Confusingly, the stories on the discs of ‘The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction # 8’ aren’t in the same order as set out on the cover. First up is ‘Today I Am Paul’ by Martin L. Shoemaker. Imagine a super-android who can adjust his features, height and eye colour and become a perfect copy of you to visit your dear bed-bound mother, Mildred. He’s even got an empathy net. The real Paul is a bit of a brute but the android can also emulate his sister, Anne, who is nice. Mildred is a rich old thing and her family can afford this sort of care. She doesn’t know it’s an android. This is narrated in an apt flat tone by Tom Dheere and the story develops beautifully from the original concept. With care for an expanding elderly population such a big issue, it’s a shame our current technology is so far behind that used here. Not that I don’t want to visit my dear old mum in person, mind.
Nancy Linari narrates ‘My Last Bringback’ by John Barnes in which an expert on restoring the memories of Alzheimer’s patients becomes her own patient. It’s narrated in the first person by the Bringback, whose looking at the old lady of whom she is a copy. Her job is to reconstruct the memories the old lady has lost. This story brings up the ‘natural’ versus improved humanity debate. I confess that I found it confusing at first, a bit boring for a while and then absolutely gripping as her self-discovery got rolling. Another good story.
That old SF favourite theme of space travel features in ‘The Audience’ by Sean McMullen. In a starship two miles long, most of which is used for its magneto-plasma drive, a crew of five intrepid explorers make the first contact with an extra-solar world. The narrator is an author/journalist bought along to report back home in layman’s terms. There is much humour about making an appropriately high sounding ‘quote’ when you first set foot on a new moon or planet. Then things turn nasty when they encounter highly intelligent evil aliens of a very unusual nature. A tale of true heroism where the author’s particular skills turn out to be useful.
‘The Tumbledowns Of Cleopatra Abyss’ by David Brin is terrific, a great adventure set in a fascinating world. Our hero, Jonah, lives in one of several domed habitats on the sea bottom in Venus, whence some men had fled when the solar system was invaded by aliens called the Coss. The habitats are naturally occurring hollow volcanic globes. A regular feature of life is the Thump, caused by meteors raining down on the planet. This process was started by giant machines in better days as part of a terraforming plan. Generations have coped with the vibrations caused by the Thumps but they seem to be getting more irregular and heavier. Jonah gets married and takes a battered old submarine he has salvaged on a nuptial voyage to his wife’s home habitat. Then there’s the biggest Thump yet. With inventive detailed world building folded neatly into a ripping yarn, this is Science Fiction at its best. It comes from ‘Old Venus’, an anthology edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois which features tales set in the pulp version of Venus, before some awkward space mission in the 1960s discovered the ghastly truth that Venus was uninhabited and uninhabitable.
From the same anthology comes ‘Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan’ a novelette by Ian McDonald. I confess that the narrated version of this didn’t hold my attention so I dutifully went on-line and bought the aforesaid ‘Old Venus’ anthology on kindle so I could read it. I’m very glad I did it. It starts out as a sort of travelogue, an aristocratic Irish lady making papercuts of the flora of Venus for her publisher. We soon learn that she’s on a mission to find her lost brother. It’s episodic by its very nature but builds to a darker and more interesting story than the melodramatic ripping yarn it first seems to be. Perhaps because of the jungle setting and the flowery language, this brought to mind some of Robert Silverberg’s later works.
‘Damage’ by David D. Levine is narrated in the first person by a sentient ship that has been cobbled together from the remains of two others who calls herself a Frankenship. She is flown by Commander Zeigler, the hottest pilot in the solar system and he needs to be. The Free Belt’s war against Earth isn’t going well. We follow our heroine through a couple of major sorties and then she’s given a special mission. A few twists on the standard tropes in that Earth isn’t the villain and Commander Zeigler isn’t at all likeable, though his ship is programmed to adore him. Levine makes a couple of jokes about the thrill she feels when he enters her cockpit. An enjoyable listen.
No sentient ships in ‘Empty’ by Robert Reed but plenty of Artificial Intelligence. A gang of them are on a mission to the outer reaches of the solar system to found a sanctuary in a post-human universe. They decided against having a sentient ship as it might make its own decisions contrary to their wishes. The narrator is a cynical life-form made of pure data who disagrees with his commander. Too complicated to explain in a paragraph but well-wrought, interesting and entertaining in a bleak kind of way.
‘Two Year Man’ by Kelly Robson is about Mikkel, a low grade cleaner who works in a lab and is able to smuggle odd items past the guards, food left on the desks by Six Year Men or other important fellows. The years refer to the time a man has spent in the colonies and give them their status. The story begins with Mikkel smuggling a baby past the guards. It had been deemed inferior and thrown in the bin but was still breathing. It had a beak. This was sad. Kind-hearted Mikkel reminded me of Rocky Balboa, probably because I’d just watched the film, but was not as lucky in life or love.
‘A Murmuration’ by Alastair Reynolds is about a scientific study of starlings. The first person narrator is working with twenty tripods arranged in a semi-circle, cameras attached, all powered by a wind-turbine. She has powerful computers to analyse the movements of the starlings, necessary as the cameras can track individual birds so there are vast amounts of data. She even has animatronic starlings she can use to disrupt the Murmuration into new patterns. She has to write reports which are criticised and edited by a ‘referee’, standard practice and she herself referees the papers of another scientist. Even so, she resents her critic. This is quite common. The steady, low-key and necessary build-up of this complicated background leads into a very interesting story.
‘Three Cups Of Grief By Starlight’ by Aliette de Bodard is read by Nancy Linari. Green tea figures. The funeral of Quang Tu’s mother was attended by a hundred thousand people, testament to the importance of her research into food production. Quang Tu’s sister appeared hovering in kitchen but it was a projection from orbit, an avatar, for The Tiger In The Banyan is a mindship that lives centuries. She is very calm. Quang Tu isn’t when she discovers that her mother’s precious mem-implants will be going to Professor Tuyet Hoa, the man the authorities think best qualified to continue her research. I tried my best but I couldn’t get into this at all.
Listening to Science Fiction on an audio CD was a new experience for me and, in truth, I didn’t like it much. Partly, because I had to review the stories and it’s hard to get spellings and such on audio. The other problem is that if you miss something, it’s more difficult to go back. With a book you just flip back a page to check something. In good short stories and these are good, every word counts but if the dog barks, there’s someone at the door or life interrupts in some other way you miss bits. If you’re on a long car journey it’s probably perfect but not at home.
That said, the stories here are excellent and if you already know you like audio fiction then I recommend ‘The Year’s Top Ten Tales Of Science Fiction # 8’ and, if you’re like me and audio fiction doesn’t suit you, buy the book.
(pub: Infinivox/Audiotexttapes. 8 CDs 9.50 hours 10 stories. Price: $29.99 (US) inc p&p. £27.54 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-884612-73-2)
read by: Tom Dheere and Nancy Linari