Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


On the Road Again
by Michaele Jordan

A Prince of Blood and Spit
by Guy Stewart

by Brandon L. Summers

Little Ships
by Harold R. Thompson

Road Rage on the Hypertime Expressway
by Ken Altabef

Bug Out
by Cas Blomberg

By His Jockstrap
by Eamonn Murphy

Tamera’s Engagement
by John Hegenberger

Shorter Stories

From the Other Side of the Rubicon
by Sean Mulroy

To Be Carved
by David Steffen

Final Frames of the Eldrisil
by J. Daniel Batt


About That Colony
by John McCormick

Tesla and Newton
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips




Perihelion Reviews

Altered States of Being

“THESE ARE TERRIBLE TIMES, my friends, and in times like these, terrible things must sometimes be done.”

I shouldn’t laugh at that, but most of us have never experienced terrible times (and calling me a friend won’t sucker me into supporting anyone’s agenda). The rhetoric, however, is part of a xenophobic sort of Chicken Little speech in Edward Ashton’s debut novel “Three Days in April.”

I love it.

The novel does what speculative fiction is supposed to do: entertain, horrify, make us laugh, make us think.

The cover art with its devilish skull and crossbones over the double helix may suggest post-apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction, but Ashton’s near-future Baltimore is still a pretty good place. A growing number of xenophobes along with escalating NatSec surveillance, however, threaten to change that. World-building is not a strong point here, but it’s enough to know that a genetically engineered elite have become a concern to the unmodified masses. The “Altered” seem to have done nothing to justify alarm in the UnAltered, but humans don’t need a good reason to be suspicious of those who are different.

The Altered are a small minority, maybe ten percent of the population. For the reader, they’re fascinating and endearing, but for the rabble rousers, they’re something less than human. “For what is it that defines us as humans, if not our genome?” goes the debate. “In ages past we shared the Earth with Homo erectus, with the Denisovans, with the true Neanderthals. And how does it end when one species of humans encounters another? History is clear. One species thrives. The other species dies.” Of course it doesn’t have to be that way, but try telling that to the unreasoning majority. “If the UnAltered believe it,” Dmitri says, “it has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Four characters share the narrative point of view: Anders, Terry, Elise, and Gary. Each is unique, vivid and memorable. So are the minor characters, especially Dmitri and Tariq. Even faceless personalities in online forums are stellar. Their names are as telling as their commentary—Sir Munchalot, Angry Irish Inch, Captain Obvious. My favorite, Thomas Paine, winces at the “Times are Terrible” three days in aprilorator and reminds us that times used to be even more terrible with plagues, famines, and tyrannies. Consider the Mongols, who wiped out cities by the dozens and piled skulls like cantaloupes. “Fear has always been the best friend of the tyrant,” Paine writes, but tyranny is “something we must resist to the last drop of our blood.”

I like his thinking, and I love heroics, even though I feel like wearing black to mourn epic characters slaughtered by ruthless authors. (Warning: this novel contains lurid violence, but I believe most science fiction fans expect that and almost never get too much of it.) Ashton alleviates the loss of fictional loved ones with dark humor and a quirky, light-hearted tone, and sometimes with a brilliant twist of genetic and electronic wizardry.

Anders is one of the first-ever humans to undergo modification, a genetic chimera, he explains, and I still need to ask E.E. Giorgi (author of “Chimeras”) if that makes sense. I thought chimeras were an accident of nature. Never mind the terminology; the awesome coolness of it is that they cut Anders with mouse genes, whatever that means. “I’ve got something like eight percent type C muscle fibers,” he tells Terry. “Big mammals have fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles. Little ones have a third type. Think of it as fast twitch plus. It’s what keeps them a step ahead of the cat.”

If we can engineer chimeras, I think a prehensile tail would be awesome, but no flip of the epigenetics switch seems to be activating instructions that lurk in our genome to deliver a baby with a tail. Or ears that move toward the direction of a distant sound. Or the internal GPS system that birds are born with. Instead, we get the occasional cleft palate or webbed feet. But I digress. Great fiction tends to make me do that.

This novel had me on the computer for half a day researching Denisovans, the percent of Neanderthal DNA in our genome, and how dogs evolving alongside us cost us a reduction in our sense of smell and hearing. This led me to the tennis-ball sized loss of our gray matter over the past 20,000 years, making our brains smaller than our Cro-Magnon ancestors’. We can’t blame dogs. My guess is that the time we’ve spent laughing at cats (and serving them) is what shrank our brains. Maybe Ashton should address this in his next novel. Coincidentally I just finished reading Rick Bylina’s next novel, “Kill All Cats,” but the science in it is real, and it doesn’t fit the speculative fiction genre.

Meanwhile, mods like Anders’ weren’t even legal at the time his dad jumped on the improved-humans bandwagon, and “nobody knew what they were doing,” but someone has to buy the first model year of a new car.

A quasi-religious sect of UnAltereds preach the sanctity of the body and the sanctity of the genome. They condemn both genetic and mechanical augmentation. Some branches claim the so-called Altered have no souls. This does not set well with Terry, whose parents didn’t have money for a real engineer, so even her gender was botched.

Terry was supposed to be a boy with extra bone density and Neanderthal muscle, but she’s a five-foot redhead with “shoulders like a linebacker, and biceps that look like short, angry pythons under ghost pale skin, and yeah, there’s the brow ridge.” Finding food can be a challenge in a world of donuts and vegan fare but “no dead mammoth vendors or whatever Terry needs,” as Anders puts it. Her Ice-Age metabolism makes her comfortable wearing a bikini in a snowstorm but not in balmy Baltimore. She goes from harmless interior decorator to a target of death squads who want to purge the gene pool, but Terry is built to last. She’s so strong, the first guy to throw a punch at her breaks his hand in several places. Of course I laughed. Dark humor makes every character in this novel a guilty pleasure.

Terry’s sister Elise is beautiful, classically feminine and unmodified. She escapes a disaster as colossal as the Twin Towers of September 11, and her impossible rescue is one of many mysteries Terry is determined to solve.

Anders’ roommate, Gary, is a computer addict. He lives on a nano-boosting drink called BrainBump, has no social filter, and “has a 150 IQ, coupled with the emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old boy.” If Gary seems as ruthlessly logical and unemotional as an Aspie techno-geek, Doug is even worse. A highly modified Altered, Doug is addicted to adding new mods every few months—visual overlays, exoskeleton, medical nanobots, and “the brain thingie,” as Anders calls it. Doug has a creepy habit of downloading the latest news and information into his ocular implant, making one eyeball twitch like a lizard’s when this happens.

Even without their own Point of View chapters, Dmitri, Doug, and Tariq are vivid and compelling. Dmitri is mysterious in a gangster sort of underworld way, with connections Terry knows how to exploit. Tariq, Elise’s “asshat” of a boyfriend, is more than just a street magician. His “Messenger from the Spirit World bullshit” makes Terry want to put her fist through his chest, but he knows a few useful tricks to get around NatSec, the omnipresent surveillance network that keeps watch over citizens.

“Sauron’s Eye” is the all-seeing center of national security’s panopticon. “Ever noticed those glass-eyeball-looking things you see on street signs and rooftops and traffic lights?” Gary asks Anders. “They’re the eyes of the panopticon. Every single spy eye in North America is networked ... NatSec can tap every cell signal in the world.”

The story is fraught with danger from a faceless enemy: who exactly is killing the Altered, and how? Terry’s strength and Anders’ speed come in handy. There’s talk of more cool traits that could be gene-spliced into a new generation of modified and augmented humans. Every time Doug’s right eyeball starts twitching with another download, we get another news update on how terrible the times are becoming. The plot is all that fans of the thriller genre could ask for, but the fast-paced climax isn’t what riveted me to “Three Days in April.” It’s the dialogue, the human conundrums, and the cool technology that keep me turning pages.

I wanted to know more about “the orbital power platform they’re building over Nebraska, and how the locals are very, very upset with the location of the rectenna.” Dare I ask what is a rectenna? Yes. I cannot resist. Without the “brain thingie” Doug has, I must obey my ADHD urge to consult Google. Ah: “A rectenna is a rectifying antenna, a special type of antenna that is used to convert microwave energy into direct current electricity. They are used in wireless power transmission systems that transmit power by radio waves."

What about RF sensitive bacteria? They too get a mention, but not much development in this story. Not that it matters. We get more than enough of NatSec’s KEWs, Kinetic Energy Weapons.

Oh no. These things exist. I doubt that hundreds are in low Earth orbit at any given time, as they are in “Three Days in April,” but Wikipedia mentions kinetic weapons targeting objects in spaceflight—anti-satellite weapons and anti-ballistic missiles. Explosives are not necessary because in order to reach an object in orbit, the KEW must attain an extremely high velocity, and their released kinetic energy alone is enough to destroy their target like a load of TNT.

“They’re basically bowling balls, with little rocket motors attached to them,” Gary tells Anders, and NatSec is ready to drop them on anyone who exercises free speech at anonymous Internet forums.

This risk, however, does not keep hackers from speaking up. “Hobo Joe” says the UnAltered are sub-literate, “whining about how the Engineered and the Augmented have lost sight of what it means to be human.” But “Guess what, asshole? Humans in a state of nature have a twenty-five percent mortality rate, and median lifespan of twenty-eight years. They live in the jungle, and eat shit that they pick up off the ground. If that doesn’t describe your life experience, you’re one of the Altered whether you like it or not. My implants are no different than vaccines or blood pressure pills or artificial hips.”

Again: I love it.

Via the Goodreads “Ask the Author” forum, Ashton answered some of my questions about the novel. Dr. Edward Ashton, Ph.D., serves as the Chief Scientific Officer at Virtualscopics Inc. He lives in Rochester, NY, “where he studies new cancer therapies by day, and writes about the awful things his research may lead to by night.”

I asked what awful things in his work show up in the novel.

“Not to get too spoilery,” he said, “but the original idea for Three Days in April actually came from a project that my lab was working on—a really clever method for delivering chemo to tumor sites while sparing normal tissues. As I was doing background research for the trial, it occurred to me that with some tweaking, this idea could conceivably be put to much less altruistic ends.”

Is the title inspired by historic Richmond’s Three Days in April 1865 when the city fell to the Union army after four years of Civil War? Even then, the news apparently was handled the way it would be today: “Nothing new here. The fires are out and perfect quiet reigns" (Union Major General Godfrey Weitzel).

Ashton replied, “I wasn’t trying to establish any real parallels between the Civil War and the abortive war between the Engineered and the UnAltered described in my book, but yes—that was the jumping off point.”

“Three Days in April” showcases Ashton’s fascination with the history and origins of our species. “Most of what I know comes from soaking up books like Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, which I highly recommend if you’re curious about this stuff,” he writes.

I’m curious. And impressed with this scientist’s debut novel. Rarely do I find a book so witty, fun, cool, and fraught with conversational topics. I’d love to hear from scientists about all the modifications we already accept and those that are too new and futuristic for most of us to contemplate (ocular implants, computer chips in the brain, epigenetic trickery).

It’s a brave new world, and Ashton embraces it. So might we all. (“Three Days in April,” Edward Ashton, Harper Voyage Impulse) 5stars —Carol Kean


Stupid Human Tricks

THOSE RETURN-TO-THE-WILD TV shows are a relatively new phenomenon. For as far back as I can remember, people getting into all kinds of “do not try this at home” mischief and paying dearly for doing so has always been prime fodder for prime time. My niece was once on the production crew of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

A new entry in this perennial genre of faceplant TV is from National Geographic Channel. “Science of Stupid” is hosted by Richard Hammond, an English TV presenter, voice actor, author, and journalist. You may know him from another TV show, “Top Gear.”

As the title suggests, and this is the unique twist behind the program, “Science of Stupid” explains the physical principles involved in the various tricks, stunts, and maneuvers necessary to perform them properly, and why not paying attention to the science invariably results in ending up on the pavement or in the hospital. It’s an interesting concept. The motto of the show is, in fact, "Learn the science behind the action and remain safe.”

For example, to execute a perfect nose wheelie on a motorcycle, the rider must achieve exactly the correct balance among the forces of momentum, friction, and turning effect. To attempt a parkour-style precision jump, the athlete must first generate enough forward momentum to clear the gap being hurdled, then have his angular trajectory spot-on, shifting his center of mass to minimize impact upon landing.

Hammond shows us a video of each stunt as it is professionally accomplished (if professional is the right word here). After that, a brief animation explains the science part which is almost always physics. Then an assortment of funny videosstupid are aired accompanied by Hammond explaining the physics lessons not learned, leading to the participant rolling over under his snowmobile, smashing unceremoniously into a brick wall, or flying headlong into the air.

Hammond’s narrative banter is quite witty, with a strong satirical overtone.

Take, for example, a recent segment about the practice of head-butting; that is, where the participant attempts to break a wooden plank, or smash a watermelon, with his or her head. In one of the accompanying videos, in fact, the watermelon man was a woman. Both sexes can be equally stupid, you see.

“Head-butting,” Hammond begins. “We humans should really leave the head-butting to sheep and goats. But for some people it is the preferred method of breaking things. Often themselves.” The scene shifts to an excerpt of a competitive head-butter shattering a series of dinner plates against his forehead. Some of the plates do not readily fragmentize. Hammond continues. “Smashing inanimate objects with your head can be very painful. So to explain what happens when head meets object, here’s some science.” Cue the cartoon with Hammond doing the voiceover. “During a head-butt, the head has a lot of momentum. The head’s center of mass is behind the forehead, which is very hard. On impact, there’s a large transfer of momentum over a short time ...”

After this, we get to see a parade of video clips displaying unsuccessful head- butts, resulting in bloodied noggins, painful doubling over, and agonizing exclamations, but little in the way of damaged inanimate objects. Hammond’s moral: “This is a stupid activity that should not be tried at home.”

The show has examined a wide range of stunts and activities, from the mundane to the ridiculous. These have included water skiing, sole surfing, cartwheels, break-dancing, rodeo bull riding, bungee jumping, swallowing powdered cinnamon, pole vaulting, ski jumping, and rolling down a hill in a dustbin.

If you’re tired of reality shows that extol the virtues of living in the bush with nothing but a sharp stick and some road kill, feel the need for science, and humor, there are a lot worse things you could watch on television than “Science of Stupid.” For no other reason than Richard Hammond is a hoot. Try it. (“Science of Stupid,” National Geographic, Wednesday) 4stars—Sam Bellotto Jr.


Forever and a Cigar

“MANY YEARS AGO, A BOY WAS BORN, naked like any other, but there was one thing different. He couldn’t die.”

If that sounds good, try reading “The Immortality Chronicles,” a collection of stories chosen by award-winning curator Samuel Peralta of “The Future Chronicles” fame, edited by Carol Davis. Proceeds from the anthology benefit First Book, a non-profit dedicated to “Putting new books in the hands of the children who need them most.” Even without that incentive, I’d buy the book, and even though most of the stories show only the imagined downside of immortality, I appreciate the thoughtfulness and creativity that each unique perspective brings.

“The Antares Cigar Shoppe" by John Gregory Hancock is the first story and the source of the quote. Every day, the same old robot sits outside a cigar store, drawing curious stares from children and warnings from parents not to talk to that “thing.” Gaston looks human, despite his metal-clad hand with articulated fingers, and he chats amiably with interstellar space travelers who pass his bench or come inside. Mr. Arsenault, the shop owner, can extol the virtues of a cigar “with a hypnotic rhythm, like a seductive siren calling to a lost sailor.” Gaston never tires of his spiels, nor does he seem to mind the tourists who point and ask where Gaston came from. “He came with the store,” Mr. Arsenault says. “I haven’t had the heart or the ability to remove him.”

The surprise twist comes at the end when we learn how he came to be with Mr. Arsenault for such a long, long time.

Like so many classic Science Fiction collections of the past, The Chronicles offer themed anthologies—Robots, Telepaths, Aliens, Artificial Intelligence, Zombies, and Immortals—with more on the way, including something Jurassic. Each edition combines fresh new voices in speculative fiction along with established, best-selling authors.

“I wanted to compress the impact of a great expanse of time into a single, seemingly mundane day on the planet Curie Prime,” Hancock says in a blog interview with Will Swardstrom. “Curie Prime refers to Madame Curie ... My device there is that a certain pivotal character grew up in ancient France on Earth.” He adds that Antares and Antares B do exist in reality as a supergiant and blue companion star, but, alas, “There is no Badeaux cigar, harvested at the precise peak of maturity, the leaves delicately aged over steam produced from slowly roasting silkworms.”

Why is the story set in a cigar shoppe?

“Why not a cigar shoppe?” Hancock answers. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Or is it? Until we open the wrapper, do we really know? Hmmm. Schroedinger’s cigar. Excuse me, I have another idea.”

Hancock, an indie author, grew up with no TV, no internet, but a hometown library that let him check out ten books at a time during the golden age of science fiction.

The anthology brings to mind Bon Jovi’s “I don’t want to live forever” (a line from “It’s My Life,” May 23, 2000). Maybe he’d taken to heart the operatic ballad “39” by British rock band Queen (1975). Now that’s a song I love, but I hate the message: space explorers sail off for a year, come home and find a hundred years have passed due to Einstein’s time dilation effect, so the loved ones they left behind are now dead or older than the hills. “Your mother’s eyes, from your eyes, cry to me," the hero sings on seeing his daughter’s eyes in his aged grand-daughter’s face.

All this forever-bashing reminds me of the fox in Aesop’s Fable who couldn’t reach the grapes and consoled himself with, “They were probably sour anyway.” The “sour grapes” theme turns up in most of the speculative fiction I’ve read with immortality as its theme. Doesn’t anybody see super-longevity as a good thing? Imagine the light years we could travel if we lived long enough to immortalityget to the next habitable planet. Sadly, the best science can offer us is a few hundred years, tops, even with cyber bionic computerized bodies of the future.

Technology is notorious for its unexpected downside. “Rememorations" by Paul B. Kohler hits close to home for me because my smart phone keeps telling me my “cloud” is full and I have to delete things to make room for more, or buy more iCloud storage. It never works, and I hate deleting photos from my phone. If Facebook dumps me (as it recently did to Elena Giorgi “by accident,” deleting her photo albums), I’m sunk. But it could be worse. “Rememorations" is about a man who spends his life savings on Immortality, only he didn’t pay too much attention to the fine print. After a certain amount of time, his mind fills up with more memories than the human brain ws ever meant to hold—even an enhanced and immortal brain—so the man has to buy an additional “procedure” to expand his memory capacity. The trick is deciding which memories to eliminate. Unexpected consequences occur with the deletion of certain memories.

This is not a pretty story.

Humans are a lot more endearing in “The Scout” by D. Robert Pease. An alien is sent across the universe scouting for worlds his Master would deem worthy of conquest. “This little blue planet was to be my highest achievement,” he says. “Earth held more promise than any other world I’d scouted, but first I had to crack the puzzle that was humanity.” It’s not going so well. His job is to make humans worthy of conquest, but they refuse his technological upgrades. “I’d worked for centuries to help them along. I’d done it on other worlds with much less effort. So why couldn’t I bring humanity to the next stage, one that would make them a truly formidable opponent?”

He delivers a great soliloquy on the contradictions of the crazy human race—their quest for a world where good triumphs over evil, their genocides, their idealism. “There are those who would kill millions without a thought, but others who would die to save only one ... I’ve seen a cold-blooded killer who would give anything for his pet dog. Where does this come from?”

The theme of “The Control" by Will Swardstrom is less about the quirkiness of humanity and more about the thing humans treasure above life itself—personal freedom. “Live free or die,” New Hampshire’s state motto, would not go over well in a world where immortality is imposed upon a people who have no free will. “The Control” spans human history, going back to ancient Egypt and the idea that aliens were behind the construction of the pyramids and other monuments (a concept that offends my human conceits). Swardstrom’s 5000-year-old protagonist is always alive, but not always living. Not when someone else is controlling when and where he’ll live.

A dialogue between a boy and his immortal father form the theme of “The Essence of Jamie’s Father” by Gareth Foy. Jamie raises lots of valid and interesting questions, but the father is so brilliant and overbearing, Jamie has “spent his life being frustrated by his father, who always seemed to be one step ahead of him. No matter what Jamie said, it was always a poor idea and he didn’t know all the facts.” (Sounds like my dad.) I love the part where Jamie flies to the sun but not quite like Icarus. The little guy outwits his father in a way you can’t fathom without reading the story.

Another father achieves another kind of immortality, but at great cost, in “The Backup” by Patricia Gilliam. The story alternates between flashback of a boy named Nick losing his father and the adult Nick learning what really happened to his dad. Just when you think you have it figured out, the unexpected keeps happening. The theme of unintended consequences arises again.

The seventh story, “Legacy” by David Bruns, asks how far can we go with mechanical replacements. Two-hundred-year-old Edward works to extend his lifespan, never mind the quality of that life, or the family members who ultimately die off or abandon him because he’s acting like a jerk. The story is a reminder of how we try to compensate for the transience of human life in the way we raise children, build inheritances and try to make a “difference” so we’ll be remembered when we’re gone.

“A Severance of Souls” by Drew Avera (pronounced Avery) shows us a man burdened with preserving human life by giving up his own humanity. He’s in a spaceship, cruising around planet Earth, waiting for the right time to make his move. And waiting. And waiting.

“I seem to want to be optimistic about the future of humanity and I like societies who take care of their most vulnerable,” Avery says in a blog interview. “Human beings are amazing, but we are still capable of great evil as well as great good. I like to think of a future, as difficult as it may be, where the balance may shift away from the great evil.”

In “Room 42,” D. K. Cassidy expands on a world she first built in a short story collection. Characters briefly introduced in “Spilt Milk” are fleshed out here with their backstories. The human race is suddenly afflicted with immortality, and scientists scramble for a cure—ironic, considering how most stories show scientists seeking to achieve immortality. Patients with dementia in a nursing home, children who never age beyond the day the “affliction” hit, zero population growth, sterility, and a host of other side effects make the gift of eternal life a curse. The number 42 appears throughout as a nod to Douglas Adams (“The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”).

“Eternity Today” by Thomas Robins is a time loop story, but not the kind where only certain characters know what’s going on and everyone else is oblivious. Here, everyone on Earth knows that every night when you go to bed, you’ll wake up in the morning to relive the same day. How would society evolve (or devolve) if everyone were suddenly immortal?

E.E. Giorgi’s moody, atmospheric scene setting and descriptive detail bring “The House on the Cliff" to life. A scientist, a photographer, and a writer, Giorgi has a gift for painting vivid images in the reader’s mind. Unlike her science thrillers, this story delivers more emotional ramifications than medical consequences when a man receives the gift of immortality.

“Death makes us vulnerable,” Giorgi tells Will Swardstrom at his blog interview with all the authors in this book. “It humbles us, it makes every day special and unique because there’s no repetition. And yet, we live everyday thinking that we are immortal, because if we didn’t, what would be the purpose of living?”

The most disturbing story for me is “A Long Horizon" by Harlow C. Fallon. On so many levels, for so many reasons, it strikes a chord. In 1620s London, a rebellious, independent young woman named Kate leaves home in search of a better life. She boards a ship headed to the New World, but is abducted by an alien entity and kept alive for 900 years. In the final years, as a dangerous prisoner on board a spaceship, she encounters one crew member who cares enough to try to get to know the strange woman locked up on the ship. He alleviates her isolation and loneliness, and she finds a way to do something for him in return. I wish I could say more, but spoilers always keep me from digging deep into the bones and marrow of a great story.

Do we really want to spend eternity with our spouses and children? Doesn’t the divorce rate suggest that “until death us do part” is too long for most of us?

Scientific advances in medicine, cryonics, cybernetics, and other areas have extended the life span from the thirty or forty years of early humans to an average of sixty to eighty years, with more chances than ever of lasting to age one hundred.

Hard as it is for us to let go of the greatest moments of our lives and let them recede into memory, much as we mourn the untimely demise of our loved ones, the authors in this anthology confront the question of “what if" we could make it last forever. Crazy humans that we are, contradictory and curious but stubborn, it looks as though we’ll stay the course for centuries to come. (“The Immortality Chronicles,” Edited by Carol Davis, Windrift Books) 5star—Carol Kean