Megan Lindholm’s “Old Paint” is the thoroughly enjoyable novelette about an old car beloved by a family that lets it roam free. The car comes from a time before cars were completely automated, when one could still actually drive them oneself instead of just programming in a destination. It’s so old that its nanotech paint is of a wood veneer on the side of a station wagon. The car is useful, if not exactly a favorite of the teenage boy in the family who’d like something a bit racier. At least, it’s useful up until the time it goes wild because of virus unleashed by a hacker group that did it just to prove they could. Lots of cars wrecked themselves in the days following the original infection, but Old Paint manages to behave itself sufficiently to live on, recharging himself when it needs it and traveling the country. The car tells the kids more about their mother than they’d ever known, including why she is so protective of them. It’s a charming, heart-warming story, but there’s more to it: how are we to treat machines that develop intelligence? What ethical guidelines should inform our interactions with artificial intelligence? Interesting questions, all.
Robert Reed’s themes are twofold in “The Girl in the Park”: he writes both about the curse and the blessing of senility, and of the consequences of action and inaction. The narrator’s father in an indefinite future suffers from some variant of today’s Alzheimer’s Disease, forgetting that his wife is dead, forgetting the day of the week, but remembering, always, an encounter he had with a girl in a park when the son whose stroller he was then pushing was less than two years old. Scarcely a day passes when he doesn’t ask his son if he can find something out about the girl, who seemed barely into her teens but was dressed and made-up as if she were an exotic bon-bon for a sex party. The narrator’s father remembers giving her directions to where she said she wanted to go, but always regretted that he hadn’t done more for here, perhaps even kept her from her destination. He always asks his son if he can find out anything about the girl. What he always forgets is that he has made the same request time and again, and that his son has, in fact, found out everything there is to know about her, and it’s the story of a remarkable life.
We medicate ourselves and our children more each day, and Benjamin Crowell seems to be asking whether it’s really worth it in “Kill Switch.” His protagonists are able to change their gender on a whim, and have been “modified” in utero to be musically talented. All those modifications come with a price, though, and for them the price is that they take Tonalexa four times a day. When Chris and Jo take a vacation from the meds, Jo finds that it feels like “he’d spent thirty-seven years being deaf.” It’s a revelation to him, but he returns to dutifully taking his meds when the vacation is over. Still, Chris and Jo decide they want their child to be modified for musical talent despite the risks — after all, their modifications were only first-generation technology, and it’s improved since then — even though a medical advisor tells them they’d have almost as much chance of producing a musical child if they just rolled the dice with their own genes. It seems nature still manages to outdo science in this area of life. If they want the modifications anyway, it’s going to cost them, they learn. And somehow this experience convinces Jo to once again go off his meds, and he finds life just plain sounds better this way. It’s a poignant story for the Ritalin generation.
I really enjoyed Allen M. Steele’s novelette, “Alive and Well, a Long Way from Anywhere.” It’s about an eccentric rich man who decides he wants to live entirely on his own, on an asteroid just big enough just for him and a few pets. He hires an assistant on earth, who narrates the story of Jerry Stone’s decision to become a hermit, if an exceptionally comfortable one. People doubt his sanity, but as the years wear on, he becomes less and less of a presence even in his own business empire. The usual business games take place, over time, but they impinge on Jerry less and less. The picture of this life brings to mind reclusive tycoons like Howard Hughes, but Jerry Stone outdoes Hughes when it comes to planning ahead. The story is a snapshot, of sorts; yes, the story is (fairly predictably) plotted, not a mere character sketch, but it’s really about a single man’s ambition to live a contemplative life in a busy world. I could easily follow in Jerry Stone’s footsteps myself, and I imagine a lot of those reading this column could do so as well.
Steven Utley’s “Zip” is about a group of time travelers who are headed for the beginning of time. Or the end of time — because things aren’t going exactly as planned, and they don’t seem to understand the forces they are attempting to manipulate.
Michael Blumlein offers a strange sort of love story in “Bird Walks in New England.” It starts out as a high romance, but soon changes to a story of disillusionment, change and the loss of love — before it returns again to romance, but this time to an adult romance, a true meeting of souls. Seen another way, it’s an odd story about an odd bird, about the powers of observation and understanding. It’s deeper than it seems on first reading.
“Long Night on Redrock” by Felicity Shoulders is the story of pioneers on a remote planet who find themselves defending the wrong treasure from an off-world thief: it isn’t their crop of aynids the man is after, but the pioneers don’t figure that out until it’s almost too late. Fortunately, the strange geography of their planet includes a gravimetric anomaly, a large area of unexpected high density material that somehow induces visions. Or is it unfortunate? The pioneers aren’t immune from the visions that discombobulate the thief, after all. A troubled history, brave children and an odd planet make this cover story a strong one.
The poetry in this issue is good. Gord Sellar’s “Fix” is a short story in poetry form, about a device that seems to be the cure for all that ails you emotionally. “Terraformations” by Robert Frazier is more abstract, likening humans to “schematics / chalked like so many theorems,” and positing a universe that manipulates us the way we manipulate numbers.
This issue also contains a strong essay by Robert Silverberg about how one’s attitude toward technology changes with age, an editorial by Sheila Williams about science fiction stories featuring characters who share a body, and book reviews by Peter Heck that seem a touch outdated, as the books under consideration were published as long ago as September 2011.