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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Review: After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain

What would a book read like if Connie Willis chose to write a Philip-K.-Dick style of novel? Probably something much like After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain. Appropriately enough, it was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick award, but maybe it should have landed on other award ballots as well. How many books change when you reread them? You read the same words both times, but you realize something else entirely is going on.

The protagonist, a popular UFO writer and professor, traverses the seventies to the nineties. Before the aliens land, he is a laughing stock among his colleagues. He does find refuge in his wife, Virginia. After the aliens, he is more respected, but he suspects that the identities of his wife--the woman he thought of as his wife--is really an alien, Asket. Asket has also been wife to other friends. She slips into and out of human identities so convincingly that even our protagonist is unsure, requiring the mall security to throw him out of its establishment.

Identity is the core issue here, explored in a subdued Dick fashion. Dick might have escalated the events to a fever pitch. But that is not the story here, which makes the novel in some ways more sinister. Things do and don't escalate. Events the should have escalated in the proper Fifties paranoid fashion, don't. You read one story by the novel's end, but as you turn back to page one and reread, you suspect that that explanation of events is not good enough.

It may take time before Lain's accomplishment here is recognized. After all, the novel begs to be read twice. On my first read, I'd have given the book four stars, but how could I not give five stars to a book that rewrites itself? If there are better books this year, it'll be one heck of a year for literature in deed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

“The Growth of the House of Usher” by Brian Stableford

First appeared in Interzone. It was up for the Interzone Readers Poll, reprinted in genre retrospectives by Gardner R. Dozois and  John Clute, David Pringle and Simon Ounsley. From the collection, Sexual Chemistry and Other Tales of the Biotech Revolution.

The faceless narrator visits Rowland Usher on the Orinoco Delta. They had been civil engineers together in college where they worked with engineered bacteria that rebuilt raw materials into various architectures.
Now the narrator finds Rowland and his father have built a house in memory of his sister, whom they loved dearly--in multiple senses. All of the Ushers have been dying of the same genetic malady

Commentary with Spoilers:

Rowland kicks the bucket, and the narrator spots worm-like creatures who bear resemblance to the sister. They crawl out to cuddle/be cuddled and die.

This follows the "plot" of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” if it can be said to have a plot. This story departs enough, twisting so that it maintains reader interest.

Genius title.

Does it comment on where we're headed with societal mores? Although a case could be made (even that genetic monkeying leads to decadent moral decay), the other tales don't support the sudden land change. This tale wallows less in moral decay than in a futuristic Poe. Perhaps that's two sides of the same coin.

Rather, the pivotal final image may have been the seed that the author lacquered around, building backwards logically to create a society in which this might have happened.

Friday, April 22, 2016

“The Engineer and the Executioner” by Brian Stableford

First appeared in Amazing. Reprinted in genre retrospectives by Donald A. Wollheim, Mike Ashley, and Josh Pachter. From the collection, Sexual Chemistry and Other Tales of the Biotech Revolution.
Here's a story that improves the more one ponders it.

A robot has sentenced Gabriel Samarra to deportation and his life's work to death as they endanger earth. On the hollow asteroid Lamark, Gabriel has created an ecosystem that evolves new species generation to generation. The plants take over and absorb their environment; therefore, should these creatures happen to fall upon Earth, its creatures would soon fall prey like rabid invasive species. The robot will allow Gabriel a last moment to gather his things in order...

Commentary with Spoilers:

As you might have guessed, the prisoner kills his captor (although escaping seems another likely scenario). A ricocheting bullet grazes his own leg and dooms himself. He breaks the glass sealing his creatures inside crawls out to join them. While the robot's ship still tips the asteroid into the sun, plants take over the engineer's compartment and eventually eats its way to the outside, creating a panspermia event.

Although the inital scenario feels dated, the evolution and the structure intimated in the title should make the story worth reading. Gabriel is the presumed good-guy engineer, preserving life, and the robot the baddie executioner. But by the story's end, the roles and the reader's sympathies actually reverse.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

“The Magic Bullet” by Brian Stableford

First appeared in Interzone. It won the the Interzone Readers Poll, reprinted in two genre retrospectives by Gardner R. Dozois, Donald A. Wollheim and Arthur W. Saha. From the collection, Sexual Chemistry and Other Tales of the Biotech Revolution.

Lisa Friemann, a police forensic superintendent and lover of Morgan Miller (famed geneticist), is called in to help solve the case of the shooting of Miller and fire-bombing of his genetic mice. Miller, unconscious and not expected to live, is plied with drugs to get him to tell what happened. Instead, he is cryptic. Only when he’s alone does he tell her the truth.

Commentary with spoilers:
Half of the mice were immortal. Their egg cells turn out to function like stem cells. The perpetrators intend to use this. Women, the tale suggests, are poised to become immortal; men, a thing of the past.

An intriguing hypothesis. However, an egg cell will only have half the chromosomes, a condition known as monosomy, which often produces disease, deformation and/or death. More of the element, hand-wavium, needed.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

“Sexual Chemistry” (or “A Career in Sexual Chemistry”) by Brian Stableford

First appeared in Interzone. It was runner-up in the Interzone Readers Poll, reprinted in genre retrospectives by John Clute, David Pringle & Simon Ounsley, David G. Hartwell, and Kathryn Cramer. From the collection, Sexual Chemistry and Other Tales of the Biotech Revolution.

Giovanni Cassanova, a rather unattractive man, is a genetic genius. He creates a protein to be secreted by sweat glands that turns on the opposite sex. He uses it to gain lovers. Once his secret escapes, he is in multiple legal and love troubles.

The tale is largely expository. The appeal is following out the permutations of an idea--a chemical that enhances sexual attractiveness--and how that impacts society over time. It makes an interesting thought experiment.