Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Silicon and Solitude
by Shane D. Rhinewald

Expedition of the Arcturus
by JZ Murdock

Nude Bargain
by Olga Godim

Dirtsiders on Cinnabar
by Patrick Lundrigan

by Tom Tinney

History of Humanity’s First Alien Contact in the Year 2023
by Eric M. Jones

Space Cadets of the Apocalypse
by Dave Fragments

Illegal Alien
by Betsy Streeter

A Tangle of Brilliance
by Charles Barouch


Playing a Role in Science Fiction
by Clayton J. Callahan

Prof. Pickering’s Practical Plan
by The Editors




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Perihelion Reviews

Tanks Behaving Humanly

FEW INDEPENDENTLY PUBLISHED authors manage to create a work that causes a raised brow, or elicits the attention of readers outside their own community. Fortunately, there are some indie writers who take time to garner the skills needed to craft fiction that is not just cheap fantasy, but an enjoyable and thought-provoking reading experience.

Timothy Gawne has done just that in “The Chronicles of Old Guy.” This book reads like a classic pulp adventure story set in a high-tech future without humans, or tacky romance.

I’m not drawn to war stories or hard science fiction, but I found the premise of the book’s description interesting. The tales of a nearly ancient cybertank, whose core processors are modeled on the human psyche, after humans have disappeared.

As one of the oldest tanks alive, Old Guy hails back to a time when the tanks fought side-by-side with post-exodus humans and before the cybertanks considered themselves truly sentient. Approximately three-thousanoldguyd years ago.

Though the story starts slow and feels laden with technical details relative only to a cybertank, it picks up quickly, bringing the reader into battle with a Godzilla-like, plasma-breathing giant lizard and one of the cybertank’s arch enemies—the dreaded Amok.

Gawne has drawn his characters as humorous anthropomorphized caricatures —mentally—but remained true to the bulky cybertank individuals. These high-functioning beings have an appreciation for art and science. Have created their own civilization patterned on human socialization rituals. But despite human-like qualities, the reader is aware of the lumbering physiology of the tanks.

The “old dog soldier” Planetary Force Commander, Giuseppe Vargas, his best friend the Magma Class cybertank, Double Wide, and a newly discovered species of being, Mondocat, help him fight off Happy Leeches, the Amok, the Yllg and survive the vampire planet.

Vargas stands out among the characters as a spry old commander, ready to fight the good fight. He’s a simulation for most of the book, but he always has great advice, likes his virtual alcohol and is known for his ability to state the obvious. He also has an annoying habit of producing cartoon foes he fends off with a flechette pistol while Old Guy faces down the real villains.

Plasma cannons, blow ’em up action scenes, and clashes are plentiful, but through the “Chronicles,” Old Guy tells a story that is quite human. This is an adventure tale, but it’s also a story of an aging being who worries about his value in a society that embraces the new, sleeker individuals who think grander thoughts, move faster and have excluded him as a full voting member.

“There are a few cybertanks who could not bear the thought of a rebuild. They potter around like living fossils. I used to think that they were pathetic. I still do, but now I appreciate just how hard it [is] to stop. I don’t want to live forever. I just want to live one more day. But there is always that one more day ...” Old Guy says.

Throughout the Chronicles, the question of how humans disappeared without the cybertanks’ notice haunts Old Guy. He questions whether his human predecessors evolved into something else, or transcended reality, perhaps moving into a different dimension. The mystery hangs over the whole of the cybertank civilization and has resulted in a debate that has lasted more than a thousand years.

Though unique in independently published science fiction for its depth of thought, the book has its flaws. Errors resulting from a lack of editing are prevalent. Typos are plentiful, some plot devices don’t work, grammatical errors that are obviously from a new author. Still, the story shines through the mistakes and the reader will laugh aloud, flip through the pages, white-knuckled at times, puzzle over the ending and hope for more tales from Old Guy.

“The Chronicles of Old Guy” should be placed high on the indie shelf. It’s not just for the hard science fiction reader. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good adventure, or a thoughtful read. (By Timothy Gawne, Ballacourage Books, paperback, Kindle) 4 stars— Carla R. Herrera


Satire Under the Dome

“ONE SUNDAY EVENING, THE town of Parcival, USA disappeared. It was Tuesday morning before anyone in the outside world noticed it was gone.”

Rare is the book blurb that has me laughing out loud. What else could I do but buy it? “Miss Alice Merriwether’s Long Lost Cakes & Further Arcane Inducements to Wonder,” by Barry Aitchison, delivers: from the first page to the last, it made me laugh and read passages aloud to anyone who’d listen. Okay, the final page was sobering, but inspiring as well. Science fiction, after all, should cut deep with incisive insights into the human condition. Again, this novel does not disappoint.

It’s hard to discuss the deeper meanings of a novel without giving away the ending and all the surprises along the way. A stranger arrives in Parcival. Not long after that, the town is enclosed in a transparent dome on a new planet. Back on Earth, all that’s left of Parcival is a crater. The residents go from annoyance over disrupted TV to denial and disbelief, then acceptance and good old American coping skills. missaliceWhen residents start disappearing one by one from the domed town, those remaining blame the stranger, who speaks perfect English but doesn’t even try to explain what he’s up to. In a fit of rash judgment, the town sheriff and his friends plot the stranger’s demise. Outside the dome, there are other human beings native to the planet. Will the walls of the dome come down? Will the uprooted earthlings be successfully transplanted to the new world? Why did the stranger orchestrate such an event? And what do Miss Alice’s cakes have to do with any of it? I’ll say only that the ending is at once poignant and inspiring.

At first glance, the novel is full of stereotypical small-town Americans whose tacky, clichéd dialogue made me wince or clench my fists. Aitchison’s satirical version of Americans is over-the-top patriotic, provincial and static. Whether or not he intended it, though, this story illustrates how the pioneering spirit that created a nation of rednecks also created a proud people, strong, practical and resourceful, eternally optimistic and ready to face the worst shocks nature and the universe at large can throw at them.

The story opens with the town spinster, Miss Alice Merriwether, meticulously planning to win a marriage proposal from the new bachelor. “She mounted her attack by means of a Trojan horse,” a cake Michelangelo would envy and men would kill for. The sheriff, Alexander Pumpernickel, has enjoyed her cakes for years while eluding marriage, but he finds Alice suddenly worth fighting for. She’s bossy, and he has “a nagging suspicion that the woman was ... intelligent,” but he can’t bear to lose her cakes to Quentin C. Coriander, a tall, skinny stranger with sickly greenish skin, a “parody of a praying mantis.”

Every character in the novel is vivid and memorable, even if most are clichés. Hormonal high school boys suffer physical embarrassments in the presence of girls, whether it’s the feuding cheerleaders or Karen the jock. The Eaglefeather family and the Asians are excluded from the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Sainted Bisons, a spoof of the Elks Club or the Masons, I’m guessing. Small-town bigotry reigns and the narrator engages in the usual America bashing, as if no other nation on Earth has suffered the atrocities of foreign invaders, from Alexander the Great to the ever-shifting borders of Germany to the annexation of India, Africa, Vietnam, and how many other nations exploited by Europeans. Aitchison’s omniscient narrator tells us “Whites” created the Land of the Free by making the land free of Indians, free of bison, passenger pigeons, and other animals. “All in all, it was an impressive achievement by the pioneers,” the narrator sneers.

In the "The Small Town Musings of Russel Cowes” (yes, sounds like he’d “rustle cows”), the school principal tells us Mensa wouldn’t trawl for members in the small-town Midwest, but the "permanently stunned look" that causes Midwesterners to appear stupid was “earned.” Settlers of the Great Plains "endured the worst weather nature can whip up," such as the blizzard of 1888, 40-below-zero winters, hot, arid summers, prairie fires, grasshopper plagues, dust storms, floods and tornadoes. "Wouldn't all that be enough to make your face look like you were expecting the next disaster to come along any minute?” As a Midwesterner myself, I could only nod and smile. As an American, I can tolerate this Australian novelist’s sneering portrayal of us, because there is truth in jest.

I also like the advice Mike Eaglefeather gets when he’s asked to take up bow and arrow. “Just because I’m Native American—” he protests, but Martin says that has nothing to do with anything. It’s about not being a “liability” to the town. “You either have something to offer, or you’re gonna be a burden.” And so, in anticipation of the day the protective dome comes down, citizens had better be ready to take up hunting and gathering as their pioneering forebears did.

What I love about this novel is the way these Americans react to the shock of being transplanted, suddenly, with no warning, to a new planet. Instead of agonizing about the invisible dome and the prospect of an all new infrastructure (Running water? TV? Maybe someday!), these people go straight to the business of living. The football team was ready for Homecoming, but now there’s no other team to play. But wait, the fathers of these kids played football for the same high school, and they can find some uniforms and play again. Homecoming will go on as planned!

Human folly, invention, industry and ambition occupy more pages than the science of space transport, Coriander’s medical experiments, and the dome, but only hard-core science fiction seems to deliver lots of technical goodies for its fans. This novel delivers the things I love most about the genre.

Australian writers seem to have wit and satire in their gene pool, and Barry Aitchison was full of it. He died a year ago, a prolific novelist, essayist and critique member of Internet Writing Workshop. “Miss Alice,” his only published novel, is still available from online book sellers in paper form. Re-releasing it as an e-book would bring this novel out of obscurity and into the limelight it deserves. (By Barry Aitchison, Velluminous Press, paperback) 4 stars— Lynn Usher


False Step to Nowhere

THE BOUNDARY BETWEEN hard and soft science fiction is fuzzy. “Social science fiction” is a subgenre that includes Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, and classroom-worthy issues of psychology, economics, political science and anthropology. The Eastern Bloc produced a large quantity of social science fiction in the second half of the 20th century, when a new generation of writers brought a more sophisticated approach to philosophy, ethics, dystopian futures and political systems. My expectations may have been too high, then, when I came across a Russian name, Natasha A. Salnikova, with “a science fiction novel” spelled out like a billboard on the cover of “A Step to Nowhere.”

Earth is Planet Two in this novel. Planet One is a sort of clone of earth in a parallel universe. Without that premise, “A Step to Nowhere” would be just a thriller, romance or dystopian novel. It is a commonly accepted hallmark of science fiction that if you take the science away, you no longer have a story. So I can only say that Salnikova’s novel is very, very soft science fiction, and I must like it harder than tungsten over steel.

What drew me to this novel in the first place? I’d happened across a quote from the author via a February 22 Facebook share:

I talked with my friend last night about people making choices. How much depends on our upbringing? One of the ideas in “The Land of Dead Flowers” is—the choice. Two men, both grew up in dysfunctional families, but one becomes a famous writer and another—a serial killer.

Sounds like my kind of writer, I thought. Salnikova was born in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan. At 24 she moved to Moscow, wrote for national sitcoms and dramas, met an American and married him in 2001. She welcomes reader feedback. I just “knew” I’d love her novels—there was “The Savior,” “Quiet River,” “The Voice of Waterfalls’” and more, but I gravitated to the one labeled science fiction.

Why did I keep reading a novel that seems shallow and undeveloped? Something about it kept me turning pages. Occasional passages shine with insight or pierce with poignancy, though most of the good stuff, the proof of this author’s potential, is buried in clumsy prose, excess description, clichés or info dumps.

The premise is flimsy. A man bumps into a woman, drops his cell phone and runs, not bothering to come back searching for his missing phone. Hello? This is one very important phone. The author sacrifices plausibility for suspense. It is indeed chilling to pick up a dropped phone, look for clues to the owner and find only eerie, incriminating text messages: someone has been stalking the heroine and reporting her every move. To who? Why?

Before the heroine gets that far, we must know the reason she stopped short and caused the man behind her to crash and run. She saw, and he saw, the man who’s been receiving the stalker updates. But all she can see is the man she fell in love with at age 24 only he didn’t know it, and now she’s 29 and hasn’t seen him in years, but one glimpse in the rain, from afar, and she’s more smnowhereitten than ever with this former co-worker. They end up consummating their pent-up desires at last. “He said everything I wanted to hear and more ... We had been living five years in different cities, tied to each other with invisible threads, and didn’t realize it ... Never in my life had I felt my consciousness turning off after the first kiss.” Too bad her conscience awakens only the next morning: “Oh my gosh: Jason!” She’s engaged to someone else! How could she forget?

Somehow, I forgive Sam her failure to remember her fiancé after seeing her true love, out of the blue. Out of another dimension, in fact. A parallel universe. But she won’t know that until she remembers the phone in her pocket. On discovering what it contains, she turns to Ray, her long-lost lover, and soon she’s been kidnapped and transported to the parallel Earth. Her lover is not the earthly Ray, but his counterpart. Everyone on Earth has a double; George Clooney’s double is the president of Planet One, while Obama is president on Planet Two (Earth).

Planet Two is not a very futuristic version of Earth. They have a handy, versatile “remote,” a few robots, and that tunnel from their planet to ours, but everyone dresses in the same drab proletariat garb, they eat astronaut-inspired packaged food, they don’t have coffee and tea, they all know about and dream of the luxuries of Planet Two (our Earth), but a rich dictator hogs wealth and privilege and sells Lottery tickets to Earth for only a few “lucky” winners. His spoiled daughter is—who else?—Sam’s double. And Ray’s wife. But by the time Sam knows about the wife, Ray has already granted her burning desire for him to “kiss me, break me, deprive me of the opportunity to resist.”

The political corruption in this novel parallels the Red Army’s iron control of impoverished citizens of the former USSR. Children turn in their parents for saying anything unfavorable about the regime. People are arrested and killed for political dissent. Rebels, called “inaners,” are hunted and exterminated. Citizens don’t overthrow the dictator because of fear, but also because of their “extreme credulity and permission to be used.” We humans are the same all over, eh?

Bristow, the despot, takes over the world one nation at a time. His is the country with a corridor to another dimension. The leaders of other lands sell their own people for a chance to walk that corridor. “Tens of people every day” try to assassinate Bristow, but “One report to the authorities is enough for a person to go to jail.”

The villains seem two-dimensional, and the heroes aren’t much better. Sam’s double is so whining, selfish, superficial, conceited, overbearing and vicious, she becomes a throwaway character. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t throw her away. Samantha, the evil double, does show some human emotion when her father the dictator is nearly killed, but for the most part, she suffers zero depth and dimension as a fictional character.

The heroine goes out of her way to tell us she’s a nice person: when a store clerk is rude to a customer, Sam verbally abuses the clerk. Oh, and Sam wants to be sure we know she’s funny. Calling herself “armed and dangerous” is supposed to be a joke. Asked to wear a skirt and high heels, she says no, she’d look like a chained giraffe. Her companion hiccups with laughter: “A giraffe with his legs chained. It walks and like ...” He laughs again. “Yep,” Sam says, “I’m that funny.”

Sorry, but that’s even less like humor than the novel itself is like science fiction.

I’m sure the author is as witty, warm, kind, compassionate, and beautiful as she wants us to imagine Sam is, but her prose doesn’t show us. Too many words, too many details about earthly fashion concerns and things that don’t matter to fans of science fiction, and far too little about the flora and fauna, streets and landscapes, jobs and culture of Planet One. The word count could have been cut in half. Some of the characters seemed like real people, but none of them resonated for me or felt like old friends.

So much shallow, undeveloped or half-baked writing is for sale these days, I’m forced to revisit Virgina Woolf’s concern way back in 1923 that the novel was in crisis due to the lost art of character-making. “And it is because this essence, this character-making power, has evaporated that novels are for the most part the soulless bodies we know, cumbering our tables and clogging our minds ... in all this vast conglomeration of printed pages ... there isn’t a single man or woman we know.” Ursula K. Le Guin revived that concern in her own famed essay, “Science Fiction and Mrs Brown” that great novelists “have brought us to see whatever they wish us to see through some character. Otherwise they would not be novelists, but poets, historians, or pamphleteers.”

“Step to Nowhere” ends with an epilogue full of implausible explanations and not enough closure: the villain and his daughter are still alive. Will they stage a comeback? Does Sam end up with Ray from Planet One, or Ray from Two? Will Planet One remain a secret from most of the people on Planet Two? I don’t want the answers enough to look for them in a sequel.

I keep hoping to find something truly deserving of the label “science fiction,” with competent, economical prose, carefully rendered technology, physics, or philosophy, and astute observations of the human animal with all our crazy beliefs and behaviors. I want to be supportive and enthusiastic of Salnikova’s writing, especially knowing she sacrificed her Russian home, family, culture and language to live in America with her husband and children. Maybe in future novels, with the help of a good editor, she’ll realize her potential. (By Natasha A. Salnikova, published by NAS, Kindle) 3 stars— Carol Kean

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