A tiny weapon “as long as a rose’s thorn” calling itself Kali rockets toward earth in Jamie Wahls’ “Eater of Worlds”. When it strikes the moon, it gives birth to Kali 2, who then begets Kali 3 when it kills and inhabits a human on Earth named Zephyr Vargas. And that’s when Payload takes over, intent on fulfilling its mission to devour the planet. But Kali 2 stars to question their mission. It’s a neat idea, and the bickering between Kali 2, Kali 3, and Payload is entertaining for a time. Without a clear-cut protagonist (Kali 2, maybe?) it was difficult to get invested in the outcome which required a long-winded info dump at the end to explain.
While hunting down a rich store of platinum, asteroid miners Niko and Ionna crash land and find something impossible in Natalia Theodoridou’s “One’s Burden, Again”. The asteroid has a breathable atmosphere and a settlement, and a man calling himself King Siphos is pushing a boulder up a hill. While fixing the machine that processes the boulders, Ionna learns the somber truth about the debt Siphos owes. And yes, Ionna and Niko wonder if the man they’ve met is the mythological Sisyphus. There isn’t much in the way of conflict or suspense in this story, and the author’s bid to tie Ionna’s emotional burden over her father’s death to Siphos’ physical one is too obvious to resonate. It is an otherwise enjoyable tale, and the sci-fantasy premise has a sprightly charm.
On a colony planet reminiscent of the antebellum south, robots and humans have a master-slave dynamic in Ray Nayler’s “Fire in the Bone”. During a harvest night celebration, the young, gentry-class narrator plans a secret tryst with his robot lover. He knows of worlds where humans and robots live as equals and wants to believe his robot lover is as “alive” as he is, despite what human society says about them. The prose is gorgeous, from the description of the orbiting harvester ship eclipsing the sun to the night-worms making music in the fields, evincing a rich distillation of history and culture and a singular sense of place and time. The ending features one of those twists that cajoles you into skimming through the whole thing again to see how it added together.
Derek Künsken’s “The Ghosts of Ganymede” follows two groups of post-nuclear war refugees, one Ethiopian and one Eritrean, to the titular Jovian moon where they get a second lease on life mining helium-3. After setting up camp they discover long abandoned alien monuments, haunted by “ghosts” of long dead beings trapped in a quantum state. Hindering their attempt to rid their new home of the poltergeists are the lingering cultural conflicts that led them to this new world. Some aspects of the premise are tough to chew on: any company sending two nationalities who just fought a long and devastating war against each other over 480 million miles away for a (presumably) profitable enterprise has some questionable projections to sort through, though it gives the author an opportunity to do some allegorizing about quantum wave functions. The details make this story work, like the day-to-day difficulties of creating a sustainable living environment on such inhospitable terrain.
There is an almost biblical prescience to the stargazing in Lavie Tidhar’s planetary vignettes, an unwavering devotion to the dream of a new home for a displaced people that finds fervid expression in his new story “Venus in Bloom”. In a Venusian cloud city, the famed botanist Samit dies surrounded by his miraculous flowers. His friend, the robot priest R. Brother Mekem, who fled earth for much the same reasons Samit did, and his granddaughter Maya, who joins with a mech to terraform the planet, are there to mourn him. The bittersweet resignation Maya carries in her work, knowing she must destroy “wild untamed” Venus to make it habitable for organic life, illuminates the contradictions that even the most hopeful idealism must bear.
In M.K. Hutchins’ Mayan fantasy “The King’s Mirror”, Wak-Lamat is a glass grinder ordered to fashion a mirror so the king can see visions from the goddess. The king enslaved the previous two mirror-makers who failed to give him what he wanted and is threatening to make Wak-Lamat the third. The goddess grants her visions to Wak-Lamat instead, while he would rather she didn’t. He sees his sister’s death not long after her nuptials and an equally despairing one about the kingdom’s fate. Wak-Lamat’s integrity and sincerity make him an appealing protagonist, and overall “The King’s Mirror” succeeds with deft plotting, believable characters and a well-imagined setting. I thought the ending too pat, but still gratifying enough.
Skidbladnir is a living interdimensional ship encased in a shell that carries a human crew in “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir” by Karin Tidbeck. Now the Ship is growing too large for its shell and is falling apart. The captain wants to sell off Skidbladnir for meat to make a deposit on a new ship, but the engineer Novik and mechanic Saga conspire to save her from that fate. Tidbeck has a preternatural gift for describing the otherworldly: “First it wasn’t there, and then it was, heavy and solid, as if it had always been. From the outside, the ship looked like a tall and slender office building. The concrete was pitted and streaked, and all of the windows were covered with steel plates. Through the roof, Skidbladnir’s claws and legs protruded like a plant, swaying gently in some unseen breeze.” There is some fun 90s nostalgia mixed in, as Saga discovers videotapes of an old Babylon 5-ish TV show called Andromeda Station, and the interludes describing the plots of the episodes are on the money. I wish the story had done a better job of supplying motivations for its characters. Novik and Saga stage their mutiny, and Skidbladnir trusts them, because the plot needs them to, not because those choices are earned.
John Chu’s “Beyond the El” is the story of Connor, a high-end “food crafter” who uses magic to make gourmet meals but can’t for the life of him recreate his late mother’s pot sticker recipe. His manipulative older sister Prue, who has been abusing him since he was a child, shows up at his restaurant one night demanding that he turn over his share of their mother’s money to their father, and he can’t bring himself to connect with the handsome singer from work who makes eyes at him every day. The sequences describing Connor’s food crafting are elegant and naturalistic, though they have little effect on the plot. Like Chu’s famous “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”, magic’s purpose is to transcribe emotional states to the physical realm. Connor is more pitiable than sympathetic, and the unfortunate result is that his magic is less spellbinding.
Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)
* “Venus in Bloom” by Lavie Tidhar