The Reference Library
by Rosemary Claire Smith
After a full year spent calling a bunch of wondrous books to your attention, I find myself wrestling with two questions. First, have those in charge of Analog secretly accelerated the passage of time? More importantly, do I read differently these days than when I was simply a reader and a writer? Yes, I do. For one thing, now I hunt for snippets to pique your interest, or if nothing else, to provide a decent indication of what’s between the covers and whether it merits being piled atop your formidable To Be Read stack. I also look for connections—dare I say themes—lest I bombard you with a hodgepodge of random books, hit or miss. Various themes have run through science fiction for decades. One of the aspects I like the most about the genre is the way recent works build on what went before, supplying new insights and twists on long-standing themes.
Today’s theme is a frustratingly timely one: the struggle to cope with fanatics of all stripes. A fundamental precept of science fiction is its embrace of open-mindedness. Readers are willing to entertain unusual ideas and concepts, not for the sake of their shiny newness, but because they have merit, or at least they show potential to do so. SF readers are, by and large, a demanding bunch devoted to objective facts and scientific proof, or something approximating it, before subscribing to the latest thinking. We pride ourselves on our willingness to change our minds when presented with new data that has been subjected to a decent amount of testing. Ah, if only the presentation of verifiable and verified hypotheses were an easy way to defeat fanatical belief in irrational, outdated, and manifestly untrue notions. The trouble is that fanaticism couples passionate commitment to extreme beliefs with an explicit rejection of competing viewpoints, or even minor deviations.
Let’s begin with master satirist James Morrow, who has tackled quite a few fanatical beliefs in his storied career. His latest short novel skewers Creationism as it takes a loving look at classic horror flicks from the 1930s and 1940s. From there, it is an easy step to the highly-inventive Lavie Tidhar. Beginning in the same time period, he conceives of a pulp writer who creates a wholly-new religion designed to appeal to religious fanatics. Next, let’s move on to debut novelist Yume Kitasei. She puts her unique imprint on our genre while showing us how our descendants will almost certainly have to be ever-vigilant in battling future forms of fanaticism. Happily, she demonstrates that science fiction is as vibrant as ever, chock-full of that good old-fashioned sense of wonder.
If these novels do not push you to keep thinking rationally, David D. Levine stands at the ready with a cautionary tale about allowing oneself to be seduced by that which appears to be too good to be true. I close with William Ledbetter’s deeply humanist collection illuminating that among all the gleaming technologies of the future, our central concerns will remain that which the human heart craves and what it needs.
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Behold the Ape
April 11, 2023
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For decades, James Morrow served as one of the great satirists in our field. Behold the Ape shows he’s still in peak form when it comes to skewering one set of fanatics, the Creationists, who either fervently misapprehend or deliberately misrepresent the theory of evolution so that they may “disprove” it. Set in Hollywood of the 1930s, Behold the Ape draws its inspiration from classic horror flicks and B movies in which “mad scientists”—one hesitates to consider them legitimate—create frightful creatures only to discover these beings are invariably strong-willed and disinclined to do their masters’ bidding. The titular ape in Morrow’s short novel is a gorilla who has had half his brain surgically removed and replaced with the corresponding half of Charles Darwin’s brain. Yes, that Charles Darwin, the father of evolution. As in all creature features—“films” is too serious a term for them—we are not meant to give much thought to how Darwin’s brain matter could have been preserved for roughly fifty years and then implanted into an ape using the medical techniques available during the 1930s.
The cast of characters includes deft portrayals of a talented and whip-smart movie star known for her roles as a vampire and an ape-woman, a script writer, several Hollywood producers of varying abilities and venality, a pair of sleaze-ball carnival runners, and the inevitable multi-talented brain surgeon filling the role of self-taught, alcohol-addled mad-scientist. It’s best not to delve too deeply into the surgical procedure involved, for Morrow has made something of a career of latching onto a preposterous premise and making it work. Nor is medical science the point. Instead, Behold the Ape begins with a poignant depiction of the misunderstood ape, who is forced through brutal methods to refute evolution all as part of a seedy carnival sideshow. Our movie-star heroine vows to save the suffering creature, which she does in short order. The carny runners, however, do not take kindly to the loss of their biggest attraction.
Through it all, Behold the Ape displays the author’s trademark ability to balance the sensational with the cerebral. Make no mistake, there is a seriousness of purpose at work in this slim satire, as there usually is in Morrow’s work. One of his chief concerns is the way in which school textbooks were deliberately written in the aftermath of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” to distort and refute aspects of science that do not comport with narrow religious views regarding the formation of the Earth and the living creatures who inhabit it. Here we are nearly a hundred years later, and this “controversy” over evolution refuses to be put to rest. Morrow also skewers some of the more outlandish descriptions of medical procedures and pseudo-scientific principles purveyed in all too many films of that era. Behold the Ape is for everyone appalled by, or worse yet force fed, the nonsensical notion that “scientific Creationism”—there’s nothing remotely “scientific” about it—is equally valid or superior to the theory of evolution. For those not familiar with Morrow’s previous works, he tackled several Judeo-Christian beliefs in his collection, Bible Stories for Adults, and at greater length in his Godhead Trilogy, which begins with Towing Jehovah.
In Behold the Ape, Morrow has produced not only a thoroughly compelling read but also a poignant plea for us to develop and use innovative methods to educate school children in the fundamentals of science. I came away feeling sad and frustrated at how arguments over the teaching of the fundamentals of science are still consuming entirely too much oxygen in the 2020s. Nonetheless, for those who grow weary of these battles, Morrow provides much-needed perspective through one character who says, “We immigrants can especially appreciate Darwin’s gift to humanity. . . . His theory offers no solace to those who say we’re embryonic angels, headed for heaven. Ah, but he gave us something more valuable . . . Darwin’s theory tells us ‘[t]he earth is our home. We belong here.’”
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The Circumference of the World
September 5, 2023
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The flavor of fanaticism at the core of Lavie Tidhar’s latest work is more subtle than that which James Morrow takes on. Make no mistake, fanaticism is there lurking in the background, which means Tidhar has insightful things to say about how those who influenced science fiction in the mid-twentieth century occasionally fell prey to the allure of extremist beliefs.
The Circumference of the World follows the struggles of a rakish character, Eugene Charles Hartley. He is a washed-up pulp science fiction writer of the 1930s, who somehow manages to keep cranking out indifferent work through the 1970s. Hartley proves more adept at running through his meager income and sponging off others than he is at creating works of enduring impact upon the field or generating a steady revenue stream. Upon hearing an offhand remark by a prominent writer, Hartley founds a new religion, the Church of the All-Seeing Eyes, before dropping from sight. Perhaps the enigmatic eyes are black holes. Or to turn things around, perhaps black holes are God’s eyes peering through the singularity at his creations.
Ostensibly set in 2001, The Circumference of the World picks up when a young, obsessive mathematician, Levi Armstrong, goes missing during his search for Hartley’s seemingly innocuous pulp-fiction novel, Lode Stars. Not everyone deems that book to be as insignificant as it seems. Levi’s mathematician wife, who hails from the Pacific island of Vanuatu, hunts for her missing husband. Her search leads her to a rare-book dealer who suffers from prosopagnosia. This is an affliction, also called “facial agnosia” or “face blindness,” which prevents a person from recognizing other people’s faces via distinguishing characteristics most of us rely upon with little conscious thought. The book dealer has several bizarre encounters with a Russian criminal kingpin who fills his London home with science fiction memorabilia while on the hunt for Lode Stars. Hartley’s pulp novel is rumored to guard against malevolent aliens who gather within the event horizon of a black hole at the end of the universe and who are intent on consuming human memories.
The plot is somewhat beside the point, for The Circumference of the World is one part pulp SF pastiche—those black holes and malevolent forces operating on a cosmic scale—and one part a meditation on reality, mysticism, and philosophical introspection. One character contemplates how humans “build our homes to hide the universe from ourselves. It’s too big. Too scary.” Similarly, London, like any large city, is judged to be “a shelter from the stars.” It makes one consider whether people dwelling in space stations or on the surface of other planets and moons would feel completely comfortable with a view of the heavens right outside their windows.
Tidhar’s novel is also worth the read for his treatment of various pulp elements. For example, the mathematician’s wife comes upon “[a]ncient obsolete objects of all kinds . . . : a rusting positronic robot and a pair of Waldo arms, ansibles and spindizzies, a vat of rare thiotimoline and another of lunarium, two time viewers, a transfer booth and an old General Products spaceship hull, an Axlotl tank and an Ixian probe, Shayolian ears and capsules of Stroon.”
Indeed, in places, The Circumference of the World giddily effervesces into a tribute to writers such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Alfred Bester, A. E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, and Fred Pohl, to name but a few. John W. Campbell makes cameos, mainly via written correspondence. In this respect, Tidhar’s tale reminded me of another love letter to science fiction writers and readers, namely Jo Walton’s Among Others.
All in all, Lavie Tidhar is a rare story-teller, indeed, equally adept at pondering metaphysical questions, skewering cynics who exploit religious fanaticism for personal gain, and firing off bursts of intriguing ideas, reminiscent of Charles Stross. What a delight it was to let Tidhar’s entertaining exuberance sweep me away.
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The Deep Sky
July 18, 2023
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While many people readily discount Creationism and religious zealotry of various stripes, these are far from the only fanatical beliefs we face today or are apt to encounter in the future. Debut novelist Yume Kitasei gives us a gripping and fascinating exploration of the pernicious toll fanaticism can take when it is based upon white supremacy, misogyny, or environmental extremism spilling over into outright terrorism. The Deep Sky is her enthralling science fiction thriller tackling these ills in the context of a last-chance mission to save the human race. Dozens of countries have combined their efforts to send a spaceship named Phoenix containing just eighty individuals to a far-flung planet in hopes of making a new home for humanity free of the environmental ravages that will soon render Earth uninhabitable.
The voyage does not go well. Before Phoenix reaches the half way point to the new world, the entire crew is awakened from cryo-suspension. The ship has detected a bomb on its hull. When Asuka, the viewpoint character, goes out to investigate, a deadly explosion rips the ship open and kills the captain and two others. What’s more, the Phoenix is thrown off course. The scenes following the explosion show the seventy-seven stunned survivors struggling to cope with the aftermath of the disaster. This is no story of a supremely capable middle-aged man in charge, one who has the right stuff that proves essential for saving humanity. Far from it. The survivors—a diverse assembly of young people who hail from all over the world—cannot help harboring the worst suspicions about each other, even as they frantically make emergency repairs and try to get Phoenix back on course. Frightfully far from safety, they must draw on their individual strengths and fight their inner demons. Meanwhile back on Earth, Mission Control can supply but limited assistance as global tensions between nations threaten to boil over.
The task of finding the culprit among them who planted the bomb falls to Asuka. She is half-Japanese, half-American, and uneasy with both parts of her heritage. Worse yet, she struggles to overcome feelings of inadequacy because everyone knows she was merely the alternate who was called up shortly before take-off when another crew member backed out. Subplots involve the broken relationship between Asuka and her former best friend, as well as Asuka’s fraught dealings with her Earth-bound mother who belongs to an extremist environmental group actively working against the mission. Some on board suspect Asuka’s mother could have crossed the line into eco-terrorism.
As the story unfolds, Kitasei explores the destruction of trust among the members of this small human community in the face of the catastrophe. Inherent cultural differences combine with a susceptibility to think the worst of one’s fellow human beings. Three factors make the interactions between many of these characters more powerful. First, through flashbacks, we see these young people living together at an elite boarding school where they trained for the mission beginning around age twelve or thirteen. The novel takes place when they are in their early twenties. Second, the fact that the crew is composed of people from dozens of different nations, some of which are over-represented and others short-changed, contributes to suspicions, distrust, and alliances on board the ship. Lastly, all seventy seven of them are biologically capable of bearing children. In fact, several are quite far along in their first pregnancies. Here is another motive for some resentful Earth-based factions to do them harm. Asuka has an additional reason to feel inadequate as she has tried and failed so far to conceive a child.
Perfectly paced and filled with clues, red herrings, and suspects aplenty, The Deep Sky neither rushes past genuine emotional moments nor wallows in feelings of grief, inadequacy, or survivor’s guilt. By page fifty, I was clamoring to find out what Yume Kitasei will produce next and how soon I can get my hands on it.
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The Long Fall Up and Other Stories
Interstellar Flight Press
November 6, 2023
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It seems like nearly every author with a dozen or more short stories to their name promptly produces a collection. One could wish some of them would hold off until they have amassed more stories from which to pick out their best. Happily, The Long Fall Up and Other Stories does indeed showcase William Ledbetter’s most engaging short fiction to date. All of these are science fiction, and a deeply humanist strain at that. As a writer, Ledbetter knows his way around space-going technologies and robotics, not to mention the futuristic advances in medicine and weaponry. This volume includes his Nebula-winning title story plus a pair of stories first appearing in Analog and Asimov’s Science Fiction.
“The Long Fall Up” focuses on a woman who sets out to conceive and give birth to a baby in zero g. She seeks to demonstrate that weightlessness will produce no ill effects for the baby. The tale is told from the viewpoint of a guardsman tasked to go stop her for committing this criminal act. It is both heart-wrenching and more timely than when it was published a few years ago. I reread this one utterly persuaded that those seeking to control other people’s bodies could indeed extend their reach absolutely as far as our species will venture beyond our home planet.
My other favorites are Ledbetter’s Analog story, “Vigilance,” and his endearing Asimov’s story, “What I Am.” I have had a warm, soft spot for “What I Am,” ever since I first read this tale about being true to oneself from the perspective of a self-aware sweater. What a perfect read for a chilly winter evening. Other standouts include “Stealing Arturo” and “In a Wide Sky, Hidden.” “Stealing Arturo” involves a plot to single-handedly steal an ice-mining vessel in deep space, with a central character in dire need of redemption. “In a Wide Sky Hidden” depicts a heartfelt sibling relationship amid the tug between the desire to play it safe by enjoying a comfortable life and the competing urge to explore the galaxy, which entails beaming one’s reconstituted self to never-explored planets.
Among a seemingly endless supply of post-apocalyptic stories over the last few decades, “Last House, Lost House” stands out for a genuinely touching portrayal of a formerly-well-to-do woman encountering aching reminders of personal loss and what life had once been like. Ledbetter can be a daring writer, such as in “That Other Sea.” He takes readers on a deep-sea dive beneath an ice-covered world where one individual is driven to investigate an unusual visitor from far away. Lurking in the middle of the collection, “Steal from the Sun” supplies a new twist on the time-honored theme of salvaging an ancient spacecraft. In this case, it is Mariner Ten, still faithfully orbiting the Sun.
“Hungry is the Earth,” “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” “Bridging,” and “Broken Wings” explore a multitude of ways in which future technology and lifestyles could well alter human relationships while simultaneously recognizing the basic physical and emotional needs that make us who we are. One nice thing about a single-author collection is how readers can get a sense of themes and concerns the writer returns to multiple times over the course of a decade or more. Ledbetter is at his best when portraying the search for human connections of all sorts. That said, I might wish he was a little less inclined to reward some of his can-do spacers with the romantic interest of their choosing.
This is a strong collection, particularly the stories tackling contemporary concerns such as catastrophic ecological change, corporations extending their profit-driven control over human lives beyond the Earth, and forcing people to cede control over their own bodies. In contrast, several stories feel as though they could have been written in the second half of the twentieth century. These are the ones in which Ledbetter focuses as much on solo, uber-competent problem solvers as he does on the individuals in desperate need of solutions. It’s interesting to consider, for example, how different “The Long Fall Up” might have looked if told from the viewpoint of the birth mother rather than the guardsman.
Be that as it may, Ledbetter finds inventive ways to give readers all the razzle-dazzle of inter-planetary travel, EVAs, artificial intelligence, life on the Martian moon Deimos, advanced prosthetics, and much more with a deft touch. What emerges is a parade of ordinary people, mostly the sort of men who might be played by Tom Hanks, who find themselves in over their heads while trying to make the best out of difficult circumstances. Even the characters who are not physically human, or especially those ones, are brimming with humanity, making it easy to share their moral dilemmas and yearnings for connections with others. More please!
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The Kuiper Belt Job
David D. Levine
CAEZIK SF & Fantasy
November 7, 2023
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A few years have gone by since David D. Levine last appeared in the pages of Analog. More is the pity. The good news, however, is that during his absence, Levine wrote The Kuiper Belt Job, a thoroughly engaging heist novel set. It is set on and between several inhospitable, icy rocks in the outer Solar System reminiscent of James S.A. Corey’s gritty Expanse. Enter as quirky a set of con artists, thieves, grifters, and the like, as one could wish to steer clear of in real life. Some of Levine’s cast might find themselves at home in Oceans 11 or on-board Firefly. Last year, several members of this crew, who call themselves the “Cannibal Club,” made their first appearances in Levine’s novelette, “The Bucket Shop Job.” You do not need to have read that earlier story before sinking into his latest twisty, turny tale of a gang whose members lived and worked closely together as young adults intent on pulling off a really big heist.
Ten years ago, their youthful aspirations for the Orca Job ended in disaster. Some members of the Cannibal Club died that day. The rest scattered as far as the solar winds could take them. Several lay low, barely scraping by in obscure settlements while keeping alert for pursuers with long memories. One day, a newbie comes onto the scene intent upon putting the old band gang back together for tempting reasons borne more of family loyalty than wealth. Or so he claims. As with any engaging heist story, each participant must make their own assessment as to whether the new arrival is worthy of their trust, not to mention what better options they might have, if any. Suffice to say, the interpersonal dynamics within the Cannibal Club propel the novel’s plot.
The Kuiper Belt Job is not, however, a simple tale of the latest heist. Instead, it weaves together the earlier Orca job with subsequent events. Levine deftly switches between the collective viewpoint for the flashbacks to the Orca Job and the individual viewpoints of the members of the Cannibal Club in the later timeline. The story opens with the muscular, quick-to-anger enforcer, a choice that works surprisingly well because this man initially possesses as little information as the reader regarding what may be afoot. Soon, the story line shifts to the thief, a highly-sympathetic woman whose lock-picking abilities and overall health have been severely impaired by the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Next, we see out of the eyes of the arrogant tech genius. Levine wisely stays out of the master planner’s head until exactly the right point. As with many engaging heist tales, the characters’ motivations range from settling old scores, to the lure of the challenge, to escaping a bad situation, to longing to relive the Cannibal Club’s glory days. Through it all they chase their ambitious, elusive dreams of the one big job to set everybody up for life. Naturally, some players are not about to lay their trump cards on the table until the most opportune moment. Even when concealing certain characters’ real motives, Levine can be counted on to play fair with the readers, never holding back a key detail that leaves us feeling cheated out of the ability to discern what’s what. Naturally, not everything goes according to plan at critical moments, which is when readers get to find out how well or poorly these rogues fare as they resort to cool-headed improvisation.
This is not a story that could take place on Earth. For one thing, the fight scenes in reduced gravity and zero gee felt realistic to my Earth-bound senses. For another, there are a plethora of spaceships, some of which chug along at reasonable speeds while others employ a “skip drive” to make short work of interplanetary distances. Levine doles out just enough details regarding the rare individuals uniquely suited to pilot these ships. He also skillfully envisions the look and feel of what it could be like to scratch out a living in a space station or a settlement on a diminutive moon or asteroid. Sadly, in the universe of The Kuiper Belt Job, too many of the downsides of capitalism have spread off planet where mega-corporations charge their workers exorbitant amounts for food, shelter, and oxygen, thereby locking these poor people into unconscionable arrangements. Then again, it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to conceive of a compelling heist plot that is not fueled by greed and a measure of desperation.
In sum, Levine conjures up the sheer good fun to be derived from a classic heist tale, while giving it a futuristic update. It is beautifully played, indeed.
Rosemary Claire Smith has worked as a field archaeologist, union leader, and election lawyer. Over the years, Analog has published her alternate histories, time-travel tales, and other science fiction stories, as well as several guest editorials and book review columns. Rosemary has also written fantasy, horror and an interactive adventure game, T-Rex Time Machine. Her stories and essays also appear in Amazing Stories, Fantastic Stories, and other periodicals and anthologies. Follow her on-line: www.rcwordsmith.com; Rosemary Claire Smith on Facebook; and across social media @RCWordsmith to find out what else she is up to.
Copyright © 2024 Rosemary Claire Smith