Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Carillion’s Schemes
by Michael Hodges

by Edward H. Parks

It Don’t Mean a Thing
by A. Miller

Morning Glories
by Jude-Marie Green

Take a Good Look
by Holly Schofield

Fifty Kilograms
by Jim Stewart

Jupiter Hero
by Rob Pearce

Breaking Eggs
by Justin Woolley

To Hunt a Sky Eel
by Daniel Ausema

Gone Fishin’
by Thomas Canfield

Archangels of Heaven
by Leslie Lupien


Faster Than a Speeding Bullet
by Eric M. Jones

A Turn to the Dark Side
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Perihelion Reviews

Other Worlds, Other Colonies

BUYING A BOOK FULL OF SHORT stories by various authors is a risk I seldom take, but with so many Hugo and Nebula winners writing about my favorite theme—space, the final frontier—I took the plunge. All eighteen contributors explore issues of colonizing off-planet in “Beyond the Sun,” edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt. The themes and messages vary, but most suggest that humans wreak havoc wherever they go. Space pioneers must be brave, resourceful and self-reliant, but they also may be greedy, ruthless, rash, and destructive.

One author spares us the self-loathing and gives us humanity at its best, which is to say, foolish but endearing. In “Observation Post,” Mike Resnick reminds me I want authors to do more than make me care. Make me laugh, too! Yes, people are terrible, but sometimes we triumph by sheer dumb luck rather than power and might, and some things, as Niels Bohr said, are so serious they can only be laughed at.

It’s the last story in the anthology, but Resnick delivers line after line of humor from the first page, when Kragash the scout explains why his Empire has sent him to assess a planet called Earth. Our math skills alone make us look like an easy target to annex, but Kragash reminds his superiors of that other planet with strange-looking inhabitants who looked like corn, which led to them being—well, it’s funnier if you hear it from Kragash. The memos he sends, and the Commander’s replies, are as comical and disturbingly believable as a Dilbert cartoon.

Kragash taps into the transmissions of a television station and is amazed to learn earthlings have spaceships that travel at warp speed. The Commander isn’t worried about Kirk and The Enterprise. He aims a massive, killer asteroid at the Earth, and Kragabeyond the sunsh has only 100 days to find a reason to divert it from its path. Kragash sends a series of alarming reports about The Force, Flash Gordon, and The Terminator, a great killing machine destroyed by a single human female. To say more would risk a plot spoiler, but this is one of the most delightful, witty and authentic tales I’ve seen in forever.

Second to last, a reprint from 1972, “The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV” shows why Robert Silverberg is one of science fiction’s most prolific and beloved writers. The characters ring true even as they deadpan their lines with such perfect timing. I want to see this acted out on stage. Silverberg’s level-headed Jews, tired of fighting for their homeland, have started over on a new planet, where they get along well with the fuzzy, four-legged natives and happily ignore the neighboring colony of Hasidic Jews with their mysticism and dreadlocks. When the spirit (dybbuk) of a recently deceased Jew possesses the body of an alien native, all humor breaks loose. The dialogue is brilliant, the insights poignant, the ending positive.

The great prose, humor and hopefulness of the two final stories are a welcome counterbalance to the first sixteen. Hugo and Nebula-winning Nancy Kress leads with “Migration,” a cautionary tale of people carelessly adopting animals as pets. Taken from their natural habitat, the pup-cats suffer, but they’re so cute and fluffy, and there’s so many of them, people simply must have them! The mysterious Lukas fights to stop their removal from their native habitat, and his reasons include a surprise twist.

Kristine Katheryn Rusch delivers a sharper surprise twist in “The Hanging Judge.” A terrifying female judge tours the galaxy with her portable prison, administering justice—until she’s captured on her least favorite planet and judged by her own harsh standards. When it’s a matter of resources, “some lives are worth more than others,” and her values come back to haunt her.

The theme of Queen’s “39” song could have inspired “Flipping the Switch,” Jamie Todd Rubin’s tale of a jet-setting space traveler whose wife and children grow old while he remains young thanks to the space-time continuum. He misses out on weddings, funerals and other big events in the life of a family, but that doesn’t bother him, because he can switch his emotions on and off—until his granddaughter decides to follow in his footsteps, and the “switch” doesn’t work the way it used to.

If the first three stories feel dark and depressing, Brad R. Torgersen steps in at the right time with “The Bricks of Eta Cassiopeiae.” The story starts out heavy and bleak, with prisoners doing hard time by making bricks on a planet being readied for colonists. “The work was arduous and filthy—the kind of soul-mending stuff reformists had been foisting on the incarcerated for many centuries, going all the way back to Earth,” and one new prisoner, feeling the Miz, rebels. In a short but satisfying space of time, evil is punished, virtue and effort rewarded, and hope of a new beginning for a man and woman is promised. Finally, a work of fiction that isn’t demoralizing or depressing! There may be hope for humanity after all.

Alas, hope is harder to hang onto in Alex Shvartsman’s “The Far Side of the Wilderness.” Cave-dwelling colonists have been away from Earth so long, they’ve idealized it and can only dream of somehow, someday, finding a way home to paradise, with its legendary skies of blue and clouds of white. One day a space ship crash-lands outside the cave, leaving no survivors. One colonist fixes the plane, learns to fly it and leads a team of twelve young volunteers to fly off in search of The Promised Land. Like Moses and the wandering Israelites, our heroine delivers grumbling tribesmen “to the far side of the wilderness,” visiting “dozens of planets: heavens and hells and everything in between.” The story is well-written but wearying as the eternal longing for home is repeatedly thwarted.

Autumn Rachel Dryden spins a more uplifting, though gruesome, tale of pioneers venturing into unknown territory on a strange planet. A man and his pregnant wife travel by covered wagon watching out for “scupp” shells. Do not read about these things at bedtime. “Respite” sprang from one of the author’s nightmares, which makes the story especially vivid, riveting and terrifying. Add some deft plotting and crafting, and a horror story comes to life. The clock ticks. The wagoneers must travel to safety before the scupps hatch, but a wheel breaks, and the wife goes into labor while the little monsters emerge from their shells. One person makes the ultimate sacrifice while another discovers the key to surviving future scupp attacks on this harsh new world. The ending is a classic, not surprising, but very satisfying.

While Dryden gives us brave, resourceful pioneers, Jean Johnson in “Parker’s Paradise” reminds us of the greed that can draw settlers to new worlds. Consumerism, religious cults, propaganda, politics, it’s all there. Even when Earth’s well-educated humans start anew on another planet, it’s the same sad story all over again, and our narrator wonders “what future students will say about this whole mess” when they learn about the founding of their world.

In Jason Sanford’s “Rumspringa,” a new world has already been established. The techno-blessed inhabitants have sockets in their heads and applications for every crisis under the sun, but there’s some business they must tend to on a planet full of leftover Luddites in search of religious freedom: the Amish. Technology has been offered to them, but they disdain it. Why use a “socket” app to fix a broken gear when a man can waste six hours repairing it by hand? A crisis involving a comet threatens their conviction that “everyday work was an act of devotion” and socket trickery would only corrupt them. The characters seem to celebrate a happy ending, but I wasn’t buying it. As someone who’d gladly volunteer for the socket, I just couldn’t embrace the Amish ideals that apparently triumph over evil technology.

In the next colony story, Cat Rambo delivers a man and his husband in “Elsewhere, Within, Elsewhen.” David, unable to forgive Carlo for a past infidelity, plots a new life for himself on a space colony. A surprise twist has Carlo chosen for the colony, and David merely allowed to tag along as a spouse. Sulking on the new world, David discovers the rocks are sentient, and the tale they tell is cautionary. David must learn to trust again or be petrified, like the sentient rocks.

After that heavy, emotional tale, a little humor is in order, even if it’s dark and ironic. Technology comes under fire once again in Simon C. Larter’s “Inner Sphere Blues,” when fuzzy radio signals and a delay of ten years lead to trouble. Chen the freelancer skirts civilization, “trading in violence and mined exotics,” but freedom from authority is a hand to mouth existence, and he longs for a bed and a routine. Instead, he must respond to an S.O.S. call. Fuzzy radio signals complicate his mission. Grace, the artificial intelligence who resides in Chen’s head, makes the narrative ironic and comical. Summoned to rescue colonists from violent native cats, Chen and Grace bring humor to a trag-ironic tale of rash heroism.

Misunderstandings like Chen’s haunt people in Jennifer Brozek’s “Dust Angels,” until a child takes the first steps toward understanding the actions of the natives. A truce comes with a small self-sacrifice and a note of foreboding. The little girl, now an old woman, tells children the story of their world but doesn’t mention the true cost of peace, nor who will pay that price when she is gone. The vivid imagery and the premise are startling and lovely, but the wording is often awkward. E.g., “The land was hot, hard and thirsty. It made all of us like it.” However, Brozek strikes exactly the right note here: “Is there anything more interesting than something that frightens your parents?”

Maurice Broaddus, in “Voice of the Martyrs,” smuggles some even stranger syntax past the editors. Too many odd lines like “Despite its deceitful bulk” (should be deceptive) can pull a reader out of the world the author has been building. So too can a typo like “I strained my neck, popping out the kings” (kinks). Broaddus writes, “I couldn’t call myself investigating the native” instead of “I couldn’t claim to be investigating the native culture.” He does employ some interesting high-tech devices, like that socket in the back of the skull. I had to wonder if his characters got them from the same planet as the Amish colonists, unbeknownst to the authors. This story had the potential to be funny, but the focus is on cultural bullies “sending out well-intentioned missionaries using the gospel to impose themselves on indigenous cultures,” and, even more chilling, spreading the gospel by viral transmission. It’s a familiar tale that bears retelling, if the author puts a fresh spin on it. This one didn’t do it for me.

The horror of being human can be stale and tedious news, so I was ready for some non-human antagonists in Janeta Clegg’s “One-Way Ticket to Paradise.” Or so I thought. A woman colonist in her protective suit ventures out, never dreaming the ants, moths, and golden pollen are not only sentient, but master military strategists. Like “Respite,” this story seems to come straight out of a nightmare, and I would not read this one at bedtime. The ending employs a well-worn trope from the horror genre: it may be possible to escape the monsters, but for how long?

A somewhat less horrifying alien brings an alternative point of view to "The Gambrels of the Sky." Author Erin Hoffman, a ludological writer and video gamer, says game structures influence her writing. This story is a little hard to follow, and it is not a cheerful testament to the courage of space colonists, nor to the endearing foibles of humankind.

Man’s ability to look at the bright side shines in Anthony R. Cardno’s “Chasing Satellites.” A team of colonists have lost the satellite signal providing their only link to Earth. Racing the clock to make repairs and get back to safety, they face a worst-case scenario. What if they end up trapped on this new planet? This tightly plotted story reminds me of conventional wisdom about technology: can’t live with it, can’t live without it ... or can we? Making the best of a bad situation is what I like best about the spirit of pioneers who leave civilization behind to make a better life in a new word. This story ends with a sort of rainbow after the storm.

Nancy Fulda satirizes the rash judgment of earthlings in “Soaring Pillar of Brightness.” A biologist despairs of being able to free a people of their primitive beliefs. He risks his life, and the lives of others, to open their eyes to the truth—but whose truth is right? Vivid, violent, memorable images and dialogues lead us to a startling conclusion. “Incomplete knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance,” says wise Rukha, the native alien. And something as old as Eve leads to incomplete knowledge.

The last two stories are far and away the best in the book. Robert Silverberg “owns” the short story medium like no other, and Mike Resnick brings the rare gift of laugh-out-loud humor to his fiction. Still, the other authors are well on their way. In all, “Beyond the Sun” delivered a good return on my investment. I didn’t come away wishing for all those lost hours of my life back. (“Beyond the Sun,” Brian Thomas Schmidt, Ed., Fairwood Press) 4stars—Carol Kean


Under Development

A FIRST IMPRESSION WILL always have meaning, but in television that first impression is rarely the be all and end all of things. As proof, look no further than Marvel and ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Miss a key scene or two in an early episode, and you may question where the science fiction is hiding in this rather standard covert ops procedural. But for the eagles imprinted on its stars’ uniforms, the series’ comic book roots seem similarly downplayed. We’re given plenty of lip service to “S.H.I.E.L.D.’s” fantastic elements—a plot device rooted in “Captain America: The First Avenger” here, a “Thor” name-drop there—but there’s far too much tell with too little show. “0-8-4” is by far the worst offender; take away its super-powered MacGuffin and you’re left with a spies vs. rebels conflict that could have been cribbed from a hundred other series.

Yet allow two more episodes to pass and these flaws reveal themselves as nothing more than growing pains. “The Asset,” the show’s third offering, eagerly embraces the super-villain origin story, blending spy games and Gravitonium-powered superweapons with an even hand. Unlike the pilot epishieldsode, which herded its super-powered villain towards a far too tidy climax, “The Asset” provides something far less neat and far more engaging. There’s no warm and cuddly end for a villain with a heart of gold. Instead, cold, calculated justice is meted out with a good dash of surprise. “Eye Spy,” the fourth and most recent episode, offers nothing but improvement to the formula. The villains are more nuanced, the science fiction moves in lockstep with the story, and the mystery at its heart is executed with a deft touch. Pieces are set in place one by one, until a last minute reveal scatters them all over again, expanding the situation exponentially.

It’s here that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” starts to set into a more finalized product. It’s “The X-Files” with a comic book sheen—lighter in tone and with a heavier emphasis on the fight choreography. As a piece of action-adventure entertainment, it never dares to risk boredom, always offering some new development or alternating bursts of humor and gunfire. It’s a consistent and dependable thrill.

The upward tick of each passing episode is a terrific omen for the series’ future. But there’s a certain hollowness that threatens “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and it lies within the show’s characters. Like in any Joss Whedon production, each and every individual on the S.H.I.E.L.D. payroll is a professional comedy writer, incapable of parting his or her lips without some perfectly tuned bit of wordplay spilling out. Anyone familiar with Whedon’s work will likely anticipate this and tweak their expectations accordingly. Yet despite their inherent charm, the cast is significantly underdeveloped. Each S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is trimmed down to a single concept—the lone wolf uneager to become a team player, the seasoned vet hesitant to re-enter the field, the technological whiz kids who can only speak in equations. Rarely, if ever, are these characters given the opportunity for real depth or an expansion on their one core concept. As well, each character is given a single, simplistic arc to follow; each a paint-by-numbers affair that anyone can see coming from episode one. There’s zero thrill in seeing the seasoned vet reluctantly return to combat or the lone wolf stripping away his inner walls.

Themes are hammered home with the same lack of subtlety. It’s not enough to allude to the S.H.I.E.L.D. team coming together as a cohesive group; characters blurt out simplistic statements about the importance of team-building (and will do so multiple times per episode).

Like the series’ other flaws, however, these issues may be resolved in time. “Eye Spy” defies the norm by forcing Agent Ward—our lone wolf—into a situation that plays against his strengths, building on his character without the need to say so outright. It’s perhaps the first time in four episodes where “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” succeeds on strength of character alone. It may not be an instant fix for these written weaknesses, but it’s certainly a good start.

And as of now, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is good—not great. It’s a satisfying piece of pulp entertainment, showing signs of serious improvement but lacking the episode count to make those improvements permanent. It’s got the right look (despite occasionally displaying the glossed-over action common in broadcast TV), and it’s got the right feeling. Now all it needs is time. (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Tuesday, 9/7c, ABC) 3stars—Adam Paul


Bobbling Into Zaniness

ALL AUTHORS HAVE HEROES WHO ARE writers. Someone who has inspired them, the catalyst that sparked the writing fire under them at some point. Little nods are generally given to the inspiration. But when an entire book is full of nods, in this case to Robert Heinlein, the audience begins to feel like a bobblehead. And if the bobblehead doesn’t stop nodding, our heads might fall off.

“The Goliath Stone” starts with a prologue that treats us with a wonderfully written history of the formation of our solar system. Starting roughly five billion years ago and running up to 2051, the focus is on comets impacting the planet and the harm they do. It is also asked whether or not rocks seek revenge. This wonderful opening gets our hopes up very high, unfortunately.

In 2052, Dr. Toby Glyer lives and works in Switzerland. He has found a miracle cure for diverticulosis using nanobots. Doing his routine treatments, a past associate walks into his office. May Wyndham worked with Toby some 25 yearsgoliath stone earlier in a failed project. The two worked on different teams. Toby developed nanobots that were to be shot into space to catch a dinosaur killer comet, and May was on the team that flew the ship out. After meeting, the two go on a date only to be interrupted by an Indian woman (Indians in this novel refer to indigenous people of the western hemisphere, not people originating from India) who kisses Toby and leaves him with a cryptic message from another old associate, William Connors. The novel spins into zaniness from this point on.

William Connors should be dead. If not from old age (he is in his nineties) then from the fact that he was shot several times, taken to prison, and then executed for double homicide. My suspension of disbelief was taking a beating at this point but it got worse. Connors, who is disabled and a senior citizen, thrives in prison (having his sentence commuted to life in prison after his failed execution). He becomes a best-selling romance novelist and develops nanobots that can completely rewrite people to make them superhuman. Also, he figures out a way to kill the entire rapist population in prison with him.

Toby and May are swept up in a plot to be captured as a comet is spotted heading for Earth, only the comet seems to be redirecting itself as though it is intelligent. The couple escapes through silly coincidences and with help from Connors, who is out of jail and now an Olympic athlete who competes and wins in multiple events (that’s in the book, I’m not making it up). The two are whisked away to live in opulence as they begin to get younger and become Indians themselves.

Connors, now named Mycroft Yellowhorse, converts a DHS agent to his side after showing her the joys of sex (again, not making that up) and he meets with May and Toby. The group builds a ship to fly up to the comet and meet the new life form that is controlling it: the nanobots from the earlier launch. There is a bit of tension from another ship that is set out to stop them but it is easily evaded, and then the novel ends.

No real conflict, therefore no real climax or resolution. There really wasn’t a clearly defined antagonist other than the big bad overreaching government. And even this was only mentioned in passing.

Hard science fiction fans can rejoice in the story of the nanobots. Sprinkled in between the mess I described above is the story of the nanobots and how they took control of a comet. They develop intelligence and began to form a society all their own. There is also quite a bit of discussion of how nanobots work in humans as far as restoring youth and giving heightened abilities. There are enough vague references to classic science fiction books and movies to make any fan smile, not to mention the fact that all of the protagonists are big science fiction fans.

The rest is terrible. The characters are so similar, try as I might, I couldn’t keep them apart in my head. Almost everything is told as opposed to shown. And the plot is ridiculous.

Libertarianism is extolled as the superior form of political thought and philosophy in the book but the characters don’t really live up to the ideal. The almost omniscient protagonist, Mycroft, infects the entire planet with nanobots so he can heal everyone and basically kills or sterilizes all the people he deems bad. Nothing like celebrating individual freedom by killing everyone who disagrees with you.

At some point, reading through this, I started to think that this must have been written as a comedy. Maybe it just wasn’t my taste in humor and that’s why I dislike it. But, aside from knocking any political system that isn’t libertarianism, there are also comments that seem to be racist and islamophobic. I could be reading something that is not there because I was thoroughly displeased when I came across them.

Is there a redeeming factor here? Larry Niven and Matthew Harrington included some really good, hard science fiction elements; there are quite a few references to beloved science fiction of the past; and the novel is rather short. But the idea of science fiction fans changing the world (making it better in a very narrow scope) is an odd catering to a particular audience. An audience that is intelligent and can see through such a flimsy plot. (“The Goliath Stone,” Larry Niven and Matthew Joseph Harrington, Tor Books) 2stars—Adam Armstrong


Tethered to Survival

“GRAVITY” IS THE RARE FILM unified towards a single goal. It dives in and out of genres; from suspense to science fiction (and as its characters pinwheel away into the blackness of space, real horror). But every step taken in the interest of a sole purpose: “Gravity” is an unrelenting charge into the purest, most basic survival instinct within each and every one of us.

The story couldn’t be simpler. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are installing some nifty new device of Stone’s invention on the Hubble telescope. A sudden burst of debris leaves the two stranded and totally alone—few supplies, no backup and no communications with Earth. Stone and Kowalski spend the entire running time of “Gravity” scrambling desperately towards home, against the incomprehensible vastness of space and an impossible string of bad luck, mechanical malfunctions and ricocheting space debris.

Once things go haywire, director Alfonso Cuarón pulls from an endless bag of tricks to keep us rooted to our astronaut heroes. The camera swoops and soars, bounces and bobbles, as though some unseen third character was right along with the protagonists, experiencing every nauseating moment of space travel. A drawn-out tracking shot may corkscrew its way into a character’s POV at any moment. Nearly every image in the film is beautiful in its own right, from clever shot composition or the striking space photography that pervades every frame. Even if you’re too busy shrieking and covering your eyes to notice, that majesty’s still there.

Sound is handled just as deftly. Cuarón keeps things silent; no sound in space means no sound when a space station is ripped apart or debris tears its way through twisted metal. All we’re given are the claustrophobic bumps present inside a space suit—that, and a score which picks up the slack where sound effects cannot go. The music brings coming dread and jump scare-levels of punctuation, filling in any and all gaps. Cuarón even bookends the gravity film with the same cue, a screamingly high string piece meant to startle viewers out of their seats.

The film’s technical prowess is never more apparent than in its opening shot: a seventeen-minute behemoth that utilizes everything in Cuarón’s arsenal and sets “Gravity’s” tone as somewhere between disaster film, deep-space documentary and roller coaster. It’s a blend of practical, digital and 3D on such massive scale and with such intricate detail that the opening shot alone is worth the price of admission.

Yet despite its technical achievements, “Gravity” doesn’t feel quite as densely packed as Cuarón’s earlier work. In spending so much time raising one’s heart rate, there’s comparatively little time for a deeper discussion. There are currents of introspection, of course; most prominent is that of overcoming loss. Space in “Gravity” is a circular entity. It may grant peace after a hailstorm of debris, but give it time and that same debris will be headed your way once more. A space station can begin as a womb (in one of the film’s most entrancing shots, a gently floating Bullock recalls an unborn infant) and end as a coffin. These characters are motivated by the threat of death—Bullock’s character even has a backstory built entirely around mourning—and in continually fighting for survival, they are reborn. In that regard, it’s fitting that the final shot brings us back to the dawn of life.

This message has a purpose. It plays into the churning suspense that builds throughout the film, merging theme with action and tethering them both to the survival instinct that’s the beating heart of “Gravity.” Considering how quickly it moves by, it almost demands multiple viewings. And it certainly demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Do yourself a favor and seek it out. (“Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Warner Bros.) 4starsAdam Paul




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