmates, but rather that they don’t express their feelings or act on them as explosively as most teens. This makes them stand out from the herd, and any reader who was different as a teen knows how unfortunate that can be.
[Spoilers] Darla is endlessly picked on, but not because anyone knows for certain that she’s a twelver; she behaves like one, and that’s good enough evidence for her classmates, who need little reason to single out loners for harassment. To add to her burden, her BFF Leora has been shunning her for some time, stripping her of a possible defender and someone to share the trials of adolescence with. Leora is changing in the way all teens change, dealing with turbulent emotions and the crucial need to form social bonds, but Darla isn’t, and this has forced a wedge between them. This is doubly hurtful because of how close they once were. Leora hasn’t completely abandoned Darla, and indeed comes to her rescue to spare her a beating by the other kids, but there’s little warmth in this act. (The notion of girls beating on girls is something unheard of when I was a kid, but it’s increasingly common these days. Whether that’s any better than the psychological warfare the girls I grew up with endured is another matter entirely.) When Darla is finally pushed to the breaking point, she snaps just the way any other teenage girl would do—but turns it to her advantage by publicly accusing Leora of being another twelver. As it turns out, Leora isn’t one; instead, she’s one of the increasingly rare kids who was carried to term in her mother’s womb, and was actually born a month or two prematurely, a difference that is almost as shameful to her as Darla’s difference. By threatening to “out” her, Darla gains enormous power over her former friend. Rather than risking this disclosure, Leora accepts Darla’s demands to be treated as a friend once more, even if Leora doesn’t really like Darla. Whether they’ll be able to re-establish their former friendship is an open question; the optimist in me suggests that having accepted the inevitable, Leora will find a way to remember why she once liked Darla, but the pessimist is less certain.
Cypess gets us right into the story with a single telling opening line: “Darla Tappin stood in front of her bedroom mirror and practiced losing her temper.” Any parent and anyone who remembers their own adolescence will immediately wonder what could possibly explain why a teen needs any practice. Cypess has a nice touch with language to parallel her insights into the teen mind—and often a wicked sense of humor that never takes us too far from an intense focus on what Darla’s going through. For example, as Darla is practicing her emotional outbursts so she can try them out at school the following day, her mother walks in on her, and being a psychiatrist, leaps to the inevitable but wrong conclusion that Darla is verbally abusing herself, victim of the low self-esteem that afflicts so many teenagers. The inevitable lectures ensue. Then there are the casual indignities teens suffer at the hands of their parents. When Darla’s mother tries to have her imminent baby brother’s term in an artificial womb in New Jersey extended by a month so it won’t interfere with a conference presentation, she’s voted down by her husband, who wants a “normal” 9-month term—a message that isn’t lost on Darla. Cypess neatly captures the emotional stresses of being a teen without ever falling into “emo” herself. The way the kids turn the tables on their teacher, who’s carrying her own baby and propagandizing about how wrong the artificial wombs are, is priceless and profoundly true; it’s exactly the kind of comeuppance teachers get when they forget how smart their kids are, and try too hard to impose their personal views on the kids.
Speaking as someone who was always more on the Spock end of the spectrum than the Kirk end, and speaking as the father of a son who was “different” enough to continually provoke his classmates, Cypess nailed it: her characters, their responses, and the desperation-inspired nastiness of the teen social milieu all rang painfully true. In particular, the notion that Darla is profoundly human, despite her differences, is also clear and very true to the experience of all those who have ever been labeled as different and persecuted for it. The science and sociology behind the story also had the right feel. The conclusion that the majority of the developed world’s women would opt for having their babies born from an artificial womb instead of their own uterus if given the chance seems inevitable; the rest of the world’s women probably won’t be able to afford the cost. Whether the consequences for the children would be as Cypess predicts is a more interesting question. As a firm believer in the law of unintended consequences, and an observer of science and technology for more than 40 years, I have no doubt it will take several tries before we get such technologies right and account for all the unexpected side-effects, social and technological. Though the twelver effect seems completely plausible, reality will undoubtedly have different surprises for us should we ever opt for artificial wombs.
Twelvers is a tightly crafted and skillfully told tale that applies traditional SFnal “what if?” to the eternal struggle of the teenager to fit in.
Tim is 50 years old, and has used a readily available time-travel service (the Non-Paradoxical Time Channel) to return to the past to visit his parents, who are 35 at the time of his visit. Because the technology is based on the fact that you can’t jump back into a period after your birth, and because “time is ingenious”, paradoxes are ruled out: whatever you do in the past has already happened, so it’s safe to meddle if you wish. People therefore return often to see their parents, sometimes to help resolve old issues, sometimes to understand why things happened the way they did, sometimes to reinvigorate fading memories, and sometimes to remind themselves of the parental love that (sadly) too many people were never sure they had.
[Spoilers] The primary reason for Tim’s visit is to see his mother, and learn whether she truly loved his father—who is dying of cancer in a hospice, and has carried the burden of guilt over his wife’s suicide for nearly 50 years. Tim learns that the reason his mother never seemed to be looking at the camera in any of the old family photos is that she sees people like him flitting through her world like ghosts that nobody else can see. Possibly this is literal, possibly it’s a side-effect of clinical depression, or possibly it’s something else entirely. What’s important is how she stays in her marriage as long as she does, even though she’s desperately unhappy, because she really does seem to love her husband as much as she can. A secondary and very human reason for Tim’s visit is a sense that despite the reassurances that paradox is impossible, he believes that he’s only alive because during his visit to the past, he was able to persuade his mother to hang on long enough for him to be born.
The mother’s suicide is clearly foreshadowed, and McAllister nicely handles the mix of things that Tim actually remembers and things he doesn’t remember but finds unmistakably familiar based on old photos. His writing is heartfelt, honest, and unadorned, so it easily escapes excess sentimentality and achieves a strong emotional impact. And Tim’s motives are more interestingly mixed than at first seemed to be the case. A short but very effective piece of writing.
From the opening sentence, Cornell drops us into cloak and dagger mode, seen through the eyes of John Hamilton, an Irish member of the British Secret Service who’s fully immersed in the Great Game and doing “out of uniform” work for His Majesty. He’s arrived in Copenhagen to visit the British embassy and help them solve the mystery of a young woman, a vanished courier, who’s seemingly reappeared out of nowhere after a 15-year absence. It’s a rich contrafactual stew, with British Muslim (“Musselman”) ambassadors and military officers serving alongside the Irish, and “fold” technology allowing governments (and sometimes divers rogues) to manipulate space. From context, folds appear to represent mastery of the ability to warp space or perhaps control the wave and probability functions that define matter and energy, and this mastery has allowed miracles ranging from the minor, such as (horseless?) “carriages” that can fly along the folds they generate, to the major, such as colonization of the planets. Folds can be put to various other practical purposes, such as quarantining the mystery woman in her own pocket of space-time, just in case she’s somehow been weaponized (e.g., by folding a bomb into her).
Fold technology is clearly this alternate Earth’s equivalent of nuclear weaponry, and carries the same potential for mutually assured destruction. To prevent this from coming to pass, all major nations have entered into “the balance”, a multinational treaty that holds things together by limiting the use of folds in peace and warfare. Needless to say, this in no way eliminates geopolitik, which emerges in full force as the competing nations and empires jockey for position, seeking as much advantage as possible over each other without tipping the balance so far that it creates a world war that will end everything.
[Spoilers] The mysterious woman, speaking a language nobody understands, turns out to be Hamilton’s former lover, Lustre St. Clair. They met while he was a young man at the military academy, and in a moment of pillowtalk honesty after this older woman has relieved him of the burden of his virginity, Lustre reveals that she’s actually a royal courier, programmed with a device in her head that can be used (after the judicious application of a few code words) to flip a switch and make it impossible for her to speak to anyone other than her intended communication partners; if she’s captured or otherwise compromised, she can flip the switch permanently, making her speak a language nobody but the British can understand. (The language is Enochian, invented by John Dee—possibly Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster in some accounts—way back in the 16th century.) The two parted, at least in part, because they engaged in the kinds of uniquely painful arguments that people who grow very close to each other are capable of. Lustre was en route to deliver a message to the Danish king when she and her escort mysteriously disappeared. Now it’s 15 years later, and Lustre has returned, speaking Enochian, but seemingly hasn’t aged a day beyond 18 when Hamilton flies to Copenhagen to begin debriefing her. SF readers will quickly infer that perhaps time has also been folded.
Lustre has been gone for only 4 years, subjective time. Before she can tell Hamilton what happened, mysterious enemies attack, using shaped charges to blow a hole in her quarantine fold. Thinking fast, he gets them out the door before the bad guys arrive, kicks in a door to a temporary place of safety, and uses a handy communications link to contact Cushion McKenzie, a colleague who plays the role of “salonist”, but who’s actually an accomplished field agent (she saved his life long ago) and manipulator of fold technology. She hauls them out of the embassy, now burning, and dumps them onto the street not far away, ostensibly unable to risk bringing them back to England for fear of having them followed—but possibly for darker reasons that remain implicit until later in the story. Hamilton’s smart enough to know he’s up against pros (“Hamilton feared amateurs most of all. Amateurs killed you against orders.”), and keeps his wits about him. His alertness saves the couple from a clumsy initial assassination attempt by amateurs, one that was intended solely to force them into the arms of the pros, and they’re quickly captured by an overwhelming force of the bad guys.
The plot revolves around the kind of classified intelligence that real spies might deal with, but with some SFnal antics thrown in. The knowledge in question combines the “three-quarter ounce theory” (an antique notion that this was the weight of the human soul) with dark matter, recently discovered by the astronomers of most European nations. Here, the dark matter appears related to those mysterious three-quarter ounces, multiplied by the number of citizens of a great many galactic civilizations. Because contact with these civilizations might tip the balance of power, disrupting the balance in potentially disastrous ways, the knowledge is being shared among all major nations and a treaty has been signed to prevent such contacts from disrupting the balance. Lustre was carrying this information in her head to share with the Danes when she disappeared. (It’s all very reminiscent of Johnny Mnemonic, though with a tip of the hat to Gibson rather than mere imitation.) Enter the villains, twins named Castor and Pollux Ransom. These arms dealers have outraged the major nations by dealing arms to anyone rather than only to their own government, and have therefore been excommunicated; needless to say, they immediately begin selling their weapons to various malcontents and revolutionaries, further endearing themselves to the established powers. Having caught wind of Lustre’s cargo, they kidnap her. But, like the clever heroine she is, she finds a way to escape, and returned to Copenhagen.
After Lustre and Hamilton are captured, he awakens to find himself in a comfortable room, where he’s brought a hearty breakfast served with a real knife (potential weapon) to send the message his captors have no fear of him. The servants walk like ex-military, earning them his contempt; in Hamilton’s world, the military is a calling to national duty, not a way to earn a salary. Hamilton finds himself in a mansion constructed of folds, orbiting the Moon, but the projected scenery is of a dark planet he’s never seen. His worldview is about to be overturned both literally and metaphorically: the dark world turns out to be Nemesis, our sun’s hypothetical dark cousin located at a distance of about 1 light year. (In reality, Nemesis hasn’t been proven to exist.) In addition to the new territories made available to those who are willing to seize them, there are alien visitors from the stars awaiting first contact. The Ransoms try twice to contact them, along the way discovering relativity, the limits imposed by the speed of light, and time dilation—all heretical notions in the stable Newtonian world of the balance. In an amusing but thoroughly backgrounded tip of the hat to the twins thought experiment, one twin is far younger than the other as a result of time dilation effects during the trip.
Though the Ransoms captured Lustre so they could trade the aliens the dark matter map in her head, they failed to make her give up her secrets and were chased home. This time, they plan to use Hamilton as a lever to force her to relinquish the map; to do so, they strip Hamilton and chain him to the fireplace, and (I’m not making this up *G*) threaten to tear off his genitals, and then his limbs (one by one), until she complies. He begs her to refuse, and the torture is just beginning when the cavalry arrives, following a fold that Cushion dropped into Hamilton so his allies could trace him to his captors’ lair. (Her failure to return him and Lustre to safety in England early in the story now takes on a much more sinister meaning.) Lustre overpowers a guard, and kills him with his own rifle, and Hamilton takes it from her to kill one Ransom while the other flees.
It’s all delightfully arch, with Hamilton following directly in the footsteps of Ian Fleming’s (rather than Hollywood’s) James Bond. There are the amusing names of his (femme fatale) companions, Lustre (Vesper?) and Cushion (Pussy Galore?), and though he’s Irish rather than Scottish, he too went to military school as a youth (here, as an indentured cadet to pay off his father’s debts) and slowly migrated into the intelligence service. He has Bond’s fatal charm that reels in the ladies, and Bond’s coldness when called for: “His Irish blood was kept in an English jar.” Like Bond, he gets the best one-liner of the story, noting (as he blows off the top of one Ransom’s head) “That’ll be a weight off his mind”—also a riff on the three-quarter ounce theory. But he’s no mere Bond pastiche. Hamilton is interesting in his own right, with occasional pungent insights, colorfully expressed. My favorite was his description of a former British intelligence leader who screwed up by the numbers and subsequently died in “a hunting accident that was more of the former than the latter”.
Copenhagen is set early in Hamilton’s career, and like early Bond, he’s naïve about the big picture and isn’t immune to falling into despair when the villains capture him and he feels he’s failed his country. Yet like Bond, he masters himself and endures until he can turn the tables, relying on courage and fast thinking rather than Hollywood SFX. As in the books, he’s not always able to extricate himself from the situations he blunders into, and he’s human enough that he often needs help from his companions, including the women. Hamilton shares Bond’s deep-rooted love of king and country, but also a reverence for the balance (see below for more). If your only knowledge of the Bond universe is from the Hollywood tales, do yourself a favor and try Fleming’s books. I wouldn’t call them timeless classics of literature, but they’re far better than you might expect based on the movies.
Cornell offers many nice touches. The space-time the characters manipulate, and the Web of connections within it, are “the embroidery”, a clever play on the notions of many threads woven together as in our Internet. The use of “glossolalia” (speaking in tongues) as the name of the babble drug the bad guys give Lustre to make her spill the beans is also clever. When the Danish civil authorities arrive to put out the fire at the British embassy, their flying carriages use folds connected to the nearby ocean to funnel water onto the blaze, showing that Cornell’s thought through at least the basics of fold technology. Dee’s Enochian, after 400-some years, has evolved to become sufficiently flexible that it can handle “modern” concepts Dee never dreamed of. When Hamilton dines with Lustre after their first narrow escape, he’s smart enough to realize they need fuel if they’re going to survive the coming hours, and smart enough to order wine for cover but not drink it; unlike Bond, he knows he can’t afford to dull his wits even slightly until he’s safely back in England. Lustre’s not just eye candy either; she’s far more clued in than Hamilton, and it’s a subtle point that even at 18, she’s more mature than the older man, who’s still a bit of a hopeless romantic at heart. There are echoes of the surprisingly subtle relationship that’s been evolving between Judy Dench’s “M” and Daniel Craig’s Bond in the most recent movies about Bond’s life. And there’s a very interesting touch of the infamous British class structure, Hamilton being a scion of minor nobility and contemptuously dismissive of the Ransoms’ attempt to give themselves airs by inventing their own coat of arms. England’s invasion of Denmark to turn it into a protectorate and keep it out of the hands of the Russians is very much America during the cold war; since the U.S. doesn’t seem to exist as a world power, the British have apparently stepped into that void.
The "Copenhagen interpretation" of the title was an attempt by Bohr and Heisenberg (among others) to resolve the contradictory evidence over the wave–particle duality, but it’s also a clever play on the setting for the story and the subsequent interpretation of what really happened. In our world, the pair were prime movers in the development of quantum mechanics, from which flowed the notion that when you observe a quantum mechanical system, the act of observation “collapses” its probability function to create the “objective” reality that you observe. Whether this principle has any relevance beyond the microscopic world of atoms and subatomic particles remains to be seen; a recent article in Scientific American suggests that quantum effects may extend to far larger scales than we previously believed to be possible, but it’s still an awfully large stretch to believe the effects will ever be extended to the macroscopic world you and I inhabit. Needless to say, this hasn’t stopped writers from having a ton of fun playing with the notion. Here, part of the theology of Cornell’s British empire (and of the balance) is how our world required God as the observer who collapsed its wave function into everything we see, and that the final war (apocalypse) that will disrupt the balance will eliminate humanity and restore the original wave; that takes Hamilton’s need to defend “king and country” to even higher levels because doing so also defends reality as we know it.
Cornell goes one step beyond Fleming in his adoption of the tools provided by later masters of the spy tale: the world is not nearly so black and white as the one Bond inhabits. Though Hamilton has seen enough to believe the Ransoms were telling him the truth, and though Lustre appears to have been his staunch ally all along, his boss (Turpin) calls him on the carpet in the closing scenes of the book to explain what really happened. Though Hamilton fears execution at best and shame at worst for his self-perceived failure, Turpin reassures him that he’s done well: the Ransoms, it seems, were never so powerful and dangerous as they claimed, they were actually pawns of the Csar, they were not twins (but rather cousins who differed in age by a decade), and the true nature of the plot was to lure England into sending troops to Nemesis, thereby weakening England here on Earth. And what of Lustre? She’s now disappeared, having been released by Turpin’s agency so they could see where her trail led. Turpin proclaims that she was actually a Russian agent (a clone or homunculus of some sort rather than the real woman), sent to seduce and deceive Hamilton into furthering the Russian plot.
It all seems to hang together, but as in the post-Fleming spy novel, there are wheels within wheels and conflicting interpretations of reality. Having accompanied Hamilton on his journey, we have no reason to doubt his view of events. Thus, Turpin’s reinterpretation of reality amounts to “retconning” (retroactively restoring continuity by glossing over or erasing inconvenient details) both to avoid disrupting the balance and to restore the religiously orthodox view of the world, which has no room for the Ransoms’ discoveries. Hamilton is valuable to Turpin, who seems to rather like his protegé and has taken steps to paper over the young man’s mistakes so he can continue to serve. In the world of the man who serves “out of uniform”, few things are clear and simple, but a mysterious and desperate plea for help over the embroidery (quickly erased from the records) right at the end may have been Lustre begging him for rescue. A bit bewildered by Turpin’s interpretation, Hamilton writes off that plea as a dream.
There are many tasty differences from our world, and one of the crucial ones seems to have occurred when Isaac Newton, instead of being conked on the head by the apple and inventing gravity (as the cartoonists would have us believe) instead watches a worm crawl over the apple and is inspired to invent quantum mechanics and the rudiments of Einsteinian relativity—though seen from a distinctly Newtonian perspective. Cornell’s done his homework well enough to remember that Newton was profoundly religious, though in an idiosyncratic way, and Newton’s statement that “God does not flay space” is a witty and deeper than it at first appears echo of Einstein’s “God does not play dice with the universe”. The physical and metaphysical theology of this world are intriguing, and merit further exploration.
As Charles Stross has done for the Cthulhu mythos, Cornell has taken a somewhat dubious notion (here, the collective weight of souls), blended it with suitably transformed hard science (Einsteinian spacetime, quantum mechanics, and dark matter), and grafted it onto a venerable genre (the Bond spy mythos) to create an intriguing “what if?” scenario. To be clear, Cornell is in no way imitating Stross; Hamilton’s world is unique and distinctive, with a very Victorian British pedigree, and he explores the genre mashup from a very different angle than Stross. Is there perhaps a new British wave afoot, in which venerable genres are reanimated by an infusion of SFnal magic? Whether or not that’s so, I look forward to future equally clever and well-crafted explorations of Hamilton’s world, watching him mature as both a man and a spy. About the only criticism I have of this story is that it felt like it needed another dozen pages to give some of the ideas more room to breathe, and that the story could easily be expanded to a short novel. That would be a (fold-)ripping yarn in the classic British spy tradition.
©2004–2013 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved