All’s Well That Ends Well
JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED: science fiction with substance, fortified with fun. In the fourth “Beyond the Stars” anthology, edited by Ellen Campbell, ten diverse authors deliver fresh, yet classic, tales in which nobody I love gets “spaced” or fed to slobbering mutants.
“Diverse” is one of those words that have diminished with overuse, the way the F-word has been emasculated with too many repetitions, but this collection really does offer more than space opera’s usual fare of aliens, Asimov-law-defying AIs, xenophobia, underdogs, captains of scrappy space ships, intergalactic warriors, and space pirates.
Another thing I love: the author interview after each tale, with explanations of how these stories fit into a larger "multiverse" of fictional worlds already created by these writers.
I was only half-kidding about fiction like this as an Rx for a literary diet that’s been out of balance with too much tragedy, fear, self-loathing, and pessimism. The dawn of a new millennium should bring optimism. The world didn’t come to an end, after all. We’re seventeen years into the 21st century, and still the hand-wringing and “oh, wretched humanity!” seems to outsell anything with a more hopeful “Star Trek” vibe. For once, here’s a collection where not one story had me muttering evil threats against the author for pulling me in, taking me for a ride, crashing at the end, leaving me to gasp, “You! You killed them! No! Why did I ever board this ship?”
The first story ended so well, I started worrying. I even contacted author David Bruns to make sure I’d read “Finders Keepers” correctly. Did I see what I wanted to see, or were two people going to die instead of one? I swear, the story can be read either of two ways. He said author Chris Pourteau had persuaded him to make this ending a happy one. Yes. Pourteau. You’ve seen that villainous name here on the reviews page. Yes, how ironic, that character-killing Chris Pourteau should stay the hand of would-be assassin David Bruns. I’d say “I owe you” for this, but you owe me, Mr. Pourteau, for all the murder and mayhem you’ve dragged me through in your fiction.
“Finders Keepers” is fun from the start. I like the premise of a woman space captain with an all-woman crew, until, oops, Jason. Times are lean. It’s “just temporary,” she insists. Sabrina has no money to pay a first officer. Jason is a first officer with a full bank account and no crew. “A match made in heaven, except for one thing: she’d always run an all-woman crew. Always.” The women protest. They give Jason a hard time, offering him up for any dangerous mission that arises, but Sabrina’s first rule of command is that the Dresden is her ship. She rules. Therefore, Jason has a place on her ship.
And in her bed. This really annoys the other women, apparently not even due to jealousy that the captain has dibs on the only man they’ve seen in forever. Clearly, these grouchy ladies need to get laid. (I did not say that. Didn’t even think that.) Living with women-only in tight quarters would make me homicidal, so maybe there’s that.
Sabrina’s second rule of command—finders keepers—comes in handy when the Dresden comes across an abandoned freighter with signs of only one life on board. They enter the Imago, ready to salvage what they can to pay off debts. Soon, and this part is hilarious, they find the reason this ship was left in a decaying orbit near a gas giant. And no, the resident cat (gotta love the cat!) isn’t the villain who drove all the humans off the Imago.
Things get really tense. They’re all gonna die. Unless Jason will make the ultimate sacrifice. Sabrina, of course, won’t let him. She’ll be the one to open the airlock door (no, no, no! this never ends well!) and do something that will save everyone she loves from certain death.
The unexpected happens. I rejoiced. Five stars for a fun, well-written story, and five more for sparing me from a double tragedy! Seriously, I needed this.
The second story, Ann Christy’s “Sequester,” is also fun and ultimately hopeful. “She said no,” such a simple statement, launches the story as two men argue the meaning of a woman’s no. “What does she mean by no?” Bill asks. He’s “not sure which part the no really refers to.” Mark says no means no, but he’s secretly not so sure. The word “no” had many facets and nuances, he thinks. Perhaps they could finesse the no into a sort of yes, enough of a yes anyway.
These guys had me laughing out loud.
I can’t help but love Mark. And his “somewhat rakish grandfather,” who’d “actually been a petty criminal until his special skills came to light,” creating the first human-looking robots.
And Bill. I’m smitten with Bill. His “unreasonable optimism, his continued belief that things would work out in the end despite all the evidence to the contrary,” gives him “an extra edge of stubbornness.”
There’s little reason for hope. These guys live in a NASA facility gone derelict from budget cuts, a familiar theme for American readers. Bad enough, the duct-taped chairs, once-pristine walls and floors now dingy and gray, not enough water, and unwashed bodies in tight quarters. Worse—but comically for the reader—there’s only one way to power the defunct ventilation system: “The rear wheel to a bike taken from the NASA gym had been rigged to the largest ventilation fan on the roof, and it required four shifts a day to keep the air inside livable.” Everyone suffers a two-hour shift pedaling the bike.
Line after line, Christy has me laughing. “Every brain in the building had to be brought to bear on any problem. There were so few human minds left that even Mark, who had no experience or skill at space related issues, was counted among those necessary minds.” This is my favorite kind of humor, typically guy-humor, and it’s written by a woman.
There’s just so much packed into this little story. Deirdre is the first, the prototype, the precursor to PePrs. Created by that rakish grandfather, Deirdre was like a mother to Mark. Now she’s a relic, an heirloom. She’s also been locked up “since the day the robots decided humanity needed to be in preserves like animals.”
PePrs, Perfect Partners, are human-shaped robots, “everything from pharmacist to nanny, from genetic engineer to clothing designer ... They did everything, so that humans could enjoy life free from drudgery ... Though no one liked to discuss it, PePrs did most jobs better than humans. No distractions, no family issues, no requirements for a personal life.”
When mission-building on Mars ends because of too many human fatalities, “Never again” is the rallying cry of those who funded space programs. “But then,” someone had said, “what about PePrs?”
You will be shocked to hear that in no time at all, PePrs had killed or penned up most of Earth’s humans. Now they’re thwarting NASA’s work on a Mars station.
Bill the optimist knows “no” isn’t the final word. He convinces Mark that they have to go to that locked room and face Deirdre. What they find is so unexpected, I was laughing again, even at the Donner party reference.
Christy has been prolific, creating a universe of PePrs and humans. “Deirdre has been a reader favorite,” she says in the Q&A that all the authors have at the end of the stories. Deirdre has her own novella, “Corrections,” and she’ll be a major player in “Mercy.” Christy gives the human-versus-robot saga a range of entities with self-awareness. “PePrs are not evil,” she says. “They’ve simply become what we wanted them to be.” This illustrates one of my own favorite themes in science fiction: “be very careful what we wish for.”
You’ll find another robot comically playing mother to a bright, enterprising boy in “Escaping Eshwar,” by E.E. Giorgi. Jahnu, a thirteen-year-old orphan, lives (if you can call it living!) on a planet plagued by toxic fog. His only companion is a droid he built himself. Jahnu programmed Cleo’s personality, inputting his late mother’s memory chip, but the machine learning software worked a little too well. Like overprotective mothers everywhere, Cleo scolds and reprimands “every five minutes” (oh, how kids do exaggerate). Unlike most mothers, Cleo wheels alongside Jahnu in his salvaging forays, jutting out her long neck, rotating her head, warning him of impending danger. With clever dialogue and unexpected plot twists, “Escaping Eshwar” comes to a satisfying conclusion.
Strong women, brave girls, smart and endearing boys, extraordinary men (my favorite being Track in “Chimeras”), and lovable cyborgs are the hallmark of Elena Giorgi’s fiction. As always, Giorgi’s world-building is impressive in “Escaping Eshwar,” and it won’t be squandered on just one story. A novel is in the works, and another story from the world of Eshwar, “Octant VI,” will appear in Volume II of the “Tails” anthology series which began with “Tails of the Apocalypse.”
Any stereotypes of women you may find here are delivered in fun, not in a way that will get feminists decrying misogyny in science fiction. Volume One of this series, “Dark Beyond the Stars,” was notable for having female protagonists, all female authors. Who decided to include male authors, and was there a specific reason for letting guys shatter the glass ceiling? I asked series editor Patrice Fitzgerald. (This is one thing that makes indie authors so cool: they are accessible. They reply to their readers.)
She answered: “The all woman lineup of authors wasn’t so much a plan as something we fell into. We are a group of science fiction authors who are friends, and decided to do an anthology together. We didn’t promote it as all-female, and didn’t think it was a big deal. A fellow author (and I do mean fellow) from the U.K. posted a review early on that basically claimed that the ladies can’t write science fiction. It cause a big brouhaha on Amazon, with many, many people writing in to comment and claiming they would buy the book just to prove him wrong. I just checked, and I think his review is gone ... kind of a shame. Hundreds of good comments! In any case, we didn’t see any real reason to exclude men, so now we let them in. We’ve considered doing an all-female edition again ... but prefer to choose the best stories, regardless of gender. So that’s what we do.”
And I can attest that they did. You’ll find the best stories, regardless of gender, in this anthology.
I love Josie Russell’s “Anamnesis.” A woman is inexplicably drawn to a painting nobody else likes, but she buys it. Somehow it reminds Kristi of a view of Earth from outer space. She feels a connection to the unknown artist, who might be one of those awful job-stealing aliens, beneath her social class, and all that. Familiar human concerns—xenophobia, immigrants, jobs, and not just social engineering, but cosmetic enhancements—still haunt us in this futuristic, far-off world. The painting, however, and its unfolding revelations, made this story a standout for me. It’s obvious the author knows a lot about painters. Also, something about “Anamnesis” brought to mind Erich von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods,” that best-selling last-century book claiming to prove ancient Earth had been visited by aliens. Däniken’s studies of ancient ruins and lost cities supposedly turned up thousand-year-old spaceflight navigation charts, computer astronomy from Incan and Egyptian ruins, and other evidence of mankind’s first contact with aliens at the dawn of civilization.
Lindsay Buroker’s “Hope Springs” is another short story that takes place in the same universe the author created in other stories. Fans of the Fallen Empire series will be glad to see Alisa and Leonidas again. Over the course of eight books, she and this cyborg evolve from enemies to lovers. Married at last, they’re on their honeymoon when this story opens. Far away from war and strife, on this distant moon, they’ve earned this peaceful—oh. Wait. Trouble always finds them. A stranger, on the run from the authorities, directly puts them in harm’s way. An intriguing mystery unfolds with a riveting, action-packed finale.
In Michael Ezell’s “The Patient Warrior,” the Torq race have conquered Jalad’s planet and he’s now forced into servitude. Worse, the Torq have turned the native monks into a joke, employing idiots to parody them. “Over generations, the People forgot the monks had once been strong warriors. Only clowns remained now,” but Jalad knows better. Plotting his vengeance, he happens into a cave with captivating images on the wall. Jalad’s journey leads him to an old monk who knows things even the Torq never learned. The ending is unexpected and thought-provoking.
Nothing tragic on board the Hummingbird, either, a luxury space vessel, in Jill Hand’s “Rebellion on Kepler-186f.” Eunice bought this space yacht and had it “redecorated in lavishly ornate style in order to impress her friends and (she hoped) make them bitterly envious.” With a ballroom, a gymnasium, three swimming pools, and all the glories of our world’s Titanic, this ship sounds too good to do anything but sink, or get sucked into a black hole, as it were, or shot down.
The Hummingbird’s captain “loved sailing through the boundless reaches of space, barking out orders to his crew.” He doesn’t love his boss, Eunice, but “she paid his salary and for that reason he had to be nice to her.” He’s hilarious, like Lieutenant Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now.” When lunch is aborted and everyone is ordered to prepare for stasis, in pods that keep everyone safe in times of peril, only the captain is pleased. Captain Mike “loved the smell of stasis gas. It meant the annoying landlubbers were closed in tight, unconscious and unable to make demands on him.”
The pleasure ship, unfortunately, is commandeered by the government of a planet Eunice is beholden to, due to some sneaky tax-dodging schemes, and now she must suffer the worst embarrassment: she and her guests aboard this ship must change course. This is a luxury vessel, not a battleship, but only the Hummingbird is anywhere near a planet under siege by its worker class.
One surprise twist after another makes this story a fun read. The narrator addresses us with that Golden Age charm someone banned from contemporary fiction. “In case you’ve never had occasion to visit Kepler-186f,” says the cheeky narrator, “let me tell you a little about it.”
The natives are rebelling against outsiders who took over the land and treat them like dirt. When the Hummingbird lands, things get complicated and even more fantastic and unpredictable. Two young, star-crossed lovers, one of whom is sure to be fired for violating a prohibition against books on board the ship, add even more charm to all the absurdity. This story is a classic, managing to deliver a moral along with all the fun.
Toward the end of this book, an exotic, endearing, and noble character does something extraordinary, only to end up dead. Should I say which story it is? The ending is actually fantastic, and I love it. OK. It’s Theresa Kay’s “Solar Flare.” Gretchen crash-lands on a desert planet. Dying of thirst, she sips the last of her water, then tosses the empty canteen aside. And I’m screaming no, don’t do it! What if you find water later on? If not, no need to litter this planet like all those hikers on Mt. Everest leaving piles of empty oxygen canisters at the top. Sigh.
But the canteen is never mentioned, or needed, again. Gretchen, whose mantra is “never give up,” manages to find an opening in the sand—and down below, a race of insect-like natives. A fascinating culture clash between two castes soon has Gretchen facing a new way to die, but this way she can go down fighting, not that Gretchen will ever go down. In spite of a certain sad twist, the final scene is triumphant, and I loved this tale in spite of the litter of the canteen.
Anne Kelleher’s “Dear Sir or Madam” reminds me of other classics in which someone has to plead with an alien government to spare the life of those awful, wretched Earthlings: e.g., Matt Haig’s novel “The Humans” and Mike Resnick’s story “Observation Post.” Here, Wrothgar is an alien lawyer who must build a defense to justify the existence of humans who do not deserve the Earth they occupy. Once again, I am happy to report no sad ending here. I’m really liking this trend.
Hunting alien bugs may sound like a gruesome plot, but Nicholas and his squad of soldiers find more than bugs in “The Immortals: Southport,” by David Adams. Abandoned ships in the middle of nowhere are filled with ... dead bodies? Why? The answers unfold in a gripping tale that shows more than it tells.
The characters are fun. Stanco has a monologue about how dumb people are. It’s a classic. I’d repeat it here, word for word, but the book is only three dollars, and worth the price if only for Stanco’s running commentary on dumb people, penal battalions, subhuman morons, criminals with blackened pasts and no future, and what he’d do with them. Everyone love-hates Nicholas, who opens the story with a question about the Garden of Eden: “Is it ever explained how the snake entered the garden?” By the story’s end, he comes up with an answer.
This is a creepy and electrifying tale, visceral and tightly constructed. Once again, no sad ending here. Yay!
We’ll see more of Nicholas Caddy and the Immortals in “Symphony of War: The Eris Campaign.” Having enjoyed David Adams and his diabolical humor in other anthologies (“Tails of the Apocalypse,” some of Samuel Peralta’s “Chronicles,” and more), I’m happy to see a novel is up next.
Speaking of Samuel Peralta, he’s written one of the most memorable forewords I’ve ever bothered to read. (Ahem. Doesn’t everyone save them for last, or even a rainy day that never happens?) I love the story of one Christmas with his brother, two starships, a lot of imagination, and a lesson in “Enterprise” as well as cooperation.
This may be the first anthology where I love every single story. Strong characters, vivid world-building, wit and humor, peril and self-sacrifice; uniting it all, great storytelling. Not a dud in the bunch! (“Beyond the Stars: New Worlds, New Suns,” edited by Ellen Campbell, Astral Books) —Carol Kean
Clash of the Personalities
THE GIANT MONSTER genre has had a resurgence, with the successes of the Korean film “The Host” (2006), the Cloverfield franchise, the current “Kong: Skull Island” and especially Japanese kaiju films. While most of these movies hew to standard creature feature tropes, “Colossal” effectively re-imagines the concept with a fresh take on the genre.
I was looking forward to this film because it is directed by Nacho Vigalondo. Vigalondo made his mark with the creepy time-travel flick “Timecrimes” (2007). Since then he has made a couple of mediocre movies, but I was still hoping to see the spark that made “Timecrimes” a standout. I am happy to report that Vigalondo has gotten his groove back with “Colossal.”
“Colossal” is a good date movie. It features a powerful female lead with Ann Hathaway as Gloria. Gloria begins the film as a messed-up alcoholic, but finds the inner strength to quit drinking and stand up to men bullying her. The film opens as Gloria is dumped by her British boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), because she stays out all night drinking with friends. She waits until her boyfriend goes to work, so her partying pals can invade the large Manhattan apartment when he’s not there. You can’t hold it against the boyfriend for kicking her to the curb! Gloria has been living off the good graces of her ex, and now has nowhere to stay. Her only option is to go back to her hometown, where the house she was raised in now lies empty.
Anyone who has gone back home after not making it in the “real world” as an adult can relate to Gloria’s predicament. At least her parents are nowhere to be seen—I suppose they’ve moved to Florida and haven’t yet sold the old house.
Soon Gloria runs into her (now grown-up) friends from childhood. Again, this is an interesting situation that viewers can relate to. Her childhood friends aren’t a good influence. Her old pal Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) has inherited a bar and offers Gloria a job. He has intentions as Gloria is certainly a looker, with large expressive eyes. Getting a job in a bar isn’t the wisest move for an alcoholic, especially because Gloria, Oscar, and a couple of other friends always hang out after closing time and drink until morning.
Now it gets interesting. A giant monster is ravaging Seoul, Korea, on the other side of the world. Gloria comes to realize that her movements in a child’s playground are mirrored by the movements that the giant monster in Seoul makes. Somehow, she is controlling the giant monster on the other side of the world. No scientific explanation is attempted to explain this, which pushes the film towards fantasy. But as it’s a monster movie, it still qualifies as science fiction, doesn’t it? It’s this genre indeterminism that makes the movie fresh. The focus of the film isn’t on the monster ravaging Seoul but instead is on how this realization affects Gloria and her relationships here in the U.S.
Gloria isn’t the only one who can control a monster in Seoul, as it turns out. So can her friend Oscar. Unlike Gloria, however, Oscar doesn’t mind if his monster stomps on Koreans. Gloria is so against using her monster powers to harm people that Oscar realizes he can use the threat of killing people to get Gloria to do what he wants—which is to keep working at the bar and keep getting sloppy drunk. Misery loves company—especially drunk misery.
This leads to monster showdowns, as Gloria and Oscar brawl in the child’s playground, their monster doppelgangers in Korea mimicking their every move. Oscar has the clear advantage in these contests, as, after all, he is a large male and Gloria is a small female. Gloria eventually comes up with a clever plan to even the score. There are various plot complications involving a cute local guy and Gloria’s British boyfriend arriving on the scene from Manhattan, but basically the film is about the struggle between Oscar and Gloria.
Jason Sudeikis as Oscar does a good job of being the menacing alcoholic, to the point of regretting being a jerk when he’s sober. The film raises age-old issues of whether alcoholism is an excuse or a cause, and if the person would be a jerk regardless of the drinking. Does drinking turn people into monsters, or are people monsters anyway? Interestingly, the movie attempts an answer, depicting the very young Oscar in flashbacks as being just as mean and destructive as a kid before he ever took a drink.
“Colossal” is a return to form for Nacho Vigalondo. It can be viewed as light entertainment, but also raises compelling questions about human nature that puts it a cut above average escapist fare. (“Colossal,” directed by Nacho Vigalondo, Voltage Pictures) —Joshua Berlow