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The Reference Library

by Don Sakers

Immortality, as a concept, has always been with us. It’s present in our myths, our legends, and in our psyches. It’s not hard to imagine that the idea of immortality came automatically with the awareness of death, which probably predated any human species.

As far as science fiction goes, immortality was there in the earliest tales—think of the immortal Struldbruggs in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726)—and it’s been with us ever since.

It’s hardly possible to cover the history of science fiction immortality in the eight hundred words of this essay (or, for that matter, the 208 pages of this issue). Instead, I want to say a few words about the two major approaches our field takes to the notion of living forever. For simplicity’s sake I’ll refer to these as “Live Long and Prosper” and “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

Of the two, “Live Long and Prosper” is the optimistic one. While this approach admits that living forever might pose some logistical difficulties or occasional other drawbacks, it generally assumes that immortality is a state to be desired, and certainly attainable by more-or-less human beings.

We see the “Live Long and Prosper” approach in such diverse works as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series, Eando Binder’s Anton York stories (collected in 1965 as Anton York, Immortal), Laurence Manning’s The Man Who Awoke (1975), A.E. Van Vogt’s The Weapon Makers (1952), The Tine Masters by Wilson Tucker (1953), Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein (1973), Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed (1980), The Golden Space by Pamela Sargent (1982), and of course the tales of the most famous and beloved immortal, the BBC’s Doctor Who (1963 and onward).

The “Be Careful What You Wish For” approach, besides being more consistent with Western myths, posits that the drawbacks of immortality far exceed its benefits. There’s always some catch; immortality is essentially incompatible with human psychology and ethics. In the kinder version of these stories, a person who achieves immortality is given the chance to renounce the gift and return, lesson learned, to the mortal realm. In unkind versions, there’s no going back; immortality is both forbidden and its own punishment, and once you’re immortal you’re stuck that way.

“Be Careful What You Wish For” is an inherently more interesting approach. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy immortals are all alike; every unhappy immortal is unhappy in their own way.

Sometimes, as with the aforementioned Struldbruggs, endless life doesn’t include endless youth. Or it may come with undesirable physical transformations. In Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939), immortals slowly but inevitably turn into apes. The immortals in One Million Tomorrows (Bob Shaw, 1970) become unable to reproduce; in Neal Asher’s The Skinner (2002), a virus grants immortality but requires a steady supply of virus-free food to prevent one from morphing into a vampiric leech. Frank Herbert’s God Emperor of Dune (1981) manages to live for millennia only by becoming a huge, hideous fusion of human and sandworm.

By far the most frequent drawback to science fiction immortality is boredom, ennui, and social stagnation. Raymond Z. Gallun’s The Eden Cycle (1974) explored this possibility at length, and the increasingly decadent immortals of Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time series (1972–1976) leave an indelible impression in any reader’s mind. And, of course, there’s the dilemma of one Walter Bedeker in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Escape Clause” (1959)—who gains immortality through a pact with the devil, only to be driven by boredom to kill his wife so he can experience the electric chair (and walk away free when he survives it). Unfortunately, his lawyer manages to get his punishment reduced to a mere life sentence. . . .

If you want to sample some SF takes on immortality, Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois edited a 1998 theme anthology titled simply Immortals that’s readily available. And you definitely don’t want to miss Lost Horizon—the 1933 novel by James Hilton and the 1937 film directed by Frank Capra.

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Living Forever & Other Terrible Ideas
Emily C. Skaftun
Fairwood Press, 310 pages, $17.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $5.99 (ebook)
ISBN: 978-1-9338-4698-9
Genre: Short SF

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Which brings us to Emily C. Skaftun’s new short fiction collection, Living Forever & Other Terrible Ideas. The title says it all: the pieces in this collection have a common theme of depicting fates literally worse than death.

Skaftun has been publishing short fiction since 2009, appearing in venues as diverse as Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and our sister publication, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. She edited The Book of the Emissaries: An Animism Short Fiction Anthology (2016). She also served as coeditor of Urban Fantasy magazine in 2014.

There are eighteen stories here, some of them appearing for the first time in print. Some are undisputed science fiction; others fall more on the fantasy or even horror side of the line. Some are more avant-garde, others fairly conventional. All, however, are essentially idea stories, drawing their punch from the unusual concepts behind them rather than exceptional characterization or intricate plotting, for example. For Analog readers it’s a familiar type; you’ll probably feel at home with even the most fantasy-based tale.

And oh, those unusual concepts! Cryogenically preserved heads imprisoned in museums, doomed to watch while others explore the Universe. A married couple doomed to live in opposite weather conditions: one always in sun, the other constantly under rainclouds. A life reincarnated as a plastic lawn flamingo. Zombie tourists in a future Los Angeles. Immortal adolescents sent to help settle a colony world in the wake of Earth’s destruction. Clones perfect in every measurable way, yet certain that they’ve lost something of their originals.

Skaftun follows each story with a short note shedding light on the tale’s origin, publishing history, or relevance. These notes are a treat for any reader who enjoys a peek behind the curtain of literary creation.

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The Best of James Van Pelt
James Van Pelt
Fairwood Press, 698 pages, $40.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1-9338-4695-8
Genre: Short SF

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James Van Pelt isn’t quite a household name in our field . . . and it’s something of a mystery why he isn’t. Since 1991 he’s published about 150 short stories (collected in five separate volumes) and two novels. He’s been a finalist for the Nebula Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the Locus Award, and several Pushcart prizes. His 2002 collection Strangers and Beggars was named to the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults list, and his 2017 collection The Experience Arcade and Other Stories won the Colorado Book Award. His short fiction frequently appears in various Year’s Best anthologies.

Van Pelt is no stranger to these pages. He’s appeared in Analog a dozen times over the last thirty-odd years, most recently with “The Minerva Girls” in the September/October 2020 issue. By my count, he’s been an AnLab finalist no less than nine times.

With all that build-up, you’d expect a collection called The Best of James Van Pelt to contain some excellent tales, and you’d be right. But this “Best of” collection delivers a whole lot more than any reader could expect.

Seven hundred pages, a full 62 stories . . . and not a dud in the lot. Don’t worry that you will have already read most of them. Unless you’ve scoured every source of genre short fiction for the last thirty years, dozens of stories will be new to you (for example, seven stories—a bit more than one in ten—first appeared in Analog).

Variety is the operative term here. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, weird fiction, it’s all within these covers. Sweet, light tales; rough, unrelenting stories; idea tales; character studies; lyrical word pictures and nightmare horrors; about the only thing these stories have in common is how little they have in common.

Here’s a sampling. “Saturn Ring Blues” is a fairly conventional SF story of the pilots who fly races in Saturn’s ring system. “My Father and the Moon Maid From Mars” is a melancholy story in which a shared love of science fiction helps reconcile a son to his father’s decline from Alzheimer’s. “The Infodict” is a cautionary tale relevant to those of us who can’t keep our eyes off our phones. And “Its Hour Come Round” is a brutal story of prison, technological rehabilitation, and human depravity that stirs echoes of both Daniel Keyes’s classic “Flowers For Algernon” and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

With an introduction by Ken Scholes, The Best of James Van Pelt is an important and rewarding collection by an under-appreciated writer.

The edition reviewed here is a signed & numbered hardcover; trade paperback and ebook versions are promised, but no details on them were available at press time. Check your favorite book merchants.

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The Sentient
Nadia Afifi
Flame Tree Press, 293 pages, $14.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-7875-8432-7
Genre: Biological SF

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Nadia Afifi is a brand-new voice in our field, and one you should become familiar with . . . if The Sentient is any indication, we’ll be seeing a lot of her.

Afifi has the kind of background that seems tailor-made for a science fiction writer. Born in the United States of a Palestinian-descended Saudi geologist and an American geologist from Missouri, she spent her formative years in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, moving back to Missouri for college. She currently lives in Denver and works for the Department of Veterans Affairs improving healthcare systems.

The Sentient, Afifi’s first novel, is a near-future thriller of neuroscience, cloning, and the collision between religious fundamentalism and technological advance.

Amira Valdez was raised on a strict fundamentalist compound, and she’s struggled to put her past behind her as she pursues a career in neurology. Her ultimate goal is to land a position on one of the orbital laboratory habitats, right on the cutting edge of science.

When she’s assigned to a project attempting to produce the first fully viable human clone, Amira dives into her work with gusto—even though it might sidetrack her pathway to orbit. Amira specializes in recovering and reading memories . . . and soon enough, she’s following hints that lead her to a conspiracy to derail the project.

As she tracks the structure of this conspiracy, Amira moves into a dark world of hidden research agendas, anti-cloning fanatics, and a New Age type cult that seems to be at the base of everything.

Then she discovers a surprising link to her own past. . . .

Exciting, mesmerizing, and full of cutting-edge science, The Sentient is an excellent beginning to what’s sure to be a successful career.

*   *   *

Psi-Wars
Edited by Joshua Viola
Hex Publishers, 301 pages
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $2.99 (ebook)
ISBN: 978-1-7339-1777-3
Genre: ESP/Psionics, Original Anthologies, SF Fantasy, SF Horror

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Psionics has been part of science fiction almost since the beginning. The concept has fallen into a bit of disrepute lately in hard SF, primarily because the real world shows virtually no evidence of its existence. Modern physics doesn’t even have any good theories of how psi could operate. As far as we can tell, psionics is fantasy.

Nevertheless, psi is one of those tropes, like FTL and time travel, that appear to be strictly fantasy, but are given a pass in all but the most rigorous sf. Essentially they’ve been grandfathered in.

Good thing, too, because psi can be a lot of fun. Case in point: the thirteen stories in this anthology.

Editor Joshua Viola—half of the creative team that gave us the noir SF series Denver Moon—has gathered a wide assortment of new stories about the use of psionics in war. Familiar SF names among the fourteen authors include Keith Ferrell, Warren Hammond, Gary Jonas, Matthew Kressel, and E. Lily Wu; there are also some authors from outside the field, along with some talented newcomers.

As with all good theme anthologies, the stories go in completely different directions. They’re set in both World Wars, Atlantis, a future Russia, present-day America, and battlefields everywhere. Some stories are straightforward adventure; others raise complex moral issues. No matter what you’re looking for, you’ll likely find it here.

Be aware that the marketing of this anthology seems aimed toward the occult, X-Files audience—the subtitle is “Classified Cases of Psychic Phenomena”—but inside there’s very little psychic woo-woo. Despite appearances, it’s solidly down our alley.

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Genesys X
B. J. Graf
Fairwood Press, 310 pages, $17.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $5.99 (ebook)
ISBN: 978-1-9338-4697-2
Genre: Biological SF, Noir SF, SF Mystery
Series: Eddie Piedmont 1

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Here comes another relative newcomer, from the worlds of film and mystery fiction. Los Angeles resident B. J. Graf is an adjunct professor of Film Studies and Classical Mythology. Her short stories have appeared in recent mystery anthologies such as Fatally Haunted (2019), Crossing Borders (2020), and Murder Most Theatrical (2020).

Those stories featured Graf’s near-future homicide detective Eddie Piedmont; Genesys X is the first in a series of Eddie Piedmont novels.

In 2041 Los Angeles is a city in the midst of gang wars resulting from the arrival of green ice, an illicit drug stronger and more addictive than any before. At the same time, a new strain of Alzheimer’s disease is spreading, one that attacks children.

Caught up in this chaos is Eddie Piedmont, the youngest homicide detective in the department’s history. While investigating a fatal overdose, Piedmont uncovers evidence that the victim was associated with one of the geneticists working to develop a cure for the new plague.

As a young detective still struggling to prove himself, Piedmont is beset with colleagues who don’t take him seriously. Working his way along a trail of obscure clues, he finds himself deep in the world of innovative genetics and reproductive technology. There, he learns a secret of his own family history and a surprising link to the perpetrators behind the city’s turmoil.

Every hardboiled, disillusioned detective was once an enthusiastic, idealistic novice. Graf achieves the difficult task of blending such a protagonist with a cynical, noir sensibility . . . a fusion of science fiction’s essential optimism with the pessimistic realism of noir mystery fiction. One keeps waiting for the inevitable moment when Piedmont’s illusions will be shattered, while at the same time hoping it will never come. Ideal for readers of both fields.

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Fearless
Allen Stroud
Flame Tree Press, 361 pages, $14.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-7875-8540-9
Genre: Hard SF, Military SF

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Allen Stroud is a video game designer and Chair of the British Science Fiction Association. In addition to a tie-in novel for one of his games (Elite: Lave Revolution, 2014), he’s also written a fantasy trilogy (Tales of Wisimir, 2012–2013) and a standalone dark fantasy mystery, The Forever Man (2017). Fearless is his first science fiction novel.

In 2118 there are thriving colonies on the Moon, Mars, Ceres, and Europa. Tied together by bonds of culture and economics, these colonies are served by enormous commercial freighters that travel through the Solar System.

The real excitement in space is aboard the myriad smaller vessels that assist and maintain the freighters. One such vessel is Khidr, a search-and-rescue ship on patrol in the spacelanes. Commanding Khidr and her crew of two-dozen assorted tech experts is Captain Ellisa Shann. Now in her late thirties, Shann was born without legs; she’s ideally suited to a life in microgravity. A superb tactician, Shann’s biggest fault is a tendency to take too much on herself rather than delegate. While she knows her crew members are good at their jobs, she has trouble trusting anyone.

When Khidr receives a distress call from the freighter Hercules, Shann has every expectation of a routine but successful mission. Those expectations vanish when they come close enough to see that the disabled Hercules isn’t alone: another ship, its identity unknown, floats nearby. And when that other ship attempts to destroy Khidr, Shann knows that this mission is anything but routine.

Soon Shann is dealing with an attempted mutiny, simmering conflicts between colonies, and an interplanetary mystery whose roots stretch back to the first Apollo missions a century and a half ago.

Rigorous hard SF with a powerful but flawed protagonist and a fascinating historical background, Fearless is a treat for just about any Analog reader.

*   *   *

Trader’s Leap
Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
Baen, 416 pages, $25.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (ebook)
ISBN: 978-1-9821-2501-1
Series: Liaden Universe 23
Genre: Romantic SF, Space Opera

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Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Universe is a sprawling canvas with myriad characters and many narrative threads across worlds and centuries. The latest Liaden novel, Trader’s Leap, returns to a thread last visited in Alliance of Equals (reviewed here in the January 2017 issue).

In a far-future galaxy split between three races, the trading family Clan Korval was once among the most powerful and influential of the cultured and philosophical Liaden race. Then the vagaries of interstellar politics led to a reversal of the Korval’s fortunes. Driven from their homeworld and exiled from their lucrative trading empire, Korval settled on the remote planet Surebleak and began the arduous process of rebuilding.

Master Trader Shan yos’Galan, along with the talented crew of his ship Dutiful Passage, was dispatched to open new trade routes. In Alliance of Equals, they were able to counter an insurgency that threatened the entire Liaden civilization...and were rewarded by being barred from respectable ports, forced into a seedy underworld of grifters, pirates, double-crossing gangsters, and shady, uncertain alliances. In addition, Shan’s daughter Padi struggles with her emerging psionic talents, making Shan’s life that much more difficult.

With the crew restless and even his lifemate unwilling to support him, Shan needs a success, and soon. Banding together with the allies he mistrusts least, he sets course for an unfamiliar, distant port said to be under the influence of strange energies and stranger inhabitants. Shan is putting everything on this one roll of the dice. If the venture succeeds, Korval will be saved . . . and if not, there’s no telling how bad things can get.

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City of Dreams and Dust
Ru Pringle
Fractal Symmetry Books, 456 pages, $16.99 (trade paperback)
A Haven in the Stars
Ru Pringle
Fractal Symmetry Books, 441 pages, $16.99 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $2.99 (ebook)
Series: The Seed 1 & 2
Genre: Space Opera

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Ru Pringle is one of those people who, in the immortal words of the legendary Tom Lehrer, “make you realize how little you’ve accomplished.” After graduating form the University of Stirling in Scotland with a Bachelor’s degree in environmental science, he traveled the world as a freelance journalist and photographer concentrating on mountaineering and science-related topics. At the same time he published SF short stories and nonfiction in Interzone and various anthologies. Then he took off for a while to tour the globe as half of the Scottish musical duo Tattie Jam.

In 2018 he published the first two novels in an epic fantasy series called Fate and the Wheel, as well as near-future thriller October Song. Nowadays he lives in the Scottish Highlands, where he writes novels, runs a small music studio, and does his best to make the rest of us look like a bunch of slackers.

His two newest titles, City of Dreams and Dust and A Haven in the Stars, are really one huge space opera epic in two volumes.

The story kicks off in the far-future world-city of Renascido, where fate brings together a motley assortment of characters: an absurdly rich hermit, a fugitive tech wizard, an undercover security officer, and others. From there it’s a race across the galaxy to find the terrible secrets behind the omnipresent Interplanetary Economic Confederation.

Ru Pringle’s universe is as rich and complex as those of Iain M. Banks or Dan Simmons; his characters and situations have some of the madcap absurdity of Rudy Rucker or Alexander Jablokov. Mostly, though, it’s something all its own, a universe sui generis. It may take you a while to get your bearings, but once you do you’ll be glad of it. These aren’t books for casual beach reading; expect to do some work. Luckily, the work brings sufficient reward to justify it.

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Neptune’s Treasure
Richard A. Lovett
Strange Wolf Press, 355 pages, $16.95 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $6.95 (ebook)
ISBN: 979-8-6430-3897-9
Genre: Adventure SF

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I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this because if you’ve read Analog for any length of time, you’ve read his work. Fiction, editorials, science fact articles, The Alternate View, Biolog entries—you don’t need me to tell you how talented he is.

Neptune’s Treasure collects Lovett’s stories of solar system explorer Floyd Ashman and his AI implant sidekick Brittney. You read them in these pages between 2007 and 2015; you loved them and want them in one volume; and Lovett’s a great guy who deserves his pittance. Buy it for yourself, for your family and friends, for random strangers.

(Okay Richard, where’s my cut?)

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It Came From the Multiplex: 80s Midnight Chillers
Edited by Joshua Viola
Hex Publisher, 305 pages, $19.99 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $2.99 (ebook)
ISBN: 978-1-7339-17756-9
Genre: Original Anthologies, SF Horror

*   *   *

For a certain type of reader, nothing can equal the thrill inspired by the phrase “B-movies.”

Technically, B-movies are low-budget commercial films that don’t receive as much publicity or expectations as major features. Historically, the term referred to movies that were intended to be the bottom half of a double-feature—just as early musical records had A—and B-sides, double-features had A—and B-movies. When double-features faded form the scene, the B-movie terminology remained.

Before the past few decades, just about all SF/fantasy/horror movies were by definition B-movies. An occasional Things to Come, Forbidden Planet, or 2001: A Space Odyssey would be released as a feature film, but by and large to watch a genre movie was to watch a B-movie. And Hollywood being Hollywood, to watch a B-movie was often to watch a scary movie. Consequently, many of us became inadvertent fans of B-movies.

In this spirit, and in cooperation with the heads of the Colorado Festival of Horror, editor Joshua Viola brings us this (rotted)-tongue-in-(decaying)-cheek anthology of four stories by sixteen authors, all inspired by and evocative of the SF/fantasy/horror movies of the past, especially the bygone age of the 1980s.

The list of authors, which overlaps considerably with Psi-Wars, includes Kevin J. Anderson, Keith Ferrell, Warren Norwood, Steve Rasnic Tem, and a host of others. The stories range from aliens, Elder Gods, and biological horrors to ghosts, werewolves, and assorted slashers.

Whether you fondly remember the B-movies of your past or seek them out in the present, you’ll surely enjoy this anthology.

And now my time is up. See you next issue.

 

Don Sakers is the author of Meat and Machine, Elevenses, the Rule of Five serial at http://donsakers.com/ruleof5/, and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit http://donsakers.com/sw/.

Copyright © 2020 Don Sakers

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