The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Monday, December 12, 2005

"New Light on the Drake Equation" by Ian R. Macleod: an appreciation by Niall Harrison

A couple of my friends have a t-shirt that says:

they lied to us
this was supposed to be the future
where is my jetpack
where is my robotic companion
where is my dinner in pill form
where is my hydrogen fueled automobile
where is my nuclear powered levitating house

where is my cure for this disease

It's funny because it's true. You could add moonbases and teleporters to the list, and a dozen other things that science fiction made us believe were just around the corner. But it lied to us; that future will never happen. Ian R. Macleod's beautiful novella 'New Light on the Drake Equation', first published at SCI FICTION in May 2001, takes that truth of modern life and makes it hurt. It is an elegy for a genre that believed in its dreams.

Tom Kelly is an old man, living in a shabby hut on the side of a mountain in France, listening to the sky, in a twenty-first century where twentysomethings twist their bodies with genetic engineering, growing scales or wings, becoming 'bright alien insects'. He's the last and forgotten advocate of SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, waiting for a message from the stars, trapped behind the bars of his life's choices, alcoholic and alone. He grew up a science fiction fan, and lives in a world where sf is as archaic as fairytale, extinguished by 'the real and often quite hard to believe present'. He listens. He waits. He longs. He is, it is hard not to think, one of us.

Every first Wednesday of the month, he rattles down his mountain into St Hilaire, to collect his post. On this particular Wednesday--actually a Thursday; he's got his days mixed up--his first piece of mail is from Sally Normanton, at the University of Aston in Birmingham, telling him the University is withdrawing its funding for his project. It's no use trying to argue; Sally grew up on Clarke and Asimov too, she understands. It's just policy. Nobody believes in anything but the most pessimistic interpretation of the Drake Equation, that calculation to estimate the number of intelligent and communicating species in our galaxy, any more. If they're out there, we should have heard from them by now.

Out of the corner of his eye, across the market, he catches a glimpse of a memory; and later, back up on the mountain, above the bustle of the French town, the memory comes to visit him. Terr, a woman he once made a leap to love. Tom pulls out the bottle of Santernay le Chenay 2058 he's been saving for First Contact, and they sit outside, and look upwards, and Tom remembers: decades earlier, back in Birmingham, when he was an American scientist abroad, and she was desperately in love with the world and everything in it. "How can two people be so different, and so right for each other?" Tom wonders. So right, but perhaps not right enough. After a time they drift apart, Tom's innate conservatism at odds with Terr's addiction to experience. She grows wings and, later, goes to the moon; he, ironically, would never do either.

'New Light on the Drake Equation' is a lovingly crafted story. Sentence by sentence, Macleod is as good at layering mood as any writer I can think of, and his future is subdued but enthralling. The story is, as I said, an elegy, so the predominant tone is one of melancholy and regret, but the glimpses of hope and possibility are as carefully portrayed, and as moving. It is also a story about what happens when nothing happens; about how it feels to wait through 'a slowly roaring beat of city silence', or any silence; about how it feels to have the future wash over you while you're still lost in the past. And, as you may be able to tell, it is the sort of story that lends itself to grand poetic statements about its achievements. Every time I re-read it, I'm left a little dazed, a little dazzled--which sounds, for a story that is in an up-front and important sense, about that thing we call science fiction and about its relationship to the world, a little ridiculous. Who mourns for a jetpack?

But it's not ridiculous, not at all, because what the story uses the subject of science fiction to question is how dreams drive us, and how we cope when we lose them. It's something that almost everyone has to face. It's the question raised in The Great Gatsby, except that where F. Scott Fitzgerald would persuade us there is something admirable about Gatsby's obsession, Macleod presents Tom Kelly as neutral. Gatsby attempts to make his dream come true; Tom doesn't have that option, but he does everything in his power to make sure he'll be listening when the message comes in. Tom is Gatsby, facing forwards but pulled backwards, forty years older rather than gunned down in a blaze of melodrama, not longing any less but perhaps admitting to himself, somewhere deep down, that his dream is dead. More than that, perhaps fearing that it wasn't worth spending the best part of his life on for no return; maybe even suspecting that it did more harm than good, left him less prepared for the future, not more. They are, these two, both particularly American dreamers. (And of course, a lot of science fiction is a particularly American dream.)

And then Terr comes to visit. It seems too convenient, and it is. Tom and Terr drink all night, remembering and arguing together, but as the dawn comes, Terr fades. The stars shine through her, and she's gone.

Oh, we want to believe. We want to believe this is science fiction, not just a dream--no. It is science fiction; there are men on Mars, and flying over the Lake District. What we want is hope. To believe again in the science fiction we've lost, which is to say that we want to believe what every person wants to believe: that we are not alone. We want to believe that Tom Kelly drank his Santernay le Chenay on the night of First Contact, not for the sake of a drunken dream. Not that dreaming made him drink.

Tom lets himself believe, perhaps, for a moment. Watching Terr leave, 'all he felt was a glorious, exquisite sense of wonder' (and never has that phrase had such a sharp edge). The day comes and the wonder recedes, but that moment sustains him, for a while at least. He cleans himself up, starts selling SETI merchandise--including t-shirts--at the market in St Hilaire. It's an ambiguous ending at best, leaving us considering whether it's a turning point or a hollow reprieve, but:

He's Tom Kelly, after all.
And this might be the night.
He's still listening, waiting.

As are we.

Link to story.

"Rocket Fall" by David Prill: An Appreciation by David Herter

1. The Fall of the Painships

Rocket Fall by David Prill. . .
Rocket Fall by David Prill. . .
Rocket Fall by David Prill. . .

Welcome children of the night to the darkest hour of "Rocket Fall" by David Prill. "Rocket Fall" by David Prill, where David Prill clocks Bradbury on the back of the head (with reel six of Roger Corman's Fall of the House of Usher, no less), and the concussion rings with dark and terrible delights. "Rocket Fall" by David Prill, where the pathos of The Marquis De Sade meets the dramaturgy of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. "Rocket Fall" by David Prill, where David Prill pours us a cocktail of dandelion wine laced with pure bang-up psilocybin--

. . . . .

Obsequious adulation shunted into venting port?


Canny valuation monitors set to proper post-Bradbury slash post-Ballard slash post-post-Lovecraft mode?


Vaporous internet text saved to local hard drive?


. . . . .

"Good evening, folks, and Praise Madeline. We're broadcasting live at the burial of "Rocket Fall" by David Prill near the shores of Lake Tenebrae. Mere moments from now, an aetheric cartridge holding its remains will be laid atop this kerosene-soaked wooden raft, nudged into the ebon serene waters and there set ablaze by our own Mike Sanders, who is standing by in the Madeline-Live-at-Five news copter. Mike, can you hear me?"

"I certainly can, Ger-- I--"

"Mike? Hello, Mike, your signal dropped out there."

"Yeah, Gerald. We're experiencing some interference from the various manifestations in the Lake waters this afternoon. I'm sending you live-feed now of the gathering. Do you--"

"Yes, yes, Mike, we're receiving it. Would you look at that."

"On a normal commute day we never see anything like this, of course. The manifestations rarely rise near the surface. And now--yeah, right there, Jim, point it at one o'clock. Gerald, you can see a flock of Demon-Jacknapes breaching the waves, just a mile or so off-shore."

"Wow, quite a sight. Mike, are those tentacles?"

"Yeah, the orifices have opened up, and yes, those are tentacles. As I think we all learned--whoa, hold on, Jim--uh, as I think we all learned in elementary pain school, one doesn't see those tentacles and escape with one's mind intact. I don't have the quote entirely, um, praise Madeline."

"Mike? I'm being told by Deborah, our producer, that it's 'look upon. . .' Yes, I'll have Deb say it--"

"Hi, Mike. It goes 'Look upon the dread Chtonic visage and feel the weight of countless loathsome universes shatter the very fabric of your mind.' That's why I don't swim in Lake Tenebrae."

"Thanks, Deb."

"Gerald, as you can see, those tentacles are snapping at the air, trying to get at my copter. What they really want, of course, is the aetheric cartridge . . ."

"And that's as good a segue as any, Mike. Thanks. So now we'll go out to Dee Pegs, who's spent the day with the short story in question as it was being prepared. Dee?"

"Thanks, Gerald. This is Dee Pegs standing beside the aetheric cartridge. Or, rather, standing as close as I can get without breaching its aetheric field, which has now been turned on, Gerald."

"Ah, that's an important milestone, Dee. We've been waiting for it."

"And I . . . if I could get Dr. Dark from the Roderick Institute to say a word or two. Dr. Dark, are you somewhere in the procedure where you could talk to the Madeline-Live-at-Five viewers?"

"Oh. Hello. Uh, no, not really."

"Very briefly, Dr. Dark. Turning on the aetheric field is a big step in preparing the story for burial, isn't it?"

"Indeed. The story has been put to rest. It is now for all intents and purposes dormant, and at peace."

"Doctor, we’ve had reports that Demon-Jacknapes have surfaced in Lake Tenebrae. What problems do they pose for the proper burial of the aetheric cartridge?"

"They should pose no problem. They'll have plenty of competition in devouring it."

"I'm being. . . yes, I understand, I'm being told by your assistant that you have to return to the task. Let me just get one last point in, Doctor: Now that the story is being 'put to rest,' as you call it, there will in fact be little rest for it? Is that the case?"

"Absolutely, my dear. It will most certainly be digested in many dimensions for countless millennia, fueling the very aetheric Nature that surrounds us."

"Doctor, did you have a favorite line from the story?"

"I simply cannot offer a comment. Thank you. Farewell."

"Thank you, Doctor. Gerald, I think everything's ready over here. I see that the band is about to strike up, and, wow, that Sousaphone player seems super-thrilled at the prospect, doesn't he?"

"Yes, he certainly does. Do you have a favorite line you'd like to mention, Dee?"

"I do, Gerald. I hurt inside."

"That's a good one, Dee. I think we all hurt inside, ever since losing Baron Armstrong and his beloved Madeline. What about you, Deb? Oh--wait--yes, they're now levitating the story onto the burial raft. Mike, how close are those Jacknapes to shore?"

"They seem a bit timid, Gerald. They're not lovers of band music, of course, and I think they sense what's coming. They shouldn't interfere with the actual launching of the raft, at least."

"Well, don't take any chances. Deb, favorite line? Favorite moment?"

"Any mention of lee–-"

"Your, uh. Wait. Did you catch that, folks? Deb's microphone cut out. She says, 'Any mention of lederhosen.' The interference, the aetheric interference, is rising as the moment approaches. As you can all see, the aetheric cartridge has been settled onto the raft, and yes, they've begun nudging the raft down toward the water. And yes, there's the music. Wow. A beautiful yet sad sight, praise Madeline. I must admit, I never read the story myself, but others have told me--Mike, you read it, didn't you?"

"I waited too long, Gerald. I regret that, now. When I get home from work I find myself sticking to TV. And I've never enjoyed reading on a computer screen. Too hard on the eyes. Anyway, Jim's read it. Jim, you loved it, right? Yep, Gerald, he's giving me the thumbs up, he absolutely loved it, and says that he will miss it desperately. And he agrees with Dee on that line. It's a plum."

"Well, folks, why don't we just watch, and listen, and take in all that this day has to offer. I see the sun is setting over the lake, casting a blood-red band of brilliance over those ebon waters. I'm going to stop jabbering now, and spend a moment experiencing this truly wonderful and terribly sad event along with you at home."

Link to story.

David Herter is the author of Ceres Storm and Evening's Empire. Forthcoming is On the Overgrown Path, from PS Publishing.

"Periodic Table of Science Fiction" by Michael Swanwick: An Appreciation by Greg van Eekhout

In the Periodic Table of Science Fiction, Michael Swanwick gives us 118 very short stories, each based on different element. He pulls off these flash pieces like a street magician flinging scarves and rabbits from his sleeves. He makes it look effortless, as though he could do this all day, dispensing an endless store of heavy metals and halogens and alkalis with spark and energy and mordant humor.

He gives us a punk barbarian princess, the Devil in Las Vegas, a Superman reluctant to face the consequences of knocking up Lois Lane, a sentient starship, a radioactive basement monster . . . and these are just the noble gases. Swanwick's table is a dazzling performance, a pyrotechnic display from a nimble imagination.

Since their appearance at SCI FICTION, these stories have appeared in an attractive print volume, but I prefer them in their original online format. Ellen Datlow presents to us a kind of interactive story device, and it's simply fun to click on the familiar-looking table, not knowing if what shows up in the little pop-up window will be a story about a reincarnated talking mule, an insidious toothpaste conspiracy, or a chilling account of the real reason the Hindenburg exploded. Online, the table becomes more than an accumulation of stories. It becomes a new thing, one that engages the reader in a new way, and short of shipping to each reader a box with 118 compartments, it's hard to think of a way the presentation could be duplicated, let alone improved upon.

Michael Swanwick's Periodic Table of Science Fiction is an innovative marriage of form and fiction. It's a fabulous toy to play with. Ellen Datlow is owed thanks for bringing it to us.

Link to story.