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We’re back!

It’s been a long journey, and we’ve missed you. It is a personal delight to be able to announce that we have the team back together and the site up and running. As of today, we’re soft-launching our new website, restoring access to the AE archives and bringing all the amazing stories we’ve published over recent years back online.

We’re also getting ready for a fresh new issue of AE after a year long hiatus: we’re accepting new submissions from authors and artists, and can’t wait publish AE Issue #23. The stories we’ve accepted so far are amazing – and we know you’ll love them.

In the meantime, take a look at the new site and let us know what you think. We’ve officially recognized some of our favourite stories with a brand new feature: the Editor’s Choice Award. These stories are some of our favourites, and is the perfect place to start if this is your first time here.

Don’t forget to sign up for the mailing list, and we’ll be sure you’re invited to the launch party when we release our first (new) issue.

Love and lasers,

Paul, Helen, Duff, and the rest of the AE Team.

An apology about how we’ve handled submissions

Since we soft launched AE last week, we’ve seen talk online about your story submissions. Are they still under consideration? What’s the status? Are we really back?

We realize in our excitement to resurrect the site we should have done a better job in managing submissions. You trusted us with your stories, and we didn’t honour that trust as well as we could have.

To everyone who’s still waiting to hear from us, we hope you will accept our sincere apology. It’s not how we intended for things to go, and we’re committed to improving the process.

When we began the process of relaunching AE in Spring 2017, our goal was to get the site back online, re-open to submissions, and continue publishing amazing science fiction as quickly as possible.

But rebuilding the site proved harder than we’d first thought. Plus, we’re all volunteers and our personal lives took us away from this work, sometimes for weeks. Yet we were making progress and believed success was right around the corner.

Of course, you didn’t know this. What you saw was a site that would appear and disappear, seemingly at random, without any changes or improvements. Some of you gave us up for dead, and we don’t blame you for that. Others saw a submissions page asking for stories and sent them in.

We’ve put a huge amount of effort over the past few months to read the 400+ submissions that we’ve received over the past 18 months, and are only now catching up with the backlog. We’ve read through 90% of those submissions and while most of you have now heard back from us, the authors of some of the best stories waited (and in some cases are still waiting) far too long for a response. We are sorry for keeping your stories in limbo for such a long time. We know the market well, and we know that it’s not fair to ask authors to wait on a decision when they could be pursuing other opportunities.

If you haven’t heard from us, that means your story is still under consideration, and you’ll be hearing from us soon. We’re really excited by some of the stories we’ve received and can’t wait to share them with you, but we also know that some of you may have submitted (and sold) them elsewhere.

If you haven’t heard from us and want to check on the status of your submission, email us at editors@aescifi.ca with the subject line “Submission Update Request” and the title of your story. Please be patient—it may take a few days to get back to you since we anticipate a lot of questions.

Paul, Helen, Duff, and the rest of the AE Team

The Truth Is in There

Conspiracy fiction has long been considered a sub-genre of spy or thriller fiction. But it’s science fiction that can best embrace the outlandish theories that quietly root in our collective unconscious: Who “they” really are; how the world is truly governed; or why are self-driving cars being rammed down our throats?

Never mind that a recent formula developed by an Oxford University mathematician has essentially discredited paranoia by revealing that any conspiracy worth concocting would be “prone to unravelling.” (Apparently humanity’s inherent tendency to gossip would have pretty much foiled any attempt to fake the Moon landing for longer than 3.7 years.)

Despite the sheer unlikelihood of successfully perpetrating a global conspiracy, storytellers have found them irresistible since at least G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday; A Nightmare. Published in 1908, it features a cabal of anarchists and a devious novel-ending twist that has become a staple of the genre.

British pulp-era sci-fi writer Eric Frank Russell first bolted science fiction and conspiracy together with Dreadful Sanctuary, a Cold War-era novel about an international conspiracy to thwart space exploration.

By the 1970s, conspiracy and science fiction were beginning to commingle more broadly. Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! trilogy, published in the mid-1970s, was nothing short of a madcap Grand Central Station of conspiracy theories. Using plots both real and imagined, the series focused on the eternal war between the Illuminati and the Discordians while also including an increasingly confusing parade of groups and sub-conspiracies. Concepts like “fnord,” the 23 enigma and immanentizing the eschaton were all brought to light thanks to Shea and Wilson.

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, published in 1973, is set in the dying days of World War II. It tells the story of hapless Tyrone Slothrop’s attempts to find the truth about himself and why his sexual encounters seem to attract V2 rocket strikes. Naturally, he does so while fleeing an endless array of sinister intelligence organizations with even more sinister technologies. Although not dissimilar in tone to The Illuminatus!, it’s generally considered to be a literary work rather than science fiction.

U.S. author Philip K. Dick really took conspiracy and ran with it, making paranoia and ruminations over free will his literary bread and butter. Despite their pulpy roots, Dick’s works, ranging from the early 1950s to the ’80s, frequently feature characters manipulated by unseen powers and forced to question their realities, their identities and their very sanity.

Marginalized even within the science fiction community during his life, it took TV and movies before Dick’s paranoia-soaked stories came into their own. His novels have proven to be increasingly popular sources of adaptations into movies (Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly and Blade Runner, which will see a sequel released in 2017), as well as a TV series (The Man in the High Castle).

Television shows, with their relentless story pacing and constant need for startling plot twists, now feed on a steady diet of conspiracy-inspired paranoia. The X-Files brought the world of conspiracy to the top of pop culture consciousness. While the basic alien conspiracy underlying the series was straightforward, it became increasingly muddled to meet the need for new, status quo-shattering revelations.

The culmination of this trend may be seen in Orphan Black, the Canadian science fiction TV series about a street-level con artist, Sarah Manning, who stumbles onto the revelation that she is one of several identical clones. A desire for quick money leads her to impersonate one of her clones for a time, but eventually Sarah is drawn into the larger mystery of where she and her clones have come from, and why someone seems determined to kill them all.

The premise very neatly merges standard conspiracy fare with a fairly profound exploration of identity. As she finds and meets more of her clones, Sarah is literally confronted with alternate versions of herself. A soccer mom, a genius microbiology student, a police officer and even a cool corporate impresario.

The deeper Sarah delves into the conspiracy, the more her identity is blurred. Throughout the series, she’s routinely faced with lives she could have led if her childhood circumstances had been different or, more hauntingly, if she hadn’t squandered opportunities and made the “wrong” choices. At one point, hearing that one of her clones is a PhD student, Sarah’s foster mother blithely wonders, “What happened to you?”

That’s exactly the question Sarah must be asking herself each time she uncovers a new clone living a different life. Compounding the situation further, Sarah is frequently placed into situations where she has to impersonate her own clones. By investigating and flushing out the conspirators, Sarah is learning more about her origins … yet also growing more confused about herself.

During the first season, Sarah makes an offhand remark. “Every time I think I know something, I’m wrong.”

This sums up not only the excitement of a good conspiracy story, but also its main problem. Conspiracies, and their necessary earth-shattering revelations, consume plot at a voracious pace. Sometimes, especially in the serialized format of a weekly TV series, the basic premise can feed the beast for only so long.

Storytellers occasionally find a solution by throwing unnecessary complications into the plot as a way to obfuscate the real story and prolong the sense of mystery. In this twisted way, the storytellers become conspirators themselves. Instead of peeling away layers, they actively mislead readers and fog their understanding of the truth.

Despite its limitations, and a somewhat chequered past, the relationship between conspiracy fiction and science fiction has grown closer to the point where they now seem to exist almost hand in hand. In science fiction, conspiracies of all kinds from the political to the personal have found their heartland.

 


Wes Smiderle is a science fiction writer, former reporter, and editor based in Ottawa.

Reiteration

The blue centaur paused at the apex of a grassy knoll, intent upon a passing butterfly, the long iridescent plume of its mane sweeping out behind it in the still air. The season was late, and she hoped the insect might be a nondescript. After a moment of observation, she found the insect’s classification in the shared files. She did not need to, but she still sighed.

She stood for a moment, looking into the distance which her moderate elevation allowed. She chose to limit herself to the near infrared and ultraviolet beyond the visible, as a restriction in the apprehended spectrum allowed the occasional brief surprise. Any surprise would be welcome. She spotted a small heat plume to the north, and trotted over to see what might be raising it.

When the centaur reached the top of a low depression in the plain, she almost laughed aloud. There was a gigantic hallucigenia there, nearly two meters long, lifting rocks with its forelimbs and peering under them with a pair of googly eyes mounted on its foremost anterior spines. The centaur called out a greeting, then galloped down the slope toward the blue and pink pastel monstrosity. The hallucigenia swivelled its eyestalks to regard her and wobbled along on its multitude of legs to meet her. Both knew that there was no danger in this meeting, because danger had been removed from life for more than a thousand years, ever since the Great Decoupling. When your intelligence was distributed across myriad incorruptible server farms, sending your body of the moment rushing to meet a monster held little terror.

“What a wonderful external you’ve got,” the centaur said when they were at a conversational distance. The front of the hallucigenia split into a broad and goofy grin which matched its cartoon eyeballs.

“Thank you! Your mane is fabulous!”

The centaur turned to present a profile and streamed her hair out to its full length, trying to show the scintillation to best effect. “It’s not really impressive below 400 nanometers or above 750, but it’s great at gathering solar charge.”

The hallucigenia’s eyes flicked to and fro, independent of each other. “Nice work. Nanotubes?”

“Yes, it’s…” She faltered for a moment, the technical details of the filaments and their contraction actuators were easy to visualize but a serious chore to articulate. “It’s easier to show you. Let’s synch.”

The centaur chose to perceive radio as a sound, a low bird-song warble rather than the screech of modems she’d heard in the archival files. Once she established a connection with the hallucigenia, the metadata on the response packets for the transfer brought the disappointment of recognition. “Oh, hi, Sun Mi.”

The hallucigenia turned fire engine red. “Hey, Steve. Long time, no see, huh?”

“I guess.” The perfect recall that everyone now endured gave the lapse as seventy-two years. It wasn’t too soon for a decent conversation, and Steve tried to stay polite. “Seen anything interesting?”

Sun Mi’s eyestalks gave a wobble, and its body shaded down to grey. “Not much. I found a previously uncatalogued variant of lichen in the Calgary ruins about a decade ago. I was still flying then.”

“Still the pterosaur?” There was a tone of amazement in Steve’s voice; no one held onto a body that long.

“Oh, no.” The broad, gap-toothed grin came back. “I was a swarm of bumblebees.”

“That sounds neat.”

“Yes and no. You get an amazing field of vision, but it was a pain in the ass reforming the group after windstorms. I always lost some elements. It wasn’t worth the effort in the end, and I started on terrestrial forms.”

Steve nodded, although she wondered if Sun Mi’s imagination wasn’t slipping. When they had first met five hundred years earlier, they had hit it off wonderfully, Sun Mi as a kirin and Steve a moderately-sized interpretation of Talos, the bronze guardian of Crete. They had travelled together for a couple of years until, inevitably, each had heard all of the other’s stories. The whole time of that partnership was utterly fresh in Steve’s mind, as was every other memory since her uploading.

“Maybe I’ll give flying a try again,” Steve said. “It has been a while.”

There was a pause that stretched out. Sun Mi broke it. “Well, I guess we might as well get trotting. Good luck, Steve.”

“You too.” She waved and set off at a canter. Good luck, indeed, she thought. They all needed it; the luck to find some novelty in a world so thoroughly familiar.

 


Once a month, Steve left the physical world to check out the forum digest. Some people checked the news daily, and others actually devoted part of their attention to the shared virtuality all the time. That was too much contact with others for her taste.

Scanning through the news, Steve let out a little gasp at one item which had appeared just two days since her last check. An emigration. Her body was in a power-absorbing shut-down, so her head-shake had no physical manifestation. She knew the émigré, but she knew every human being at least at second hand by now, so that was not the source of her sadness. It was the simple fact that one of those remaining people was now gone, yet another loss to the ongoing collective experience, which as unrewarding as it had become would suffer from this small attrition.

She wasn’t entirely surprised, though. Augustus had been withdrawn for quite a while, checking messages but not sending any. It was either emigration or suicide for him, although if there was a difference only he knew it. She supposed there must be a little excitement attached to emigration, returning all of one’s eggs to a single basket, having no dispersed back-up for the personality that rode in a starship’s onboard computer.

The destination listed was at least half-way sensible. Augustus was not following one of the colony slowboats as some had, not so desperate for a conversation with someone new he was willing to take a chance on a colony having flourished ahead of him, or of finding it inimical when he arrived.  His stated course was due galactic south, skimming the Small Magellanic Cloud without actually aiming for it. If Augustus were judicious in using periods of dormancy, he would see some authentic wonders on his long trip. There was some small attraction at the thought of seeing the whole galaxy from above.

Steve sent a bon voyage message out on the frequency Augustus has indicated as the one he would monitor. She didn’t expect a reply.

 


After a week of virtual living, Steve was pleased to have a new body once again, and stood for a moment in the production bunker’s output lobby to examine the results. Another centaur, this time with quicksilver skin and a jet black crest of hair. The human torso was that of a fantasy hero, broad pectoral muscles and rippling abs, and the equine body bore wings with unobtrusive jets hidden among the feathers to allow hovering and near-sonic speeds. Steve nodded at himself. It wasn’t very original, but it would allow for some fun and reckless experiences.

The body itself was the result of a reckless experience, the previous one lost through being a spectator at a fight. Two people who found the world was not big enough to stand the other’s presence had announced a duel to the death, their personalities locked into the bodies they would fight in. It was not a sort of thing that happened very often, and Steve had felt driven to attend. It had been an interesting spectacle, two spiky monsters lumbering towards one another on the open prairie like grudge-bearing hillocks, right up to the point that one revealed it was actually a murder-suicide by triggering an electromagnetic pulse device.

The discontinuity of the EMP had ended for Steve with a return to the omniscient captivity of the clouds, a vast sensorium composed of various feeds from around the planet and no direct control of any of them. Steve had sighed inwardly, lacking equipment to do otherwise, and sent off the orders to a production centre for a new body. Then, because omniscience was a little overwhelming, Steve had retreated into a simulation of Regency England to await completion and get the hang of identifying masculine once again.

Steve had lived in the virtual for almost a whole objective year once, without a body in the real world, and there was always some residual hint of its essential unreality that he had never quite gotten used to. The senses in those worlds were in many ways closer to natural than those provided by the bodies he had built, limited as they were to the original human range. But the whole time had felt vaguely wrong, regardless of what worlds he had tried and what apprehended personae he had worn into them, as if there were a subtle metadata stream that constantly reminded him that there was nothing below the horizons. He knew there were some who had walled themselves up entirely in virtuality, performing the necessary self-mutilations to forget that it was just a simulation. Perhaps they also lost the sense of wrongness he felt, although he thought it more likely they became the sort of people who spent a lot of time hanging around with philosophers, arguing about how one would know if life was reality, or simulation, or a butterfly’s dream.

 


The glint on the desert floor resolved as he descended into a robotic rover, a silvery bath-tub trundling along on eight wire wheels. Steve laughed aloud, wondering who in the world had revived the concept of retro-charm. Landing near it, ahead and to one side of its path, he called out a greeting.

It gave no response, not even swivelling its cameras in his direction as it hummed past him. Steve tried electronic contact; it wasn’t likely someone would choose to leave off audio sensors, but it was possible.

After a moment, Steve took to the air again, his shining handsome features twisted into the expression of one who has mistaken an onion for an apple. The RF contact had left the equivalent of a lingering bad taste. The rover was not a whimsical experiment with retro aesthetics, but an unimaginative use of an existing template. One of the world’s artificial intelligences had produced a minion for its own inscrutable pursuits.

Like most people, Steve had a dislike for the AIs because they had been such a disappointment. Now that people could think just as fast, they were no threat, and they were occasionally useful in their ability to concentrate on a problem; twice in Steve’s lifetime, an AI had pointed out an inconveniently large object bearing down on the planet and raised a timely alarm. They were, however, no good as companions and none had any interest in becoming better at it. No one on Earth had been in an organic body for centuries, but there was still some residue from the habits of hormones that informed the way people thought. It could be saved in a machine, but it could not be taught to one.

Steve circled above the rover, watching its slow progress across the sand. He had not considered the failure of AI to cure the global plague of ennui in a long time, and there was something in his current contemplation of the matter that lodged in his attention. He spun in the air, the line below him slowly extending, feeling around in his thoughts for an idea that might take root. Sunset flashed from the rover below as the idea budded and put forth flowers which promised to be fruitful.

Steve whooped, performed a tumbling spiral, and bent his course toward the nearest production centre. He was, he realized, going to need a lot of equipment.

 


The preparations had taken a long time, nearly two hundred years, but Steve had been willing to put in the work to get it right. A mistake might not make itself felt for millennia, after all, and she didn’t want to have to start a second time after that much effort. Everything was in place, awaiting only her signal to activate the first group of robotic predators. The island had been cleared of its indigenous carnivores, which would not have been enough of a challenge and might have competed for food.

The population had dropped alarmingly, down to barely seven thousand human intellects. More emigrants, more duels, and a lot of simply pulling the plug on the backups and committing some kind of flamboyant suicide. The ones who had chosen to jump into virtuality and brick over the door from their side were still around, but might as well be dead for all the good they were. Steve felt some pride at having rescued a couple of people simply by suggesting what she was working on, with its possibility of an interesting future. When she announced it openly, it might give the human race something to live for.

Her drones followed her, a train of rounded boxes passing through the air over the ocean. Her current body, one which she meant to hold onto for a long while, had been inspired by Hindu mythology. This had not been an act of pure whimsy, as she thought having plenty of arms would be helpful in the work to come.

The drones grounded, sides swinging up almost the moment they were down. The troupes of lemurs scampered out. They ran towards the small stand of trees nearby, some of the few Steve had suffered to remain on the island, and they ran more on hind legs than otherwise. Some of the preparations had been genetic, and these lemurs would be happier as terrestrial creatures than their arboreal grandparents. They were also capable of more complex vocalizations, and some gibbered amusingly as they ran below Steve.

She smiled. One day, she thought, that will shape up nicely. By then, she would have finished her studies in comparative theology properly. By the time her creations were capable of understanding such things, Steve wanted to be sure that her commandments to them would be sensible.


Dirck de Lint writes in Regina, Saskatchewan.

NECESSITY by Jo Walton

Necessity, the third and concluding volume of Jo Walton’s Thessaly trilogy, is not a book that can be read on its own. You really do want to read the first two volumes, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings, first. As I pointed out in my review of those two books in 2011, this series is philosophical science fiction in the most literal sense. It’s the story of Greek gods creating a real-world city based on Plato’s Republic as a thought experiment, designed to explore concepts of consent, volition and equal significance. Told from the perspective of one of the gods, Apollo, who incarnates himself as Pytheas to live in the Just City, as well as several other humans brought to or raised there, it’s a story that combines a high-concept discussion of ethics — the purpose of the Just City is philosophy, and the characters talk about it endlessly — with strongly drawn characters.

Third books in a trilogy, or later books in a series, don’t get the same amount of critical attention as first books, even though many books in the genre appear as part of a series. Reviewing later books is often a questionable proposition for critics: The audience is limited to those who’ve read the previous books; if you have to read other books before turning to this one, this review isn’t of much use to you, especially if any discussion of book three unavoidably spoils books one and two. Much easier for the reviewer to select another title.

That said, there can be value in examining how a single volume fits into the larger narrative of the series, particularly in a field where those larger narratives are increasingly the rule. One can evaluate whether the series is concluded successfully — does the author stick the landing? Done well, a good ending can be transcendent, making the series more than the sum of its parts. And in more didactic works, the final volume can be the summation of an argument built over the course of the trilogy.

Necessity continues and extends the philosophical arguments begun in The Just City, if only a little bit. “Plato says that it is necessary for art to make an argument that it is beneficial to the soul as well as enticing to it,” says Crocus the Worker, who is (finally!) a viewpoint character this time around. The motif of equal significance and volition — the concepts Apollo began exploring at the outset of the series — recurs in each volume in the Thessaly trilogy; each book has its own particular focus. The Just City was about volition (i.e., consent), and explored questions of compulsion and slavery. The Philosopher Kings was about posterity — having your work endure and have meaning. Necessity explores the remaining part of Apollo’s concept: equal significance. If intelligent machines like Crocus have volition, do they also have souls? People are sorted into Golds, Silvers, Bronzes and Irons, with Golds as philosophers. Are Golds the only ones capable of philosophy? Do Irons and Silvers have the same significance as Golds?

The Philosopher Kings ended in an actual deus ex machina, when Zeus transported the whole enterprise from the pre-explosion island of Thera, thousands of years in the past, to a distant planet centuries in the future. Necessity picks up the story forty years later. The cities are connected by electric railways, sustain themselves by fishing the cold oceans of their new planet, which they’ve named Plato, and are in contact with two alien civilizations, notably the Saeli, some of whom have joined them on Plato (the planet) and studied Plato (the philosopher).

As the book opens, a number of things have suddenly happened. A human spaceship has appeared in orbit, and the inhabitants of Plato must prepare themselves for reestablishing contact with humanity. Pytheas, Apollo’s human incarnation, finally dies of old age; as he resumes his godhood, Apollo realizes that Athene has vanished from reality, going beyond time to explore the origins and fate of the universe. The search for Athene involves recovering the pieces of an explanation she left behind, a task undertaken by Pytheas/Apollo, the god Hermes, and Marsilia, a descendant of Simmea. They rely on Necessity (basically, a rule against temporal paradoxes and causality violations) to keep them safe as they go after her.

It’s something of a red herring, as is the arrival of the space humans; Necessity is not really driven by plot concerns. It does close out the trilogy by explaining mysteries that the first two books left explained (for example, Sokrates is back — we find out what happened to him after Athene turned him into a gadfly after The Just City) and it does tie up loose ends. Not that every mystery required explaining — one gets the sense of a complex equation being balanced at last. But mostly it’s another iteration of what Jo Walton does best: closely observed relationships between deftly drawn and sympathetic characters, who explore the philosophical questions both directly and indirectly, through both word and deed.

“I’ve been working on equal significance and volition for a long time now,” says Apollo at one point. “I think I understand something about them.” After three books, he could just as easily be speaking for the author — and now for the reader, too.


Jonathan Crowe blogs about maps at The Map Room and edits an Aurora Award-nominated fanzine called Ecdysis. He lives in Shawville, Quebec.

THE GASLIGHT DOGS by Karin Lowachee

Easing a reader into a fictional world can be like coaxing a timid swimmer into an outdoor pool. Sometimes the water’s chilly. The key to successfully introducing a vast new world is verisimilitude. A writer must capture the truth of a place using characters and details that are plainly untrue.

In The Gaslight Dogs, award-winning author Karin Lowachee makes excellent use of details and character to craft a fictional world that serves as an uncomfortable echo of the conflicts and complexities between European colonists and native American peoples. The setting and details are pure fantasy fiction, lacking only a handy post-title page map of the lands. But Lowachee’s world is trying to tap into a much deeper truth.

The novel opens with Sjennonirk, a spiritual guide of the Aniw, who live on the snow and tundra beyond the tree line. Significantly, the Aniw refer to the tree line as the “Hackles of the Dog” and consider it a boundary they should not cross. As her people’s spirit guide or “ankago,” Sjenn communes with an inner spirit she refers to as a “dog.” It’s a tangible entity that she can summon into reality, though this leaves her in a comatose state.

Only a brief chapter is spent in Sjenn’s homeland, yet Lowachee’s choice of detail, combined with a harrowing closing scene, create a vivid image of her home and people, in particular the precariousness of their situation. She watches from a distance as men from the South unload long wooden crates filled with guns. A priest stands by apologetically. It all doesn’t bode well for the Aniw, as it didn’t for the other members of the Pagani Nation.

The southern men are soldiers of the Ciracusan army. The Ciracusa are settlers, a pre-industrial people “exiled” from a distant nation called the Sairland some 200 years before the novel’s opening. They’ve been battling a lengthy naval war against their overseas fatherland while also warring against four of the six tribes of the Pangani Nation in which they have “settled.”

A violent act of self-defence lands Sjenn in one of the Ciracusan ships travelling south to what seems an inevitable prison sentence. Unexpectedly, her dog emerges on the ship. Its actions compound the violence greatly, while also attracting the attention of General Fawle.

The general seems more familiar with the spirit summoning process than one would expect from a “Boot Person.” He brings his son, Captain Jarrett, to the prison where Sjenn is being held and, gradually, reveals that he expects his son to learn how to summon his own dog, with Sjenn as a reluctant, and essentially captive, teacher.

The balance of the novel is rooted in Jarrett’s perspective and much of it is spent on his very grudging training sessions with Sjenn with assistance from a Whishishian guide named Keeley who has an unexplained connection to his father the general. Presumably, the general sees a military advantage to harnessing a dog of his own but his motivations are inscrutable and, as far as Jarrett is concerned, unquestionable.

Jarrett doesn’t trust Sjenn or any other “abo.” He can’t even comfortably sleep under the same roof as one. Yet he’s equally hostile to his father, who he reflects could never parent, only “domineer.” Their relationship, Lowachee makes clear, is a sad reflection of their bellicose surroundings. “If the world gave war, so could it give such a father.”

This dark but fascinating world inevitably touches on some volatile subjects. Lowachee briefly references residential schools, though even the war-hardened Ciracusans soon disbanded theirs. More generally, she’s exploring the complex, often calamitous, mingling of colonist and native cultures.

The unexpected consequences of this mingling is reflected partly in the “dog” spirits that exist in the Aniw and the other Pagani peoples. The stereotype of animal spirits would suggest they hearken to a higher wisdom but that doesn’t hold true here. The “dogs” are more demonic, expressing an atavistic rage that even the gentle Sjenn is powerless to deny. They seem a volatile fit for Jarrett who, when not safely garrisoned with his soldiers, seems to be a perpetual mess of rage and alcohol.

Being forced to live with Sjenn and Keeley compounds his frustrations. Jarrett is repelled by the thought of submitting to an abo’s mystical training yet, as a captain of the Ciracusan army, he can’t refuse the orders of a general. Sjenn is as unsettled by Jarrett’s dog as he is and doesn’t really know how to train him anyway. Too much of the novel is spent locked in this frustrating dynamic. When the story finally moves forward, its climax appears suddenly and unfolds toward a grim ending for one of its characters while leaving the other at loose ends.

According to Lowachee’s website, the novel is the first in a series exploring this world, yet there haven’t been any since its publication six years ago. If taken as the first in a series, The Gaslight Dogs is an intriguing opening to a world that begs to be further explored. As a stand-alone novel, it’s frustrating and ultimately feels incomplete.

 


Wes Smiderle is a science fiction writer, former reporter, and editor based in Ottawa.

The Crack of the .bat

“We’re going to have to cut your starts for May.”

Emma looked pained. Something must be going on, because this sort of data-backed decision was, if not her favorite thing, something that usually bothered her not at all. Glancing around, the office looked worse than she did. That was not exactly unusual, but there are orders and degrees and we had passed acceptable a few piles back.

“Is that what you think?”

The creases on her forehead deepened, a strange look for someone that young. Probably younger than me. Not sure when she found time for the CalTech degree. “It’s what the profiler’s data supports. We have to start winning ballgames. You know how it is with the River Cats right now.”

I knew that the River Cats had received yet another helping hand from their parent organization in the majors. I knew that meant big money was involved. And that money means a statistically significant increase in computing power, put to work on reducing our already dwindling chances at defeating our division rivals to a number indistinguishable from zero.

“Well, you and Bert are wrong.”

That tasted like failure. They’re loser words. As if saying “No” to the numbers like that can make them less true. Like those pathetic guys in the old days with “intangibles,” magic hand-wavy crap that no computer could possibly take into account so please let us sad sacks keep our jobs. Somehow it makes all the difference, promise. But this time I’m right. The human element triumphant — the one guy who can buck the system. Pathetic.

“We’re … I’m not wrong, Carson. Your numbers are down, the profiler says so, and priorities are shifting based on the new strategic environment. You understand. This isn’t a coin toss. Like I said, the numbers are pretty clear.” She rubbed the corner of one eyebrows, a nervous tic that made for a lopsided look.

I wasn’t going to be able to keep the starts. I was getting bumped and nothing I said would matter, because how many calculations per second could I do, really? Give up with dignity. Keep your head high.

“Just let me in to talk to Bert. He likes me.”

And just like that, goodbye shreds of dignity.

Here Emma’s expression hardened a little. She was not one for anthropomorphizing. The profiler was “The Profiler” and “it” was the preferred pronoun. I could see a war on her face, anger fighting exhaustion. The exhaustion won out. She waved her hands around a little.

“Sure. Go on in. Take your time with him … it … whatever. What is it with pitchers? Eddie does what he does, and now you.”

Eddie had thought his preseason projections were questionable, and had put his foot through a wall in early April. The necessary fixes had become a point of contention.

“Telling me his guy knows better than me how talk numbers.” Here was the real scowl. Deep, deep anger. “Don’t mention any outsider, degree-less wonder ‘consultants’ to me. Ever.”

“Not a problem, skip.”

She handed me a keycard, and I closed the door to her office behind me.


Now technically I shouldn’t have been alone in there. And you might suppose they would have gone back to stricter enforcement after the whole foot-meets-particle-board incident, but no. The skip had other things on her mind. Like maybe getting a better patch job done in there. The hole looked like a modern art referendum on the nature of holes. A duct tape and mixed media masterpiece. Went nicely with the faint smell of mold.

Anyway, there I was, alone. Well, almost alone. A quick thumb scan and I was talking with the closest thing to a person in the room. The only expensive thing in the building, the manager’s best friend, and our profiler: Bert.

Hi, Bert.

Not sure where Bert came from. Nobody ever called it anything else during my time.

hello carson.

Bert never “sounded” quite right in your head, you know? Like a wound-up five-year old: Most of the punctuation was missing.

Why’d you do it, Bert?

i do not understand

Had to keep things simple with Bert. He wasn’t the best with conversation.

Why were my starts cut?

decision was indicated by available data do you require elaboration

“Available data” could mean a lot of things. “Elaboration” meant a terrifying number of calculations and proofs. Not something easy for a mere human like me to parse.

No, Bert. But haven’t I always been good to you? Always put up good numbers? Could you give me the executive summary?

“Good ability” and “impressive defensive metrics” on the display panel started me out strong, but “failure to perform at expected levels” sunk me in the end. I’ll admit, I was a little mad at this point, but I tried to push on. Bert was just a profiler. It wasn’t personal. I was just on the bubble.

But thinking over the season so far, hadn’t there been a lot of guys on the bubble? Bad performances in games that had felt like winners, but turned sour? Some of it had to be probability — a bad bounce here and there was something you had to live with. But decisions, important decisions that created the place where things could go wrong, were coming from Bert. But everybody always blamed the computer when they could, didn’t they? The decisions were good, or as good as they could be made, they just weren’t working out for the players.

Maybe. But right then something felt wrong. Hadn’t Eddie thrown his preseason tantrum because he thought his numbers were off? We had all told him to calm down, that he could pull those right back up to where they’d been last season. And we meant it too: There didn’t seem to be anything to worry about. But there it was again. Little changes throwing people for a loop.

What can you tell me about Eddie?

did you mean eduardo fast eddie vasquez eddie aaldenberg ed patel

The lineup that year was a real piece of work in more ways that one.

Eddie Aaldenberg. The Steenwijk Sensation. You know, Bert, the place kicker that put a whole in your wall.

Again Bert spit out a few things, and Mr. Aaldenberg, while not being in any danger of being cut had a “Performance Improvement Action Plan” advisory attached. Or at least, it had been there. It had been amended, now that his numbers had gone up. And his play time was back to where it had been. Even a bit better.

It seemed likely nobody had even seen that report; any changes in Eddie’s day to day routines would have been implemented automatically. Frankly I’m not sure why we have human trainers at all anymore. Doesn’t take much of a voice chip to say “Walk it off.”

But Eddie had turned out okay. No conspiracy there. What about the rest of the team?

Bert, show me all the coin tosses for the season so far.

This Bert understood right away. He showed me all the times the probability of any given thing was about fifty-fifty. Should we make a pitching change? Should Patel throw his cutter? Is it the right time to move things around in the outfield? It was about even in these situations, the data said.

How many of those did we lose?

A lot. Including six in a row in a stretch of thirty games. What are the chances of that? Have to be less than 10% right? Not impossible, but definitely out of the ordinary.

Baseball the business has tried to drive out the instinct, the gut feeling. There’s just too much money, too much reach, too many executives. And who saw the whole India thing coming, anyway? But it’s a good thing, mostly. Guys that would have been overlooked, they get to play. Merit means something for leadership, too. That’s how Emma got her job. She never played in the majors. Damn good manager, though. For all that broadcast money, she didn’t seem to get a lot of it for us on the field. And not much money means that the luxury of stopping to think carefully was rare. So it was all data all the time and why not?

Why did you decide as you did for each coin flip?

That was a dead end. Just screen of data and proofs that I couldn’t refute, or even talk about. And a summary didn’t do me any good: Because the math said so, that’s why.

The results of all those lost tosses were bad. Guys got hurt, numerically speaking, me included.

Which ten players have had the greatest decrease in overall performance in the season to date, controlling for injury?

A list of ten scrolled by. I wasn’t number one. But the pitching staff was there in force.

Again. Pitching only.

Everybody had a decline. Some worse than others, me worse than most. Everybody except Eddie. That was weird. You’d figure if everybody was hurting, he wouldn’t escape the law of averages. But he hadn’t really, had he? He’d had a decline, then pulled out of it. Pulled out it of it right before everything really went south. Right before the rest of the guys started catching bad breaks. A lot of bad breaks. More bad breaks than was probable.

This felt like an accusation. And what was I accusing Eddie of, exactly? I liked the guy, but he was dumb as a rock. It took him three days to get angry enough to put his foot through the wall. Probably went whining to that consultant of his, too.

And then it hit me. And I swear to you it felt like a 101mph comebacker. And just like getting a pitch to the head, it left me just a little dizzy: Eddie hadn’t gotten better, everybody else had gotten worse. Or, maybe he had a little lift and everyone else got held under water. He manipulated the profiler’s data somehow. Probably with the help of his “numbers guy” cousin. There was a serious betrayal here.

Oh, Bert, how could you?

with a lot of practice.

Oh boy, programmer humour. Deeply funny as always. But it still left me with the question of just how somebody that dumb could break into and then manipulate a (relatively) sophisticated system. Even if he had the help, it was impossible to access Bert. There weren’t any connections to an outside network. And the only access points were here and head office with no exposed cabling in between. The money men had spent a fortune so all our secrets would stay good and buried.

Well, if the only access point Eddie could get at was inside the room, then it logically followed that any interference must come from inside the room. And Eddie could get alone time in here, even if he wasn’t technically supposed to. But what could he do? I mean, wave hello to the camera Eddie. Not even the guys in charge were so cheap that they would leave out surveillance.

Not only that, but those recordings had even been looked at, if you can believe it. It was part of the disciplinary hearing, because Eddie had tried to claim the hole had already been there when he came in. Not so unbelievable really, given the state of the building, but still. Sometimes I worried if he knew what planet he was on. Anyway, the point was that anything underhanded should have been caught. Nothing. Though a story did get out that he had managed to get his shoe lost in the wall, and spent about five minutes feeling around for it, arm in there up to his shoulder.

Isn’t there some saying about eliminating the impossible to arrive at a conclusion? It’s impossible to alter the data from the outside. It’s impossible that the terminal itself could be altered without it being picked up on the camera footage. So what did that leave?

And that’s how I spent more than a few minutes risking a throwing arm on a hunch. If that wall had been repaired completely a little faster, I never would have been able to do it. But as it was, everything was still mostly open. I was about to feel really smart, or have a lot of explaining to do. What had Emma said? Don’t do what Eddie did. Right. Good. I will get on that right after I finish this.

So I felt around in there, and at first I found just about what you would expect. A lot of dust. Some loose screws and toggle bolts. I could feel the cabling, too, with a cable staple every once and a while to keep everything in once place. Except the part I could reach had too many staples, too close together. Not to mention one of the staples felt entirely different from the others. Warm. Not a common quality in staples.

Now here’s where I did another dumb thing: I got my fingers around the weird as-yet-unidentified too-warm thing, and yanked.

The worst headache of my life filled my skull with lightning and hornets. I just about lost all of my stomach contents, too, but lucky me I was already lying down. Just before I passed out, I remembered why some people still prefer a voice interface over a neural connection: Unexpected timeouts are a hell of a thing.


I woke up in a hospital bed. The sun was down, and the last thing I remembered it had been early afternoon. Emma was sitting in a chair in the corner. As exhausted as she had looked before, it was now on another level. No family around, but I didn’t really expect them anyway.

“Welcome back to the world, dolt. Just an excellent job risking brain death.” The relief in her face wasn’t entirely hidden, but she was making a good show of it.

“How long have I been out?”

“Two days. You died once on the way here, and once more after we arrived. The doctor said you were going to be a drooling imbecile.”

“Yeah, but who could tell the difference?” I laughed a little, and it hurt something awful.

“Some specialist was here for a conference or something. She saved your life, and what little sanity you have, though we probably killed more than one of the bosses’ actuaries.”

“You can’t spend it after you’re dead.”

“Yes, but they can spend it after you’re dead.”

I tried grinning, but but that hurt too. “Did he do it?”

Here Emma sighed. “Sure Eddie did it. With the help of that guy of his.” Never in my life had I heard the word guy said with such venom. “The thing you found, which you so wisely investigated with bare hands and a live connection, was a bug. It even looked like a bug, all needle legs and bright green. It interfered with the cable itself, and was altering just about everything in and out.”

“The kick-a-hole-in-the-wall plan really worked?”

“After a fashion. The bug was nothing but a little drone and some fancy wiring. Eddie was supposed to make a hole in the wall, then it would climb out of his shoe and go to work. The police tell me his little accomplice figured that one out. Old building, thin walls, cheap owners — no point in digging to the foundation in a building owned by our guys to bury a cable most people won’t even see, right? The only place the thing is above ground. I don’t think actually losing his footwear inside of the wall was part of the plan, but it worked out. A real clown show for the cameras, everybody laughing themselves sick instead of really looking at the footage. It was supposed to make him seem better and everyone else seem worse. And it worked for a while. But he was greedy and stupid, so he got caught.”

I coughed softly but pointedly. Emma stood up, faced me, and held one arm rigidly at her side with the other raised to her forehead in mock salute.

“Of course the organization thanks you specifically for running brain first into an electric fence, ipso facto lorum ipsum please accept our thanks and no monetary reward of any kind.”

Then she started to walk out, but turned at the door.

“See you at practice.”

 

TOO FAR GONE by Chadwick Ginther

There are trilogies where each volume stands relatively independent, or can be enjoyed on its own merits without deep knowledge of its siblings. Chadwick Ginther’s Thunder Road series is not one of these. Not only do the later volumes draw much of their emotional resonance from the events of the preceding ones, but reading them in the wrong order will also spoil major plot details from the books that have come before. So, if you’re not already acquainted with the adventures of Ted Callan, I’m not going to convince you to start here.

Too Far Gone begins, as it rightly should, with a road trip. Only this time, Ted isn’t behind the wheel, and he’s headed in the opposite direction from when we met him back in Thunder Road, going back to his old stomping grounds to stand up at his friend Ryan’s wedding. It’s not an overstatement to say that Ted isn’t the same man who left Alberta just nine months earlier. But, thanks to Loki (who’s enjoying taking on a female form these days), he’s not the weapon that he’s grown accustomed to being either.

The tension between who Ted has become and where he’s come from is fertile ground — we never got much of a sense before of what his life was before it all went sideways — but it bumps up against two of the more annoying tropes of superhero stories. As part of his disguise to slip back into Edmonton without attracting the fire giant Surtur’s attention, Ted must hide his powers. Thus he spends most of the book resisting the urge to use his dvergar-given gifts lest he reveal himself to the enemy. It can be a nice change of pace to have the hero face more mundane challenges rather than constantly leaping from battle to battle, but one doesn’t read this trilogy for the drama of getting to the rehearsal dinner on time.

The other problem is that knowledge of the existence of magic opens you up to all manner of threats from the inhabitants of the Nine Worlds. So Ted also spends most of the book, having left the allies he’s made in the preceding months behind in Winnepeg, trying to keep the secret from his friends and family. The problem of how to let others in on the true nature of reality, or one’s hidden identity, is a staple of this kind of story, but it’s rare that a hero who’s already found his Scooby Gang goes backward and once again has to go it alone (with the possible exception of one highly unreliable trickster god by his side). And as, inevitably, those around him figure things out on their own, or world-threatening events become impossible to ignore, it begins to feel like Ted protests too much.

I might quibble with the balance of the magic and the mundane in this final volume, but Too Far Gone still delivers the elements that makes this series enjoyable to read. Ted is a flawed hero who relies on an unlikely group of friends, allies, and frenemies to save the world, and almost every (surviving) memorable character from the first two books makes an appearance here. The underpinnings of magic are so solid, it feels like you could manipulate the elements yourself if only the author weren’t so stingy with the details. And the final showdown is Epic with a capital E.

Bottom line? I recommend Thunder Road without qualification, Tombstone Blues for those who enjoyed their first foray into the Nine Worlds, and Too Far Gone for anyone who, after reading the first two books, needs to find out whether Ted manages to slay his demons, both literal and figurative, without losing his humanity.

Rare Specimen

It wasn’t how the man clawed at empty air, or how he barrel-rolled once, taking in a final 360-degree view of earth and sky. The memory Johanna held onto was of the man’s face, painted black as a new moon.

“Where’d he fall from?” the officer asked. He stepped perilously close to her samples.

“There,” she said, pointing to a cliff that reared above the canyon. “He was so helpless.”

The officer–his skin too smooth for the grey in his sideburns, shrugged off the horror Johanna described. He scribbled in his little black book. “And did you hear anything?”

“No.”

“Nothing?”

“No, he didn’t cry out. Or maybe he did. All I remember was the sound of the river.”

The officer flipped a page. “What about when he hit the water?”

“No, nothing. Should I move my campsite?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary.” The officer’s heel touched one of her plastic trays. He looked down and saw the scute, a plate of armour from a giant sturgeon’s back, like some exotic seashell shaped like a stealth fighter and measuring eighteen inches across. An impenetrable expression scurried across his features. “What are you studying out here, anyway?” he asked.

“The River Leviathan. You know Long John Silver, the sixty-foot monster in the curiosity shop down in Morristown?” The officer nodded. “It’s no hoax.”

Most non-specialists laughed when she told them about her research. The officer’s eyes brightened with a light she wouldn’t call mirth. “So you’re a fish scientist?” he asked.

“Freshwater biologist. My work’s gotten some notice in the Chondrostean community. I’ve made some promising finds. These scutes, and other clues. I’m still hoping to catch a glimpse of a living specimen.”

The officer didn’t say anything, but neither did he return his attention to his notebook. Eventually she had to look away from that shining, almost fervent gaze. “Is something wrong, officer?”

“Maybe I do have a few more questions, after all,” the officer said. “Do you think you could locate the point from which the deceased fell?”

“I’m not sure.”

The officer placed his hand on her elbow and began to direct her to his SUV. “Maybe you could try.”

“Are you taking me in for questioning?”

He smiled but did not look at her. “Nothing of the sort. You’ll be riding up front with me.”

She climbed into the passenger seat. The interior was pungent with the officer’s distinctive scent, as if someone had spilled a bottle of nicotine essence and store shelf cologne on the floor. She nudged a coffee cup with her foot. On the mobile police computer, a bikini-clad woman smiled back from the wallpaper, standing thigh-deep in blue water and holding aloft a fishing trident.

The officer settled into his seat. “I’m not supposed to take this off,” he said, placing his gun on the laptop’s keyboard, “but I find it digs when I’m driving.”

“Where are we going?” Johanna asked.

“A scientist, huh?” he said. “Maybe if I’d had the brains and ambition I would’ve done something like that. Or maybe not. I wouldn’t have wanted to go off to college. Not many people move away from these parts. You know how it is.”

They followed the gravel road out of the canyon and back to blacktop. Johanna watched the officer’s hand on the stick as he shifted. His fingernails were caked with black grime. She looked out of the window as they rumbled over an old trestle bridge.

“Do you think he jumped or was pushed?”

“Pardon me?” she asked.

“You’re the only witness,” he said. “What do you think?”

“Pushed,” she said. They had crossed the canyon and now turned onto a pitted dirt track. “This road leads to where he fell?”

“You got it.”

“Are we meeting your colleagues there?”

He smiled as spruce boughs lashed the doors and roof. “No, my partner’s sick today.”

He seemed to know where he was going. Johanna chewed her lip, wishing she had never called the police.

They parked close to the canyon’s edge. Here a ten-foot gap in the conifers and ferns offered a vertiginous view. A lookout found on none of the tourist maps. He retrieved his gun and said, “Jump out.”

In the gap sat a wide boulder, flat as an altar. On its top rested a stone bowl.

“I was out here earlier,” the officer said. He dipped two fingers into the bowl. They came up glistening with a grainy, black muck. “What do you suppose this is?”

“It’s sapropel,” she said. “Decomposed organic matter from the bottom of Bear Lake.”

She whacked his head with a stone streaming mossy filaments.

“Jesus!” he cried as he collapsed onto the boulder. Johanna struck a second time to shush him. She unfastened his sidearm and tossed it over the cliff. She took a handful of sapropel and washed his face like a child playing in the snow. He was dazed, so he didn’t put up much fight when she maneuvered him to the edge. He came round, though, on the way down.

His eyes flared. Twin white craters on the face of a new moon.

The river swallowed him. Twenty seconds later, one of Long John’s children broke the surface.

The armoured ridge that ran the length of its colossal back was unlike anything she had ever seen. A barbed battlement on the crown of a drowning fortress. Even its massive dorsal fin broke the surface, sheeting water like the rig of a doomed sailboard.

A beautiful monster. Hers for a moment, and then gone.

She wiped away a tear, but still she held her breath.

Finally, the telltale buzz. She checked her phone. This time the trail cameras set up around her campsite had worked. She got her shot.

She started to walk back along the track, already composing her next research paper. The methods section would take some finessing.