SF AGE: Volume 1, Issue 5 (July 1993)

Volume 1, Issue 5 is a very special issue for me for two reasons each of which I will explain below so bear with me.

First, it is special because it is the first issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE that I ever saw and that I ever owned. I came across the magazine by accident, on a weekend during the summer of 1993 (the summer between my junior and senior years at the University of California, Riverside). To kill time, we would head out to the Moreno Valley Mall and while there, I could never resist going into the B. Dalton bookstore, even though I never had much spare cash to spend on books (I was, after all, a college student). On this occasion, however, I recall seeing the magazine toward the bottom of the magazine rack. I was attracted by Piers Anthony’s name on the cover and as soon as I had discovered that he had a short story in side, I willingly forked over the $2.95 for a copy of the magazine.

Which leads me to the second reason why this issue was special. It marked a turning point for me in science fiction and in fandom. Up until this point, my exposure to science fiction was limited. I liked science fiction, don’t get me wrong, but I hadn’t read more than a few authors. When I was much younger, I’d read Madeleine L’Engle‘s 1962 classic A Wrinkle In Time. I’d read bits and pieces of Isaac Asimov’s novel The Caves of Steel. I read a few other odds and ends here and there. But I’d read almost no short science fiction. And most of the science fiction I’d read up to that point was Piers Anthony (thus, what attracted me to the issue in the first place).

After reading this issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE I discovered just how good short science fiction was. I immediately subscribed to the magazine. Slowly, but surely, I also began to expand my own reading within the genre. When I could, I bought short story collections from the authors that I was most familiar with. One of the first such collections that I bought was Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories. I started to learn the history of the genre and within a year of picking up that first copy of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, I’d read Dangerous Visions which gave me a much wider exposure to the biggest names in science fiction and lead me in 46 different directions. I read books such as Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo and Herovit’s World. I read Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. I continued to read Piers Anthony’s books as they came out.

At this point, I had been writing my own stories and submitting them for a little less than a year. After this “expansion” of reading on my part, I noticed a change in my own stories. They were still being rejected, but there was an increased level of maturity in the writing. I attribute this directly to the stuff that I was reading. I was learning how to write from the masters.

There was one other thing that happened. I entered fandom for the first time. Kind of. Because of that issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, I wrote a letter to Piers Anthony, telling him how much I liked his story and what I big fan I was. I can’t remember how long my letter was. Within a week or two, I received back a 2 page singled-spaced letter, which was clearly personal and which encouraged me to continue to pursue my reading and writing of science fiction. Since then I have never looked back.

I was a late-bloomer when it came to really diving into science fiction. I shiver to think what might have happened if I never saw that green-bordered issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE on the magazine rack in B. Dalton. But that is an alternate history that I no longer have to worry about. Thanks to this issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, I joined a special cadre of people the world over united by a common bond: the love of science fiction.

“The Toxic Donut” by Terry Bisson

Terry Bisson’s “The Toxic Donut” shows once again that Scott Edelman was not afraid to take stories that other editors might balk at for breaking the more traditional rules of storytelling. The short-short is the story of a kind of global game show where the selected contestant must eat the toxic donut, which represents all of the world’s pollution over the previous year, both symbolically as well as literally. The catch is that the contestant is you, the reader. The story is written in the second person, where the game show host’s assistant is leading us through a rehearsal of what the show will actually be like. While short, the style of the story, coupled with the voice of our host make it an amusing tale with a dark and serious environmental subtext.

“Tezcatlipoca Blues” by Ernest Hogan

This was the first and only Ernest Hogan story that I have ever read and at first I didn’t think I was going to like it but in the end I did. In fact, when I first got my copy of this magazine, 14 years ago, I think I tried to read this story and didn’t like it at all, but that was when my exposure to science fiction was limited and I had some kind of mental bias against cyberpunk tales (which I have long since gotten rid of). This is the story of a man, Beto, who attempts to bring the ancient gods to live by simulating them within his computer network. The god he summons/simulates almost immediately overpowers Beto and takes possession of him, as a stepping-stone for taking over the world.

As a software developer by profession, I love the idea of models and simulations, of virtual realities, of artificial intelligences. AI in science fiction is typically either benign or destructive. But it is almost always the simulation of some kind of intelligence unique to the computer on which it is being simulated. In other words, it is the computers personality that is being simulated. (There are exceptions. Connie Willis’ Remake simulated personalities of dead actors to be reused in modern-day movies, for instance.) But the idea of simulating a god intrigued me. And even after reading through the whole story, we are left to wonder what really happened. Did an ancient and powerful god take possession of the computer network. Or was the computer merely simulating an all-powerful intelligence? Is the difference between the two even meaningful?

The language in the story was important as well. Slang mixtures of Spanish and English and Japanese into hybrid words in a post-modern Los Angeles gave the story it’s gritty feel and helped to establish the setting as some place both familiar and alien to us.

“Afterwar” by Rick Shelley

It is sadly ironic to me that the two outstanding stories of the issue were written by authors who are no longer with us. The first of these, and in my opinion, the best story in the issue was Rick Shelley’s “Afterwar”. Rick Shelley was known for his military science fiction, and I vaguely recall reading one or two other stories by him in other magazines. But none of them stood out the way that this one did.

One of the many great things about science fiction is how similar ideas can be used and reused in many different ways. John Campbell used to say that he could give the same story idea to three different authors and get back three completely different stories. While breakthrough ideas are rare, the beauty of these “themes” in science fiction stories is that in addition to seeing the subtle differences in execution and results, you can in some way trace the influences of an author through the ideas and themes.

Within the first few paragraphs of “Afterwar”, for instance, I was immediately reminded of Joe Haldeman’s classic The Forever War. “Afterwar” did not make use of things like time dilation to add mechanical complications to the plot. But the themes are very similar: war, why we fight, and the effect of that fighting on those that fight. Instead of the Taurans, we are fighting the Gelinosa. We come to learn that we were attempting to being the Gelinosa into the Galactic Federation, but that ever messenger sent was killed. And then the Gelinosa mysteriously surrender and we are left to wonder why.

In The Forever War, we learn that the entire war was over a misunderstanding, which is both the most surprising and least surprising thing we can imagine. In “Afterwar” there is a complete lack of understanding. The Gelinosa won’t communicate with the peacekeepers. They will not speak around them period. Even though some of the language has been translated, all attempts at direct communication fail. And then, in a stunning move, the likes of which recall what happened at Masada, the Gelinosan planetwide commit suicide, leaving the peacekeepers in complete dispair. Why would an intelligent race do such a thing?

There are no answers to this and there should be no answers to this and that is part of what makes the story so special. In science fiction, sometimes aliens are not as alien as we think and the limitations of our imagination make them more like us than is likely. But Rick Shelley manages to pull of rare magic by developing a race of aliens who take an action that we cannot explain, simply because they are too different from us to understand. It is that lack of understanding that pervades the story. The peacekeepers don’t understand why the Gelinosa would do such a thing and this plagues their lives to the point where some commit suicide. Back home, the people will not understand why the peacekeepers forced a genocide. War is never simple, never black and white.

Much like The Forever War the story felt real. The writing style did not assume an audience ignorant of military behavior or language or tactics which helped to make the story feels as though we were there among the troops watching things unfold. There was no one there to explain to us what was going on, we were as lost as the rest of them.

To me, this was the best story in the issue and it is one of the better stories that I have thus far come across in the first year of SCIENCE FICTION AGE. If you can manage to get your hands on it, it is definitely worth a reading.

“The Fifteenth Station of the Cross” by Charles Sheffield

Charles Sheffield is another author no longer around, but his story in this issue shows just how good he was. I would pick this one as my second favorite in the issue because it had so much of what I like in a science fiction story: empires and politics, time travel and sciences, and good characters who shape each other and change each other in such a way that the actions they take make sense in the context of their interrelationships.

“The Fifteenth Station of the Cross” is the story of Puladi who is the supreme ruler of all Earth and who is dying. He looks to his advisors to prevent his death and ultimately through the use of a time machine, bring from the past a boy whose blood can be transfused with Puladi’s in order to buy him more time.

The scope of this Emperor and his Empire (though he did not refer to them as such) brought to mind the Emperor Cleon from Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION series and that immediately put the story in my favor. The political intrigue added to this. How often to we get to eavesdrop on a supreme ruler of a world to see him in his weakest, most frail moments, as well as his stronger moments? But the real power of the story comes from the fact that the most powerful man on earth does not have the power to prevent his own death. And this fact somehow changes him, somehow softens him.

This was the kind of story where you don’t even notice the writing, it is so clear that you are instead immersed within the story, the images and dialog flowing directly into your brain (in much the same way Isaac Asimov’s stories read). It meant that while this was one of the longer stories in the issue, it made for a quick read on the train last night because I simply couldn’t put it down.

“A Picture of Jesus” by Piers Anthony

I read this story once before, when I first picked up this magazine 14 years ago. There were elements of the story that I remembered and elements that I had forgotten. While it wasn’t my favorite story in the issue, it is always a pleasure to read a short story from someone who writes so few short stories these days.

“A Picture of Jesus” is about a man in an asylum, who was put there because he gained the ability to see the larger world beneath the world. There are pictures hidden in the patterns of the ceiling, and sidewalks and clouds and everywhere else where an older world exists. And among these are dragons. If the dragons realize that they can be seen, the will kill.

This story is ultimately about the acquisition of dangerous knowledge. Is there something that you are curious about, which, if you learned the truth, you would immediately regret that you knew? In a more mundane sense, if you suspect a spouse whom you love very much is cheating on you, do you really want to know for sure? That dangerous knowledge, once acquired, can not be undone. It is a fascinating idea and it is executed very well. Ethan, so eager to believe and learn the truth behind Ulysses “insanity” decides that the reward outweighs the risk. Of course, the moral of the story is that this is not always true. Curiosity killed the cat. The Inquisition threatened Galileo when he acquired his dangerous knowledge. And of course, once Ethan discovers the truth, there is no turning back.

Dangerous knowledge is a theme in science fiction that is more subtle than some of the better known themes. Back in the first issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, Arlan Andrews wrote on this theme with his story, “A Dangerous Knowledge”. Isaac Asimov wrote on this theme in his story “Belief”. And Piers Anthony did it with “A Picture of Jesus”.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

Paul Di Filippo had a an essay in this issue on the 50 most powerful people in science fiction. The list was broken down into writers, publishers, editors, critics, agents, artists, and filmmakers. It was interested to look at the list as it was 14 years ago and wonder what the list would look like now.

The Gallery essay in this issue, written by Jane Frank, was on Jim Burns who is probably one of my favorite SF artists. Some of his classics were captured in the pages and it was fun to read about some of his thought process behind creating these amazing images.

I mentioned how much fun I had reading the last issue, but this time I had even more fun. I’m glad that I find myself, at this moment, in the middle of the long President’s Day weekend because it means that I may be able to get through Volume 1, Issue 6 before the weekend is over. Volume 1, Issue 6 (featuring stories by the likes of Martha Soukup, Paul Di Filippo, and William Shunn) represents the last issue of the first full year of SCIENCE FICTION AGE. Look for my thoughts on that issue soon.