New Hugo Winners, The by Asimov, Isaac, ed., 1991

New Hugo Winners, The by Asimov, Isaac, ed.

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A collection of Hugo Award Winning short pieces from 1983, '84 and '85.

1983, 41st Convention, Baltimore

This book is the 1989 edition of Asimov's infrequent round-up of short form Hugo winners It contains the winners for the Hugo Award in the categories of Best Novella, Novelette and Short Story only, for the years 1983, 984 and 1985. The stories speak for themselves, and here they are:

Souls, by Joanna Russ (1982): Science fiction in the 1970's was going through one of those strange periods that it has found itself in a few times in its history. You know the kind, because we are going through another one right now. A period where there is no guiding light and many authors were just kind of flailing around, trying to find something big to write about. It was between the New Wave of the 1960's and the Heinleinian resurgence and Cyberpunk era of the 1980's. But there was one active literary movement back then: Feminism. It was the time of ERA and feminist ideals, and many of those found excellent expression in SF. Joanna Russ is one of my favorite authors from that era.

This novella, Souls was published a bit later than the 1970's, in 1982. It is about an abbey of Roman Catholics that was beset by a Viking river expedition. The Abbey was rich, and the abbess in charge of the place, Radegunde, knew that is she put up a fight everyone in the abbey would be killed or enslaved. Knowing, of course, that the ship would carry nothing but men Radegunde approached them first and reminded them of their mothers. She scared them also by reading their minds and telling them facts about themselves. Once she had their attention, she turned to look for the commander. The Norsemen did not have a leader, so Radegunde made a deal with the Viking who all the others looked up to. She told Torvald that if they left the people alone, they could have all of the treasure. The Vikings agreed at first, but as soon as they were let inside the abbey they welched and used force to take slaves and women as well as the treasure. Torvald did what he could do to protect Radegunde and her foster child, a young boy named Little Boy News. Radegunde still worried that everyone would be taken so she made another deal with Thorvald. She agreed to be his slave and would travel the world with him as a companion if he would urge the others leave as many of the people as possible in the abbey. Again he agreed, but before the long ship could depart, Radegunde was called home. Radegunde was an anthropologist from some other universe. She had used a mental power to keep Torvald under her control, and did what she could to save the abbey. But she was really waiting for her co-workers to open a rift in space time so that she could get home. When they did so she jumped through, but before doing so addled Thronvald's brains and "cursed" him with a peaceful nature.

The narrative here is a little bit lacking, but the messages were pretty clear. I found myself more than once saying "so what?" about the story, but that was probably just me. I am not too much for fantasy, and right up until the very end this one was pretty much a pure fantasy. For example, the setting and level of technology seemed to place this story before the scientific era, and the things that Radagunde could do, cure wounds and control the minds of men were depicted as magical powers, not technological ones. Only when the portal opened at the end of the story, which showed a bright room with computers on the other side, was it clear that Radagunde had access to some technology. But what the story was really about was not so much a battle of the sexes as a demonstration of the sources of feminine power. Consider this passage:

"Tell me, Thorvald, what do you men want from us women?"

"To be talked to death," said he, and I could see there was some anger in him still, but he was turning it to play also.

The Abbess laughed in delight. "Very witty!" she said, springing to her feel and brushing the leaves off her skirt. "You are a very clever man, Torvald. I beg your pardon, Thorvald. I keep forgetting. But as to what men want from women, if you asked the young men, they would only wink and dig one another in the ribs, but that is only how they deceive themselves. That is only body calling to body. they want something quite different and they want it so much that it frightens them. So they pretend it is anything and everything else, pleasure, comfort, a servant in the home. Do you know what it is that they want?"

"What?" said Thorvald.

"The mother," said Radegunde, "as women do too; we all want the mother. When I walked before you on the riverbank yesterday, I was playing the mother. Now you did nothing, for you are no young fool, but I knew that sooner or later one of you, so tormented by his longing that he would hate me for it, would reveal himself. And so he did: Thorfinn, with his thoughts all mixed up between witches and grannies and what not. I knew I could frighten him, and through him, most of you. That was the beginning of my bargaining. You Norse have too much of the father in your country and not enough mother; that is hwy you die so well and kill other folks so well - and live so very, very badly.

I think what Russ really wanted to do here was give a story that worked off of the witch/mother dichotomy, if there is such a thing. The tool that she used with most of the Norsemen was fear; fear of a powerful witch who reminded them of their mother. But with the older and wiser Thorvald she played as a foil to his apathy. She got in interested in living again not so much with sex as with the promise of companionship. It was interesting to watch, especially in the hands of a capable master like Russ.

Fire Watch, by Connie Willis (1982): Fire watch is a wonderful little time travel story about the latest Battle of Britain, and though most of the action takes place in London during WWII, the real impact of the story is felt in the main character's realization when she returned home to her own time that her love of history is as important to her instructors as it is to her.

Bartholomew was a student of history at Oxford in some undated future. He specialized in St. Paul and had spent his entire graduate education preparing for a leap through time to St. Paul's era to gather information for his thesis. Near the end of his tenure as a student his professors forced him to undergo a practicum, which required that Bartholomew travel by time machine to 1940's London and spend six weeks protecting St. Paul's Cathedral from German phosphorous bombs. This was considered an important topic of study in Bartholomew's day, because St. Paul's Cathedral had been nuked by a "pinpoint bomb" 70 years earlier, and it and swaths of London were gone by Bartholomew's time. The sense of loss and rage over the terrorist bombing of London permeated the psyche of most of the British, and was a major source of frustration and unresolved bloodlust. Bartholomew was prepared by his professors in haste for his assignment, and was only given a few courses of the standard memory drugs. Had the drugs been administered properly, over the course of many months, Bartholomew would have been armed with a complete memory of the history of the era. As it was his artificial memory was full of long gaps that only gave him a touch of dťjŗ vu in certain situations. In essence he was put back in time with no preparation for what was to come.

...I live here in the crypt with Nelson, who, Langby tells me, is pickled in alcohol inside his coffin. If we take a direct hit, will he burn like a torch or simply trickle out in a decaying stream onto the crypt floor, I wonder. Board is provided by a gas ring, over which are cooked wretched tea and indescribable kippers. To pay for all this luxury I am to stand on the roofs of St. Paul's and put out incendiaries.

Bartholomew felt put upon and out of place from the beginning as he had never studied that particular era of history, but he obeyed his instructions and went and spent six weeks sleeping very little and fighting a losing battle to protect a national treasure of Britain. While he was there he met and fell for a local woman who treated him kindly. She told him that she was sleeping in the Marble Arch tube station, and when she mentioned that he had a flash of insight and became alarmed. The drugs should have told him that the station that she was staying in was going to be bombed to oblivion by the Nazi planes in the following weeks, but at first he could not recall that fact. Bartholomew also thought that he uncovered a traitor who conspired with the Germans to destroy the Cathedral. His time in the cathedral was emotionally and physically exhausting and extremely frustrating. Keeping fires from starting on the roof of the cathedral during the nighttime raids was like trying to keep the ocean back from the surf with a broom. Bartholomew's failure to remember anything helpful caused more frustration and even some panic as he realized that he might not even be able to help stay his friends alive, and the knowledge that had he been prepared properly he would have been able to do virtually anything drove him mad.

When finally his time in the 1940's was up he returned home to his own time and was given an exam where he was asked mundane things such as how many bomb fragments per day he buried, how many hours he stayed awake and how many times the alarm bells went off. Disgusted by his professor's failure to understand the real human and social costs of that conflict he lashed out in anger and stormed out the classroom. Bartholomew was convinced when he left the exam that the only lesson he was expected to learn was that the people in the past already were history. They were not worth saving because history had already killed them. When he was told later that his professors were convinced by his reaction that he had finally learned to put the academic exercises of historical study behind him, and had embraced the true power of history, he came to respect them and himself again. However there was another lesson in all of this for Bartholomew. By going through the pointless exercise of trying to save the cathedral that to him was already wrecked and gone, Bartholomew worked through his rage over its destruction. On the one hand he learned that some things that are in the past are worth saving, while on the other hand some are not worth worrying about too much at all.

This is one of those really good stories that imparts a valuable message to the reader without doing so forcefully. Bartholomew made a very interesting character who was fighting a three way battle: He was trying to stop phosphorous fragments from burning the cathedral to the ground, he was watching the supposed traitor, Langby, and trying to prevent him from letting the cathedral burn down, and he was trying to "retrieve," or recall the memories implanted by the drugs so that he could figure out what was going on all around him. Of course, had he been able to retrieve properly he would have just relied on his omniscience to save the day and he would have learned nothing; his heart would not have been in it, and all his efforts would have amounted to simply going through the motions of preventing death and destruction. I have read several stories by Willis so far, and she never ceases to amaze me. This is no exception.

Melancholy Elephants, by Spider Robinson (1982): As a lawyer who spends a lot of time on line with fellow book lovers I am frequently asked for my opinion on copyright matters. Sadly I am not an expert in the field. I know one or two of those guys who practice Intellectual Property ("IP") law, and I have to say honestly that it takes a certain type of personality to thrive in that profession. I am not one of those types. But I do have an understanding of the basics of the law, and I can argue the public policy behind the law with the best of them. After reading Spider Robinsonís short story Melancholy Elephants, it is pretty clear to me that he can too. Melancholy Elephants is an unexpected gem of a story about the importance of restraint in the application of copyright law. In typical Robinsonian style the author takes a position grounded in the spiritual needs of people, and informed his character's outlooks with Buddhist teachings. For a short story the piece is surprisingly well developed and deep, and it really misses very little in its thorough, multi-faceted examination of the problems that come with over-protective legislation.

Mrs. Martin was a lobbyist in the employ of a group of artists who opposed a senate bill that would change copyright so that it would be defensible in perpetuity. Martin has worked for years to make a pitch to a very important senator, and after much work and incredible expense including many large bribes she has finally been given thirty minutes of his time. While leaving her apartment in Washington DC for the senator's home Martin was approached by a common mugger whom she quickly killed and stuffed under a car. She contemplated reporting the attack and the death, but she knew that she must not be late or all would be lost. Martin arrived in time for her meeting and made her pitch, but before she could begin to persuade him in earnest she was told by the senator that he had already taken a "campaign contribution" from the other side and would therefore be voting for the billís passage.

Moved by the look of hopelessness on Martin's face, and confused as to why artists would want copyright laws to be weakened, the senator asked to hear Martin's arguments. Martin explained that extending copyright would be too traumatic a burden for society to bear, and explained the folly of copyright in perpetuity by showing the Senator the mathematics of the situation. Her premise was that "there is no such thing as infinity." The Earth's population at the time of the story was sixteen billion. The economy was for the most part capable of providing for them all, even though 54% of them were artists and likely had irregular income. Taking her example from music in particular, Martin offered that the average ditty was some 88 notes. If one assumed that a good half of those possible combinations resulted in tunes that no ear would want to hear, and then half again would be objectionable under the law because of similarity to material that was already copyrighted, then it would not be too long before every possible and desirable tune was written, recorded and protected.

Melancholy Elephants is absolutely chock-full of well thought-out ideas about the reality of artistry. The central premise is that artistic expression is terribly limited not only by combinations of the elements that artists used in their crafts, but also by the number of senses with which we have to perceive the finished product. The implications of the story on any artistic endeavor are pretty interesting, I think. Once you can get your head around the idea that the number of permutations is in fact limited, then you are left with the conclusion that the act of "creation" of art is actually more akin to one of discovery. Take the example of music. If in the future 90% of those 88 note combinations have already been recorded and protected, then the effort for composers who want to make a living will be to "discover" those few listenable combinations that have not already been found before.

Do you know about the great split in literature at the beginning of the twentieth century? The mainstream essentially abandoned the Novel of Ideas after Henry James, and turned its collective attention to the Novel of Character. They had sucked that dry by mid-century, and they're still chewing on the pulp today. But meanwhile a small group of writers, desperate for something new to write about, for a new story to tell, invented a new genre called science fiction. They mined the future for ideas. The infinite future - like the infinite coal and oil and copper they had then too. In less than a century they had mined it out; there hasn't been a genuinely original idea in science fiction in over fifty years. Fantasy has always been touted as the "literature of infinite possibility" - but there is even a theoretical upper limit to the "meaningfully impossible," and we are fast reaching it.

Personally I think that Martin is wrong about the nature of artistic expression being grounded in discovery and not creation. She was focused not on the process, but on the result, though I can see the reason for the confusion. Iím no musician, but perhaps I can make an analogy from my own profession. Robert J. Sawyer once said in his blog that the job of an attorney is to take all of the legal precepts that could apply to a broad fact pattern, and figure out how they apply to a client's problems. To a certain degree, he is right, but there is more to it than that. Situations sometimes present themselves where the wisest course of action is in direct opposition to the weight of law, and a lawyer's job at that point is to create a way from problem to solution. It is true that lawyers are limited by what is legal and relevant. One could reasonably conclude that case outcomes are every bit as limited as musical bridges, so I assume that someone could theorize that the number of possibilities is limited such that what is really is going on is more akin to discovery, but even if someone has figured the answer out before, how is it not creation if someone comes up with it on his own? As a lawyer I have the benefit of past cases to rely on in framing a course of action, but in many cases I am not limited by many of them. At least to me most problems that I am confronted with in my job have some original or unique elements to them.

For those few of you who are unaware copyright is the method by which authors of original works of certain types, both published and unpublished, may protect their interests in those works. In American jurisprudence copyright law originates from the eighteenth century. For most of the history of the law protections have been granted by law for 28 years, though since 1978 (as amended in 1996) the protection is either for 95 years total, if created or published before 1978, or for the duration of the authorís life plus 70 years, though there are some byzantine laws that predicate renewal requirements upon the date of creation or publishing. Anyway, the devil is in the details, but the heart is in the policy. After reading the synopsis above I am sure that a few of you are wondering why copyright law is needed at all; why doesnít an artist have the right to protect forever the things that she comes up with, creates and publishes or performs? Those of you who ask that question should ask yourselves what things could be kept forever otherwise. I know nothing physical that could last "forever," so why should inchoate property interests be any different? The question of what is the proper length for copyright is a question of balance. Robinson gives a great discussion of the issues that should be considered, but the critical concerns are the right of the artist to make economic use of her creations, and the right of society to reuse art that has become a part of the culture.

I do not buy into the Robinsonís argument that ideas are finite. I think that is too narrow a view. Robinsonís character posited that the universe is closed and that artistic expression is a finite thing, but to think so ignores the way that we human beings push our culture to evolve. When we are presented with a system that is too limited either we evolve or we evolve the system around us. Perhaps I can buy that ideas that fit in with the current paradigm are finite. But I also have enough faith in the human imagination to believe that if needed, a new paradigm will be developed. Robinsonís failure here is that he assumes in a finite system of ideas every other aspect of human need will be static. So as incredible as this story is and despite the fact that its legal elements are very well presented and analyzed, at its heart I feel that its deeply flawed. Still, in the grand scheme of things this one gave a pretty pure public policy analysis that was better than most others.

I do however think that Robinson is correct on the larger-scale issue. Copyright is a hot-button issue these days, though mostly because living authors and performers are being robbed of their own rights to control distribution of their products. To fix that we have developed a system where record labels and other producers are willing to sue their artist's own fans, which seems to me to be the height of idiocy. Back on point: The issue in this story really is about heirs' rights to control assets developed by their decedents. It asks "how long should the familial community of which the artist or author was a member be allowed to control the creations of a dead person?" Personally I do not have much difficulty seeing the logic of a system that allows direct descendants, of one generation only, to make enough to live off of those assets. Seventy years is too long though

One of the most confusing ideas in this story has to do with the main characters willingness to fight to protect artist's property rights, but kills with hardly a feeling of indifference. In this story the homicide issue has to do with the right of the individual to defend herself from assault, which legally is the threat of contact by another. Here Martin took the life of an assailant, a common mugger, so that she would not be late for the meeting with the senator.

She was mildly surprised, in fact, at just how calm she was, until she got out of the hotel elevator at the garage level and the mugger made his play. She killed him instead of disabling him. Which was obviously not a measured, balanced action - the official fuss and paperwork could make her late. Annoyed at herself, she stuffed the corpse under a shiny new Westinghouse roadable whose owner she knew to be in Luna, and continued on to her own car. This would have to be squared later, and it would cost. No help for it - she fought to regain at least the semblance of tranquility as her car emerged from the garage and turned north.

In our system of jurisprudence self defense is a defense to any intentional crime. Though there are different flavors of it in different jurisdictions, at common law the defense was allowed whenever a jury determined that a reasonable person in the same or similar circumstances as the defendant would have concluded that they were at risk of an assault, and then and only then would they be allowed to use essentially the same force to deter their assailant. Some jurisdictions allow a more subjective standard and judges instruct the jury that if they conclude that the defendant reasonably concluded that they would be assaulted, then the defense would be available, and other jurisdictions place less restrictions on the amount of force that may be used to protect one's self. The analysis is very fact driven, and in this particular scenario I see no facts to determine the intent of the mugger, other than he wanted to take Martin's money. The question then arises, was using lethal force reasonable? It is pretty obvious to me that Robinson's world is one in which the problem with muggers is endemic (54% of them are artists, right?), and criminal culpability for killing one in the course of an attempted crime does not seem to carry the same stigma as in our society. After all, her greatest worry was paperwork and delay. It seems also that Martin's legal problems could be great deal worse because she concealed the affair. The same notion of enhanced criminal liability exists in our own society, but still, it does not appear that her freedom was at risk.

What gives me pause though is that Martin, who is more than just a hired gun for a lobby of artists, and who feels some passion for the future mental health of humanity, can casually murder a human being, and then conceal it. Her actions in the morning caused me to question the moral positions that she took later in the day; her morality was ambiguous at best. One fact that I have not given you yet is that Martin's now dead husband was some kind of artist himself. This fact certainly does not mitigate the disconnect here, but it does explain somewhat why her passions for property law are so high while she is bothered not in the least by taking a life. The old adage that "money makes the world go 'round" applies to our culture in a way that it has applied to no other in the history of the world. However every criminal code in the United States recognizes either inherently or explicitly that there are two things that are more important: Life and freedom. The various venues acknowledge this because those are important cultural values that we all hold, and here Martin violates them with hardly a though. I do not have too much trouble calling her a "monster" because of that, and I really wonder what Robinson was trying to say. Was it that people in our society puts too much emphasis on material things and ignores more important values? Or was it just an odd way to start the day?

There were some other issues upon which I could have commented, but I think I've gone far enough for now. They are:

The Longevity issue. Longevity plays all kind of havoc in SF when it comes to legal issues. Here it was directly relevant because the longer an individual lives, the longer the copyright may be claimed.

The Libertarian issue. Libertarian thought is eventually going to get the long-shrift here, so keep your eyes open if this is your cup of tea. I think that this is a libertarian piece as it argues for less government intrusion into the lives of individuals.

Cascade Point, by Timothy Zahn (1983): I have never been much of a fan of Star Wars, and I really do not enjoy Star Wars books much at all, so it was with a few jitters that I decided to read Cascade Point by Timothy Zahn, a noted author in the Star Wars franchise of books. The story did not turn out as badly as I feared, but it really was not very good either. It's a hard SF piece from the 80's, but there is a very pulpish twist or two, and it has such an over-engineered happy ending that it felt as if it should have been run for the first time in The Saturday Evening Post. I probably won't seek Zahn out again after this one.

1984, 42nd Convention, Anaheim

Cascade Point is a story about an interstellar voyage gone awry. Mankind has figured out how to access wormhole entrances called "cascade points," which drastically reduces the amount of time needed to travel between stars. The process of navigating through these wormholes requires the presence in precise quantities of a substance called "ming metal." It also requires an excellent navigator as orientation and velocity upon entrance and exit of the wormholes determines not only where, but when you will arrive. Travelling in this way is very hard on navigators. Once the wormhole is entered a person's visual field is changed; you see mirror images of yourself stretching away to infinity in all directions. Most people cross from one cascade point to another unconscious because it is too unnerving to experience while awake.

I took a long, shuddering breath - peripherally aware that the images nearest me were doing the same - and wiped a shaking hand across my forehead. You don't have to look, I told myself, eyes rigidly fixed on the back of the image in front of me. You've seen it all before. What's the point? But I'd fought this fight before, and I knew in advance I would lose. There was indeed no more point to it than there was to pressing a bruise, but it held an equal degree of compulsion. Bracing myself, I turned my head and gazed down the line of images strung out to my left.

The armchair philosophers may still quibble over what the cascade point images "really" are, but those of us who fly the small ships figured it out long ago. The Colloton field puts us into a different type of space, possibly and entire universe worth of it - that much is established fact. Somehow this space links us into a set of alternate realities, universes that might have been if things had gone differently...and what I was therefore seeing around me were images of what I would be doing in each of those universes.

Captain Durriken of the Aura Dancer prefers to travel awake because he is a little nuts and a little masochistic. In fact, most of his crew have psychological issues, and because of those issues they all have gravitated towards this particular ship, hired onto the Dancer, which is owned by a low-rent transport company.

The crew welcomed Dr. Lanton, a psychiatrist, and his patient, Bradley. Bradley has come aboard with his doctor to work on some debilitating psychological issues. One theory about the cascade effect is that the copies one sees during jumps are alternate versions of one's self from other universes. Landon believes that Bradley will benefit from interacting with other versions of himself. Why he believes this is never really made clear, and in fact nobody really knows exactly what conditions Bradley has. But the Captain allows the two to cross awake and undrugged, and proceeds with the required ten jumps to the planet Taimyr. When the Dancer arrives though, they find that the 200 million citizens that they were expecting are gone, along with all the cities on Taimyr. They search the ship and find that Lanton has brought aboard a device that has ming metal in it. The metal's presence has caused the Dancer to emerge from one of its ten jumps into an alternate universe where humans never evolved on Earth. Now the crew had to figure out exactly where they made their error and reverse their course, hopefully to arrive in the universe that they started in.

This is basically a problem solving story, which I think all hard SF really is. Zahn paints a very accurate sounding picture of astrogation and celestial mechanics, and if you forgive the hyperspace and alternate universe elements, which again is required by hard SF, then you will find a fairly accurate and realistic feeling story. The problem here is that the central idea, that of alternate versions of an individual being accessible to someone in our reality, is not very well developed. Instead of actual interaction the characters use their mere presence, and the ways that they are dressed as a yardstick of success, and a measure of themselves. Itís a well meaning story too, and by that I mean that there is no grit or edge to it at all. Zahn writes exactly as I imagine a Star Wars author would write; in language suitable for a wide range of audience. Itís too nice and perfect in that sense. True, we do start off with some psychologically wounded characters: These include the captain, his first mate, Bradley, and even the doctor. By the end of the story, once the able and capable crew has saved the day, everyone is all better and the ghosts have gone away. Itís just too nice, and personally, I can't take TOO NICE at all. Bye-bye, Mr. Zahn.

Blood Music, by Greg Bear (1983): Blood Music by Greg Bear is both a 1983 Hugo and Nebula Award winning novella and a 1985 Hugo and Nebula nominated novel. Both versions of this story are great and deserve attention, and even if the stories are a bit repetitious, I think something can be gained by reading this very capable author at the height of his career. This review is of the novella. A review of the novel can be found here. I assume that you will read the review of the longer piece, so here I will focus on the small differences between the two works.

Blood Music the novella is basically the first one-third of the novel, though it focuses much less on Virgil Ullam and more on his friend, Edward, an OB/GYN. Virgil wanted a doctor to evaluate his condition, but did not want any records to be made. Edward agreed because the two were old buddies. Virgil always had been a bit of a joke; measly and without confidence, he was the bright guy at the back of the line who nobody really respected. But when Edward got Virgil onto his examination table he could not believe what he saw. Virgil was at the peak of health, and looked it. But he also had some very odd structures under the skin. Virgil admitted to Edward that he was a genetic researcher, and had invented an "intelligent" form of microscopic life. His law was not licensed to work with biological specimens, so they fired Virgil. Before they could toss him out he injected himself with life form, and escaped the lab. Several weeks later the little guys had bonded together within Virgil and were exploring him like pioneers in a new galaxy. At the time that Virgil and Edward had met they were still working on his internal processes and structures. His spine was redesigned, his muscles were increased and his stamina multiplied. But they were starting to explore the barrier between Virgil's mind and body, and Virgil was afraid that once they discovered who he was, he would be completely subsumed into their world.

He walked around the apartment for two hours, fingering things, looking out windows, making himself lunch slowly and methodically. "You know, they can actually feel their own thoughts," he said about noon ďI mean, the cytoplasm seems to have a will of its own, a kind of subconscious life counter to the rationality they've only recently acquired. They hear the chemical 'noise' or whatever of the molecules fitting and unfitting inside."

The risk as Edward saw it was much greater than the loss of Virgil. Edward knew that for all of Virgil's brains, and now his physique too, he was an impulsive fool who never though of the ramifications of his actions. Edward went to visit Virgil with the results of his tests and found Virgil in a tub filled with reddish water. At first he thought Virgil had slit his own wrists, but he realized after talking to Virgil that the organisms were coming out of his body in the water to explore the tub, and they were discoloring the water. Frightened that Virgil would pull the plug and loose this plague into the world Edward threw a lamp into the tub, then dumped alcohol and lighter fluid in an attempt to sterilize the lot of them. Too bad for Edward that he had shaken Virgil's hand a few days before. When he got home Edward heard a peculiar music in his ears; the sound of the blood pumping through his body. He lay down with his wife as the organisms that were already in his system and his wife's took them over and brought them into their world.

Standing, we grew together. In hours, our legs expanded and spread out. The extensions grew to the windows to take in sunlight, and t the kitchen to take water from the sink. Filaments soon reached to all corners of the room, tripping paint and plaster from the walls, fabric and stuffing from the furniture...I no loner have any clear view of what we look like. I suspect we resemble cells - large filamentous cells, draped purposefully across most of the apartment. The great shall mimic the small.

I read the novel version of this story first and I have always been a great fan of it. Through it I was introduced me to the rest of Greg Bear's works, some of which are the most complex stories available in modern SF, such as Eon and its progeny, and some of which are just plain duds, such as Darwin's Radio and its even lamer sequel. This story is very tightly plotted, very well written, and builds up to one of the most fantastic depictions of transformation that I have ever read. True, that transformation occurs in the later novel and not this story, but the build up is there, and the conclusion is adequate enough to let you know what is coming.

Speech Sounds, by Octavia E. Butler (1983): Speech Sounds is one of the most original post-apocalypse stories out there. It is a short story that was written by Octavia Butler who was known primarily as a novelist. I would have loved to see this story turned into a novel before Butler's death. I doubt that she ever had any plans to do that, but I still dream about how good the book would have been. The story is set in Los Angeles several years after a pandemic that caused almost everyone in the world to stroke. Most of the people have suffered some serious sequalae as a result of the strokes. Practically nobody can speak, though some have a little ability. For some reason those who were left-handed suffered less than others. Rye is a left handed woman has lost the ability to remember things. One day she was on a bus (one of the very few still running in Los Angeles) when two men started to fight. Because of the mental damage of the disease, very few people retained the quality of self-control, and even those that did were extremely frustrated because they could no longer speak or communicate at all with others. Fighting, even with guns, was a frequent occurrence everywhere. As the fight got more intense and dangerous a police officer pulled the bus over and threw a tear gas grenade inside. Most on the bus were shocked at this because there were no longer any police. But this one was a bit different. He had completely lost the ability to speak or understand spoken language, but he had retained enough of his senses to remember his job, and to continue doing it. Rye and the cop both recognized that they were both relatively unaffected, so the officer asked Rye to go with him when he left. She did, and after exchanging "name tokens" with each other (a bit of wheat for Rye, and a piece of obsidian for the cop, whom she assumed was named Black) the two found that they could get along. Black propositioned Rye and after the deed was done Rye dreamed of luring Black back to her house and setting up home with him. Before that could happen however, Black was killed in a domestic violence encounter.

The world that Butler built here was very interesting and incredibly detailed for a short story. I would not expect any less from this author, though. It was basically a world full of angry imbeciles who were likely to do violence to anyone for any one of a variety of reasons. But they were all very sympathetic. The psychically wounded were walking everywhere. Nobody was unaffected, though at this point a new generation of normal children were starting to mature. Most of them were hidden away carefully, because the affected were very likely to kill them because they could speak and think normally, and the affected were very jealous of them. After Black and the couple who were battling in the street had killed each other, two young children ran out to stand over the dead body of their mother:

"No!" the girl repeated. She came to stand beside the woman. "Go away!" she told Rye.

"Don't talk," the little boy said to her. There was no blurring or confusing of sounds. Both children had spoken and Rye had understood.

Fluent speech! Had the woman died because she could talk and had taught her children to talk? Had she been killed by a husband's festering anger or by a stranger's jealous rage? And the children...they must have been born after the silence. Had the disease run its course, then? Or were these children simply immune? Certainly they had had time to fall sick and silent. Rye's mind leaped ahead. What if children of three or fewer years were safe and able to learn language? What if all they needed were teachers. Teachers and proctors.

Butler ended this story with a shocking revelation that would be practically criminal of me to reveal here. Fortunately this story is widely available now. Most recently it was reprinted in Night Shade Book's Wastelands anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

1985, 43rd Convention, Melbourne

Press Enter, by John Varley (1984): I have not read a lot of John Varley in my time, but I have read enough so far that I think I can say that he is a great author. The sad fact is that I have not really sat down and read through any of his short story collections. That is part of my personal test, by the way. Even if an author is an excellent novelist I really don't feel that I can call them a great author unless the short stories are at least up to par. As it so happens with Varley, I have managed to catch a few novels and a bunch of award-winning stories. This week's novella is Varley's Hugo Award winning novella, Press Enter. The science in this story is computer science, and it is a little far fetched, especially for 1982, when the story is set. The underlying premise is that somewhere out there is a nefarious governmental agency that can do literally anything that they want to do with computers. But it is also a May/December love story, and I honestly have to say, I think I am in love with the May part of that equation myself. She's perfect, and other than for the reason above, so is this story.

One thing that I have noticed about Varley, many of his stories start out slowly and with no clear direction. Press Enter is like that too. It begins as one of the main characters, Victor Apfel, receives a phone call; an automated message tells him to go to his hermit-neighbor's house and "do what needs to be done." Victor, like his suburban neighbor, is a hermit so he ignored the call at first. It kept coming so eventually he got up and went. When he got there he found the cooling, bloody body of his neighbor, Kluge. Kluge had just committed suicide, as evidenced by the suicide note on his computer screen, titled "Goodbye, Cruel World." The police arrived later and found, in addition to barrels of pharmaceuticals, an interactive will programmed into Kluge's computer. In fact the title of the story came from the blinking message on the monitor: "Press Enter," it said. When they did the will came up. The will named Apfel as the sole beneficiary of Kluge, who had considerable wealth. Kluge was a master hacker and electronic thief, and had spent a years amassing a fortune. Smelling a bug the investigating police officer sends over a forensic IT specialist named Lisa Foo. Foo, a young busty ex-prostitute from Vietnam, who managed to survive all kinds of horrors after the Americans were driven out, befriends and eventually falls in love with Apfel, a Korean-War era widower who survived torture at the hands of the North Koreans. As the two fall more and more deeply in love they work out their personal issues from their times in Asia.

The story is slightly dated (it was published in 1982) but at the same time its pretty forward facing. I was around and wise enough in 1982, but I certainly was not talking about computer networks, interactive displays, on-line activity and high bandwidth data transfers back then, but Varley certainly was. Some of the language was...charming, as well. Upon figuring out that Kluge had wired computers all over his house, and that his suicide note and will were on-line, the ignorant police officer says:

"This guy not only writes a note, he programs the fucking thing into his computer, complete with special effects straight out of Pac-Man."

1982, right?

After Foo examined the computers that Kluge left behind she also came to believe that his death was a murder, not a suicide. She found all kinds of evidence that Kluge was trying to break into networks belonging to the NSA. Instead of doing the smart thing and giving up, Foo was driven. She kept searching and pushing, and eventually she entered the wrong site. Foo was working on a theory that the only thing that had prevented the invention of artificial intelligence was that humans had not developed suitable memory caches yet. She theorized that if you networked enough computers together you could eventually create some sort of critical mass and the computer would become self aware. Actually her theory is not as naively stated as that, but that was the gist of it. It is never explained exactly what happened to Kluge, but the theory was that some artificial agent of the NSA told him or showed him something that made him kill himself. When Foo pushed it too far, she shared his fate; someone reached through the electrons of the primordial internet, and caused Foo to kill herself by jimmying the microwave to work with the door open, then nuking her head.

Like I said, it was the love story that I liked about this one. Actually, it was more the girl. Let's just say that she is my type. Brainy and experienced, boobsy and sweet, open to the idea of falling for some pathetic white guy, and with enough emotional baggage to be interesting as a person. What's not to love there? There is a lot going on in this story, but the middle of it is about two compassionate, interesting characters who make love and then talk about their experiences in Asia, none of which were good.

I was a little bothered that Varley left the discussion of artificial intelligence without finishing up what he started. Foo was full of theories about it, but never interacted with whatever was on the other side of the modem long enough to give the reader a sense of what it was she was dealing with or how it worked. In fact, it could have been a human; it was that underdeveloped. Varley also dropped Kluge's part of the story pretty quickly too. Once Foo came on board everyone stopped wondering why he had barrels of pills in his house, and instead focused on what was going on with all the computers.

I think that this one would have made an amazing book.

Blood Child, by Octavia E. Butler (1984): This is a story about interspecies relations. A colony ship from Earth deposited its cargo of unwanted peasants on the home world of the T'Lic. The T'Lic breed by injecting eggs into hosts as a parasite. The eggs mature and the newborn begins to consume the host from the inside. It is quite painful. Humans for some reason are uniquely suited to bear eggs as a host, as most of the implanted eggs reach maturity and hatch, whereas there significant loss of eggs due to chemical incompatibility with hosts of other races. No other race is as fertile as humans for this purpose. But since we are intelligent, the T'Lic form mating families with us, and it seems that they willingly share love and companionship too. The T'Lic have been surgically removing a newly hatched T'Lic and implanting them into pig's carcass for nutrition after birth. A young human girl is accidentally allowed to see the pain of another host and watch the surgical procedure long before she was ready to know what reproduction is all about. She plays with the idea of running away from the human preserve she lives in and joining a resistance group. I saw in this story elements that found their way into Butler's fantastic Xenogenesis trilogy, such as slavery and rape, though I think that the major statements Butler was trying to make were about the trauma of birth and the way we consume everything in the environment that is not us, including other intelligent creatures. However, Butler reminded me in the afterward to this story that it was also about love and coming of age. I see a sexual awakening element too, if that is different than coming of age.

The Crystal Spheres, by David Brin (1984): Far future, bittersweet colonization story. Upon the first interstellar mission hundreds of years ago, mankind learned that the entire solar system was enclosed in a globe of crystal outside of the Oort cloud. The first mission out badly fractured the sphere which caused billions of comets to fall towards the sun, impacting the Earth so badly for two hundred years that mankind almost died out. When the carnage was over ships were sent out to search for suitable colony planets, but every yellow sun that was orbited by a suitable planet was also encased in a crystal sphere. Humans learned that the spheres could be pierced from the inside, at great risk of course, but from the outside they were opaque to transmissions of any kind, and that any object that approached would be encased in water and turned into a comet.

As the story begins the Earth is so overpopulated that humans have to be frozen and awakened in shifts to live their lives. There is taboo against reproduction, and most humans have been conditioned to prevent that. Joshua, a deep space explorer, has just awakened with a planet full of other people. They are wandering the planet, trying to find out what has changed since they were put to sleep millennia ago. As Joshua began to think about what he would do with his new life, his wife Alice visited him and brought news that a remote probe had found an Earth-type planet around a sun with a smashed sphere. This is momentous news, not only because of the potential for more elbow room, but because mankind's forward view is starting to slip, mostly out of boredom and loneliness. The journey to the new planet takes years, but when they arrive they find a system empty of intelligent beings, but full of advanced engineering. There are perfectly preserved cities on the ground, for example, and all two million of the asteroids of any size are habitable, and in perfect orbits. The scientists revive the ten thousand colonist corpsicles and waste no time preparing their new home for millions more. But they never stop wondering who left this perfect system for them all. After a few years of searching they find an obelisk that tells them the story of a race called the Natura. They were similar to humans in size, shape, outlook and technology. They discovered their own sphere when their first interstellar colony mission departed, and the resulting meteor shower almost killed their race too. But when they out they found the remnants of another civilization on a planet that orbited another sun with a broken sphere. That race was gone too, and they had left in perfect condition the things that they had built, and inherited from a race that broke out if its own sphere before them, and died before they came along. All in all the Natura left six perfectly engineered and protected worlds for us, and an apology for not being able to stay around to meet us.

As silly as this sounds, its hard to figure out how absurd Brin meant to be with this story. It feels like hard SF because he tried to explain everything, such as how Haley's comet, or any object for that matter, could get through the sphere. Objects going into the system were killed upon contact with the surface of the sphere, then covered in water and turned into a comet. That certainly explains how the comet entered on its 76 year journey around the sun, but he never bothered to tell us how it got out. He did say that objects could penetrate the sphere from the inside, but that would destroy the sphere and comets would rain down. How did Haley's comet, and others, get out? Of course the idea of a selectively permeable crystal membrane surrounding every star with a yellow sun, and no other suns, but only if it had a water heavy planet, is pretty absurd. Other than that, and a few methods of interstellar travel, Brin was quite realistic. If you can get past all of that, the story is about altruism. The Natura left us everything we would need to thrive and spread out, and gave us hope for at least a time that another race would penetrate its own sphere and join us.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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