Why “The Cold Equations” Is Still Horribly Plausible

Netflix recently released a new sci-fi flick, Stowaway. The trailer gives you a sense of what it’s about:

A spaceship on the way to another planet, finite resources, and an extra person. It’s the classic lifeboat problem IN SPAAACCCEEE!! FYI, expect spoilers from here on out if you’re worried about that kind of thing.

Stowaway also owes a lot to “The Cold Equations,” a 1954 short story that’s one of the most talked about in the history of science fiction. The release of Stowaway has lead to another round of reevaluation of the story, although there are some pretty big distinctions between the two.

Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of “The Cold Equations”:

The story takes place entirely aboard an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) headed for the frontier planet Woden with a load of desperately-needed medical supplies. The pilot, Barton, discovers a stowaway: an eighteen-year-old girl. By law, all EDS stowaways are to be jettisoned because EDS vessels carry no more fuel than is absolutely necessary to land safely at their destination. The girl, Marilyn, merely wants to see her brother Gerry and was not aware of the law. When boarding the EDS, Marilyn saw the ‘UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!’ sign, but thought she would at most have to pay a fine if she were caught. Barton explains that her presence dooms the mission by exceeding the weight limit, and the subsequent crash would kill both of them and doom the colonists awaiting the medical supplies. After contacting her brother for the last moments of her life, Marilyn willingly walks into the airlock and is ejected into space.

The thrust of the story is that the EDS is designed to do a particular job in a particular way and the additional variable of a stowaway wrecked all that. Physics, the “cold equations” of the title, mean that’s a problem and there’s only one solution.

While those same equations play a role in Stowaway, it’s really quite a different story. For one thing, the “stowaway” of the title really isn’t. He’s an engineer who wound up on the ship by accident. He did not intentionally sneak on like Marilyn in “The Cold Equations.” It puts him on a completely different ethical/moral footing. Another important distinction is that the problem in Stowaway that creates the drama is a mechanical malfunction, not just the presence of an additional person on the ship. Again, it changes the moral calculus. Most importantly, the eventual sacrifice is completely different – a crew member in Stowaway sacrifices herself to save the rest of the crew, whereas poor Marilyn has to take the task on herself.

That said, things are close enough to make mention of “The Close Equations” understandable (it even comes up in this really interesting video from one of the science advisors on Stowaway) and it’s always worth revisiting classic works. However, a lot of the criticisms of “The Cold Equations” always struck me as a bit off.

Lots of people who read “The Cold Equations” want to change it somehow to create a happy ending. There’s lots of criticism (much of it summarized here) of the entire setup, both of the fine margins in the EDS which subjects it to not having any room for error and for the society that would not go to greater lengths to keep someone like Marilyn from sneaking on in the first place. Surely they’d do more than put up a sign that said “KEEP OUT,” right? They’d place armed guards or design the EDS with more room for error? Why wouldn’t they do that?!?

For a certain idea of science fiction, I can see where these criticisms are coming from. For some folks, sci-fi is a genre of positivity or showing people overcoming odds and crises through knowledge, ingenuity, and hard work. David Brin is famously an exponent of this theory of sci-fi, which excludes things like dystopian fiction as “sci-fi” since it doesn’t have a positive, “go humans!”  message.

Thing is, humans are often awful to each other and that is sometimes reflected in sci-fi, too, as it should be. Anyone with a passing familiarity with history would know that the corner cutting that leads to tragedy in “The Cold Equations” are really plausible. That summary of criticisms I linked to above notes this history, but presumes that it’s just that – history, something we’ve moved passed as a species. Sadly, it isn’t. After all, if laws passed to ensure safe working conditions have been on the books for the past century or so, how could 29 coal miners die in an accident in the 21st century caused largely by ignoring and working around those law? Laws don’t get followed or enforced just because they’re on the books, not when the bottom line is at stake.

This really came into sharp focus for me recently when I was reading Midnight In Chernobyl, Adam Higginbotham’s excellent book on the 1986 meltdown in the Soviet Union. One of the reasons the disaster happened is that the RBMK-type reactor was an inherently flawed design. Experts had said it was flawed for years. Indeed, in 1975 a similar accident happened in another nuclear plant that highlighted this design flaw. Did they redesign the reactor? No. Did they move on to an entire new design? No. Did they rewrite the manuals and assume human beings would react rationally if the same thing happened again? YES! In other words, they decided to put up a sign that said “KEEP OUT” instead of spending extra money to fix the problem.

The same dynamic is evident in Stowaway. Lots of people talking about the movie complain that NASA would never allow this problem to happen. The oxygen problem is similar to what happened to Apollo 13, so wouldn’t NASA know to have backups on board? Problem is, the mission in Stowaway isn’t run by NASA, but by a company called Hyperion. More to the point, there are bits of dialog that suggest that Hyperion is not beyond cutting corners in order to save money. Should space travel work that way? No. Does history suggest it could? Absolutely. We may progress to the point where such thinking doesn’t happen, but we’re a long way from there (if we ever reach it).

As for Stowaway as a movie – if you can swallow the setup it’s pretty good. How the stowaway got on board is never satisfactorily addressed (leading to a lot of people to assume it was intentional, which really doesn’t fit the film), but once you’re beyond that things greatly improve. The performances are all good. The filmmakers made a choice to keep the action entirely focused on the four people on the ship, to the point that we don’t even hear the other side of conversations with ground control, much less see any of them grappling with the problem. I found that this reinforces how cut off the ship was, how on their own they were, and was very effective. The ending just kind of is there, but it would have been hard to go much further without changing the vibe of the thing. Worth a watch, certainly.

On Horror . . . IN SPAAACCCEEE!!!

I love a good dust up over genre boundaries. Whether it’s sci-fi versus fantasy or prog rock versus anything, I get sucked into these things. Part of it’s a genuine curiosity about where the lines are drawn. Part of it, honestly, is see what can be some spectacularly wrong takes.

So it was that, last week, I was drawn to a Twitter dust up of an interesting opinion – can you have horror is space?

It started this way:

The first response seems about right:

Makes sense, right? I mean, it’s a movie where a monster – which happens to be an alien – kills victim after victim in a single locale – a spaceship – forcing the hero to pull it together and kick ass. It’s a horror flick. It’s sci-fi.

Not to the original questioner, who followed up:

I’m not sure I’m convinced, mainly because I think “horror” is both a genre unto itself and also a type of story.

Let me make an analogy to progressive rock. At its inception, prog was a descriptive term, a generic label for all kinds of music that was pushing the boundaries of what was contemporary rock at the time. When the genre’s popularity tailed off it wound up giving birth to a particular idea of music defined by a handful of stereotypical features – long songs, focus on instrumental passages, mythical/literary lyrical topics. Later on, newer bands influenced by the original wave of prog started making their own music in the style of those original bands. Thus, “prog” became both a descriptive term and a style.

Horror is kind of like that. There definitely is a genre of horror stories, but there’s also the fact that horror stories can be told in all kinds of different settings. Some may involve supernatural elements, some may not. Some may be set in modern times, other may have a historical setting. Relevant to the discussion here, you can also have horror stories set in the future and, yes, in space. They may be sci-fi (or fantasy), but that doesn’t keep them from being horror stories, too.

In the end, that’s one of the cool things about speculative fiction. Whether sci-fi or fantasy, it’s more of a setting or milieu than a story type in itself. Either genre can support stories from romance to mystery to satire to daring heist caper. Given that, it doesn’t make any sense to say that being a sci-fi story precludes that same story from being a horror story, too.

For what it’s worth, the final vote tally was like something out of one of those “dictator for life” elections somewhere:

Oof.

Weekly Watch:Star Trek: Discovery (Season One)

I am not a religious man. Nevertheless, I am beginning to develop an abiding faith about something that might happen in the near future. I call it the “streaming singularity,” which is one of two things I hope will happen in the future. The first is that some of the new, myriad streaming services will go belly up and their content, or their brands, will get absorbed by a few, larger services. The second is that, after a while, content will migrate from service to service, so that things that are initially exclusive to, say Disney +, eventually wind up on Netflix, the way TV shows used to migrate to syndication.

Long story short – I’m really hesitant to sign up for new streaming services at this point, unless there’s something so compelling that I can’t pass it up. Which is why, last spring, I signed up for CBS All Access (soon to be Paramount +) for a free month so I could watch the end of the Champions League campaign. While I was at it, I dabbled in a few of their original series, blitzing through The Twilight Zone (not bad – uneven, as  you’d expect from an anthology series). As for the Star Trek universe, I watched the first episode of Lower Decks (not my thing) and the first two of Discovery, which, honestly, didn’t do much for me. I shut down the account before I had to pay for anything, then went on with my life.

Then, desperate for programming in a COVID world, CBS decided to show the first season of Discovery on real TV! Armed with my TiVo, I decided to give it a go again, to see how it all played out. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t actually pay for it, but it was entertaining enough to keep watching.

My big beef with Discovery – as with many modern properties that take place within established universes – is that I don’t really see why this story had to be told as a Trek story. I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of the JJ Abrams Trek reboot. To me they feel like more generic sci-fi action movies rather than “Trek” (in the same way that, to me, the Daniel Craig version of James Bond seems like a generic action hero, not 007 – your mileage may vary, of course). Discovery feels the same way. Aside from some of the labels used – Klingon, Federation, Vulcans, etc. – the story itself could be told just as well in a new universe built for its own purposes.

That story is solid, but not particularly Trekky. For one thing, for a show called Discovery, set largely on a ship of the same name, it’s disappointing that the overall plot is about a war. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of “boldly going where no one has gone before” in Discovery. Maybe that’s why my favorite episode was “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” in which a small away team goes to a strange planet, gets in trouble, and has to get themselves out of it. It services the overall war plot, but works perfectly well as a standalone episode and actually seems like Star Trek!

Most of the rest of the time, the show is so beholden to trying to fit into the Trek universe that it’s hamstrung (I understand that in season three the show catapults so far into the future it doesn’t have to worry about such things). Original series scoundrel Harvey Mudd shows up – twice! – for no other reason than to allow fans to point and say “that’s Harvey Mudd!” Really, what’s gained by making it that particular character instead a of a new, fresh, different one that could get fleshed out in different and interesting ways? Likewise, the Klingons are old school Trek, and while I didn’t mind the new look like some folks do, there’s an awful lot of assuming people know what Klingons are and what they do from other Trek products that they’re not really developed. An extended jaunt in the “mirror universe” (in which Spock has a beard!) is kind of fun but, again, feels like fan service.

Where the series strikes out differently is where it works best. The spore drive that allows instantaneous travel across the universe is pretty neat, but it’s doomed to failure (somehow) since it’s not in use in any other Trek product. The Kelpians, in particular Saru, are pretty interesting, too, and a nice addition to the Trek universe. But they could have been part of any universe, right?

I wanted to say one thing about the serial nature of modern streaming TV, too, because I think there, too, Discovery is kind of neither here nor there. The show is definitely of a piece with the modern streaming/cable predilection for serial storytelling. Nothing wrong with that, but at 15 episodes, it has more time and space to do some other things (most shows get 10 episodes per season, at most). I wish they had taken that time to throw in a couple of standalone episodes. Even in a tightly serialized show, a standalone ep or two can help change the pace a bit and provide a place for real character development to take place. Given how heavy most of the first season is, a couple of breaks would have been good.

I guess what I’m saying is that Discovery, at least in its first season, works best when it’s not trying to be what it is – a prequel to the original Star Trek that is trying to worm its way into that universe’s history and continuity. Unfortunately, that’s is reason for being, so there’s only so much of it the show can do, which is a shame. If Discovery had been a brand new show, in a brand new universe, telling its own story, I think I would have liked it better. As is, it’s not quite Trek enough for its own good, no matter how hard it tries.

Weekly Read: The Humans

The beginning of Matt Haig’s The Humans is great. After a quick intro that implies the following narrative will tell a tale of a mission gone wrong, we’re thrown into the main character’s point of view as he arrives on Earth. An alien, he takes over the body of an Oxford scientist who’s just made a breakthrough humanity hasn’t earned. It’s the alien’s job to squelch all knowledge of the breakthrough, by any means necessary.

That could be the setup for a very heavy book, but instead Haig plays it mostly light, invoking the vibe of Douglas Adams. The alien spends quite a while learning about life on Earth and, in the process, giving Haig the chance to point out all the weirdness of modern human life, from coffee to soccer to TV news (which the alien observes should be rechristened “The War and Money Show”). This portion of the book is generally funny (in a “because it’s true” way) and a quick, breezy read.

It’s once the alien has learned about the world a bit where things go downhill. Not far, and not very fast, but enough to make me wish things had turned out differently. The plot is predictable, as the alien – who comes from a species that views everything as math (perhaps not wrong) and humans as murderous, greedy beasts – learns to love the place and that complicates his mission, particularly the parts that might require him to kill the wife and son of the man whose body he adopted (who is already dead, of course). Complications ensue, although they’re dealt with pretty easily.

I will say this for Haig’s alien – I love where he finds his breakthrough for loving humanity. What does it for the alien is music. Not just high-falutin’ classical music either, being entranced by not just Le Mer but also the Beach Boys and Air (among others). He even makes a reference to how fun it is to count music, which warmed the cockles of my progressive rock loving heart. The turn isn’t something unexpected, but it’s done pretty well.

Once the turn happens, however, the alien goes from being a sharp, amusing observer of the human condition to a mawkish purveyor of chicken soup for the soul. One chapter is entirely given over to a list of 40 pieces of “advice for a human” that he writes for his sort-of-son. A lot of this is pleasant, if not good, advice (“be alive” – who could argue!), but it includes those kinds of “live for today!” things that fall apart with any thought. Like, “don’t worry about your abilities, you have the ability to love – that’s enough,” which is a nice idea, but love doesn’t pay the bills or put a roof over your head. I’m not anti-love, far from it, but reliance on it as a life plan isn’t exactly solid. Or, “in your mind change the name of every day to Saturday, change the name of work to play.” Putting to one side how you’re going to figure out when anything happens in your new world of Saturdays (maybe there’s a book for that), but the thing about work is just insulting to anyone who does what they have to do (probably out of . . . .love!) to feed their family. Not everyone can lead a fulfilling professional life (I’ve been lucky in this regard) – some folks just have to scratch out a living. Or, “failure is a trick of the light.” No, it fucking isn’t! Sometimes you try something and fail at it – dealing with that is as much a part of life as anything. To see the supremely rational, mathematical main character fall so headlong into that kind of dreck is disappointing.

The other Haig book I’ve read, How to Stop Time, I thought wrapped up way too quickly. The same is true for The Humans. The alien eventually walks away from his semi-family, moving to California to teach and continue to live life. But, of course, he comes back and there’s a hopeful note of reconciliation in the end. This isn’t bad, necessarily, but it plays out over a chapter or two, whereas some detail of the alien’s life alone and what he does would have made the semi-happy ending feel more earned.

I don’t want to sound too harsh about The Humans. It’s a fun read, for the most part, and has some really funny bits, but it kind of peters out after a while. I understand that Haig wrote it after his own battle with depression and, through that lens, I can see the kind of zealousness of a convert coming through in the alien’s transformation into a lover of humanity. Maybe this is just one of those instances of the book ultimately disappointing me because it wasn’t what I wanted it to be which, after all, is my problem, not Haig’s.

One of my favorite current comics is Pearls Before Swine, in which the two main characters are a rat, cleverly named Rat, and a pig, cleverly named Pig. Rat is cynical, generally hates people, and finds fault with everything. Pig is open hearted, kind of lovingly dumb, and generally doesn’t let the foolishness of others get him down. I like to think that they reflect the two parts of my personality, constantly battling it out in my head (or think of it as killers and angels, if you like). This book, in the end, drove the Rat side of me nuts. The Pig side of me really liked it.

Make of that what you will.

On Changing the World

There are generally two kinds of speculative fiction in terms of where those stories take place. One kind takes place in a world that is wholly divorced from our own. In fantasy that means the typical kind of second world story (like, say, The Water Road), but it applies to a lot of science fiction, too. Even if a sci-fi story is told in our reality, if it does so hundreds of years in the future it’s hardly “our world” it’s taking place in.

The second type, of course, takes place in what is basically our current world and universe – at the very least, it looks like what we think our world looks like (before The Year of the Plague, at any rate). Think urban fantasy or any of the numerous examples of near-future sci-fi that dot our pop culture landscape. There’s a particular issue with this, however, something that pops up more often in fantasy and something I first thought about because of a bunch of law professors.

The Volokh Conspiracy is a blog collective of most libertarian law profs and scholars. A few of them are also sci-fi/fantasy geeks, and so talk about that occasionally in and among lengthy posts on the Fourth Amendment and what have you. Several years ago, one blogger talked about having read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy.

For those not familiar with the books (or the excellent SyFy series that was based on them), the elevator pitch is “Harry Potter, but at college.” With that in mind, the blogger highlights an important difference:

Like the Harry Potter series, Grossman’s world features a hidden society of magicians who wield enormous power yet are unknown to normal humans, whose history they have little effect on. In the Potter series, however, there is a very powerful wizard government that prevents wizards from revealing their powers to Muggles and trying to dominate the world. The magical authorities in Grossman’s world are a lot weaker. It therefore strains credulity to believe that powerful sorcerers have been around for centuries, yet have never revealed themselves to normal humans, seized political power, or had any impact on history.

In other words, the world of The Magicians is different from ours not just in the general sense that “magic exists,” but that people have been trained to use it for generations and are living among us and . . . so what? What major historical catastrophe was averted? What major political movement played out a different way? The answer is nothing, and it’s a bit disappointing.

As I said, the issue has stuck with me. When I read Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell I really loved the way that magic worked in that book – it was about knowledge, it was about books, not bloodlines and destinies and all that. The relationship between Strange and Norrell reminded me of the apprentice system that trained new lawyers before law schools rose to prominence in the 20th Century. My mind whirred and I came up with an idea for a world, like ours, where magicians organized into firms and did contract work for clients, just like lawyers do, complete with oversight by the state (my main character was going to be the equivalent of a State Bar investigator). “Okay, cool,” I thought, “but how is this world different from ours? After all, if magicians have been operating like this for decades, things should be different, yes?” I’ve foundered on the shoals of that question for years.

This issue raised its head again recently while I was reading N.K. Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became.

If you’ve read her short story collection you’ll recognize the basic idea from the story “The City Born Great,” which effectively serves as the prologue for this book. Essentially, for reasons that aren’t really all that clear, at some point certain cities are “born” into actual, living entities. Some of these births go well – London, Hong Kong, and Sao Paolo are all living breathing cities at this point – while others don’t make it, or don’t make it for very long – think Atlantis and Pompeii, and New Orleans is having troubles, too. In the book it’s New York City’s turn and its difficult birth in the prologue leads to the avatars of the city (one per borough and an additional one overall) fighting to keep it living.

The book overall is pretty good. Jemisin can lay words on the page like just about nobody else going right now and the individual scenes and chapters are great as set pieces. The broader plot doesn’t quite work, however, and the book winds up feeling like less than the sum of its parts (props here to the audiobook production which, aside from one minor quibble – longer pauses between scenes please! –is brilliant both in production and performance). One reason that’s true is that we’re not given any idea why any of this matters. I mean, there’s a villain to vanquish (in the next book, apparently – grumble, grumble) and a city to save, but as to what makes London and Hong Kong and Sao Paolo different from what New York was prior to its birth we never learn.

On the one hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean the main story suffers. After all, it’s likely that The City We Became didn’t address this issue because it wasn’t really applicable to the story Jemisin set out to tell. Still, one of the great pleasures of speculative fiction is digging into a fully developed world that’s not ours and glossing over such things can leave the experience a little hollow. In other words, if you’re writing modern-world fantasy, or near future sci-fi, it’s worth thinking about what’s going on in the world beyond the discrete story you’re telling. Maybe it’s not that important, but it introduces some interesting possibilities for how to deepen the world you’re building and provide some extra details for readers who are interested in sinking their mental teeth into that kind of thing.

Serious Fantasy Revisited

A few weeks ago I put up a post wondering whether people are inclined to treat science fiction more seriously than fantasy – that is, more likely to capably deal with “big” issues – to the point that it shades peoples’ perceptions of what is and isn’t fantasy. The very same day I posted that I came across another head-scratching example that I wanted to share.

Over at Tor, James Davis Nicoll posted an article about six books that “defy easy categorization” and straddle the sci-fi fantasy divide. I’ll admit that I wasn’t familiar with most of these (several went on my “to read” list). The one I was familiar with, however, left me shaking my head. That was Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

As Nicoll explains, Kindred is about a black woman from modern American (it was written in ??) who, inexplicably, is ripped back in time to before the Civil War where she is exposed, brutally and graphically, to the horrors of slavery. It’s a tough read, to be sure, but it’s brilliant. As for its classification, Nicoll writes:

But is it science fiction or fantasy? While I will grant that the physical mechanism is never explained, Dana is caught up in a stable time loop whose logic dictates much of what happens to her. . . .. Butler thought Kindred was fantasy, but it also seems perfectly reasonable to call it science fiction.

It really doesn’t, any more that it seems perfectly reasonable to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt on any factual dispute at this point. As Nicoll says, there’s no explanation or mechanism given for the main character’s time travel. It just happens. It’s certainly not the result of some kind of deep tech or scientific advancement. It’s more one of those Twilight Zone setups you just accept as existing, without wondering why. That, to me, is the defining feature of fantasy – here’s a world that’s different than ours, accept it (or don’t) and move on.

So why try and turn Kindred into science fiction? Could it be that it deals with deeply serious and traumatic topics that most people don’t associate with fantasy? I don’t buy the “it’s magic, but it’s magic that follow rules, therefore it’s sci-fi” logic. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (to pick an example) has a very regimented, logical, magic system (it sometimes feel like video game controls), but nobody would call it sci-fi, would they? Fun as those are, they don’t deal with the kind of issues that Kindred does, however.

I shared my original post with a group of sci-fi and fantasy writers on Facebook and got some interesting answers (and some amusing ones – to the question of “is sci-fi more ‘serious’ than fantasy,” one person just answered “yes”). The one that really caught me was this one:

Now, being a prog fan, I should have come up with this one myself. Nonetheless, I think bringing musical genres into this might help shed some light on the question. I think this is something that happens to new fans of all musical genres, but I’ve seen it repeatedly with prog fans (I may have even gone through it a bit myself): Fan of a particular bands discovers they’re generally classified as “progressive rock,” finds out that there’s more groups out there with similar characteristics, falls madly in love with “prog” as a thing and . . . starts to expand its boundaries exponentially. In other words, they go from “prog = good” to “good = prog” and try to define every band they like into their new favorite genre. No matter how great XTC are (and they are great!), they aren’t a progressive rock band – nor do they need to be categorized as such!

Is the same thing going on here? Are people who are normally drawn to sci-fi reading fantasy novels and feeling the need to reclassify them accordingly? I know sometimes there’s a rift between fans who only dig one or the other (I still remember the howls when the then-Sci-Fi Channel dares to show something that might actually be fantasy!), so maybe there’s some desire to cleave off the stuff at the margins and claim it one way or the other.

Maybe that’s what I’m doing. As I said in the original post, my beef is less about erecting boundaries around genres erasing grey areas and more the desire to see people treat fantasy (or crime fiction or romance or . . .) as just as able to raise serious issues as other genres. But maybe, in the end, it’s a lot of sound a fury and all that.

Is Sci-Fi More “Serious” Than Fantasy?

Fantasy has a reputation for taking itself pretty seriously. Outside of some outliers like Terry Pratchet’s Discworld books, the prevailing image of fantasy is that it’s about big deal themes of good against evil, fulfilling destinies, and such like that. The Lord of the Rings is not a “day in the life” story with no big stakes, after all. Indeed, in a lot of ways fantasy can seem – to use an epithet thrown at progressive rock all the time – “pretentious.” But for all that, when it comes to dealing with the big questions, the ones that probe the nature of reality and humanity, do people take science fiction more seriously than fantasy? Even to the point of letting that reflect how they categorize a story?

This occurred to me after I’d finished up The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North.

HarryAugust

The setup is this – the title character is one of a few select people in the world who live their lives over and over again. When they die, they basically go back to the beginning and are reborn, but with the collected memories of their prior lives still intact. Thus these are some seriously “ahead of their time” children roaming around, as you might guess. The story follows Harry as he lives a bunch of his lives and tries to stop another of his kind that is seeking a revelation will destroy the world. It’s pretty good, and has some really excellent bits. I recommend it.

When I finished the book I do what I usually do and seek out reviews to see what others thought about it. To my surprise, I saw a lot of people file The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August under “science fiction,” which made little sense to me. Sure, there’s some discussion of quantum mechanics and parallel worlds (at i09, Charlie Jane Anders lists all this as reasons why “it’s a real science fiction book,” so what do I know?), but what makes the story go is the completely fantastic bit where these people live their lives over and over again. It’s never explained, much less with some kind of semi-plausible scientific reason. For all we know a genie thousands of years ago granted somebody’s wish and it got out of hand.

The mechanics don’t matter much because North uses them to deal with issues of free will, destiny, and the price of the pursuit of ultimate knowledge. These are the kinds of big issues that science fiction sometimes tackles, but that doesn’t mean that every story that does that is science fiction. Could it just be that people expect sci-fi to be more thoughtful about this stuff than fantasy?

Regular readers know one of my pet peeves is when people who write “Literature,” rather than just tell stories, write something that’s unambiguously fantasy or sci-fi but refuse to label it as such because of genre snobbery. This feels kind of the same way. Sure, fantasy is fine for satisfying tales of good vanquishing evil or ass-kicking vampire slayers, but if you want to ponder the big questions, well, it’s not for that. But why not?

Any story can plumb the depths of the big questions that have plagued humanity since we started walking upright. Genre doesn’t limit the stories you can tell, only change the way that they’re told. Embrace the idea that deep thoughts can come from anywhere in the library.

Serious

Weekly Read: The Last Emperox

I like John Scalzi. I really do. I came to him via his blog, Whatever, before I read any of his books, so I kind of got to “know” him first before I knew his work. I like the snark. I like the politics (mostly). I like the open and honest way he talks about his writing and the business aspects of it. He seems like a very open guy who is helpful to emerging writers and still a complete geeky fanboy about established ones (and, for the few moments he stopped by my table at the WV Book Festival a couple years ago, just a nice guy).

I wish I liked his books better.

Late last year when I was putting together my list of favorite books from the last decade I was surprised that only one of Scalzi’s made the initial cut based on how I’d rated them on Goodreads. Redshirts, which wound up making the final list, was the only one I’d given at least four starts. I’d enjoyed all the others – there were no 2-star clunkers – but most things didn’t get beyond “like” to “really loved.”

I mention that because I really hoped that The Last Emperox, the last book in the Interdependency trilogy, would break through that ceiling. The first two books (I reviewed the first one here) had a lot of promise, but seemed rushed, like there was more in them. With the end in sight I’d hoped it would tie things together in a super satisfying way. Instead, it was more of the same – good and good fun in spots, but ultimately short of great.

The best part of The Last Emperox (and the entire trilogy) is the idea of The Flow. Analogized to a kind of river in space it’s the in-universe way of travelling between distant stars. It isn’t really FTL, but it works like it. The operative fact for the trilogy is that The Flow is collapsing, which is going to cut off planets from each other and basically dooming human civilization.

Against this backdrop the story of the trilogy is various people coming to grips with this. Some are trying to solve the problem, some are trying to profit off of it, and some are trying just do the right thing. This is fairly interesting and some of the characters involved are great. Kiva Lagos is a great, fun character to read about. The suddenly and unexpectedly enthroned Emperox Grayland II is pretty interesting, too, as are several of the supporting players (one is essentially a sentient spaceship). All good stuff.

The problem is that all these interesting people are racing around pushing the plot so hard that sometimes the books come off like extended Wikipedia entries. Part of this has to do with some things that Scalzi does repeatedly that don’t work for me (your mileage may vary, as they say). One is that something will happen – suddenly, with no warning (given who the POV characters are), and often violently. Then we’ll get a couple of characters talk about what happened. It’s like in-world telling instead of showing. Plots – in the sense of plotting, conniving, conspiring – are a lot more fun when you can see the gears working during the wind up. Just getting the incident itself with an ex post explanation isn’t very satisfying.

Another thing that happens repeatedly is that something happens to a character that should move them off the board – a conspiracy foiled or an assassination – that really doesn’t mean anything in the end. The evil doer caught in the act escapes, the target of death really escaped serious harm – all explained after the fact. It gets to the point that when a very major “death” occurs in The Last Emperox you can’t care about it very much because there’s little chance it’s real.

Those issues wouldn’t matter all that much if the ending wasn’t so underwhelming. As I said, the entire motivation for this tale is that The Flow is collapsing and civilization is at risk. Folks come up with a clever way to save it and . . . then we learn that will happen years in the future, after this book is over. So, yay? You think it’s heading for a galaxy-defining moment and it just doesn’t.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with this trilogy – it doesn’t feel like a complete story. It feels more like the first part of a larger trilogy (for epic space opera these books aren’t long), where a certain challenge is surmounted but the big one that would overarc the series has a lot of legs left to it.

I suppose that’s appropriate, though. The first two books mostly left me feeling the same way – I liked a lot of what they had to offer, but felt there was more there, lurking in the aether. I know the old show biz saying is “leave them wanting more,” but I’m not sure it applies to books – trilogies, especially.

LastEmperox

New Short Story – “The Nickel Tour”

I’m taking part in this year’s version of the NYC Midnight Short Story contest. The way it works is that for every round folks are divided into groups and each group is given a particular assignment in terms of genre, scenario, and a required character, along with a limited amount of time to write a story. As the competition goes on (there are four rounds in total) the time given to write the stories shrinks (as do the maximum word counts, thankfully).

The first round stories were due back in January. I was drawn into a group where the required genre was sci-fi, the scenario was a job interview, and the character was a mercenary. The word limit was 2500 words. The results finally came in last week and I made it out of the first group! So along with about 800 others I had to write a new story last weekend for the second round. We’ll see how that goes.

Here’s the story from the first round, “The Nickel Tour.” I took the title from a phrase used in my office when we interview someone and then show them around the office. That definitely played into the story and the setting. Enjoy!

The Nickel Tour

Reynolds was having a hard time taking his eyes off the stun grenade sitting on of the table. It was inert, or so the mercenary sitting across from them had said. Ada – that was all, just Ada – had assured her interviewers that unless the lights along the centerline were flashing it was perfectly safe, a harmless lump about the size of an egg, shaped like a rugby ball. Nothing to worry about.

Nearly all the other mercenaries interviewed for this new security position had been caught at the building checkpoint trying to bring in some kind of weapon. Ada hadn’t, which made her all the more impressive. She didn’t even look like a merc. The others looked like they had all come from central casting, clad in leather and with enough scars to fill a plastic surgery convention. Ada sat calmly, in a tailored light grey suit, with short blond hair, and blouse buttoned up to her neck. If someone from outside walked in on this, she would look like just another lawyer trying to get a job. Yet, somehow, she got that grenade into the office.

“You’ve had experience with sudden, emergent, rapidly changing situations?” Tacey, one of the partners, asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Ada said, shifting to look the attorney directly in the eyes. “I was part of the response team that dealt with the environmental collapse on Keneally Station out in The Ring. There was a sudden spike in CO2 levels, along with failing hydroponics and water regulators. Within a day the place was becoming toxic. Needless to say, people there were panicked and had to be contained.”

The way she said “contained” made Reynolds’ mouth dry. She made the violent control of desperate people sound like no more than a Saturday picnic.

“What about more long term problems? Something that you just can’t fix overnight?” Dipali, the senior partner, asked.

“Sir, I was on the Revenant when that mess went down,” she said, shifting again. “I can assure you, there was no short term solution there, but we managed to keep a lid on things.”

“What happened on the Revenant?” Reynolds asked. The others at the table looked at him like he’d asked them why water was wet.

“It was a long haul liner bound for Europa,” Ada explained. “There was some unpleasantness aboard.”

“On a cruise ship?” Reynolds asked, chuckling nervously.

“It wasn’t that kind of a liner, sir,” Ada continued. “It was full of refugees wanting to start a new life off-world. What the agents hadn’t realized is that they put a bunch of people in this ship who came from different clans that had been battling each other for generations – in business, arts, politics. Left with months of nothing to do other than stew on old grudges in close quarters, things turned . . . unpleasant.”

Everyone else around the table nodded, so Reynolds didn’t ask anything else. He returned his attention to the stun grenade and wondered how many of them she’d used during that “unpleasantness.”

“Your resume is impressive,” Tacey said, “but almost all of it is off-world.”

Ada nodded. “I’ve spent most of my career in The Ring, working for various mining co-ops. There was also a stint on Mars as part of a personal security detail. And I did a pair of deep space runs. I’m very comfortable in space. I’m very comfortable taking control of situations.”

“Then why come back to Earth? Why now?”

“Life in space can be very transitory, very unsettled,” she said. “I’ve reached the point in my life where I want more permanence. It sounds corny, but I just want to find a place to call home, maybe raise a family.”

“How long have you been off-world?” asked Dipali.

“Long enough that I need to make the choice before my body does it for me,” Ada said. “I’ve chosen Earth and I think this position would suit me very well.”

Tacey asked, “any experience with interdimensional beings?”

She squirmed in her seat. “Nothing professionally, ma’am. I’ve seen the vids, I’ve done some reading. I can assure you, however, that  I’m very good at getting up to speed in a new situation.”

The members of the hiring committee looked at each other and nodded.

“I think that’s all we need,” Dipali said, standing and extending his hand. “We’ll be in touch before the end of the week. For now, Reynolds here will give you the nickel tour. It was very nice to meet you.”

“You, too, sir.” Ada shook hands before everyone else left the room, leaving her and Reynolds alone. “Does every interviewee get to see the office?”

Reynolds shook his head. “You’re the first. I’d say that’s a good sign.” He nodded to the grenade. “Should you pick that up?”

“Leave it,” she said. “It’s a paperweight.”

“You’re the expert,” he said, opening the door into the back office.

The offices of Dipali, Tacey, and Waldroup were like one of those tunnel systems that prairie rodents dig. The outside world sees, at most, the reception area and one of the two conference rooms adjacent to it. Only employees, the odd repair person, and select interviewees get to see what lies beyond.

“Probably seems a little confusing,” Reynolds said as he led her back past a cube farm filled with busy legal assistants. “It will actually make perfect sense once we get back out front.”

“It’s a circle,” Ada said. “But lead on.”

They paused for some  introductions, then continued into the more secluded area of the attorneys’ offices.

“How many attorneys are there?” Ada asked after they’d met another pair of associates.

“A dozen,” Reynolds said. “The three partners on the front door, a couple of junior partners, and then the associates, like me.”

“How long have you worked here?”

“Couple of years. That’s why I was in on your interview, since I was the last hire. It’s kind of a tradition.”

“And what is it you do, exactly?” She was in earnest, information gathering mode, not just making idle chit chat.

“I specialize in cultural understandings, and misunderstandings, in interdimensional contract law. I was brought on when the firm started doing interdimensional work. It’s the same reason we’re hiring a security specialist.”

Ada nodded as they walked down the curved corridor. “Cultural understandings? You make sure nobody’s feelings get hurt?”

He shook his head. “A contract is a meeting of the minds between two parties, or more, to do particular things. You have to know the cultural background of each party to know how that meeting of the minds happens or if it happens at all. Think of it as a way to avoid any . . . unpleasantness.”

Ada nodded at the call back. “Like what?”

“You said you’ve never dealt with an interdimensional being before.”

She shook her head. “Only humans out in space.”

“Well, consider how contract terms might mean different things to a human from our world and, say, a human from Earth-13, where the sky is purple and the sun never really sets. Or if the other party to the contract is a being of pure energy, like the Sostu. Some of our clients are Tuv’O, which for all the world look just like orchids. But they’re sentient!” Reynolds couldn’t help getting excited when he talked about his work.

“And they need contracts?” Ada asked, tugging at her collar.

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“If they’re plants, then how do they,” she paused for a moment, swallowing hard, “how do they get around, much less to another dimension?”

“They’re carried around by a bonded pair of Ez’ak – think a Chihuahua crossed with a beetle – with whom they communicate telepathically. It’s really fascinating.”

“If you say so.”

“Now you’re in for a real treat,” Reynolds said. He knocked on a door, then opened it, letting Ada walk in before him. “Meet Frunobulax.”

Ada looked around the cramped room, jammed with sleek, black computer equipment. On top of one black box, near the door, was a small orb, pulsing with pale orange light. “Who?”

“It’s our office AI,” Reynolds said. “Say hi to Ada, Fru.”

The orb’s glow intensified and deepened into the color of a rich sunset. “Hello, Ada,” it said in a smooth, controlled voice that was clearly artificial without sounding like a computer.

“Had much experience with AI?” Reynolds asked.

Ada shook her head. “Just about every ship making runs out past Luna has some kind of AI, but nothing like this.”

“Fru is the cutting edge of AI and machine learning. He was given basic programming, then let loose on the entirety of human knowledge to develop a personality. That’s where he got the name.”

Ada looked at him, confused.

“Frunobulax has something to do with Frank Zappa,” Reynolds explained. “Fru fell deep into his discography during his learning phase and liked the name.”

“It is a very large poodle dog,” Fru threw in.

She nodded, still not getting it. “What does Fru do?”

“I handle most of the background office functions, from environmental controls to lighting,” Fru said.

“All of that’s out of human hands?” Ada asked, voice cracking slightly.

Reynolds nodded. “Those factors can be very important, depending on which clients are around,” Reynolds explained. “Fru is much better at handling them in real time than we’d ever be.”

“I can also analyze data at a much faster rate than the humans,” Fru continued. “And, of course, I manage the mathematics behind the rift generator.”

Her eyes went wide. “What did it say?”

Reynolds grinned. “Come on,” he said, leading her out of the room, closing the door behind him.

They walked past a few more doors, as the loop that was the inner office turned back toward reception, when they came to a black door without any visible handle. Ada looked around as they walked, like all of a sudden she was plotting an exit strategy.

“You’ll like this,” Reynolds said, grinning like a kid showing off his Christmas toys. He leaned in to a panel near the door while a laser scanned his eyes. Once a soft “bong” confirmed he’d passed that test, he exhaled on the panel. It turned green and the door whisked open. He stepped into the doorway to hold it open while Ada walked inside.

The room itself was about the size of a two-car garage. It was immaculately clean, with what appeared to be bare white walls, floor, and ceiling. At the far end was an arch of dull grey metal, studded with pulsing, purple emitters.

When Ada saw it, her hands shot too her mouth, like she’d seen a ghost.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Reynolds said, beaming.

“This law firm really has an interdimensional rift generator?” She said, mouth agape. “I hoped that computer was joking!”

Reynolds nodded. “I said we were on the cutting edge of interdimensional law. How else could we be? It’s a small one, but it gets the job done.”

She gave him a sharp look. “Is that legal?”

“It’s not illegal,” Reynolds said with a shrug. “There’s no law against it, if that’s what you mean. This is an office full of lawyers. You think they’d do something that might be against the law?”

Ada didn’t seem convinced. “But all the other rift generators are in space, either in Earth orbit or out in The Ring.”

“Because that’s where they were first built,” Reynolds said, strolling around the room. “There’s nothing about rift generation that requires vacuum or zero gravity. No reason why you shouldn’t have one on Earth.”

“No reason?” Her voice was rising. She undid the top button on her blouse with one hand and fanned herself with the other. “What about Field Station? That, that . . . thing they summoned?”

“An early calculation error,” Reynolds said, waving away her concern. “Fru would never let that happen here.”

“What about that entire mining colony in The Ring, the one that just disappeared?”

“Sabotage, of course” Reynolds said. “That’s why we’re hiring a security specialist. Are you all right?”

Ada was breathing fast, taking gulping breaths.

“Come on, let’s finish up the tour.” He repeated the process to open the door and Ada ran out ahead of him into the hallway. She was doubled over, gasping, hands on her knees.

Reynolds started to pat her on the back, but thought better of it. “Maybe should have saved that for another day. It’s probably a lot to take in.”

She stood and nodded. “That a device capable of ripping apart the fabric of space, and perhaps wiping out the Earth in the process, is in the hands of a boutique law firm? Yeah, that’s one way to put it.”

“We’re not James Bond villains,” Reynolds said, chuckling. “Come on, we’ll stop by Mr. Waldroup’s office, so you can meet him.”

“Actually, if it’s all right, I should be going,” Ada said. “I know you’ve got work to do and I need to get to the shuttle pad to catch my flight back to Luna.”

Reynolds stopped and was going to ask why she didn’t want to meet the one named partner she hadn’t seen yet, but decided against it. “Sure, Ada. Whatever you say.”

Walking back towards reception he had a hard time matching her pace without starting to trot. It was like she knew where she was going now and was intent on getting there as quickly as possible.

When they reached reception, Reynolds took a couple of longer strides just to make sure she couldn’t bolt straight through the door. He was certain she could brush him aside if need be, but he hoped she wouldn’t end a job interview like that.

Ada stopped, ran a hand through her hair, and took a deep breath. She held out her hand. “Thanks for the tour. It was . . . eye opening.”

“You’re welcome,” Reynolds said. “Like Mr. Dipali said, I’m sure you’ll hear something back by the end of the week.”

She nodded, stepped around him, and through the door.

“Safe travels,” Reynolds said, waving at the closed glass front door.

“What was that all about?” asked the receptionist.

Reynolds shrugged. “Beats me.”

The next morning, Reynolds was checking his email when a new message arrived. The subject line said “Sorry.” It was from Ada.

“Thanks for the tour yesterday,” she said. “I’ve decided that coming back to Earth isn’t the right decision for me, so I won’t be joining your firm.”

“I wanted to tell you to go grab that stun grenade, if you can,” the message continued. “You can activate it by twisting the narrow end three times to the right, then twice to the left. After that, all you have to do is compress it between your hands, throw it, and run like hell.”

“Memorize that, Reynolds,” she said in closing. “You’re going to need it.”

Reynolds locked his workstation and headed for the conference room.

JobInterview

Weekly Read: How Long ‘til Black Future Month?

Short story collections are weird beasts. By definition they rise and fall on the strength of each individual story, which I think makes it a little easier to notice the flaws. A dull spot in an otherwise good novel is most likely to just slip down the memory hole at the end of the day. A story that doesn’t work sticks out a little bit more. Given the number of stories in N.K. Jemisin’s first collection you’d expect more than a few duds. As the song says, “not everything everybody does works all the time, son.”. What’s amazing about Jemisin’s collection is how often everything does work.

This is a lengthy collection, so I’m not going to mention every story in it, only a few of the highlights. The first, for me, was “The City Born Great,” in which a homeless kid becomes a kind of midwife to the entire city of New York as it’s “born.” The setup is interesting and the birthing process itself is wonderfully evocative.

“The Effluent Engine” is a kind of alternate history/steampunk hybrid, where Haiti becomes this hemisphere’s leader in the dirigible race, leading a spy (of sorts) to come to New Orleans seeking aid from a famous engineer. A romantic angle cropped up here that at first made me roll my eyes (not because it involved two women – it just seemed cliché), but Jemison turned it on its head in the end, much to my delight.

My favorite title, if not my favorite story, in the collection is “Cloud Dragon Skies” (sounds like a Steve Hill age song – and, yes, I’ve got a musical idea for it in my head). Set in a future where most of humanity has moved off the poisoned Earth, the sky is now red and the clouds have become kind of sentient. Those who left try to fix it, but it doesn’t help. An interesting narrative and point-of-view in this story.

“The Elevator Dancer” is just a great, really short story about the power, or the need, to ignore something that’s right in front of you. The dystopia in which the story is set reminds me a little of the one in Zappa’s Joe’s Garage where music has been declared illegal. There are some things so essential to our humanity that no oppressive force can quash.

Of the several stories that revolve around food, my favorite is “Cuisine des Memoires,” about a restaurant that can serve any meal from any time in history, from the famous to the personal. Naturally the main character can’t leave well enough alone and wanders into a meditation on magic and memory.

In her introduction, Jemisin talks about how she same to write short stories and about how she sometimes uses them to try out worlds she’s thinking of using for novels. That comes through in “Stone Hunger,” which is set in the world of her Hugo-winning Fifth Season trilogy and “The Narcomancer,” which does the same in the world of her Dreamblood duology. I enjoyed the later one more, since it was completely new to me. The other felt a little like a demo version of a song – interesting, but not quite up to the final product. If I’m not misreading, I think “The City Born Great” I mentioned above served this purpose for Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became.

A couple stories left me scratching my head more than anything else. The lead off, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” is a direct consequence to the Ursula K Le Guin story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about an apparent utopia that comes at a terrible cost. Jemisin’s story is also about a utopia maintained through a vigorous program of execution for anyone who steps out of line ideologically. It’s hard to tell whether this is an agreement with “Omelas” that utopia isn’t really possible, or if it’s arguing that it can be possible with a cost, so let the cost be borne by those who deserve it. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Likewise “Henosis,” a dark tale about a prestigious literary award that leads to the winner’s death. I can’t decide if it’s a pitch perfect satire of writers’ desire for glory or such a silly idea that it’s nonsensical.

There are a few other stories that just didn’t work for me, although none of them are “bad” in a meaningful sense. Not because they aren’t cool ideas – “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” in particular is very cool – but because they feel rushed, almost like they’re half stories. “Non-Zero Probabilities” feels the same way, but I see that it was nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo when it was first published (several of these stories are available online – hence the all the links, all legit), so what do I know?

All in all, How Long ‘til Black Future Month continues the serious roll Jemisin has been on the past few years. Most of these stories are great and show a great deal of range in terms of style, tone, and subject. In the introduction, Jemisin explains that she started writing short fiction in order to improve her novel writing. Other writers can only hope our exercises bear such amazing fruit.

BlackFutureMonth