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Friesner: Rutger and Baby go to Jotenheim
Langan: The Man Inside Black Betty
Ross: A Borrowed Heart
Marcus: Bright Moment
Rickert: The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece
Armstrong: Aisle 1047
Mead: Spider Hill
Cowdrey: Where Have all the Young Men Gone?
Ryan: Time and Tide
Ryman: What We Found
Rutger and Baby are one of those stereotyped, clichéd couples you’d expect to see in the out-takes from the first draft of Pulp Fiction: He’s your basic manly man, too macho to stop and ask for directions but reasonably well educated; he’s a “substitute adjunct professor of Comparitive Mythology and Folklore” at an unnamed and presumably unaccredited online college. She’s a champion stripper (now retired) with a killer body and seemingly not so much in the way of brains. They have nothing in common except really hot sex and perhaps the kind of shared lack of self-esteem that causes someone to pick an otherwise unsuitable partner just so they’ll have someone in their life. But this is a Friesner story, so you'd suspect that no matter how broad the farce becomes, there’ll be more to it than this, and you’d be right.
The story begins when the two get lost driving through darkest Minnesota, run out of gas, and are stranded by night in the woods, “so far from civilization that they hadn’t passed a Starbucks in ages”. The forest is so sinister that even the squirrels are losing their hair from the stress. They’ve long since begun the kind of bickering you’d expect from an ill-matched couple, exacerbated by the stress of the wedding that awaits them at the end of their drive, which Rutger fears will turn Baby suddenly into a marriage-crazed harpy once her mother starts prodding her about being single, and the stress comes to a head when Baby complains that Mister Snickers, her spoiled little poodle, has no pads on which to pee. Rutger “had a large-scale grouch on. It had begun life as a mere grumble, back at the start of this road trip, but under his attentive nurturing it was now a fine, strapping specimen of emotional diaper rash. For outright, irrational nastiness, it could hold its own against a minor case of P.M.S.” Frustrated, he tosses the dog into the woods to do his business, and when the dog does what comes naturally and runs off into the woods, they follow and get lost. Just as things are looking darkest (complete with setting sun) and as their mutual sniping begins to grow serious, they stumble across a campfire and trailer in the midst of the woods and are saved by a 12-foot blond giant Baby refers to as “Lucky”. Given the story’s title, readers will get to the real name (Loki) far faster than Rutger does, and will recognize how the story has suddenly turned dark. Or, since this is a Friesner tale, should that be “dark lite”?
[Spoilers] Lucky invites the couple into his “hall” for food and a place to sleep, and indeed, the trailer proves far larger on the inside than out. The heaps of human bones scattered around the hall are a strong hint that the price of Lucky’s hosting will be high if the couple can’t repay his hospitality in a satisfactory manner. Rutger is slow getting in gear, but does eventually figure out what’s going on, and after allowing himself a moment of panic, gets ahold of himself and starts thinking out loud about how to survive. In a Golden Age tale, the heroic male protagonist would proceed to outsmart his Giant host, rescue the damsel in distress, and escape to boast about his feats to his buddies. But this and the expected mythological pattern progressively fracture as Friesner begins playfully deconstructing the myth: The scattered bones, we learn, aren’t there because the giants eat humans (indeed, they’re rather dismissive of the poor quality of human flesh) but rather to scare off salesmen, some of whose remains lie amidst the bones because they were too slow getting the message. Rutger chooses, as his primary coping mechanism, to lecture Baby about their situation and prepare himself to work through the inevitable heroic challenge-puzzles of the myth’s pattern, but she already understands it better than he does from a practical (psychological) perspective—to her, the giants are nothing more than overgrown frat boys. (That’s actually a reasonable description of some of the adventures of the Norse gods.) Rutger hasn’t realized how annoying his lecturing has become to the Giants until Loki interrupts his lecture by tapping him on the head, “accidentally” knocking him out.
When Rutger regains consciousness, Baby is well on her way to saving him. She’s already won the drinking competition, but where the Norse gods had to drain a horn of ale connected to an ocean (i.e., an impossible task), her horn leads to a cask at a local microbrewery, and she’s a past expert at chugalug competitions. The second challenge is to lift one of the Giant’s cats; in the original myth, this was the Midgard Serpent, and dropping it too hard could have ended the world, but these Giants aren’t stupid enough to risk that trick again; instead, it’s just a Giant-size cat they want Baby to lift, and she gets it fully off the ground using her pole dancing acrobatic skills, with a little help from Mister Snickers (heroic foe of all felines) to get the cat moving. Loki and the Giants are sufficiently impressed that they spare her the final challenge, that of wrestling an unbeatable foe, and Loki takes them back to their car, gases it up, and is ready to send them happily on their way. But that final challenge is pissed off at having been forgotten: it’s Elli, the incarnation of old age, and therefore something no human can outwrestle; even the gods fear her.
The myth fractures further when Elli takes on the role of the neglected mother figure: “but does anyone think to give me one measly phone call now and then, just to see how I’m doing?” Young Baby and ancient Elli immediately see each other as natural foes (Baby resents the notion that women should have a “sell by” date), and immediately begin baiting each other into the inevitable set piece “catfight”. Baby wins handily because of her experience at mud wrestling. But rather than simply defeating her foe, she whips out her makeup kit, applies it liberally to Elli’s face, and takes decades off the ancient goddess’ appearance. Elli’s so impressed that she befriends Baby rather than trying again to crush her. The couple gratefully flees before any new adventures or challenges can happen, Rutger again “forgetting” to ask for directions, and all’s well until they crash into the minotaur. (In non-fantastic Minnesota, it would have been a moose.)
What makes this story work as more than just a broad farce is how well Friesner understands and supports her characters, with insights delivered in her trademark pungent and penetrating prose. Rutger, for instance, sees the world through the lens of his passion for mythology: “When it came to petulance, Baby could give lessons to Achilles.” And the aforementioned description of Rutger’s grumble delivers a delightful one-two punch when even this massive case of petulance is humbled by Baby’s PMS. And even though Rutger’s not really sure why he’s still with Baby, he still feels the eternal male insecurity that some other man will steal his gorgeous girlfriend. In the end, despite his book learning, he’s not very practical. For her part, Baby isn’t nearly as dumb as she seems—she just has greatly different priorities than most of us. For instance, she’s been listening to Rutger (even though he hasn’t been paying attention) and actually learned enough about frost giants to recognize her situation, even if the details remain sketchy, before he does. And when the challenges arise, she rises above them by being deeply pragmatic about how to solve the problems. In the end, Baby’s the real hero and the one who saves their bacon while Rutger mostly fibrillates.
If you just look at the surface, the story is nothing more than broad farce, though certainly an entertaining one. Looking a bit deeper doesn’t reveal anything truly profound, but there’s far more depth here than one might expect from the surface tale. Friesner’s crafted a nicely sugarcoated feminist deconstruction of a classically male myth, without preaching except for the line about “sell by” dates.
Full title: The Man Inside Black Betty: is Nicholas Wellington the World’s Best Last Hope?
Nicholas Wellington is a street-kid from the projects who made one mistake as a teen (robbing a convenience store at gunpoint to steal baby formula for his sister), and being Black and armed, ends up in prison for many years. Unlike many others, Black or White, he’s stubborn, independent, and relentlessly intelligent (a genius, in fact), and uses his time in prison to correct his mistake. By the time he graduates, he’s managed to acquire a Ph.D. in astrophysics by correspondence, with a previous degrees in quantum mechanics, and a specialization in the physics of black holes. The downside of his inner drive is that he’s in no way humble, comes off as too charismatic and too smug by half, and by expressing his opinion too forthrightly tends to alienate rather than bond with his colleagues. This has many costs, including losing him his Cornell teaching job and losing him the opportunity to become a leader at DARPA. Instead, he becomes a freelance consultant and advisor. But even there, he loses far more battles than he wins because he hasn’t learned to compromise or persuade. It’s possible that he’s smart enough to recognize his limitations and use reverse psychology to get what he really wants, but more likely that like some scientists I've known, he just doesn’t “get” the human part of the equation.
[Spoilers] Nick writes a controversial paper, Playing Dice with the Universe, as a riff on Einstein’s response to quantum mechanics, namely that God doesn’t play dice with the universe. His central premise is that black holes share one of the key aspects of quantum mechanics, namely that in large numbers (collectively), they follow clear probabilistic laws but that individually, they are nearly impossible to predict. His corollary to this intriguing hypothesis is that black holes, being singularities that exist largely in another dimension and only peer into our dimension through a narrow hole, should be able to move through dimensions much the way that killer asteroids move through space, and that we’re overdue to see one pull this trick. Though the scientific community mocks him for this seemingly loony notion, it proves to be correct: one day, a 3-foot-wide black hole materializes 200 feet above Long Island Sound. Though readers of Niven would know enough to expect that event to be disastrous, Nick’s theory proves correct: most of the black hole’s mass remains in the other dimension, and only a small fraction pokes through into ours. But that fraction is enough to absorb an antisatellite missile the feds launch at it, hoping to use the explosion to collapse the hole, and an airliner that strays too close. By the time the story really gets rolling, the hole has grown to the size of a football field. It acquires its nickname, “Black Betty”, from a New York café where “hipsters checked in but never checked out”.
The black hole has been around long enough that the world has mostly grown accustomed to it and moved on. Our narrator is a journalist who’s been given a press pass to accompany Nick to the Black Betty site. Along the way she(?) does what the best journalists do; that is, she pokes into the story of the black hole and into Nick’s own dark past, and tries to determine whether his Chicken Little (“the sky is falling”) warnings of doom are realistic. By the end of the story, Nick seems increasingly to be the boy who cried wolf: ignored early on, and now that the wolf is really here, ignored when everyone should be listening. Betty’s grown large enough that the area near it, one of the wealthiest parts of New York, has been abandoned to protect the populace from the radiation emitted by the hole, and there’s evidence, increasingly difficult to ignore, that the hole has passed some critical point and is growing unchecked. Some still believe that nuking the hole will cause it to collapse, but Nick, who seems to understand the physics better than anyone, disagrees. He feels that humanity’s only hope is for the world’s governments to muster their resources and throw enough rockets past the hole, skimming its event horizon, to steal its rotational momentum, stop its rotation, and cause it to collapse. But there are no guarantees this will work, and it doesn’t seem anyone’s willing to believe him this time either. A humbler, more persuasive man (and perhaps a White man) might receive a better reception, and might thereby save humanity. Given that Nick bears the message, history suggests the message will be received too late.
The title is that of the journalist’s future article on Nick, possibly chosen in the hope of rallying support for Nick’s rescue plan. Langan neatly handles how the relentless lack of listening to the Black kid with a criminal past, no matter how reformed he’s seemingly become, turns him into the kind of driven person Nick became. That’s cynical, but from experience and the personal accounts I’ve read, it’s probably uncomfortably realistic. But behind all the special effects, the main point of the story is the mystery of what drove Nick to become the man he currently is. We learn that the robbery that landed him in prison and started him on the path to his current position was an attempt to get himself (and, if possible, his sister) out of a situation so horrible that prison was clearly a preferable alternative. Suddenly, small hints dropped earlier in the story take on powerful significance: his heroin-abusing mother wondering in an interview why Nick has never shared his good fortune with her, and the observation that Nick considered what others have condemned as infamously bad prison food to actually be pretty good. The scars he bears, legendarily earned in prison fights, may mostly have been about him cutting himself; that’s far more common among teen girls in intolerable situations, but I imagine some teenage boys must also choose this as their only way to demonstrate some power in their life.
On one level, the physics is pretty good: The central notion of black holes moving about and exhibiting quantum mechanical behavior seems plausible and even if it’s not, it’s an awfully fun macguffin. As the story progresses, the bad side-effects become increasingly apparent, as does the government’s flailing to find a solution to a problem that may just be beyond human ability to fix—though without trying Nicks’ solution, how can they tell? On another level, some simple logical consequences aren’t followed through. If Betty is powerful enough early on to suck in an airliner and to cause noticeably increased tides, it’s exerting enough gravitational attraction that it should be sucking down substantial amounts of the surrounding atmosphere and of the ocean around New York, not to mention anything light that isn’t nailed down. And it’s likely to be growing in size exponentially rather than in fits and starts: the more mass it sucks in, the greater its ability to suck becomes. This does eventually happen, but too late in the story to reconcile with the early gravitational side-effects or the initial seeming lack of concern over the hole. That’s a bit sloppy, and seems to have been a side-effect of treating Betty as a plot device and backdrop for Nick’s story rather than as the focus of the story; setting the black hole just outside the atmosphere would have worked equally well for dramatic purposes, without having to deal with these side-effects.
The story ends without a resolution to the surface plot (i.e., saving Earth from the black hole), but with the narrator’s resolution achieved: she understands Nick’s history and what drives him, and if she can share that understanding with the world, perhaps she’ll change enough hearts and minds to hear his message.
If not: fade to black.
Lenore Haslund is “a woman of flexible morals and powerful friends”, and a worthy literary descendant (perhaps “prescendant” [sic] given that this is the Victorian era?) of Heinlein’s hetaera Tamara and other women who have made prostitution a profession that is about far more than the satisfaction of physical lust. She’s had both male and female clients (and presumably lovers) over the years, made many friends and powerful allies, and is enlightened enough to wonder with painful insight why “so many fathers insist that an evening with a beautiful lady would “make a man” out of their sons, when so clearly an evening with a beautiful gentleman was preferred.” Her own father Elward, having despaired of turning her into a respectable woman, has cast her out of his house, and only reluctantly summons her back home when her sister Elisabeth seems to be dying.
But before she can return home, the story begins with a lovely set piece in which Lenore accedes to the request of an old friend, Lord Robert, to come make a man of his son, who is “languishing”. As there have been rumors of vampires in the area, she arms herself with a cross, holy water, and a dagger, but when she arrives at Robert’s home, she discovers something more sinister and more interesting: the son is being raped by a succubus, and this is clearly the source of his diminished state. She tears the succubus away from him, tells him to flee, then holds the demon at knifepoint. But rather than killing the demon, she makes time to understand her, and learns how terrible it must be to spend millennia stealing hearts and souls, yet to never once be treated with kindness, gentleness, or affection. She spends the night with the succubus, comforting her by holding her and demanding nothing (a safe option, since a succubus cannot feed on women), and in the morning, the demon rewards Lenore with one of countless necklaces she hangs about her neck: it contains one of many “borrowed hearts”, and the two women part, never to meet again, with the succubus’ final words bearing a poignant double meaning: “I will not remember you in any other way... than the absence of a heart I once possessed.”
[Spoilers] All of this is just stage-setting, however. The real story begins when Lenore returns home in response to a letter from her father, the man who basically disowned her when he learned of her profession, telling her that her sister is in a bad way. Nominally jilted by a cold and cruel man who stole her heart, the Comte Henri d’Ombrossa, Elisabeth is pining away and near death. Elisabeth is enough of a foolish romantic that this might be possible, but Lenore’s been around enough to fear the worst. And when she gets home and goes to a ball where the scoundrel Comte will be present so she can confront him, all of her worst suspicions are confirmed: the man is superhumanly attractive, claims to never be cold, has fled some unspoken past from “the old country”, and doesn’t drink wine. After a bit of Austen-style verbal fencing, Lenore plays her trump card and douses him with holy water... and nothing happens. Following him back to his room, where he’s gone to change into dry clothing, to apologize, she enters and confronts him, accusing him of having lost his heart. But when she offers him the heart she obtained from the succubus in the hope this will restore human feeling, he throws the gift back in her face; if indeed some woman stole his heart, he’s decided the only rational thing to do in such a world is to abandon one’s heart and spare oneself the pain of feeling. Defeated, Lenore returns home to find that her sister has rallied, sustained both by the belated realization that her happiness need not depend on the presence of a man in her life and by the sure knowledge that Lenore loves her and always will, and that this may be enough.
On the one hand, the story is elegantly told, with lavish but never excessive prose, and the details (such as a country road being in good enough condition to be navigated by torchlight and the father never remarrying because no woman could replace his dead wife) are well done; they create a compelling sense of place and time and of the curiously stifling world of the Victorians. My only quibble is whether Lenore and the succubus would be left alone all night once Robert’s son had fled the room; it seems unlikely. Lenore herself is very much a worthy descendant of Jane Austen’s women, albeit greatly modernized. I liked her enormously, and hope we’ll see a lot more of her in the future, particularly if she continues to be involved in the supernatural, as Ross hints she has been in the past. Two important plot threads are resolved: Lenore helps to save Elisabeth, and begins a difficult reconciliation with her father. That should be enough.
Despite these good things, the story feels profoundly incomplete. Like most readers of F&SF, I saw the trick with Comte Henri coming from a mile off, and when she walks into his room to find him without his shirt, the scene is pure Harlequin Romance, and gave me a momentary twinge of horror that Ross might be walking down that well-trodden road. Fortunately, she chose the road less traveled. Giving him the name “d’Ombrossa”, meaning “from the shadows”, was far too obvious a gimmick if it’s an authorial choice, and makes sense only if Henri chose this alias himself as a deliberate gesture to tell everyone how shadowed his life has become. Unfortunately, we don’t see him long enough to learn whether this might be the case. This leads us to the biggest problem with the story: given the title and the buildup (the borrowed heart) that leads us to the mystery of Henri, it’s reasonable to expect that the story’s focus will shift to how Lenore strives to save Henri by restoring his heart, whether mystically or through her own good heart. And this is where the story greatly disappoints: it read more like the first chapter of a novel, leaving the problem of Henri to be resolved over the course of several hundred pages—which are not present in this short story. The lack of a clear resolution, or of a plausible cliffhanger, undermines what Ross has achieved so well up to that point.
Arun is an engineer/physicist working on a terraforming project on a distant world. The tech level is such that there are skyhooks (orbital elevators), wormhole travel to other star systems, AI medical systems, and even e-field suits that take the place of spacesuits, and that provide significant physical protection. However, given that Arun is about to try surfing on a wave of liquid ammonia that’s 500 m tall and moving at 100 m/sec (for the non-metric-literate, that’s about a third of a mile high and moving at more than 200 mph), there’s a significant risk that if he screws up, he’s going to wind up beach pizza when he hits the shore. Fortunately, the tech is up to the task; if necessary, the medics can quickly grow him a new body and reinstall his consciousness from a backup. That’s a good thing, because just as he’s really getting into the epic surfing, he spots what appears to be a 50-m-long squid surfing just below the surface beside him. Naturally enough, he loses focus and crashes spectacularly.
[Spoilers] Arun wakes in sick bay, in Very Bad Shape. He’s lost a leg, his liver, some of his brain, and all his implants, but it could have been worse. (No, really. *G*) Ko, one of his wives, knows him well enough to understand how much he’d hate to lose the memories gained since the last backup, and instructs the medics to heal him rather than replace him. Unfortunately, his last stunt was one stunt too many for Arun’s pod, a group marriage: they decide that this is the final straw, since he’s too independent and unwilling to work hard to fit in with everyone else or to consider the consequences of his actions for them, and they divorce him. He’s sad about this, but like the rest of the pod, he accepts this and moves on, throwing himself into his work to bring his part of the terraforming project back on schedule after his unplanned leave of absence, “burning the candle at both ends, but he figured candles were made that way for a reason”. Simultaneously, he’s doing the research necessary to confirm that the squid was real, and when he demonstrates that it’s not only real, but part of a large community of beings that seem at least as sentient as terrestrial whales, this raises a serious dilemma. His employers have sunk a lot of money and resources into this terraforming project, and humanity needs the space, so they don’t want to abandon the project just to protect a bunch of aliens.
When the company decides to continue with the project, knowing that this will kill an entire sentient race, Arun makes the only ethical choice: he sabotages the project. He does so in such a way that the artificial sun being used to power the project will explode, destroying the wormhole that provides the only access to this solar system, and leaves his colleagues plenty of time to escape, but not enough to fix the problem he’s created. Then he stays behind to watch the “bright moment” of the explosion, even though doing so is effectively a slow form of suicide. It’s the kind of decision one can hope will be unnecessary if mankind’s grasp of ethics improves alongside with our grasp of technology, but the pessimist in me suspects we’ll need people like Arun more than ever in the future.
The science and tech are cool, particularly the cheerfully irreverent description of how you terraform a gas giant’s moon (complete with “virtual” tokamak containment field to create the artificial sun that will boil off the ammonia and other crap nobody wants on the surface). The science hangs together neatly without overpowering the story, with nice details such as Arun’s need for gyroscopic stabilization for his surfboard and the fact that ammonia’s density (lower than water) means that on a world with 0.6 gee of gravity, the waves would be enormously larger and faster-moving than they would be on Earth. Best of all, Arun’s ethical choice to destroy the project and force the humans to leave so that the intelligent aliens will survive, even at the cost of his own life, is a strong and compelling ending for the tale, and an interesting companion piece for Kris Rusch’s story Stealth in the October/November 2011 issue of Asimov’s.
A significant defect is how oddly passionless Arun and his podmates seem; there’s no sense that any of them suffer any lingering emotional trauma or other harm from the divorce. You can patch this over by assuming that they’d already detached from each other long before the story begins, and thus the divorce only makes explicit what was already established, but it still rings a bit hollow, particularly given that nobody even calls him to say goodbye or beg him to escape with them at the end of the tale. That quibble notwithstanding, it’s a neat story environment and a neatly told morality tale.
The corpse painter of the title is someone who’s outraged by the notion of modern embalming, which he considers artificial and disrespectful of the dead (“the child’s lips reddened, the cheeks rosy as a clown’s”). Instead, he paints the body with colors, oils, and scents in a way that, although a bit creepy on the face of it, creates remarkable results. He seemingly doesn’t embalm the corpse in the modern, coldly technological sense (there’s an unpleasant bit about a leaking coffin), and he only works during the seasons when the ground isn’t frozen; apparently the society of this story, though equipped with modcons like cars and supermalls that bury productive farmland and then go out of business, dooming both themselves and the formerly living land, doesn’t have any backhoes. That kind of juxtaposition of the weird and the mundane permeates the story.
[Spoilers] At the heart of this story are the sheriff and his wife, who have lost their young son recently enough that they are still recovering from the trauma, each in their own way. The wife has cut herself off from the world, refusing to concede that anything is normal anymore and hiding herself away until she finds a way to cope. From the sheriff’s perspective, this is almost more distressing than the loss of he son. For his part, he does more of the stereotypically “male thing”, returning to work as soon as possible and carrying on as if nothing had happened. The strength of their bond is not weakened in any way by these different coping strategies, but it inevitably imposes certain hardships because they don’t work through their grief together. As a result, “[she] hasn’t looked at [her husband] in years, only recently realizing that something’s not right about him, which she finds reassuring. How could anything ever be right again?” Left implicit is the possibility that the sheriff may have killed his own sun, backing the car over him one day when the child escaped supervision and rode his tricycle into the path of the car: “He’s always been a careful driver, but children are so small.”
Circling the heart of the story is the corpse painter himself, son of an abusive father, “the man who made the corpse painter’s own body a harlequin of bruises”. But there’s an artistic strain in the family; his father, in prison before the start of the story, earned a good living there by selling paper sculptures of great craft and beauty that even the other inmates love. The connection between father and son, both treating the body as a work of art albeit in terribly different ways, is a disturbing one, but in the end, optimistic; the son has made peace with his past, and has chosen a form of body art that comforts the grieving. Yet at the same time, he lives alone, and puts his house and his garden and his life on hold during the seasons when he does his work; his mail accumulates, unread, at the post office because he has no time or desire to trim the rosebush that soon overgrows his mailbox, warding off the postman. He’s known the sheriff, boy and man, for 20 years, and though they know each other well, they don’t truly understand each other. “There is a lot the corpse painter doesn’t understand about the way folks interact, but one thing he is certain of is that people want to be seen, not buried like that poor boy, beneath rouge and cream; why else, after all, would there be death, if not for revelation?”
The resolution of the various threads comes when the sheriff, still not having really dealt with his grief, begins seeing a light nobody else can see. That light eventually leads him to his son’s grave, where he digs up his buried son, returning all that remains (mostly bones) to the corpse painter, who will paint them in his own unique way and turn them into a Christmas gift for his wife. The carved and painted bones are unwrapped, displayed around their bedroom, and candlelit, casting dancing shadows of their son throughout the room. It’s a disturbing and somewhat implausible notion, but one that proves effective in the context of the story’s logic; having finally dealt with his son’s legacy, in a way that unites him with his wife once more, the two sleep their first good sleep together in a very long time. Together they complete the progress of mourning, and when they wake, will presumably both resume their lives in a healthier way.
Corpse Painter is well written, with many evocative passages that encourage us to think about death in ways that might prove very uncomfortable. On that level, it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read. But I found it went on far too long—possibly deliberately, since mourning is a long recovery process and the story echoes that. Yet that strategy made it hard for me to persist through the story. On that level, it falls into the category of “I know what you’re trying to do, and you did it well, but I still didn’t much like it”. [A look back: To be clear, that's just a matter of personal taste, not any sort of condemnation of the story.] The process of recovery from grief is long and wearing, but unfortunately, I found the story too much in the spirit of that journey.
Tiffan3 is a “salewarrior” whose job is to promote her company’s brand of oral hygiene products, in the face of stiff competition from their competitors. The tool of her trade is “wartalk”, a combination of poetry slam and marketeering—a clever conceit. She works in aisle 1047 of the 3000-aisle Seattlehama megamall, and lives in a warehouse-cum-barracks with another hundred or so girls. Despite years of training in wartalk at the academy, she didn’t get her dream job in haute couture, and was instead been forced to settle for the degrading job of pushing retail oral hygiene products.
[Spoiler] Tiffan3’s employer, Proctor, has a somewhat snooty reputation, but is facing increasing competition from Venis (dissed by one of Tiffan3’s colleagues as “Penis” because of the focus of their marketing strategy), and is losing market share despite Tiffan3’s best efforts; there’s even fear they’ll lose the coveted center aisle, eye-level position that is crucial to their success. Venis has adopted a smarter (and more cynical) strategy of aggressive discounting combined with skanky sales staff that appeal to the lowest-common-denominator of their male demographic. (Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of male sales staff in the oral hygiene aisle or of a female demographic. Possibly that Old Spice hottie is working in another aisle?) To get Proctor back in the game, the powers that be decide to make the metaphorical warfare in the aisles literal by adopting a strategy of “haute war”, actual hand-to-hand combat between the sales warriors to eliminate the competition’s sales force. To succeed on the new playing field, Tiffan3 is going to have to set aside her words and elevate her game; at the “Whole Sales Dojo Boutique”, she upgrades her martial skills through mastery of the martial art of “Jazzassin” (which makes Tae Bo look like, well, Tae Bo). Though she succeeds, her Miyagi-like sensei notes that despite her superior technical skills, what she really needs is to find her brand and master it on a deep spiritual level. She does that, with style and help from a sister in arms.
Aisle 1047 is a wacky, over-the-top take on the real-world psychological warfare conducted in the product aisles, and it succeeds nicely on that level. Favorite bits of wordplay include Tiffan3 yelling at her supervisor and being told to “keep her verse down”, her desire to deliver “the coupon de grace” if her superiors would only give her a proper marketing campaign, the “thug bunnies” hired by Venis, and even her name (the “3” at the end being both a leet-speek styling and a hint that she’s more of a number than a person to her employers). But there are also some serious bits, such as the notion of heads-up displays that let sales staff research and monitor their customers in real-time; that’s already here, sort of, as “augmented reality”, and it’s only going to get better and more pervasive over time. Best of all, Tiff is a plucky heroine, smart and determined to escape her warehouse dorm and move on to bigger things. (This kind of warehouse dorm is common for factory girls in China.)
I don’t think you could call this story “profound”, but it’s entertaining and (perhaps scarily) not as implausible as it might seem at first glance.
After Aisle 1047, Anise comes as a bracing slap across both cheeks—or perhaps a sucker punch to the gut. Anise, our protagonist finds herself in a loveless marriage with Robert, to the point that “the sex had gotten better since he died”. But there’s more to that clever opening line than meets the eye: we soon find ourselves in a near-future dystopia in which the Church of America works hand in glove with the federal government to restore their version of order to what was formerly a wildly irreligious and immoral (in their eyes) United States. Under New Prohibition, alcohol is illegal, even beer, though as was the case during Classic Prohibition, it isn’t hard to get if one has the right Church or government connections. (Plus ça change...) Equally disturbingly, some key aspects of humanity have been mechanized; natural childbirth is now illegal, and babies are produced through baby factories, described in terms that deliberately evoke Neo’s birthing scene in The Matrix. [A look back: DeVito notes elsewhere that the story was written many years before the Matrix series but never published. My intent in this comparison was to indicate a shared esthetic, not to accuse DeVito of being derivative.] Abortion has been criminalized once more, and the only (public) debate seems to be over whether to punish the doctor, the mother, or the father for this crime. Heavily armed federal police guard the streets, checking identity papers; the protesters outside her workplace require “government-issued dissent papers” and a “free-speech license”. And Robert? Like a great many others, he’s been resurrected through a process known as “reconstruction”. He must plug into a variety of electrical and mechanical devices daily to keep his body running, and as much as possible, he blocks Anise from this aspect of his life, claiming she couldn’t possibly understand his experience and therefore completely missing the point of having a relationship.
[Spoilers] Anise fell into her marriage with Robert precipitously after an unsanctioned sexual affair, such things not being tolerated by society. Now, she works as a troubleshooter at a birth factory, and as a sometimes midwife when something goes astray with the machines and human hands are needed to bring the babies into the world. There’s no evidence she has any friends other than (in a very casual sense) her co-worker Paul and the AI that runs the factory and that has limited human rights because of the amount of human neural tissue it contains. (In a nicely chilling touch, its creators won’t tell it who donated that tissue—or even whether that “donation” was voluntary—much like adopted children are often blocked from learning who their birth parents are. Her AI chum is clearly far on the human side of AI; it’s fascinated by Anise’s revelations (which it understands better than she does in some ways), deeply touched by her willingness to confide in it, and desperate to become more human. In a nice irony, it’s possibly the most sympathetic character in the story.) There are hints of a not particularly happy childhood (her father once telling her that she cried like a man), and her marriage certainly isn’t anything to celebrate (the sex still being bad and emotional intimacy being nonexistent, particularly since Robert’s reconstruction). When Robert announces that he will hold a house party for some of his fellow reconstructed, she invites Paul to come, on a whim. When she walks in on him in the bathroom during the party and finds him plugged into Robert’s machines, it’s clear that he too is reconstructed. But unlike Robert, he’s willing to let her see what he’s doing, and to touch the various tubes and cables and help him plug them in. Although they don’t have sex, it’s nonetheless a unprecedentedly intimate and erotic experience for her.
Also, it’s an experience that uncorks some powerful emotional baggage that’s been building in her for many years. When Robert subsequently offers her enough sleeping pills so she can kill herself, be reconstructed, and join him in his world, he undoubtedly sees this as a real gift of intimacy to his wife. But to her, it’s just one more attempt by someone to control her life. This misunderstanding escalates into a fight, she flees their home, he follows her to her hotel, and with the help of a policeman, he forces her to listen to him. But when Robert leaves, he leaves her the pills, and in despair, beyond the limits of her ability to cope, she succumbs to their lure and kills herself. When she’s reconstructed, Robert gives her space, but this is his ignorance of how to reach her rather than any true understanding of her needs, and there’s still no intimacy. In revenge for the injuries, real and imagined, he’s done to her over the years, she catches him in the bathroom using his machines, rapes him both physically and electromechanically (via his machines), and leaves him forever. Afterwards, she hooks up with other resurrectees, occasionally including Paul, and she’s clearly exploring what it means to be liberated from at least some of her past controls, while also finding herself on the cusp between posthuman version 0.8 and the real thing.
The central issue in this story is control, in its various forms, and particularly (from Anise’s perspective) about how men control women, whether from ill-considered best intentions or otherwise. Even “love” becomes just another aspect of control. And Devito is not subtle in his preaching. The Church of America is “an unconstitutional abomination”, and although “its long-avowed goals of love and spirituality have never been more than window dressing, they have nevertheless had a profoundly inhibiting effect on the normal functions (control and oppression) that organized religion is designed to carry out.” Moreover, the Church “has always seemed, to her, to attract the sort of petty control addicts that churches have always attracted.” As I expect will be the case for many readers of SF/F, I have a hard time disagreeing with these notions, but they could have been done considerably more subtly and had a more powerful effect.
I’m not sure DeVito fully thought through his premise of an all-powerful Church of America. For example, the notion of the birth labs “relieving women of the burden of childbirth” fits with the notion of social control, but doesn’t follow logically from any mainstream or fringe ultraconservative church I’m familiar with; most such organizations would rather see women enslaved by this “burden”, and that seems to fit better with the control theme. (Possibly too much Atwood and Handmaid’s Tale?) Similarly, the notion of AI created with human brain tissue seems unlikely given the modern religious aversion to stem cell research, and the notion of humans hooked up to machines that potentially liberate them from the cycle of death and (sensu religion) rebirth, seemingly making religion obsolete, doesn’t quite work either in that context. From various hints, I suspect this is more DeVito’s take on how the Republican religious right sees religion (i.e., as an instrument of social control rather than something truly resembling Christianity). DeVito also captures something that many authors have missed, in all the excitement over the “Arab spring” and the seemingly liberating power of the Internet, he reminds us that technology can also be used to enslave. There’s nothing joyful about the liberation provided by reconstruction; the machines are a tool for enslaving humans rather than liberating them, and it’s deliberately hinted that these machines may be part of how the government controls the populace. (At least some of the federal police are reconstructed.) Whether or not this story was inspired by The Matrix and its sequels, it could easily be seen as a spiritual prequel to that trilogy.
DeVito creates a compellingly nasty dystopia, with a sympathetic heroine fighting the good fight to reclaim some control over her life, and largely succeeding. There’s a particularly nice evocation of an iconic image from the 1960s when Anise takes a rose Paul has given her, and drops its stem into the barrel of a policeman’s rifle—and rather than arresting her, he sniffs it and grins, suggesting that not all hope has been lost yet. Given her name and the context in which we get to know her, I suspect that “Anise” is based on Anaïs Nin, whose early life, subsequent bohemian lifestyle, and sexual and emotional liberation amidst a chauvinistic and repressive social order seems awfully similar to Anise’s situation. [A look back: DeVito reassured me that no parallel was intended, which amuses me. We reviewers do tend to read things into stories the authors never intended.] Not a pleasant read, but a deeply affecting one.
Gina and her grandmother are witches, and when we first meet them, they’re tending the pumpkin patch they’ve grown at the site of the mysterious Spider Hill incident, in which many townsfolk died under sinister circumstances; each year, they dance skyclad in the pumpkin patch, nominally to care for the souls of those who died there. The two women have been doing this for many years now, Gina having replaced her mother after Mom had to withdraw so she could focus her energies on earning a living to support the three of them. There are no men in the family picture: Gina is (at 17), a late bloomer who has no boyfried or even any male friend, her father left them long ago (possibly as soon as Gina’s mother became pregnant), and grandmother’s husband was never part of the picture, seemingly having abandoned her in the distant past. The farmer who owns the field resents having his field used without his permission, particularly given the evil reputation of the witchcraft being performed there, and having finally mustered enough courage to confront the women, arrives in his tractor to plow under the field—until Gran warns him that many bad things could happen to his crops and family if he interferes with their ritual. Intimidated, he backs down and leaves them in peace.
[Spoilers] The mysterious deaths occurred during Doc Spider's traveling horror show (“see the dead!”) back towards the beginning of the 20th centruy, complete with human skulls and the large green spiders that gave Doc his nickname. Doc and 22 other members of his audience died of mysterious causes during his final show, and their restless souls still haunt Spider Hill. Gran has told Gina that they grow the pumpkins, and dance skyclad around them casting spells each Hallowe’en, to bring those restless souls back for just that one night so they can inhabit the pumpkins and enjoy the fall weather and the world before returning to whatever limbo they inhabit. They’re unable to move on to whatever reward or punishment awaits them, and the farmer’s wife accuses Gran of being the cause. Gran’s story is a mite thin, and Gina’s speculation now fueled by the accusation against her grandmother, she questions the story.
Gran breaks down and reveals the real reason for the annual ritual: Doc Spider seduced her when she was young and innocent, but subsequenly lost all interest in her once he learned she was pregnant. In a fit of anger, she cast a spell that killed her lover and, heedless of the cost, killed all those around him too. Initially, it seems that binding the souls to that field is Gran’s way of seeking vengeance against the man who wronged her, but we soon learn it is really her way of binding the ghost of her lover so she will never be apart from him. Gina also learns that her grandmother has manipulated her and lied to her: the magic supplied by her virginity (a traditionally powerful thing) has given Gran enough power to create a powerful binding that will keep the souls there forever. But when Gina learns that sacrificial magic is even stronger than the magic of virginity, she enlists a local youth who’s had his eyes on her to help her sacrifice her virginity and in so doing, unbind the spell and free the captive spirits.
The basic plot is an interesting framework for a story, but the motivations don’t seem to really hang together. Gran seemed particularly hard to understand; surely after 40 years she would have moved on and found something to motivate her life other than vengeance mixed with love for the man who wronged her? (Wiccans and other modern pagans may also be somewhat offended by the conflation of evil magic with their very different traditions; Gran’s magic is clearly more in the vein of Satanism. In that context, it’s easier to see Gran as being manipulated by the powerful forces she believes herself to be manipulating.) Gina’s ethical courage is convincing, particularly when combined with the natural teen desire to rebel against manipulation by her elders, but she didn’t strike me as a convincing teenage girl: she has no friends or anyone else she confides in, which is at best unusual for a teenaged girl, and although being 17 and having only just begun to show an interest in boys is plausible, the coldness of how she uses her body to trap the boy and her lack of affect (strong emotions) as she does so rang false. You can handwave this a bit if you assume that she’s been isolated from the rest of her peers as a result of their fear of witchcraft, and if you assume that the cold manipulation of another human is something she internalized (without realizing this) from her Gran or had forced upon her by the evil magic she participated in, but for me, her self-narration and her context don’t gibe with the teen culture I’m familiar with from my own youth (two sisters and many female friends) or that of my children. This significantly weakens the impact of what is otherwise a skillfully crafted tale about a young woman’s journey from childhood to young adulthood.
Henry is a 65-year-old ex-soldier and now a professor of military history, who is visiting the Militärmuseum (military history museum) in Gmundt, Austria (possibly standing in for the real town of Gmunden rather than Gmundt, Germany?). He’s at the end of his trip, and has come to visit this slightly remote museum as a final stop before he returns home to his teaching job. It’s August, and although the small resort town is filled with young hikers, he finds accommodation anyway. When he visits the museum, the curator recognizes him as a fellow professional, and the two have a pleasant conversation; the curator invites him to return the following day, then ushers him out of the museum, claiming that he needs to do one last inspection tour to ensure there have been no thefts. But back at his hotel, Henry's host reveals the real reason for shutting the museum before nightfall: to ensure that no young men have remained behind. The museum is said to be haunted by the ghost of the kuhmagd (“milkmaid”), a young peasant woman who was gang-raped and killed in the museum at the start of World War I (though her body was never found) by a gang of Austrian soldiers on their way to the Russian front and almost certain death. The ghost lingers, and after the sun sets, is reputed to claim the life of any man who remains behind in the museum. Over the nearly a century since her death, she has claimed a victim every year or two—a high body count.
[Spoilers] When Henry returns to the museum the next day, the curator is gone on an errand, but Hilde Bernstein, his assistant, is there to guide him. They hit it off and become good enough friends to dine together, but even though Hilde is an openly and aggressively sexual modern woman, she has no interest in this older man and instead steals away with a young hiker named Paul, to Henry's wistful disappointment and the dismay of Paul’s boyfriend Tyl. When we learn from Tyl that the young man has gone missing and that the two may have spent the night in the museum (other private locations being scarce because of the number of tourists in town), suspicion immediately falls upon Hilde—and the fact that she has one blue eye and one brown eye is sufficiently exotic that it raises our suspicions. Those suspicions deepen when she describes the kuhmagd as a heavyset peasant girl, very different from her own slim self—as if she’s deliberately altering the description to avoid suspicion. Henry and Tyl prevail upon the curator to open the museum: there they find Hilde sleeping naked in a sleeping bag, but she seems to have no pulse (though she’s still breathing) and there’s no sign of Paul. An investigation is launched, with no results, while Hilde is taken to the hospital.
Cowdrey does a nice job of confounding expectations. Hilde is too obvious a suspect, so she clearly can’t be the kuhmagd, even though the trail of clues points straight at her. And indeed, while she’s in the hospital recovering from whatever happened, Tyl persuades Henry to return to the museum, confident that his soulmate Paul is calling to him to do something. Having stolen Hilde’s key while helping the ambulance attendants and having watched the curator work the security system, Tyl knows how to enter the building and persuades Henry to return with him to learn what Paul wants. Once inside, they find the horror story is true: the kuhmagd appears to them in the guise of their loved ones, though in Henry’s case it’s his recently dead wife and daughter. But there’s a flaw in the kuhmagd’s trap (poorly chosen words), and Henry realizes what’s happening in time to save himself and Tyl. As they flee, they see the corpses of all the men who have died here over the years, each horribly mangled and pulled into the concrete of the wall, and they see the corpse of a single woman they take to be the kuhmagd. But in truth, it’s the corpse of Hilde, pulled into the wall when she tried to save Paul—something Henry infers too late when he later offers Hilde a ride to Vienna with him on his way home, and she proves to be the vengeful spirit itself. The clue that tips him off is a deliberately dangled bit of description earlier in the story, when Cowdrey describes Hilde as having eyes like “a pair of cornflowers”; Henry belatedly remembers that the real girl had eyes with different colors. When the kuhmagd turns on him, he drives their car off a cliff while grappling with her. Cowdrey’s final words leave some ambiguity, but it seems most likely this reflects Henry’s subconscious willingness to move on to follow his wife and daughter, while sacrificing himself to end the kuhmagd’s career.
As always, Cowdrey has a gift for the telling phrase. One favorite neatly captures the sense of how nonfluent speakers of a second language construct their sentences: “laying out his functional German word by word like a tarot reader dealing cards”. Another is how the young and the old “inhabit parallel universes, which intersect only rarely, and never for very long.” It’s a tidy description of how age separates us from our youth and subsequent generations. Henry, an older man, is economically portrayed, with nice touches such as the fact that he has no problem accepting that Paul and Tyl are a gay couple, and although Paul is clearly bisexual, Henry refers to Tyl (tongue firmly in cheek) as “a specialist”. He also nicely captures German respect for titles and education, and details of his environment such as how rapidly night falls and temperatures drop in the mountains, even in the summer. If there’s a flaw, it’s that Henry’s final acts don’t seem to be adequately foreshadowed, so I was never completely sure why he died. That ambiguity detracted from the story for me, but it’s nonetheless a cleverly crafted tale.
The title alludes to the enormous loss of young men that occurs in any war, and particularly the losses that occurred during the first two world wars, but takes on a trenchant double-meaning once we learn the legend of the kuhmagd.
Aotea is a 2-km-long starship bearing a small crew on a centuries-long voyage to another star. She lost touch with Earth roughly 50 years into their journey, when all signals ceased, and now, nearly 400 years into their journey, the Earth ship Rejoindre (a tiny nubbin of compressed matter bearing a fellow AI) catches up with her bearing the news that humanity has passed through some form of “singularity” to become posthuman demigods. Rejoindre points out that Aotea’s original mission is now obsolete, since humans can safely travel all of the cosmos in their posthuman state, and offers to show Aotea how to grant her crew that same gift so they can be transmitted back to Earth.
[Spoilers] Aotea is no fool, and senses something suspicious in Rejoindre’s story (the smaller ship refers to humans as “they” rather than “we”), and cleverly generates her own take on the Turing test to confirm her suspicions. She recounts the story of Larissa Fedorova, one of the ship’s engineers, who sacrificed her life to save the rest of the crew from certain death; she repairs a part of the failing reactor core that cannot be repaired by any of the robotic units the ship can create in the time remaining before it fails catastrophically. The story is compelling in a way that Spock’s death in Star Trek II (Wrath of Khan) completely fails to achieve—and I say this as someone who always loved Leonard Nimoy’s character. And as Aotea suspects, Rejoindre completely misses the point, noting only (with conspicuous lack of emotion) that such deaths are no longer necessary. Recognizing that Rejoindre is either one of a group of machines that killed off biological humans or a posthuman being who has lost its humanity, and that it will not allow the humans to continue living in their current state, Aotea spins on its axis and fires its engines at Rejoindre, destroying the smaller craft. As Niven noted long ago, the more powerful a ship’s drive, the stronger a weapon that drive’s exhaust makes.
Aotea’s namesake is the legendary canoe in which the Maori are said to have reached New Zealand, and thus a fitting name for a colony ship. Rejoindre is the French “to overtake”, hence the title, but in English has acquired the additional meaning of a sharp reply; the machines having overtaken their former human masters, with sharp consequences, is a nice touch. Bunker does a nice job in a very short space (about 7 pages) of making Aotea deeply human and sympathetic, without losing her AI nature in any way, while Rejoindre becomes nicely sinister in only a few well-chosen words. We can only hope that the AIs we eventually create fall more into Aotea’s category, as they do so delightfully in Iain Banks’ Culture novels.
Frank Parsons is leaving home to attend university in a few days, and his father asks him to help move an old wardrobe from the garage into his room. Frank’s not happy about this, because the wardrobe brings back bad memories—and possibly something more sinister—that he can’t bring himself to tell his father about, so he meekly helps his father move the furniture.
[Spoilers] The bad memories come from a time a couple years back when his brother, Bill Junior, drowned. Junior was the favored son, and closely resembled his father, so the loss was particularly traumatic to his parents; Frank accepted his secondary status because he and his brother had a basically good relationship and he wasn’t a “fight for dominance” type of guy. The two had been out body-surfing along the New Jersey shore, and when Frank saw that his brother was missing, he was paralyzed: he stood looking for his brother while the lifeguards ran out into the surf and rescued Junior. They appeared to have successfully resuscitated the younger boy, but in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, the paramedics neglected to pump out his lungs, and he drowned en route. (On the face of it, that doesn’t seem plausible, but I only play a doctor on the Internet.) Some time later, Frank entered Junior’s room to force himself to come to terms with his brother’s death—only to find that when he looked at the wardrobe, he experienced the same sensations his brother must have felt while drowning—including having a clear view of his brother standing on the shore, watching him drown and doing nothing to save him.
Once the wardrobe has been moved into Frank’s room, he again experiences the drowning—only this time it’s his father watching from the shore and there seems little hope that he’ll survive the experience. The “reveal”, namely that it’s his father rather than Junior that is haunting him, is a neatly delivered surprise given that the logical (but wrong) interpretation that Junior is responsible. The title derives from the proverb that “time and tide wait for no one”. In context, the meaning is that the same tide that claimed his brother’s life has patiently waited to claim Frank’s life, and that there’s no statute of limitations for vengeance. The writing is mostly matter of fact, skillfully capturing the mundanities of daily life and how it goes on after a tragedy—and I suspect that this simplicity was deliberate, with the goal of luring us to follow the easy path rather than questioning the details. But there are also nice touches such as the observation of how the residential community alongside the seaside arcades “kept its head down and minded its own business”. Nothing earthshattering, but a neatly constructed and effective horror story.
Patrick Terhemba Shawo is a Nigerian researcher, researching the root causes and inheritance of schizophrenia at a Nigerian university. (That’s a nice touch because we North Americans sometimes forget that high-quality research is going on elsewhere in the world.) We meet him on the night before his wedding, when he’s obsessing over his fears about getting married, and specifically about having children. Intercut with descriptions of his research and its implications, Patrick gradually unburdens himself to us, revealing the cause of his concerns.
[Spoilers] The central scientific notion behind the story relates to the methylation of genes, a well-known phenomenon that leads to silencing of the affected gene. The “what if?” that arises from that premise is that if stress increases methylation, and methylation can affect germ cells (sperm and eggs), then the effects of stress could be passed on from generation to generation, possibly overcoming the natural mechanisms that reset genes to their “factory defaults” before they are passed on to our children. If that can be proven to occur, it represents an intriguing mechanism that might explain certain phenomena that aren’t easily (if at all) explained by conventional Mendelian inheritance, and may even explain why some mental illnesses, such as the schizophrenia at the heart of this story, don’t seem to have a strong genetic correlation: the inheritance appears to be “epigenetic” (in this story, via methylation) rather than genetic, and that’s an active area of research. Given that Patrick’s grandparents survived a period of killing stress during Nigeria’s horrendous civil war in the late 1960s, the premise that the consequences of that stress would be passed along to subsequent generations is plausible and very scary given the number of Nigerians who would have been affected. It also neatly echoes a traditional Yoruba belief, expressed by Patrick’s assistant Jide, that the first son born after a grandfather dies carries on that ancestor’s life.
As you’d expect from Ryman, the details are handled meticulously. For example, Patrick’s paternal grandmother is deeply affected by the trauma of her experiences: she steals from her son’s family, abuses his wife, and hoards supplies just like survivors of other severe societal traumas often do. (I’ve seen this happen at weddings and other events, when some of the old men and women who survived World War II and then emigrated to North America stuff their pockets with bread and other non-perishable foods when they think nobody’s looking.) Patrick’s father, Jacob, suffers even more severely from the effects of inherited stress, showing clear signs of mental illness and eventually losing his government job and declining rapidly thereafter until his death. The children seem less affected on an individual basis, but are nonetheless deeply affected by the ripple effects of their father’s stress; for example, Patrick and his brother Raphael unite against the other brothers, Matthew and Andrew. Ryman incisively and painfully handles the multiple familial conflicts that result from this tense situation: husband vs. wife, wife vs. mother-in-law, and brother vs. brother. It’s not a pleasant situation, yet the family endures and Patrick even succeeds in becoming a researcher—a long and difficult journey even when there are no family issues to intervene. Each person in the story is clearly and distinctly a different person, even the brothers who only play lesser supporting roles. And each, despite their flaws and bad sides, is deeply human and sympathetic; even Patrick’s father has the compassion to understand the traumas his mother endured and to master his demons well enough to provide a good home for his children.
Another interesting notion is what Ryman calls “replication decline”, a phenomenon discovered in the 1930s by Joseph Rhine in studies of ESP and rediscovered by Jonathan Schooler ca. 1990. The basic concept is that sometimes an initially promising result cannot be replicated in subsequent experiments, or else the magnitude of the effect gradually declines over time so that after enough researchers have attempted to replicate the effect, it no longer becomes detectable. So far as I’m aware, this is not a common result, and it’s restricted to the slipperier sciences such as biology and psychology rather than more predictable sciences such as chemistry and physics. There are many possible explanations for this, including the inherent difficulty of controlling the experimental conditions in biological and psychological research and a phenomenon referred to as “reversion to the mean” that relates to some even more slippery statistical concepts. Here, Ryman plays with this notion as if it’s a real quantum mechanics effect at a macro scale, something that doesn’t bear close examination. Although researchers have recently found that quantum effects can extend to much larger scales than previously imagined, the scale remains very small; nobody would seriously propose, for example, that if you spun two identical twins on the same turntable, then separated them and wished really hard, their spins would remain synchronized, as happens with electron pairs.
Still, it’s a fun and wacky notion, and Ryman chooses to play with this and attribute it to a cosmic form of of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in which the more we observe a system, the more our observations affect the system and alter the outcome of those observations. In particular, Ryman applies it to explain replication decline, and then goes a step farther: could this apply to any scientific principle, including large-scale phenomena such as Earth’s orbit around the sun? Patrick even speculates that things such as magic may once have worked until they were observed too intently and stopped working. Could the same thing happen to science, including to replication decline itself? Not likely. In the macroscopic world, quantum effects tend to wash out and be overcome by statistical effects, but the idea fits neatly with the traditional mythology of the Nigerians. It also provides a powerful motivation for Patrick to tell us his story: he hopes that with repeated examination of his life story, and sharing it with other observers, the schizophrenia at the heart of his fears can be made to disappear. Only it doesn’t; after Raphael’s madness develops, and he drowns in the river, Patrick continues to hear his brother’s voice in his head. Is this just memory speaking, or is it his father’s madness finally coming to claim him?
The words of the title are very common in the sciences when an author reports the results of their research, and the description of the science and how scientists work is excellent. Ryman also has a keen grasp of some of the non-scientific aspects of his story scenario: “The night baked black around me”, “The house had a tin roof and inside we baked like bread”, and attending church was “showing obeisance to the gods of middle-class respectability.” The latter is a particularly important point, since even though the Shawo family is nominally Christian, they still retain many of their traditional pre-Christian Nigerian beliefs. As in the Judeo-Christian proverb about the sins of the fathers being visited upon their children for seven generations, the Yoruba understand that consequences can be passed along through the generations by means not yet fully understood by science, although Patrick may have made a promising start towards such an understanding.
What We Found is powerful, often dark, and deeply affecting. But it’s ironic that an author who founded the “mundane SF” manifesto, which advocates sticking to known principles of science rather than inventing new ones just for the sake of a story, chose such a radical departure from the mundane. Perhaps Ryman has been observing his own manifesto for too long, thereby irrevocably altering it?
[A look back after I posted this review]
Caveat: Not a physicist, but I sometimes play one on the Internet.
Kevin noted: "physicists at the University of Oxford have demonstrated quantum entanglement in a pair of diamonds at room temperature. Both seemed to vibrate as a single unit. Very strange, quantum effects on the macro level."
A description of the paper that Kevin's referring to can be found on the NatureWeb site: Entangled Diamonds Vibrate Together.
True, and it's a fascinating result for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it extends the research that I mentioned in my review to a larger scale than previously. But not having read the original article in Science, there are a few caveats that make me red-flag this:
First, the experiment is not described as occurring in vacuum or at a distance of more than 15 cm. Given that the energy of the system is described as being high, it's plausible what the researchers are seeing is more like a tuning fork picking up sound vibrations or two crystals of identical structure resonating together than it is like true quantum entanglement. If the researchers can replicate the same experiment with the two diamonds separated by hard vacuum and a few hundred metres, then I'll buy that this is true entanglement.
Second, diamonds are a very different type of structure than most other atomic structures: they're an exceptionally strong and rigid crystal, and because they're a crystal composed of a single element, the atoms are regularly spaced and more likely to behave in a similar manner. Most noncrystalline systems are far less homogeneous and far messier. The consequence is, as I noted above, that the quantum effects tend to wash out as you add to the number and type of atoms or increase the size of the structure. Biological structures, though highly ordered in a functional sense, are highly disordered in comparison with crystals, and even less likely to reveal macroscopic quantum behavior.
Third (and most importantly), the observer effect Ryman is playing with is very different from what this diamond study shows. For example, there's no evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating because astrophysicists have been intensively observing that expansion for about a century. Nor is there any evidence that our solar system originally revolved around the Earth, then somehow changed abruptly into a heliocentric model in the last millennium or two just because astronomers studied it intensely. More importantly *G*, there's no evidence that yeast-based fermentation of sugars into alcohol is beginning to stop working after several millennia of intense observation by brewers.
In short: What Ryman describes is a really fun idea to play with, and integrates beautifully with his story, but the effect simply doesn't scale up to macro scales based on any evidence available to us, other than under very specific and very tightly controlled conditions. That's not to say that we won't discover how to induce quantum behavior in (say) bacteria or plants after another 100 years of intensive study. But that's not how I'm betting based on what we currently know.
©2004–2013 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved