Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Breeding Season
by Sean Mulroy

Personal Artifacts Lost
by Marilyn K. Martin

Lover’s Moon
by Ronald D. Ferguson

When it Comes Around
by Auston Habershaw

by Nolan Edrik

Shuffleboard on the Hubble Deck
by Iain Ishbel

This Perilous Brink
by JT Gill

Only a Signal Shown
by L.E. Buis

Shorter Stories

Thunder Lizard
by William Suboski

Blue Harvest
by Andrew James Woodyard

Heat of the Night
by Gareth D. Jones


From Oshkosh to Tomorrow
by Joyce Frohn

A Primer on Quantum Field Theory
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips




Perihelion Reviews

Skydiving Into Hellfire

IT HAS COME TO THIS. Instead of, or in addition to, a fusion of science fiction/fantasy, we now have a fusion of science fiction/dystopian fiction. Apparently, our world is in such peril we need to dwell on dark matters even when we’re indulging in entertainment after a day’s work. How can I admit defeat on this issue, when so many great writers lure us into a genre that is anathema to me? There is no escaping it. The most talented authors, people whose writing I sincerely love, are forcing me into the murk and gloom of a ruined Earth.

Nicholas Sansbury Smith is the latest culprit, the sneaky author who reels me in, kicking and screaming, not wanting to “go there,” but go, he makes me. The title alone should keep me at bay: “Hell Divers.” The first book of a new series.

“Hell Divers” promises the usual Smithian bloodshed, annihilation, hellfire, ashes and bullets, mutant monsters, and unforgettable heroes. Our beautiful Earth, 250 years into the future, is uninhabitable. The weapons of World War III have poisoned the whole planet. Worse, they’ve somehow disturbed the atmosphere as well with big, bad superstorms, acid snows, and deadly levels of radiation.

A sort of Noah’s Ark has kept the human race going in two airships, The Hive and The Ares. For w-a-a-a-y longer than forty days and forty nights, these floating time capsules with living remnants of humanity have continuously circled the globe in search of a habitable home on the surface. No dove, no olive branch, no rainbow in sight—just cataclysmic storms that come up faster than weather instrumentation can predict, and radioactive menaces in the slime and grime on the surface below.

Like most people her age, Captain Ash, the woman who runs the Hive, doesn’t know what caused World War III. In the chaotic final days of Life On Earth as We Know It, “the world ended so fast that the airships had become lifeboats for hell diversfamilies of military brass, who had boarded them before the bombs dropped and made the surface uninhabitable,” and “she only knew that the darkness and the electrical storms outside the portholes were the result of what her ancestors had done.”

Oh, the guilt. The dark, disturbing, cautionary tale. Stay away, I told myself. Don’t go near this one.

The Hell Divers got me.

“The only thing keeping the two aging and outdated lifeboats in the sky are Hell Divers—men and women who risk their lives by skydiving to the surface to scavenge for parts the ships desperately need.” Hell Divers are dropped from the airship through tubes originally designed to drop bombs, “the very bombs that had turned the surface into a wasteland, forcing humans to take to the sky in the very ships that had doomed them.” The ships were not designed to be lifeboats but to render fighter jets obsolete, and “to fly at an average altitude of twenty thousand feet, impervious to electromagnetic pulses.”

Their odds of survival are unbearably slim, but most Hell Divers would face some other punishment anyway, so they take one for the team.

“They were easy to spot in the crowd of technicians and support staff gathered along the wall, engineers, soldiers, thieves: divers had a wide variety of skill sets, and they would stand out like a flame in the dark even without their red jumpsuits.” OK, that got me to keep turning pages.

“Today we dive so humanity can survive” is their motto. Their banter, their teasing, their jokes have a ring of authenticity, as if the author had been a Green Beret or part of some elite crew of warriors in real life. (If he was, he keeps it out of his author bio.)

Everyone knows that in teams of awesome people like these, most of them are going to die. Somehow I cannot resist this premise, much as I hate it. All these wonderfully rendered characters die. And the author will spare no detail, no matter how lurid.

Against my will, I keep turning pages. I’m safe at home, warm and dry and well fed, surrounded by native prairie flowers and sunshine. The sacrifices of others much stronger, braver, and smarter than me have made this possible. It is now my solemn duty to read this book.

OK, it’s not a terrible chore to live vicariously through a guy who wins, again and again, when everyone else loses. One Hell Diver—one—has survived a hundred dives while countless fellow divers have come to a terrible end during their missions. Nobody survives more than fifty or sixty dives. What makes Commander Xavier Rodriguez, aka X, so special, so lucky? What’s his secret? He doesn’t even give a damn about his own life. (That could be the secret, no?)

Yes, I’m still turning pages, in spite of my outrage and indignation at the end of Chapter One.

X has seen the worst of everything. Unthinkable dangers lurk in the darkness beneath the ships. He’d “watched teammates swallowed by sinkholes, crushed inside unstable buildings, shredded in dust storms that stretched for miles,” and he’s about to see them torn apart by mutant, monstrous things that have adapted to live in the radiation zones, “Sirens,” so called for the horrible, high-pitched squeals they emit.

The only other ship, the Ares, has one Hell Diver left after their latest jump into a highly radioactive zone. This guy, Weaver, is extraordinary. In no time at all he sees things that leave him running, hiding, and evolving into an apparent lunatic, but being crazy with adrenaline is what keeps him moving.

The Hive has trouble enough without worrying about The Ares. “Equal rights for lower-deckers” has become a rallying cry, a source of conflict, as if there isn’t enough of that already. But man versus nature isn’t enough—man versus man, and man versus himself, pack more layers into the novel. That’s the danger of good writers: they keep my attention when I’d much rather go toss a Frisbee to my dog under a bright blue sky and feel the green, green grass under my feet, with a can of toxic (but effective!) DEET to keep the blood-sucking mosquitoes at bay.

Guilt keeps me reading, knowing that others are denied such luxuries.

The lower-deckers do the dirty jobs that keep the ship running. Frail, hollow-eyed, exposed to radiation leaking from the nuclear reactors, prone to cancer and children born with deformities, most of them are stoic, and some wear Christian crosses. X observes: “their belief in God and the hope of something better after death seemed to help them come to terms with their squalid lives.” X, like a lot of others, “followed no religious doctrine. Pascal’s wager posited that a rational person should live as though God existed, and seek to believe in God, but then, X wasn’t an entirely rational person.” Heh, heh. Love it. “He was a Hell Diver. If God did exist, he had better to things to bother with than the fate of the human race.”

You may have guessed that X is a very thoughtful antihero. He’s all too aware of the sufferings of others. Although he has no concern for his own tormented self, he can’t help but care about his fellow man, particularly an orphan named Tin, for the tin hat he wears, despite the teasing it brings him.

Tin is a character nobody could help but love, least of all a hardened antihero whose heart is not as far gone as he’d like to believe.

The plot thickens, and I will say no more, except for my usual confession that when the battle scenes get ugly, I skim ahead to the end of the carnage. The interludes between all the gory, awful fights are the parts I devour.

The casualties would be less traumatic if the characters were all two-dimensional, but no. Smith brings them to life, endows them with unique, memorable voices, and forces me to like people who will end up dead before the scene is over.

Worse, the hero himself may not be certifiably, reliably, verifiably alive at the novel’s end. Where’s the synopsis of Book Two? If the protagonist dies in Book One, I’m outta here.

The ending is brilliant but terrible. It’s spectacular. It’s wretched. Fists of rage are shaking at Nicholas Sansbury Smith! No way can this author be the “nice guy” we see in his profile photos. Sure, “Smith” (His real name? As if!) has been seen walking the streets of Des Moines and the halls of science fiction conventions, but I’ll bet “Smith” used a hologram or a stunt double, and the real Nick Smith is a snarling, ugly sociopath who loves seeing people blow up, go down in flame, get eaten by mutant monsters, freeze to death, or get struck by lightning, or—yeah. You see what I mean. The guy has no end of horrific ways for a person to die. Seriously: no end of gruesome deaths of good people.

I’d spare myself a lot of anguish if I didn’t like Smith’s writing. He has style. And a heart the size of Jupiter. He knows how to put sentences together, and where a comma should go, and how to tell a story without filler words, which is a lamentably rare skill these days, even among so many so-called Best Selling Authors who mysteriously rack up sales on Amazon. Smith is a hybrid author, published by Simon & Schuster (the “Orbs” series), but also self-published (six “Extinction Cycle” novels). Sales have been good either way. And it isn’t just because his profile photo is cute . The writing is that good, the world building and characters that irresistible. (“Hell Divers: The Hell Divers Trilogy #1,” Nicholas Sansbury Smith, Blackstone Publishing)stars5—Carol Kean


Super Femme Trend Goes On

THERE HAS BEEN A PLETHORA of recent films about female robots or otherwise artificially-constructed women. These female robots are known as “gynoids” (instead of “androids”) or “fembots.” In the latest film of the bunch, “Morgan,” the robots are genetically modified (referred to as “hybrid biological organisms”). So, to be honest, they’re not really robots (more on that later) but they are constructed females.

The best film to date revolving around manufactured females is “Ex Machina.” “Morgan” could be its cousin. I’d be the first to admit that “Morgan” isn’t as good as “Ex Machina,” but “Ex Machina” is a hard film to beat. However, “Morgan” is a worthy addition to the emergent category of films about constructed fembots, joining the list which includes “Her”, “Lucy,” and “Under the Skin”—all three of which star Scarlett Johansson. Johansson has carved out a niche for herself as the threatening artificially enhanced and/or alien woman, so there must be an insatiable audience for dangerous women. And now there’s “Morgan.” The contemporary twist on the Pygmalian trope is that these modern iterations are distinctly lethal.

In “Morgan” we have not one, but two of these enhanced lethal women. This film takes the term “femme fatale” to a new level. Some viewers will enjoy “Morgan” more than “Ex Machina” because “Morgan” has more violent fimorganght scenes, the suddenness and brutality of which nudge the film in the direction of horror. Could the contemporary spate of films threatening audiences with super-powerful women be a comment on the current cultural climate? I have no doubt that somewhere a grad student is writing a thesis on this topic. From a filmgoer’s standpoint, the criterion is simple: is “Morgan” entertaining? My answer to that question is “yes!”

The cast also includes some of independent film’s more recognizable faces, but admittedly none with the star power of Scarlett Johansson.

Paul Giamatti gleefully chomps scenery as a belligerent psychologist sent to interrogate “Morgan.” This interrogation scene is a high point and is a nod to a similar scene in “Blade Runner,” when Deckert interviews a replicant. Toby Jones plays one of the doctors on the Morgan project. Jones is recognizable from his similar role as the doctor in charge of another “science gone awry” project in the TV series “Wayward Pines.” The attractive redhead Rose Leslie adds interest—I never tire of watching her—but her role as Morgan’s only friend is somewhat limited. The actor who plays Morgan herself is Anya Taylor-Joy. She recently made a splash with her starring role in “The Witch.” With these two films on her resume, she has launched a career to reckon with.

At the center of the film is Kate Mara as Lee Weathers, sent by “Corporate” to evaluate the status of the Morgan project. Kate Mara has a decent resume, but her acting chops don’t provide a firm anchor. She’s competent, but she doesn’t have the gravitas to make her role more memorable. Rather than having a sprawling ensemble cast, the film could have benefited by focusing more intently on fewer characters. Why do they need so many people working on the Morgan project? “Ex Machina” is the better film for no other reason than it had fewer characters.

Like I said, Morgan isn’t a robot. She’s referred to in the movie as a “hybrid biological organism.” She’s the result of gene splicing something (we don’t know what, but we do get a picture of a microscopic spiky-ball thingy) with human DNA. Morgan is five years old but looks like a teenager, and has abilities far beyond that of a normal five-year-old.

Similar bio-engineering has actually been done with chickens. It takes less time for a modern meat chicken to reach maturity than it used to—a modern chicken grows twice as big in half the time as a chicken did in 1950. Chicken enhancement was done with selective breeding. Now that we have CRISPR genome editing (The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Breakthrough of the Year for 2015) we can expect even more radical genetic manipulation.

The big question is whether such genetic manipulation techniques will be used on humans. The National Institute of Health has stated: “NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain.”

NIH’s policy statement does not cover privately funded projects. The laws and regulations regarding genetically modified organisms vary from country to country and are complex and varied. So far the U.S. has been less strict regarding GMOs than other countries, and the U.S. is not a party to the United Nations Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

In “Morgan,” these legal and ethical issues are sidestepped. The Morgan project is a fait accompli, conducted by a shadowy corporation. The project is secretive—it’s done in a remote location (the gorgeous Northern Ireland outdoor shots are worth a mention). We can assume that the goal is military, judging from Morgan’s fighting skills. Should Morgan be referred to as “it” or “her?” Although “Morgan” raises worthwhile philosophical questions regarding the use of biotech (an issue that we can expect to become of greater importance in the future) the film adroitly balances these questions with good old-fashioned violence and suspense.

In an era where too many films are the umpteen installment in a comic book hero franchise, this one, thankfully, is not. For that reason alone I was impressed with “Morgan.” The movie also doesn’t rely on expensive computer generated imagery to be entertaining, which is another huge plus in its favor. I am delighted to report that this is a film well worth seeing. (“Morgan,” directed by Luke Scott, 20th Century Fox)4stars —Joshua Berlow


Space Opera by the Dozen

AVID READERS CAN LIVE A THOUSAND LIVES. Not just on Earth, but on strange new worlds with alien life forms, or on spaceships sailing through the cosmos, or as brilliant AIs who think, “we are people, too.”

“Illuminating our humanity in the face of new extraordinary challenges is the space opera writer’s job,” says Jennifer Foehner Wells in her Foreword to “At Galaxy’s Edge.” This anthology, the third under the “Beyond the Stars” banner, delivers twelve original stories by bestselling authors who give us “a dozen more lives within tiny little universes that will exist only for you for a very short time.”

A short time is all I need, when chased by bounty hunters or scary, hungry aliens, or picking up the pieces after losing loved ones in a terrorist bombing light years away. Then again, I’m in no hurry to bid farewell to an injured dog saved from the rubble of a ruined planet, or the captain who fights city hall and wins. Some characters are so endearing, we hate to close the book. Some stories are so heartbreaking, we have to remind ourselves it was “only” a fiction.

With such diverse themes and skilled writers, any one story in “At Galaxy’s Edge” is worth the price of admission for the entire dozen.

Picking a favorite is tough, but a “Star Trek” vibe of fun and triumph has me wanting more of Adam Quinn’s“Procurement.” The tale takes place in the same universe as his “Drive Maker Trilogy,” series set in the aftermath of the cataclysmic Order War. Captain Jareyn Brook of the Interstellar Emergency Service is like a Nine-One-One responder in outer space. Imagine your ambulance (airship, in this case) getting totaled through no fault of your own—and just try explaining that to the higher-ups. “As far as I can tell,” Brook laments, “bureaucracy is this planet’s official sport.”

I love Brook’s semantic trickery. “Should I say mistakes were made and therefore the ship is not recoverable, or the ship is not recoverable because mistakes were made?

(The correct answer is neither, according to Brook’s blue-skinned political liaison officer.)

When the bureaucrats decide to pull the plug on Brook’s popular, philanthropic Emergency Service, she has to fight not just for her own livelihood but the whole I.E.S. Who’s sabotaging her, and why, and how will Brook prevail?

The dialogue is fun, and so is the heroine. She risks torture, death, and imprisonment in her sneaky quest to procure another airship. Quinn’s author page assures us that Brook flies again in “Flashpoint,” Book One of the Drive Maker Trilogy. JP, Arriet, Charles Griffin, and Roth will be back. We’ll also meet Taylor Ghatzi, who decides to retire from galactic politics and dedicate her life to the Emergency Service—until a deadly terror attack strikes her home world.

While Quinn’s heroes are off fighting the Order Wars, an entire planet is laid waste in E.E. Giorgi’s “The Quarium Wars.” I about had a heart attack over the opening line: Yulia was dead.

Oh no! Giorgi had better not mean Yulia, the brilliant hacker in her novel “Gene Cards.” I read on with great trepidation.

Captain Weber slogs through ashes, dead bodies, and flies, in search of survivors. “Yulia wasn’t his planet, the dead weren’t his people,” he thinks. “So why was he here?”

Ah. Yulia is a planet. Or was. With nineteen pulse propulsion bombs and a newly discovered element, Quarium, Yaxee invaders have annihilated a whole planet in less than forty-eight hours.

The young captain is one of the best in the Yaxee army, “bound to quickly climb to high military ranks, just like his father”—one of the Royal Council members who’d voted for Yulia’s destruction.

Yaxee fighters descend on the ruined surface of Yulia in search of more Quarium. How does one deserter, no longer “Captain” but still a Weber, escape a villain named Zika (love it!) and all his crew? The story unfolds with all the precision, poetic descriptions, and taut prose that are Giorgi’s trademark.

Happily, we have not seen the last of the resourceful ex-Captain and a dog named Argo. Giorgi plans to feature them in a new space opera series, starting with Book One, “Anarchy.”

Dog lovers will also appreciate Michael Ezell’s “The Good Food.” Roy is a Belgian Malinois who can talk. Sort of. Roy has a more sophisticated vocabulary than Scooby Doo, but can’t put sentences together. He’s surprisingly good at thinking and reasoning, even though he seems to think about food more than anything else. Roy and his human are dispatched to a planet being terraformed. No galaxy edgecomplex life forms exist here, but something has been poaching from the garden. Whatever killed off the plants hadn’t harmed any of the insects, but Jensen is a little nervous walking around this alien land with just Roy and a sassy AI named Moira calling him a pussy. He has one job to do. Land, observe, take notes, report to “the eggheads who sent him.” Simple right? R-i-i-i-g-g-g-h-t.

The ending took me by surprise. It appears to be the worst possible fate for Jensen, for Roy, and for planet Earth—but this is fiction, and there might be sequels, and the next surprise could be a pleasant one. I hope. I hope.

Where Ezell’s story ends, “The Epsilon Directive” by David Bruns begins. Dark stuff, people. Tom grew up hearing about great fleet battles and how his siblings fought with honor. None of them returned, but “war was the family business, a proud tradition of military service that went back generations.” The admiral, Tom’s father, marches him to the armory to enlist on his eighteenth birthday. The last thing Tom wants to do is kill anyone, alien or human, but his dad gets him drafted into a death squad tasked with hunting down every last Scythian who may have survived the long, bloody war that killed so many of Tom’s people.

“That was my life,” Tom relates, “closet conscientious objector turned draftee with a front row seat to some the most brutal slaughter of aliens you could ever imagine.”

The Scythians look similar to humans, aside from their ability to grow awesome, scary-looking scales that keep bullets from penetrating. “After the fleet battles broke the back of the Scythian forces, the enemy scattered like rats all over the known galaxy,” Tom says. “We were there to find the survivors and kill them. Simple.”

Or not. Conscientious Objectors harbor the last Scythians in safe houses. Their former foes are friends, no longer violent or dangerous. When Tom comes face to face with an alien, he doesn’t see an enemy. How can he spare the alien’s life when his superior, Gunnery Sergeant Madeline Jolly, will stop at nothing to complete the mission as directed?

Tension, conflict, and mortal peril take a different turn in Christopher J. Valin’s “Just an Old-Fashioned Lust Story.” A bounty hunter, the best in the business, is hired to track down a trophy wife who ran off with her rich husband’s money. This is an action-packed adventure, with a scheming opportunistic hero, and plot twists that even the most seasoned hunter didn’t see coming.

The hero of G.S. Jennsen’s “Re/Genesis,” Eren asi-Idoni, is sent to destroy something so extraordinary, I couldn’t help but hope he would fail. The mammoth Phoenix Gateway was built to last, and no conventional weapon an anarchist might procure was capable of destroying it. One obstacle after another threatens to keep Eren from completing this suicide mission. Without giving away the ending, it’s safe to say that fans of this fantastical, far-future world will see more of it in “Aurora Resonant,” Book Three of the “Aurora Rhapsody” series.

If you need cheering up after some of the darker tales, the best antidote is Nick Webb’s “Second Place.” Frank Bickham is known as the second man to set foot on Mars. “The second.” The goddamned second. Now he’s “a nameless retiree in some nameless godforsaken suburb of Dallas.” When people start colonizing Mars, Frank sees a new chance to be the first at something. “First man to die on Mars” becomes his mission. In a sort of reversal of Murphy’s Law, however, everything that should go wrong goes right, making this a kinder and gentler version of the usual suicide mission.

If space travel sounds fun and easy, we get a more realistic view of it in Piers Platt’s “Last Pursuit.” Desh, a professional assassin, “loathed interstellar travel, from the queasy feeling of the faster-than-light accelerations, to the interminable waiting aboard the transports.” Spaceliners have exercise rooms and entertainment centers, “but a week or more of traveling through the vacuum of deep space drove most passengers slightly insane regardless of the activities available.”

Desh is on his final mission. “Forty-nine kills completed,” he thinks. “Just one more, and then you’re out.” Jinx! He forgot to knock on wood three times.

“This short story inspired a much longer story,” Platt writes in an author Q&A that accompanies all twelve tales, “so if you liked the concept of the Guild and their Fifty for Fifty assassins, you can jump back into this world in the Janus Group series.”

In Chris Fox’s “Relic Hunter,” a rookie archeologist goes to a bar in hopes of finding a spaceship crew to take him to the Elderi Spire, where a great treasure has been hidden by an unbreachable security barrier. The savvy bartender and the assorted aliens are dangerously weird, with a “Star Wars” cantina vibe. The stakes are high, the dangers many, as this rollicking adventure unfolds.

Anthea Sharp’s “One More Star, Shining” shows another downside of space travel. Liza Roth, an asteroid miner, has the rare ability to play classic works of the ancient masters on an old-Earth piano, but a broken heart has silenced her. She’s just found love again with Selina, a fellow miner. When terrorists strike a popular vacation spot, everyone in the bar watches the news screen for a list of the casualties. It brings to mind real-life scenes like the death toll of the Titanic, with names being added to a list, one by one. This story is fraught with tension, horror, and a slim ray of hope.

Michael Anderle’s “Tabitha’s Vacation” brings paranormal creatures to the territory of science fiction. “I’ve really enjoyed the vampire/military sci-fi/space opera genres,” Anderle writes. “I figured if I was going to write something, I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too.”

The truth about vampires, according to Anderle, is that a man once came across a crashed alien ship and was enhanced to help the aliens fight a war, but he stumbled away, confused and in pain, and incompletely modified. The ship left without him, but he became the progenitor of twelve centuries of changed humans, aka, vampires. Finally, the last Matriarch, Bethany Ann, aka “The Queen Bitch,” trains a team of kick-ass rangers to clean up the vampire and werewolf mess. Tabitha is a ranger on a mission to take down a vampire, which involves fighting aliens in a bar, exploiting the Etheric connection to achieve “high Vampiric” in a ship called the Achoynix, and gravite rail gun technology in her pistols.

The story is laced with action, profanity, snark, and complications that only a ranger like Tabitha could handle.

I was expecting an Elvis sighting in Caroline A. Gill’s “Elvis Has Left the Building,” but something else, something sinister, transpires. An AI named Rora is the only navigator expected to stay awake for the eleven years it will take to guide a colony ship to a far-off planet. The human crew members sleep in shifts, but there may not be enough of them to keep the shifts short enough. What happens when a human has been awake too long in the dark silence of deep space? Is one AI equipped to control the insanity?

For all the haunting and horrifying scenes in this anthology, there’s humor, fortitude, and courage. One of my favorite lines: “the first old Italian chef who came up with pizza would have killed himself if he saw this in the future”—the so-called pizza served on space liners.

Beer and pizza, here on Earth, sounds pretty good right now. When I look up at the stars tonight, I will think about whoever may up there, and hoping they get something better than airplane food as they go speeding through the universe. (“Beyond the Stars: At Galaxy’s Edge,” Edited by Patrice Fitzgerald, Astral Books) 4stars—Carol Kean