Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


You’ll Always Have the Burden With You
by Ken Liu

by Aliya Whiteley

Adventures of Doria Quinn
by Joe Occhipinti

by Nathaniel Williams

My Soul to Keep
by Eric Del Carlo

Voices of { }
by Sean Eret

Foggy Planet Breakdown
by Peter Wood

Subcasting the Pain
by Erin Lale

Expansion of Space
by Brian Biswas

by Simon Kewin


Journey to the Bottom of Nothing
by Eric M. Jones

Giving the Gift of Science
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Perihelion Reviews

Transcendental Tales

PEOPLE GO TO THE GYM, READ books, and perfect hobbies everyday. In most cases they are trying to achieve a short-term goal of looking better, learning a new skill, or cultivating an avocation into a vocation. But others want to perfect all aspects of their selves, eliminate all nonessentials, and achieve the highest level of awareness possible. What if a machine existed that could instantly bring one to this goal? And if there were a long running galactic war, imagine the benefits one group could gain over all the others.

Sentient life lives side by side in our galaxy in an uneasy truce. The Galactics, as they refer to one another, have decided to tolerate each other as a war would cause all sides to lose. Humanity is new to the scene and offered james gunna junior role in the galactic council. But humanity’s hubris won’t allow itself to sit at the kids’ table when it feels that it should sit on the throne. War rages before a new truce, shakier than the previous one, comes about. But a new religion begins to spread across all species. A prophet has told of a machine that grants the user immediate transcendence. All the main powers either want the machine for themselves or want it destroyed.

A pilgrimage sets out to the other spiral arm of the galaxy, where everyone believes the transcendental machine lies. Riley is a battle-tested veteran who doesn’t believe that the machine even exits. But he finds himself on a dilapidated ship slowly making its way through nexus points that are being delivered from the unseen prophet. The pilgrims all begin to share their stories of how their worlds evolved, all the way up to why they are on the voyage. But Riley suspects that the stories are nothing but stories. He believes that the alien misfits are under the influence of greater powers. And Riley might have an agenda that he is hiding.

In 2004, James Gunn released an updated version of his novel, “The Immortals.” I actually received an advanced reader’s copy of the novel and was quickly blown away (I still think about the ending a few times every year). “Transcendental” will have a similar effect on its readers.

From the first chapter, Gunn starts wrapping the reader in various mysteries and in a rich milieu. Every detail is slowly dripped into our consciousness as we move along. Even the viewpoint character, Riley, is slowly revealed as the novel progresses; the final picture being quite different from what is initially expected.

When the pilgirms first started telling their tales, “Canterbury Tales” style, I was disappointed. The main story was so fascinating that I didn’t want to be pulled away from it. But the tales themselves quickly assuaged my dismay. Initially I thought that Gunn was just padding out the book as he moved from character to character. But each story was told in its own voice with each character relating the evolution of their species and why they as an individual seek transcendence. Some of the aliens were truly alien such as the flower creature, the creature that evolved on a planet that jumps from freezing to burning hot, and a completely inorganic creature. Each tale gives the teller’s relative truth, though as Riley suggests, all the tales are most likely lies.

I was wrong. The pilgrim tales aren’t padding nor, as suggested in the book, are they a way to pass time on long space flights that would be quite boring. The tales themselves add a depth to the universe Gunn created that he wouldn’t have been able to do in any other narrative sense. And they point to why religion can quickly infect the minds of many, driving them to do things thought to be insane by those unaffected.

The main story of the book, or the quest for the transcendental machine, is written in a minimalistic style (think Amy Hempel if she wrote science fiction, and novel length fiction). All the various tools employed by Gunn bring the book to an abrupt but very satisfying ending: an ending that does what every good ending should do and what every novelist should aspire toward—resonation.

I can’t recommend James Gunn’s writing enough. But beware gentle reader, the author will expect you to work for the payoff and you will be more than glad you did. (“Transcendental,” James Gunn, Tor Books) 5 stars —Adam Armstrong


Almost Excellent

IT MAY BOAST FAR MORE ANDROIDS than your average TV show, but at its core, Fox’s “Almost Human” isn’t about science fiction. It’s about the buddy cop genre. Every element contained within is tied to that central partnership, between human John Kennex (Karl Urban) and his artificial partner Dorian (Michael Ealy). It’s the easy, affable relationship between the two that drives the show forward, providing an emotional anchor for the case of the week, and nourishment for the supporting cast to bloom outward. Urban and Ealy share an addictive chemistry— “Almost Human’s” most memorable moments often come as its characters drive from scene to scene, giving its two leads a chance to trade barbs in close quarters.

Yet like any other buddy cop series, Kennex and Dorian are based off simple clichés. Kennex is the bad cop, a detective who lost a partner and a leg in a bust gone wrong and tries to compensate by playing the reckless (and violent) hero. Dorian is the good cop, a rare android programmed with human emotions and the cool, sarcastic yin to Kennex’s fiery yang. One’s a human with a little android in him (via a newfangled synthetic leg), the other’s an android with a little human in him, and together they’re almost ... well, you get the idea. Four episodes in and the series has broken little ground with its overarching story—eventually they’ll be hunting down the ones who killed Kennex’s partner, but not anytime soon—that’s hardly a complaint. “Almost Human” has spent the bulk of those four episodes working itself into a comfortable groove, and it’s paid off handsomely. The relationship between Kennex and Dorian, after only four hours, feels far more lived-in than it has any right to be.

“Almost Human” still coats its buddy cop heart with a healthy dose of science fiction, and the series uses that core relationship as a launching pad for its loftier ideas. In the second episode, “Skin,” it’s race. One scene finds Kennex and Dorian interrogating a sex-bot (or Intimate Robot Companion, as is the official nomenclature) about her place of origin. Kennex repeats the word “owner,” emphasizing that the IRC is someone else’s property. Dorian takes the softer approach, asking her where she was “born” and ultimately getting the information they need. But taken in context, where the human is portrayed by a white actor and the two sympathetic androids by black actors, the sequence (and the words “owner” and “property”) suddenly take on an entirely different meaning. It’s not surprising, then, that Dorian bristles at the term “synthetic”—a common name for his animatronic ilk—as a kind of slur. Be it race, sex, violence or mental illness, “Almost Human” never fails to put an intelligent spin on its starring duo.

The series also knows its roots, and knows them well; rarely is the show shy about declaring its love for the action and science fiction films that came before it. Early in the pilot episode, Kennex passes by a noodle shop ripped straight out of “Blade Runner;” later on we’ll find that the station’s evidence lockup bears more than a passing resemblance to the final frames of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Actor Karl Urban briefly morphs from John Kennex to Joe Dredd as he threatens to throw a suspect in the cubes. Yet it can be a bit much at times. The series’ third outing, “Are You Receiving?,” is an hour-long “Die Hard” homage that’s so attentive to detail it borders on plagiarism. The entirety of the “burglars posing as extremists” plot almost human is copied note for note, ruining the eventual twist a good half an hour in advance. Lines of dialogue (“we’ll be sitting on a beach, earning twenty percent”) and action sequences (the hero leaping across an elevator shaft and into an air duct) are also lifted in their entirety. In doing so, “Almost Human” demonstrates far more creativity than any other cop show on the market, but a hint of subtlety will always be appreciated.

Still, when choosing between the overzealous and the unimaginative, the smart money’s on “overzealous” every time. The action on “Almost Human” is routinely terrific, marred only by the occasional bout of camera shaking (a fad that’s finally begun to run its course). The series is fairly gruesome for a network TV series, yet everything has its place, and “Almost Human’s” goriest moments are always good for a few cathartic whoops. Yet even here, that extra zeal becomes too much. The cops of “Almost Human” are more than happy to execute a perp at point-blank range if it means a snarled quip and a close-up, and rarely (if ever) do fellow officers bat an eye. Maybe the police of the future have laxer gun laws? The show’s never bothered to mention it one way or the other. Worse still is the series’ baffling inconsistency with androids and head trauma. Early on, an android suffers a gunshot wound to the head and is DOA, yet a later episode finds an android of the same make and model alive and well after a projectile punches a hole clean through his skull. Dorian takes a bullet to the temple and requires emergency surgery; another metal man acts as a bullet sponge without so much as a flinch. It’s a minor complaint, but it’s always distracting to find that a series is, quite literally, shooting first and asking questions later.

Yet the issues with “Almost Human” are all ones that can easily be fixed with time. Given more episodes and the chance to smooth the wrinkles out of its own rules, it’ll shine more than it already does. This is one to keep your eye on. (“Almost Human,” Fox, Mondays, 8/7C) 4 stars —Adam Paul


Black Holes, Plot Holes

MIXING SCIENCE, MURDER AND ESPIONAGE, many of today’s science fiction writers feel the need to invade the alien territory of the thriller. Libby McGugan’s debut novel “The Eidolon“ promises to deliver the things that make me shun that genre, along with two hooks I cannot resist: the atom smasher, and evidence of a human afterlife. Add strangelets, stigmery and WIMPS (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles), let the characters marvel at swarm intelligence in bees, and I can emphatically state that this is no run-of-the-mill thriller. Not until the last chapter did I want to hurl the book into an Iowa blizzard in a fit of let-down and gnawing rage. Instead, I did the unthinkable. I read the novel a second time.

Had I known death haunts the novel like a cold, impenetrable fog that never lifts, I’d have read it any other month but November. My sister was killed in November, 1975. She didn’t have the IQ of a physicist, but that shouldn’t be necessary for spirits of the dead to figure out how to visit the living. Revisiting the novel in December made me feel a little more charitable. But only a little. The chilling, nebulous narrator of the prologue falls silent after page one, and I have no doubt he/she/it will speak again in sequels to “The Eidolon.” A pity, becaeidolonuse I am perversely opposed to stories that leave unfinished business on the last page, necessitating the purchase of more books to get to the final resolution of conflict. I am even more opposed to that trope of the thriller genre in which readers are fed misinformation and blindsided by the ending.

I’m also opposed to being unduly hard on young authors, though, and McGugan is not only young, she’s a violinist, a mountain climber and an emergency physician; she’s worked field hospitals in the desert with the Flying Doctors service; for that, I’ll forgive plot holes, mini black holes and whatever lurks between the gaps.

Still, I feel cheated that the dead sister of “The Eidolon” never says or does much, even though the other ghosts can eat, drink and merge with buzzards in order to fly. Yes, you read that right. Hours of my life have been spent searching for the justification in that. Science fiction is the improbable made possible, Rod Serling said, while fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction starts with “the real world as we know it, including all established facts and natural laws,” according to Heinlein. “The result can be extremely fantastic in content, but it is not fantasy; it is legitimate—and often very tightly reasoned—speculation about the possibilities of the real world.”

So a young author stretched the boundaries and put some fantasy in my science fiction. Should she keep her day job as a doctor and give up writing? No. The opening scene is exquisitely cold, stark and beautiful. Snow swirls around two men as they near the top of Mt. Everest. The prose is riveting: “I peer up at the faceless ascent and it stares back at me—cold, unmerciful. The fear grips me for a moment. The kind of fear I’ve read about, when men who undertake this pilgrimage ... realize that they’re nobody to the mountain; that it doesn’t care if they live or die ... The wind is wailing like a tortured cat ... There’s a point when pride needs to step aside for instinct, and it’s right here.”

Huddled in a hole in the snow, Robert takes the reader back in time. Through flashbacks we meet an earlier Robert on his way to work, where he’s about to verify his earth-shaking discoveries at the Dark Matter research lab. Like the storm that would keep him from the top of Mt. Everest, a shocking, sudden closing of the lab halts his life’s work. Dazed and demoralized, he comes home to find his live-in girlfriend talking to her sister’s ghost. Cora always was a New Age mystic sort of gal, but this is more juju than a recently fired physicist can take. Then again, his skepticism is more than a positive thinker like Cora can take, so she leaves him.

Still shivering in the snow, Robert suddenly senses the presence of another sentient being on the mountain. The shadow impels Robert and a doubting Danny to safety, and they awaken in the mountain lair of a Buddhist monastery. The monks lure Robert into strange conversations about dark matter, something they seem to understand better than most scientists. How do they know about Robert’s strange vision of two lakes, followed by a vision of impending global doom? The monks tell Robert he is one of the rare sentient people who can choose to prevent darkness from flowing into the world, but he dismisses their eerie notions as more juju like Cora’s. When the ghost of her sister Sarah starts appearing to Robert, too, he dismisses it as a stress-induced delusion.

Robert retreats to his childhood home in Scotland, but instead of shaking his gloom, he starts seeing more dead people. Jobless and no longer sure of his sanity, he’s ripe for the recruiting efforts of a scary-mysterious businessman who offers him one hundred thousand pounds for a week’s work. The catch? Victor Amos wants Robert to sabotage the famous, fabulous, hugely expensive and important Large Hadron Collider. Amos and his super-secret global guardians are on a mission to protect humanity from its own curiosity. They have compelling “evidence” that CERN’s next round of experiments could destroy the world, and only Robert can stop them. He remains skeptical until Amos pulls the last rabbit from his hat, a compelling surprise that induces Robert to accept the job.

The only reason I kept reading, at that point, was to see if Robert would go through with it. The LHC took 20 years and ten billion dollars to build, with 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries working in collaboration at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Even the most ridiculous yet lovable hero of the thriller genre, James Bond, wouldn’t dare to mess with the largest, most expensive and worthwhile scientific experiment on Earth. Not for a mere hundred thousand dollars. But even if he did, he’d enjoy himself in the process and amuse us with clever one-liners. After all, as Niels Bohr once said, some things are so serious you have to laugh at them. It is as if humor is forbidden in today’s science fiction markets. In addition to the recent obsession with trilogies, the writers’ holy grail seems to be dead serious prose that gets analyzed in graduate English Lit classes in the halls of academia.

The best character in “The Eidolon” gets the least amount of action and dialogue. I wanted more of Casimir, the bee-keeping, star-gazing neighbor who has a vast amount of knowledge about the cosmos in spite of no money for a university education. “The idea of finding dark matter always intrigued him. A hunch, he said, that it would change everything.”

The more I wanted Robert “Strong” to lighten up, though, (and let up on the anti-atom-smashing!) the more gloom and doom and dead people he’d see. When Robert winds up in the ocean suffering his second near-death experience, I rejoiced. Die, Robert, die! But no, he sees a stranger on a beach performing CPR, and he returns to his body, breathing again, heart beating again; and off to CERN he goes, ready to sabotage the atom smasher.

How could a physicist, however clinically depressed he may be, swallow the alarmist notion that the atom smasher might annihilate us? A previous issue of “Perihelion” covered this concern. If Robert Strong had a sense of humor and a subscription to this magazine, he’d know that any black holes created by CERN will pop in an out of existence in milliseconds. Don Lincoln, a physicist at Fermilab near Chicago, said of the possible black holes, “Oh, my God, I’d be wiggling like a puppy ... If they form, we can learn something deep and insightful and really central to our understanding of how the universe came into existence.” (Nautilus, “Outsmarting the CERNageddon,” August 8, 2103, Issue 4.)

If only Robert had that kind of enthusiasm.

When Robert infiltrates CERN, his social circle fills with dead people, or people who claim to be ghosts. They call themselves eidolon—ancient Greek for apparition, a spirit-image of a living or dead person. Robert can shake hands with the eidolon and drink with them, while most people can’t see them at all. One is angry and in denial about being recently murdered; another is completely unaware of being dead. Robert continues to be too morbid or morose to see any humor in these situations, even when the ghosts try teaching him the tricks of their trade. Becoming invisible is a simple matter of “altering the subatomic structure of your atoms with your intention,” they explain. Just keep your intention pure, and you can switch yourself off from electromagnetism and ... well, you get the picture. Think of “The Men Who Stare at Goats” minus the hilarity, while I say nothing about the ghosts merging with birds to show Robert how to fly.

For all my lamenting that Robert needs a sense of humor, this story deserves a more epic treatment of the speculative fiction themes at play. The paranormal, fantastical and metaphysical wonders seem to have little to do with CERN’s atom-smasher and more to do with the New Age juju that divided Robert and Cora.

Complaining about the plot holes would create spoilers, which can be more treacherous to a reader than strangelets. The plot holes, though, like CERN’s mini black holes, are fairly harmless. I still love and re-watch “The Wizard of Oz,” in spite of Glinda the Good Witch telling Dorothy “you wouldn’t have believed me,” about the red shoes, “you had to find out for yourself.” Rubbish. Dorothy would have believed her. Glinda should have said, “But then we wouldn’t have enjoyed this movie if you’d gone home right away.”

Was this novel any better the second time around? In some ways, yes. If “The Eidolon” were just a thriller, I’d have put it out of my mind by now. That I’m still thinking about it weeks later must be a sign that McGugan has some sort of unique power as a storyteller. Someone stop me from buying the sequel. As long as the atom-smasher is safe, I don't care if the dead learn how to fly or the dark narrator of the prologue is silenced forever. That's what I keep telling myself, anyway. (“The Eidolon,” Libby McGugan, Solaris Books) 4 stars —Carol Kean




bendayElectric Farm of the Future

IT IS NOT impossible that the time when the farmer shall conduct the whole of his operations by machinery and the application of scientific principles will precede the millennium. A time when there will be no drouth, nor ruinous floods of rain; when the crops shall not fail, but will be forced to perfect maturity in less time than required by the natural process.


Our illustration depicts something of how this would be brought about by 1930. A huge forcing house run entirely by electricity, which when all the streams and falls are harnessed may be as cheap as water, is the method employed. Old Sol still sheds his luminous rays which are utilized to their full efficiency by glass enclosures, but he is assisted by powerful electric lights and vast systems of radiators. Unless the California rainmaker has a better system, storms will be produced by firing mortars and shells and dissipated by the same means, on occasion. The whole system will be under the control of one or two operators and the farmer can tilt back in his chair, elevate his feet and smoke and watch the grain grow. We predict that an American farmer will be the first to have a plant of this kind. —“Popular Mechanics,” July, 1905


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