The Fall 2013 issue of Subterranean Magazine is a delight to read. The stories are challenging and imaginative, full of discovery, provocation and excellent writing.
The issue opens with “Doctor Helios,” a long novella by Lewis Shiner. It’s a Cold War espionage novel, reminiscent more of Ian Fleming than of John le Carré, set in Egypt in 1963 as the Aswan Dam is being built. Our hero is John York, apparently a member of the CIA, who has been tasked with ensuring that the dam does not succeed. President Kennedy may want to develop a new relationship with President Nasser of Egypt after years of tension following Nasser’s overthrow of the monarchy and nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, but the CIA thinks he’s a communist and wants his grandest project to fail. York has the same touch with the ladies as James Bond, and his foe, the title character, is every inch a Bond villain; and there are lots of inches: at six foot seven and three hundred pounds, he must be quite a sight in his “blazing orange caftan” when York first meets him. Helios and York seem to have the same goal, though Helios’s motives are suspect, which makes York reconsider whether his mission is the proper one. York travels to Aswan to see the work being done on the dam, using his cover as a seller of American heavy construction equipment. His translator is a woman who dares to travel wearing pants and with her face uncovered, not to mention in the company of a man to whom she is not related; she is a strong character who even goes to far as to explain female genital mutilation to York over dinner, ruining his appetite. The women are not mere ornaments in this story, but crucial actors as York and Helios play out their subterfuges. It’s a good story — but don’t look for any elements of science fiction, fantasy or horror, because you won’t find them here. It’s a curious choice for a magazine that’s normally bounded within those genres.
The stand-out story in this issue is Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.” As Chiang so often does, the story takes a technology one step further than it is today, and then examines the effects of that technology not just on society as a whole, but also on an individual, and that individual’s life and relationships. The technology here is video recording. Most people record every moment of their lives, but now there is a new software program called Remem that can search for specific moments with ease. Whereas before Remem you might have had to search through days’ worth of recordings to find a particular discussion you had with your spouse, now all you have to do is think, “when we talked about getting a dog,” and in an instant the recording of the conversation will play for you on your retinal viewscreen. The first-person narrator starts off by questioning whether this program is really a blessing; he fears that the program will take the place of natural memory, both biologically and psychologically. He sets out to test the program for an article, and comes upon a surprise that shouldn’t have been so surprising: he discovers that his natural memory is imperfect. Because he can now see that, in excruciating detail, he questions his premise. The narrator’s story is balanced against the story of the Tiv, an African tribe that is introduced to writing for the first time, and who question its worth for their way of life. It’s vintage Chiang, and I suspect that, like most every one of his (much too) infrequent stories, it will appear on prize ballots for 2013 fiction — and it deserves to be there. It’s excellent.
“Hook Agonistes” by Jay Lake and Seanan McGuire takes place in a future where the human race has been all but exterminated by a species called the Taushin. A small number of individual humans are kept as slaves as Taushin Station 044. Three hundred years ago, they were snatched up from Lowryland, an amusement park with a pronounced resemblance to Disney World. The humans now live short, hard lives, working long shifts for small rations distributed by the Taushin; an individual who has reached the age of 30 is elderly, and likely to starve because the Taushins will cut off rations when an individual can no longer work. One of the oddest things about the human population of the station, though, is that the Taushin sweep of Lowryland included Captain James Hook, of “Peter Pan” fame. He has now taken on the role of teacher of the youngest humans and advisor to the older. He is an artificial human capable of thought and reason. The story is told from his viewpoint, as he watches the changes to the small society when a child named Pan is born. The writers draw a detailed picture of the world their characters inhabit, and they make Hook a fascinating creature. Still, I found the story to be more meandering than pointed, and it loses its force as it grows longer.
Ian Tregillis’s “What Doctor Ivanovich Saw” is unlikely to make a great deal of sense to anyone who hasn’t read Tregillis’s excellent novel, Bitter Seeds, or either of the other two novels in his Milkweed Triptych. A prefatory note states that the story takes place during a 20-year gap between the first and second books of the series, which means that it occurs after Germany has been defeated in World War II in this alternate history, but while the Japanese are still at war with (at least) the Russians. Aleksandr Ivanovich Grigoryev is the viewpoint character, a man who has been working with Gretel, one of the psychics captured from the Germans. Gretel is a clairvoyant who never has cooperated with her masters, be they Germans or Russians; she is her own person, and a perverse one who has never accustomed herself to her captivity. Ivanovich has been experimenting with Gretel’s powers, but has found that they defy his analysis. In fact, as the story opens, Ivanovich is failing at a new experiment with Gretel, just before he learns of the death of his third son in the war. Not long after that fateful day, Ivanovich is sent to Unit 731 in Manchuria, which had been in Japanese hands until recently. The unit is the site of Japan’s own experiments with psychic powers, and Ivanovich is charged with figuring out what the Japanese know. Ivanovich has his own plans for this trip. It is a gritty story of war and its losses, of how a man can be ground to nothing between the two rocks of great enemies. Its only flaw is that it does not stand alone, but is an excellent accompaniment to the triptych.
Subterranean is indispensable to those who are serious about science fiction and fantasy. Amazingly inventive work is being done here. And, as I’ve mentioned in other reviews, one of the most incredible things about this magazine is that it’s free. Even if you’re not normally a short fiction reader, you must at least read Ted Chiang’s story; but you would be well-served to read this magazine from the first byte to the last.