Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Crowd Control
by Gareth D. Jones et al.

Blank Space
by David Wright

Robot of Dorian Graham
by Richard Zwicker

Seven Styles of Mortality
by Cathy Douglas

Lightning Strikes
by Sean Monaghan

2038: A Mars Odyssey
by Brian Biswas

Innovation Stopped
by William R. Eakin

Midnight in Absheron
by Edward Ashton

Full Fathom Five on Chemical Freedom
by Robin Wyatt Dunn

by Aaron Rasmusson

Shimmer and Fade
by Daniel Nathan Horn


UFOs: the Truth is Not Out There
by Eric M. Jones

Off on a Comet
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Perihelion Reviews

A Different Kind of Dystopia

IF LITERARY THEMES ARE a sign of the times, dystopian fiction may be the canary in our coal mine. Stories celebrating social harmony and scientific advances are scarce as hen’s teeth, but the market explodes with cautionary tales that show our own society reflected in a futuristic dystopia. I don’t know if this signifies that most readers already feel we’re living in a bad (dys) place (topia). I do know it’s hard to find authentic characters in a compelling story no matter what the genre. In a field full of Brave New Knock-Offs, “Dell Zero” by Carol Ervin kicks all kinds of hindquarters.

Who is Dell Zero?

Even Dell has no idea. Raised by two herders, she’s grown up at the fringe of the system without being part of it.

“Officially, Dell doesn’t exist,” the calm, cool narrator informs us. “She has no wristscreen, no port in her arm for meds, no numerical suffix.” Her guardians have taught Dell to hide on the rare occasion anyone comes to the outpost. If seen, she’ll be captured as an outlaw. “A catcher’s job is to send outlaws to the mines. Dell’s guardians make send to the mines sound bad, but they never explain.”

Citizens with numbers belong to The Chapter. By the tone of her guardians’ infrequent mutterings, having a place in human society might be as bad as working the mines. After 18 years of not knowing, Dell is ready to find out. She’s desperate to belong somewhere and be somebody.

Dell’s haunting, lonely narrative shifts to the second POV character, John, in Chapter Two. For centuries, Vita-meds have kept The Chapter’s people at peace and on task. Regular “transformations” (a gory sort of transfusion) restore youth and vigor to the aging. With every renewal their numbers climb but their memories dim. John, one of the oldest, seems to be wearing out rather than recharging. His colleague goes missing, even though “no one in The Chapter ever disappears.” His colleague’s replacement, Dell, is a mystery. Is she an aberration or an outlaw or something else entirely?

She meets some outlaws, humans who were actually conceived via physical contact (eww!) and born (double-eww!) instead of grown in a test tube. Dell’s identity gradually emerges. Scene after scene, in small but exponentially growing increments, Dell learns more about The Chapter, while John forgets more of everything he’s ever known.

Cautionary-tale road signs are planted on every page. Futuristic science delivers peace of mind and longevity to the masses, via drugs that actually enslave us and rob us of our full critical faculties and memories. (Pass the Prozac, please.) In Sam Bellotto Jr.’s “Yellow Glad Days,” the government-issued drug is BLISS, and it’s voluntary, of course, but those who refuse it are encouraged to emigrate to Alabama. (Can anyone say that without laughing?) In “Dell Zero,” the drug is administered via a port implanted in the wrist, linking each citizen to data central.

With Vita-meds, serious thought is impossible and not missed. Curiosity and assertiveness are not acceptable traits. When John detects them in Rengo, a subversive, he resolves to report him. The computers are slow, however, and short-term memory is a problem for the old ones. Failings of the system lead to little victories over bureaucracy, all narrated with dry wit and brevity. John’s weak memory is comical, endearing and often poignant, especially when he reads a fascinating document and realizes, with a shock, he’d written it himself, however many transformations ago.

Ervin’s simple language packs a punch, line after line. One of my favorites: “She doesn’t want to be part of the system; she wants to be part of Oliver. She also wants to talk about it.” Oliver is not as new as Dell. In The Chapter, “no one loves, and no one breeds.” If they do, the less said, the better.

This isn’t human nature, of course (never mind that Oliver’s silent, post-coital stoicism may typify men versus women). The Chapter is crumbling, because science still can’t suppress our fundamental humanity. The regime is threatened by the most mundane villains: soggy memories, sloppy work, lack of team spirit, and a work ethic that depends on the right drug dose, right on schedule.

“Everyone in The Chapter is old, even the ones who look younger,” Oliver tells Dell. “Everyone but us.” It’s the young ones like him and Dell, never yet transformed, who may be able to change the world. Trouble is, with freedom comes the old familiar social concerns: health care, crime, power struggles, and competition for control of resources. And as John wearily observes, “The wear and tear of un-medicated life includes an overload of information and too many feelings.”

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz said man “is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” Author John L. Monk expands on that: “Ervin’s dellzerodystopian world should appeal to anyone who’s ever sat in morning traffic, chained in insignificance, dreaming about that first cup of coffee and wishing it was something like Vita-sat."

To say more about the plot risks spoilers, but perilous and heart-wrenching events keep this story hurtling along. Outlaws, miners, “creatives,” and assorted minor characters sparkle in this cast. Rengo the rebel shines with the same kind of impudent, irresistible charm Jack Nicholson brought to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“Every worker is a living-breathing drug test,” Rengo says, “if we can consider that living. Why not interrupt the whole order, scramble everyone’s doses? Oliver, you can do it. It’ll be fun to watch.” Oliver protests, but Rengo clenches his fists and aims to do something big. Dell fears for him and worries about “the punishment drug, the one John says doesn’t exist.”

John worries about a future without meds imposed on everyone, but fabricators like Rengo and creatives like Colerain bring new ideas, many of which are found in a library of dusty old things called books. John, for once, “feels energized by the notion of possibility” rather than Vita-meds.

Despite the trope of a totalitarian government pretending to have the people’s best interests at heart, along with the trope of immortality not being all it’s cracked up to be, “Dell Zero” is a fresh, riveting tale that kept me turning pages. This is not to say it’s an easy read. Scenes of violence and personal loss are narrated in a stoic, objective tone. The present-tense, third person point of view conveys an overall sense of detachment or even apathy. If the characters don’t care, why should I? Because the stark contrast of calm, factual descriptions with tragic events serves to hit the reader harder than a truckload of exclamation points and purple prose ever could. In short, the writing is brilliant.

Speaking of “tropes,” this word seems to be ubiquitous and almost always pejorative. But without tropes we’d only get one or two science fiction novels and no more could be written for fear of repeating an idea. Dystopian stories are set well into the future, with young people spotting evil in the system and finding some glimmer of hope for change. Typically, the needed change sounds like a return to life as we know it now, or knew it in 1950s and 1960s America, a time of tremendous community, little governance, and explosive strides in technology. Dystopian fiction seems to assure us that we live in a good place now, but we’re at risk of entering a bad place if we allow authoritarians to usurp our personal liberty.

Another trope of dystopian science fiction is technology going too far. We love the idea of biologists developing drugs to keep us feeling good for a long, long time to come, but we fear the side effects, and we don’t trust those who’d administer the drugs. In keeping with Charles A. Cornell’s thinking on punk subgenres, “biopunk” might be an apt label for “Dell Zero.”

Ervin’s message is familiar but her style is bold. She dares to be different in a market where publishers play it safe and readers keep buying whatever is predictable and familiar. Unlike many novice writers who come up with a cool concept but don’t know how to use it, she delivers with the touch of a master storyteller.

“Dell Zero” is a book I wouldn’t have discovered had I not decided to read more indie authors, whose bad reputation is being redeemed by so many exceptions to the rule.

One of the perks of being your own publisher is setting your own price and deciding when to announce sales and promotions. Ervin is offering readers a countdown deal via the ad link displayed on the righthand sidebar on this page. Starting September 12, the novel will be 99 cents in both the US and UK. After forty-eight hours, the price will be $1.99. On September 17 the price will return to the regular $2.99, which is still a great deal for a great story. (“Dell Zero,” C. L. Ervin, Carol L. Ervin) 5stars—Carol Kean


Through the Eyes of Androids

TECHNOLOGY IS ADVANCING AT an incredible rate. Systems now offer almost unlimited information access. Just seven years ago the iPhone hit the market. And soon we will be able to “print” food at home in our 3D printers. Medicine is also progressing at an astonishing clip. We don’t hear about it as much because people want smart devices more than they want to learn about cancer genome fingerprints. But if there was a merger of the two, and technological advancements were directly focused upon those suffering from terrible disorders, lock inimagine what could happen? People with disabilities may find that they now have an advantage; the rest of the world may begin to resent it. This unusual theme is explored in “Lock In,” the latest science fiction novel by John Scalzi.

In the near future, the Great Flu hits, killing more than 400 million people worldwide. A former first lady catches the disease and, because she is the most recognizable victim, the disease takes her name: Haden’s Syndrome. Some of the victims don’t die; instead, they find themselves in a coma-like state with their bodies almost completely paralyzed, but their minds are fully awake and active. These victims are “locked in” to their bodies. Others experience major changes to their brains, but are able to live a semi-normal life—they become Integrators. Integrators are people who can give some of the locked in Haden’s patients use of their bodies. The rest have to use a kind of personal transport, dubbed a threep, that is essentially an android.

Twenty-five years later, America is in a state of unrest. The general population thinks that Hadens get too much government money and want it cut off. Hadens number at over four million and contribute much to society. The Hadens plan a mass walkout the same day Chris Shane starts his new job with the FBI. The flak Shane catches from other Hadens isn’t his biggest problem, however, or his self-destructive partner, Vann. His worst problem is his first case; and it becomes more and more complicated by the minute.

Shane and Vann are called to the Watergate Hotel in D.C., where a murder has occurred. The dilemma is that the main suspect is an Integrator, Nicholas Bell, who may not be culpable if he had a “passenger.” The victim is a man who can’t be identified in a time where everyone is easily identified. Their problems don’t stop there, however. A high-priced lawyer, another Haden, represents Bell; and Bell acts as an Integrator for some of the most powerful people locked in. Shane and Vann have to fight corporate power and tangle with the ongoing Haden movement, all while someone is pulling strings that may change the course of the Hadens’ destiny.

Scalzi renders an interesting future all the while doing what good science fiction should do: ask questions about the present. He brings up a number of hot-button, socio-political concepts like the rights and treatment of minorities. Scalzi also points out that technologies designed for one particular problem (in this case, Haden’s syndrome) can readily be commercialized for a slightly different purpose available to everyone. And of course, no advancement is made that there is not someone wanting to capitalize and control it.

The book threw me a bit. It often dipped into lengthy passages of straight up mystery before I realized that the protagonist is seeing everything through the eyes of an android. Shane uses an android to get around. He can take damage that would kill a human. He can jump into other threeps (even ones across the country) if he needs to be elsewhere. The androids in the novel aren’t super-strong or lightning fast, which is actually a relief—that theme has been played out enough in fiction and film over the years.

Scalzi continues the tradition of his Old Man’s War series by having the technology radically change mankind. He is able to build a realistic, fully developed world where you don’t really need much suspension of disbelief. The narrative is readily and completely believable. Most of the scientific advancements feel like we ought to be finding out about on a news site and experience any day now.

“Lock In” is a wonderful, fast-paced mystery. It takes delicious effort to solve this whodunit. And Scalzi gives us plenty to digest and think over without getting preachy. The only thing I would have like to have seen more of was the Agora (the virtual world where locked in Hadens could interact with one another). We get to see it in a few short scenes, but not really in enough detail to paint a clear picture. (“Lock In,” John Scalzi, Tor Books) 5 stars —Adam Armstrong


Thirty Book Saga Begins Brightly

“LISTEN CAREFULLY. I AM TIAGO Modesto Breno Davi Salazar. I am your new master. You will submit to me, now!”

Of the many comical lines in “Tiago and the Masterless,” by Charles Barouch, that one has to be my favorite.

This story is sheer fun, the way science fiction was meant to be. It also packs a message without being didactic. How human can Artificial Intelligence become? Can a computer programmer ever really control his AIs, much less trust them? Add an alien race called The Masterless, and our anti-hero is in over his brilliant head.

Tiago is a computer geek and a pirate, which sounds oxymoronic. He’s dwarfed by the three-mile-wide spaceship he’s stolen. How he pulled that off, we don’t know. We only know our socially challenged renegade is on the run from a totalitarian government on Earth. They want their ship back. Captain Lossgren “took the theft of the Interrogative personally” and keeps the chase going long after everyone else gives up.

I’m eager to meet this Lossgren, who brings to mind a relentless Captain Ahab, as well as Robert Duvall’s unforgettable Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore demanding the return of his surfboard in “Apocalypse Now.” Sadly, Lossgren makes no personal appearance in this novel. Happily, Charles Barouch has thirty novels in mind for this series (yes, thirty!), so I expect him to deliver Lossgren soon. While he’s at it, more of the mysterious Quintrell would be good. It was Quintrell’s idea to steal the Interrogative, we learn via flashbacks, but Tiago somehow ends up going solo.

Tiago is antisocial in the cutting, witty and detached way that only an Aspie-like computer programmer can be. For two years, he’s been cut off from human society. His only interaction is with a crew of government-issue sim holograms, all programmed to utter the propaganda Tiago was running from in the first place. Loneliness finally drives him to search for life, any kind of sentient life.

Meanwhile, with a futuristic sort of 3D printer, Tiago embodies one of the sims. He winnows out most of the propaganda and changes her name from Six-four-four to Audra. When Tiago tires of her much-too-clever comments, he just tells “The Maker” to disassemble her. When he needs her again, he has her remade. Male readers may tiagolove this as much as women readers are sure to hate it, but Audra gets the best of Tiago in scene after delightful scene. Soon, she has him apologizing. “I shouldn’t have disassembled you,” he says.

“Again,” she adds.

“I shouldn’t have disassembled you again,” he agrees.

Sometimes the dialogue is little more than a string of commands to a computer, but even I could grasp it—and it does my Luddite heart good to share a tech-wizard’s frustrations. Tiago wants to “meet the software designer, pat him on the back for the speed and efficiency of the code, and then strangle him for the complexity of the same code.”

Tiago knows AI programming is intentionally fuzzy. “Lots of things creep in where you don’t expect them,” he reminds himself. “It makes them seem more human.” Still, Audra’s only a sim. Furthermore, “Even geniuses can be deeply, deeply stupid,” he thinks, ironically forgetting that he too is a genius.

Audra gets it. Sometimes she knows Tiago better than he knows himself, and the more savvy she becomes, the more guilt Tiago suffers for the all-too-human feelings he’s enabled her to suffer.

When they finally encounter a planet with signs of civilization, Tiago hesitates: “It was one thing to hope for contact; it was another to act on it. They could be monsters. They could be brutal savages. Worse, they could be the sort of highly evolved savages he was fleeing.”

“Do you have a plan,” Audra quips, “or are you just going to land and see what attacks you?”

Tiago definitely didn’t program all that sass into her.

Audra’s ability to think comes in handy when they encounter the aliens. Dressing to impress (or so he thinks), Tiago comes out looking like a ninja—in blue, not black—which for some reason cracks me up. The plot twists are even more fun. The villains deadpan lines that would be great in a movie trailer, if they weren’t plot spoilers. The way Tiago handles his adversaries just goes to show that anti-heroes, even antisocial ones, are more sensitive and compassionate than most people ever expect. And AIs are more human than we want to believe.

The next installment, Book 2 of thirty in the Interrogative series, is “Tiago Versus the Jezoani.” Book 3 releases September 15, 2014. Every two months, a new story will be released. Book 1 is “a down payment” on the million-word promise the author made to Sydney, his wife of thirty-four years and counting.

“Syd is amazing,” Barouch wrote me via Facebook. “She was diagnosed with colon cancer last year. During chemo, she was getting despondent, so I promised her a million words—thirty novellas, one every two months—so that she’d have something to look forward to. Normally, she edits my work, so this was her first time to enjoy the stories instead of receiving them as work.”

A million words. In a way it’s like A Thousand and One Nights. What a bribe for living, as Jack London famously put it, and what a husband, to spin a tale as captivating and entertaining as Tiago’s. (“Tiago and the Masterless,” Charles Barouch, HDWPbooks) 5 stars —Carol Kean