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.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

"More Adventures on Other Planets" by Michael Cassutt: An Appreciation by Rich Horton

Ellen Datlow has published a tremendous variety of wonderful short fiction at the site, and elsewhere, including perhaps my favorite story of the 21st Century, Ian MacLeod's "New Light on the Drake Equation", and other delights such as Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State", Jeffrey Ford's "The Empire of Ice Cream", Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See", Linda Nagata's "Goddesses", and many more great original stories. I'm also inordinately proud of having discovered Chan Davis's "It Walks in Beauty" in the only issue of Star Science Fiction magazine (January 1958) and of having brought the story to Ellen's attention--a reminder of a sometimes neglected aspect of SCI FICTION: the biweekly "classics" that brought many outstanding old SF stories, some well-known, some obscure, to a wider audience.

But for this project in celebration of SCI FICTION, I thought to write about a story that has gotten less notice than some of my other favorites. Michael Cassutt is a successful television writer who has published a moderate amount of print SF, always interesting, and, it seems to me, not quite as well known as it might be. He published two fine stories at SCI FICTION, "Beyond the End of Time" (6/20/2001) and "More Adventures on Other Planets" (1/10/2001), one of my favorite SCI FICTION stories.

I'm a sucker for stories that seamlessly combine wonder-inducing science-fictional ideas with affectingly realized characters whose personal stories would fit in any "mainstream" character study. This is one such. It's set in 2026. Space exploration is conducted by remotely-controlled robots: manned space travel has proven to be simply too difficult, too hard on astronauts. The robot controllers interact via a much-faster-than-light virtual link. Each controller tends to handle only one robot, and it is rumored (though the techies deny it) that the robots take on the personality of their controllers.

The main characters are two somewhat battered late middle-age folks. Earl Nolan is a former aerospace engineer for Lockheed Martin, spending his last few working years (he's in his late 50s) controlling a robot on Jupiter's moon Europa. Rebecca Marceau is a French-Canadian woman who joins the program to control a robot intended to help in the search for life on Europa. Both the robotic Earl and Rebecca and the organic Earl and Rebecca "meet cute". And so the story follows the rocky but mostly sweet path of both relationships, and their inevitable bittersweet endings.

The heart of the story, really, is the careful portrayal of Earl. He's a crusty old man, used to always being right, which has often been true in an engineering sense, but not in a personal sense. He's been through two marriages, and he has three children, only one of whom tolerates him. Rebecca is somewhat similarly built, it would seem, so it is natural that they first meet unpromisingly. And it is mostly contingence--or perhaps the "intervention" of their robotic other selves--that leads them to a closer relationship. Which then plays out against the backdrop of Earl's discovery that he has cancer and won't likely live long.

But perhaps the heart of the story is the depiction of Europa's landscape, and the hard work and danger encountered by the robots and their controllers. And the ambiguous hope of discovering some hint of another sort of life on this distant moon.

And, in the end, the final journey of the robot Earl . . .

Link to story.

"The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe: An Appreciation by Susan Marie Groppi

A couple of years ago, I heard Christopher Rowe do a reading at a convention. He started off by explaining to us that the piece he was going to read was a work-in-progress, the prologue to a novel he was working on. He also mentioned that the novel was set in the same world as "The Voluntary State", a novella that had been published at SCI FICTION. After setting all that up for us, he launched into reading the prologue, which was this incredible piece of writing, two kids riding bicycles in this hostile landscape full of semi-sentient semi-animate objects, and half the time I wasn't sure what was going on but I was fascinated anyway, and I swear to god I've never in my life found bicycles as interesting as I did that day. I left the reading with this near-desperate wish that he'd write the damn novel already so that I could read it.

After the convention was over, my curiosity about the novel and that setting led me to find the other story, "The Voluntary State." I pulled up the story from the SCI FICTION website, figuring that I'd just find it and bookmark it and come back to it later, but the first paragraph was kind of intriguing, and I told myself I'd just read a little bit, and instead I found it too compelling to stop, I had to keep reading. And then when I got to the end, I didn't want it to be over, so I stayed at the computer and read it again, and by the end of the second reading I realized almost in a daze that I was late for a meeting.

I'm starting to realize that I may not be up to the challenge of explaining why "The Voluntary State" is one of the most brilliant stories I've ever read. I'll try, but mostly you just need to read it for yourself, because all I'm doing here is trying to attach some kind of articulate explanation to a huge overwhelming feeling of "Oh, wow. This is . . . this is just perfect."

In the early parts of the story, I was pulled in by the strangeness of the world. The idea that these people live in a place where everything around them is alive to some degree, manifested artificial policement who fly in on bicycles, public works projects conducted by cranes (with "acres-broad leaves" that change color with the seasons) that are grown for special projects and go dormant in the winter, predators in the ocean shallows who grow prey lures that look like drowning children. Those kinds of things keep happening throughout the story--that lovely weirdness never lets up--but that's not all that's going on. If that were the extent of the appeal, then it would be a great one-time read, a single flashy thought experiment. But this isn't that kind of story. It's the kind of story that you can read and keep reading, because it's so deep and rich and tangled. It's the kind of story that makes me remember why I love science fiction in the first place.

Link to story.

"The Serial Murders" by Kim Newman: An Appreciation by Tansy Rayner Roberts

The first time I read a Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, I discovered a Diogenes Club story featuring professional psychic Richard Jeperson. I loved it because it was a spooky horror-fantasy piece that felt (and looked) very much like an episode of The New Avengers. Or, if not that, then an episode of a very cool British 1970's show that I had mysteriously never heard of, featuring supernatural crime. Imagine if "The X-Files" was actually done twenty-five years earlier, in Britain. With Carnaby Street fashions, a charismatic older leading man with a Shakespearean background, a young male co-star who went on to star in cop shows or cheesy eighties sit-coms, and a young female co-star who went on to be a Bond girl.

Every now and then, a Diogenes Club story appeared before me, mysteriously, in an anthology here or there. I always noted them and enjoyed them--but, strangely, never noticed the name of the author (of course I'd heard of Kim Newman, but somehow didn't identify him with these particular stories).

Then, a few weeks ago, I wandered past SCI FICTION and found "The Serial Murders." Not only a Diogenes Club story, but a whole novella, divided into three episodes. I read it voraciously, savouring every bit of witty dialogue and glam fashion. There's something joyously strange about these stories--in this case, a story about soap opera and voodoo, complete with hypertext "footnotes" that explain all the Seventies Britisms of the language. The plot starts out with absurdity and descends into stylish weirdness and yet it works. It doesn't have anything overly significant to say, but it's an entertaining romp and one of my favourite stories of the year. One of the rare short stories I come across that I would happily re-read just for sheer reading pleasure.

And here's the thing: in the early days of stunned shock and disappointment as the news of the death of SCI FICTION filtered through the blogosphere, I kept hearing people talk about the stories that wouldn't be published if not for SCI FICTION. My first reaction was impatience--surely if they're good enough to earn 20¢ a word, then they would pick up publication somewhere else? (I know, I know, I've since come to my senses.) But it's hard to imagine "The Serial Murders" finding a home somewhere else. It's a quirky, oddball novella–-and it's very rare for a print magazine to allow a novella-sized chunk of real estate to be filled by quirky and oddball. That's why SCI FICTION was special–-not only for the brave and challenging and downright strange stories that found its way onto those well-presented pages, but particularly for the novelettes and novellas that found a home there. The number of high quality pieces of long fiction that we get to read every year has just been drastically slashed, and it's hard not to feel seriously depressed about that.

Too late to add this to my list for Santa, but what I really want for the New Year is for someone to give Ellen Datlow a job, a budget and a publishing outlet. It doesn't even have to be free to readers. I'll pay my way.

Sigh. In the meantime, I can take heart from the fact that Monkeybrain Books are publishing a collection of Richard Jeperson stories (The Man from the Diogenes Club) in 2006. Cue the 1970's soundtrack, and grab your knee-high vinyl boots . . .

Link to story.