Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


 

Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.

Perihelion Reviews

Pursuing the Fifth Force

TRY EXPLAINING THE AWESOME coolness of physics to a layman like me, and most high school teachers will produce more English majors than scientists. If only they had A.R. Taylor’s gift of making cold fusion and other odd physics concepts not only engaging and intriguing, but funny. I can’t go so far as to say I even begin to grasp physics after reading Taylor’s novel, but she reminds me how much I’d like to. If “Sex, Rain and Cold Fusion” qualified as hard science fiction, it'd be the first five-star review of that genre I ever posted.

In truth, I’m not sure this novel belongs in the science fiction genre at all, but then, it’s often not clear to me how other novels marketed as science fiction get away with the label. Libby McGugan’s “The Eidolon” has many physics ideas in common with A.R. Taylor’s novel, especially talk of the fifth force, but her story remained Earth-bound and morphed into a fantasy zone. Calling it a contemporary science fiction thriller was misleading. By the time I realized I’d been duped, the review was due and I didn’t have time to find and read another novel. The trouble is, most books these days seem to stretch the label so thin, I see why the Golden Age of Science Fiction is rumored to be dead. Space ships, aliens and colonies on Mars seem to be considered “overdone” while low-tech (or no-technology needed), mind bending physics apparently constitutes the New Age of Science Fiction.

The title, I confess, was the first thing that drew me to “Sex, Rain and Cold Fusion.” The second thing was an Amazon book reviewer saying Taylor “presents a plausible solution to the breakthrough of cold fusion that would utterly transform the world as we know it.” It did? That went right over my head. The story’s emphasis is more on human relations and less on the technical or graphic elements the title might imply. No matter! The prose is hilarious. Taylor’s ability to make me love a maddeningly flawed protagonist is what kept me reading to the end and wishing for more.

The trope of the unreliable narrator is employed to great comic success with keen, authentic insights into human nature. If science fiction’s first concern is humanity, this novel scores. From the first line, I was smitten. Chapter 1: Like many of David Oster's bad decisions, his escape from California to the state of Washington would be justified with an orgy of lies. The worse the decision, the more he liked to sugarcoat it to his critics, and in this instance, he prepared himself for a virtuoso performance.

A quick synopsis may be in order: David Oster is a brilliant physicist in search of a more lucrative job. He wants the financial backing of a professorship to pursue his scientific experiments but not the burden of trying to explain science to young blockheads. He flees his current post and three girlfriends for the Pacific Northwest, vowing to avoid undergraduates and any more romantic entanglements. Quantum entanglements would be welcome, if he ever gets funding to get down deep in the ocean to conduct his experiments and find the fifth dimension.

His new life in a small college town in Washington is clouded by perpetual rain, a demented boss, a commission to spy on his philandering neighbor, attempted murder, torrential rains inundating his rental home, demands that he teach a class after all (but they promised he wouldn't have to!), a Latvian neighbor who distrusts all Russians, especially the mysterious equestrian with long white hair and a great figure who sabotages David’s vow to celibately engage in scholarly pursuits, more rain punctuated by occasional moments of sunshine, a confusing love triangle—more like a quadratic of unknown dimensions—involving several beautiful women and their lovers, and occasional moments of gray sky minus the rain. With several crazy physicists imploding into his social and professional life, David needs to discover some entirely new physics principle, as yet unnamed, before Heinrich the dog and a herd of horses charge onto the university's expensive new basketball court and do real damage to David's reputation.

Spoiler alerts prevent me from revealing whether David ever discovers the fifth force. The story is so wickedly fun, I’m grateful to have physics mentioned at all in a book that I had hoped to review for serious, hard science fiction only readers. The supposedly science fiction thriller I mentioned earlier spoke of the four forces of nature and a suspected fifth force. If that counts as science fiction, so does this passage from Taylor: Besides the four known forces in nature—gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force (responsible for radioactive decay), and the strong nuclear force (that holds atomic nuclei together)—many physicists have wondered if a fifth force exists. Taylor also manages to make it fun: Down there, in that torrid, turbid world of extremes, how could he discern the workings of a fifth force so slight thatcold fusion it showed itself in traces, in small tugs at the universe? The other four forces are loud and noisy; they hit you in the head, or they blow you up. But the fifth force is like the potential energy of a hummingbird’s wings, only known in its sly beatings.

David’s sleuthing for his allegedly insane boss is more the slapstick variety of The Three Stooges than of a scientist, but Taylor convinces me this is entirely plausible. Every character is believable but eccentric and well-drawn. Taylor’s mastery of deep point of view, along with her unerring observation of human folly, kept me turning pages. I love David’s surprise and panic when a peer approaches him with questions he shouldn’t be in any position to ask. How did he know he (David) was even pursuing the fifth force? He had mentioned it only once in an earlier paper and in a very guarded way, calling it merely “an unknown force.” Likewise, I love David’s frequent bouts of disillusionment: ... he thought then and there of abandoning his research, despite the good words of his benefactor. Who really cared? Maybe people wouldn’t want to know that another force existed in the universe. Even though it would affect fundamental physics, it would have no practical application whatsoever. And that reminds me of another favorite (but ouch-inducing) line: No non-scientist, no matter how bright, actually wants to talk physics, nor can they.

So many, many lines in this book are worth sharing, but it would be better if everyone just read the book. To grasp the subtlety of the humor, it’s necessary to view the whole. But in defense of science being present in this fiction, I’ll add this: He’s developed a fascination with applied physics, or rather the conviction that physicists don’t apply physics anymore because they’ve descended down into the world of subatomic particles or up into the Big Bang. We’re too busy counting quarks, something like that. At the word “quark,” Valerie stiffened a bit but didn’t interrupt him.

A fellow book critic told me, “Science fiction writers generally don’t do character and deep emotion well, and romance writers don’t even understand what science fiction is—even when they write romantic science fiction. Writers who can do both are hard to find, but tend to do well because they hit the audience that actually gives a damn about this stuff.” I’ve said almost nothing about the romance in this novel but the full title is a sort of disclosure in and of itself: “Sex, Rain and Cold Fusion: The Physics of Modern Love.” The human component wins me over, scene after scene. David has a family history of emotional dysfunction, which never presents as info-dumps or flashbacks, but seamlessly factors into the chaos of his life. He panics when Viktor gets emotional: David would have to encourage him, be “supportive,” in that particular way that he loathed, and when Viktor dares to weep, David didn’t know what to say but felt more powerfully than ever a certain blank in his personality, as if there were a tablet in his brain upon which nothing had been written. His family had no words for sorrow, that was it. Beyond sadness, they burned with a fiery rage that blackened them from inside.

Never mind spoiler alerts. In the end, David and two unlikely partners do get down deep into the ocean, and something is, in fact, discovered. (No, not love; it’s something scientific and new.) I have to say this is one of the most gratifying endings in all of contemporary fiction. Call me a sequel-hater, but I would welcome a next-in-a-series about David's oceanographic physics discoveries. However, this jewel of a novel comes with true closure, whose departure (in deference to serials) Jack Williamson lamented at the turn of the century (Asimov’s Science Fiction, October/November, 1999).

Unlike other contemporary best-selling authors, Taylor has almost zero social-media presence. She is an award-wining playwright, essayist, and fiction writer. She’s earned many awards in many categories of writing. She has a short humor piece in “So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.” Her Amazon author page says “To learn more visit lonecamel.com,” which I did, only to come up empty handed. (There’s a book trailer, but it fails to capture the humor and brilliance of the novel.) In an age where authors promote themselves to excess and fill cyberspace with their personals, pet photos and minute by minute updates of their blog tours and book signings, I have to say it’s a pleasant surprise to find a writer of such talent who has the confidence to keep her private life private.

A.R. Taylor is one of the most incisive and witty writers of our time. She nails the human condition the way all good science fiction authors should. She captures all our flaws, brilliance, self-delusions, failed powers of observation and deduction, and our ultimate triumph over thwarted hopes. She gets the science right (as far as I know, anyway). Taylor masters every category of writing fiction, from character, dialogue, point of view, narrative pace, conflict, irony, and well-crafted prose, to earning the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. I look forward to more novels from her, even if she never fully launches the ship of hard science fiction into today’s murky waters. (“Sex, Rain, and Cold Fusion,” A.R. Taylor, Ridgecrest House) 5 stars —Carol Kean

 

Contagion Series is Catching

TWO MEN IN HAZMAT SUITS trod down a bare and ominously lit hallway. They come upon several corpses spattered in slimy black ooze, and a single survivor, whose throat violently bulges outward with something alien. A hazmat-clad scientist offers him water, and proclaims his very gross condition to be “progress.”

That sequence, which opens the premiere episode of “Helix,” could serve as a teaser for a thousand identical contagion thrillers. Except for one thing: as this severe and clearly villainous pair examine putrid flesh and dripping goo, they do so to the peppy sounds of Dionne Warwick’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” With that one ironic tweak, boilerplate gore and atmosphere become a far more entertaining watch.

The minds behind Syfy’s new viral thriller clearly realize the power that lies in a cleverly picked soundtrack. The story pushes forward, and a CDC team will journey to a remote arctic outpost to put a stop to whatever’s making people melt into black sludge. None of the core characters are unique, or particularly interesting: the very young and very career-oriented researcher; the facility head who speaks every line of dialogue (including “progress”) like a James Bond villain; the country-fried shelixouthern pathologist with a sarcastic sense of humor. The series also boasts more than one clichéd love triangle, for reasons unknown.

Yet in its early episodes, “Helix” manages to stay afloat and stay engaging, and it’s mostly due to the amount of thought given to the music. That country-fried pathologist dissecting an infected monkey isn’t particularly thrilling on it’s own. However, stage those shots of monkey entrails alongside a little soothing Latin jazz, and “dark” becomes “dark comedy”—something capable of holding an audience’s attention. And as that infected man from the opening sequence gains super-strength and begins stalking the outpost’s inhabitants, cornering his victims, prying their mouths open and vomiting something foul down their throats, he’s followed at all times by the soothing sounds of Dionne Warwick. Before too long, there’s a Pavlovian response occurring every time the song plays, used to tremendous (and frightening) effect.

The music is the main draw for the first few episodes, but eventually the mystery of “Helix” gets its hooks in, and by the third or fourth outing, the story manages to be exciting all on its own. The characters never venture anywhere truly unique, but the story does, metering out its surprises at just the right pace. Almost every episode bears at least one unexplainable little shocker. Maybe one character disappears into thin air, displays psychic powers or shows off a bit of non-human physiology. These little non sequiturs happen on a regular basis, yet it never feels like the writers are throwing in red herrings to keep up the suspense (a tendency that’s alarmingly common within televised science fiction. See also: “Lost,” “Alcatraz,” and “Revolution”). “Helix” doesn’t throw whatever it can at the screen to see what’ll stick. Rather, it’s like the series displays individual chunks of weirdness, but hides the webbing that holds it all together. Clearly, though, “Helix’s” intention is to cause enough confusion to make people curious. Whenever the Syfy logo pops up to encourage viewers to Tweet about the latest episode, the accompanying tag line is: “What the hell is going on?”

Thrilling as it is, this level of who and how and why-dunnit has an unfortunate drawback. Any deeper ideas or real-world equivalence found in “Helix” are as obscured as the motives behind the mystery. The series touches on corporations, the military, the government, medical science and experimenting in the unknown. With nothing to bind those ideas together, there’s nothing “Helix” can say that holds any meaning. At best, the show will occasionally demonstrate the faultiness of human nature, along the lines of, “in a zombie apocalypse/viral outbreak/end of the world scenario, it’s the regular humans who pose the biggest threat.” But it’s nothing new and nothing that’s stated particularly eloquently. Perhaps, when we finally find out who’s doing what and why, a vein of political thought will finally emerge. Until that point, “Helix” is all style and no substance. It’s a good thing that style is so entertaining.

To sum up “Helix” into a single moment is as simple as looking at the series’ opening titles. A chorus hums a happy bossa nova while black bile drips from the show’s logo. If that sounds like a treat, “Helix” is worth a look. If not, this might be one to skip. (“Helix,” SyFy, Friday 10/9c) 4 star—Adam Paul

 

Nailing the Wonder of it All

THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION is not dead. I have proof, and his name is Ryk Spoor. Or Ryk E. Spoor. No matter; his latest trilogy is a salute to space opera, rock-hard science, and honking good fiction with a sensawunda. Spoor’s sense of wonder shines in The Arena series, which begins with “Grand Central Arena” and continues with “Spheres of Influence.”

Did I call it a trilogy? Spoor blogs that he could write in the Arena for twenty years and not get bored, the possibilities are so endless. The only limit is the publisher committing to a title and date for Book Three.

The series is a salute to E.E. “Doc” Smith, says Spoor, and “the grand, eye-popping scale of the Lensman universe, the unabashed magnificent drama and overwrought prose that still, for me, somehow worked, absolutely nailed my sense of wonder, and became my ultimate goal. I wanted to capture that, the sense of endless optimism and courage and joy and determination and above all the awe and beauty, the wonder of it all, distill that into words and be able to hand it over to someone else the way Doc had handed it to me.”

Spoor captures the magnificence and nails the wonder, all right, without the “overwrought” prose. As a bonus, fans of classic science fiction can hunt for Easter Eggs scattered throughout the “Arenaverse.” The most obvious is the name DuQuesne, though E.E. Smith’s character is more villainous than Spoor’s formidably powerful and attractive Marc DuQuesne.

The story doesn’t begin in media res but momentum builds steadily. From the first page, readers enter an air race as hair-raising and epic as the pod-raspherescing scene in “Star Wars: Episode One.” The big conflict arises relatively late, but there’s plenty of action and world-building. As true space opera heroes do, Spoor’s characters get out there into the thickets of deep space and encounter aliens. Even minor players are vividly delineated with memorable personalities. They’re all intriguing, not clichés.

Ariane, the pilot, is forced into a leadership role much sooner than expected. DuQuesne must face his Hyperion past and the mysterious “K,” who may be a former lover, or the one enemy he fears, or... Dr. Simon Sandrisson, the inventor, sees a simple test flight turn into a total space opera. Orphan, the scheming alien, must live free or lose everything. Wise Nyanthus duels the Molothos and faces the Shadeweavers and their impossible powers.

There’s more than a “wow” factor at work here. Deep themes and age-old human questions abound. Ariane isn’t “just a daredevil in a totally anachronistic sport,” Simon observes; she’s “a puzzle.” Humans can get “upgrades” making them faster, stronger, and easier to heal, and Ariana has those, but she recoils from things that touch the brain, “the center of one’s self.” No resident AI sitting in her head, thank you, thinking thoughts for her. For the AIs, or AISages, she feels “concern and pity that their lives were so heavily defined and constrained.” Yes, their “lives.” Ariana believes the sentients aren’t so artificial, and that “they would come, through all those constraints, to resent their creators, making all the precautions the cause of the very thing they were meant to prevent.”

Now that’s science fiction at its best, filled with awesome futuristic technology which we hope will become part of our everyday lives even as it makes us worry about our humanity. As a mother of three who just saw her youngest acquired by a smart phone (didn’t “Star Trek” predict these?), I want Ariane to become a warning light to future generations. Darn it, I also want an AISage in my head. But not if the sentients are unhappy and driven to mutiny. Life is never simple, is it?

Ariane does have an AISage, named Mentor, but she lets him go off and do whatever artificial intelligentsia do for fun. He appreciates it. Many people show no concern for the thoughts or feelings of the created intellects of AISages, Mentor tells her, and many fear AIs, but Ariana does neither, giving him hope that “we can find a path beyond this,” proving that “both machine and biological intellects are worthy and equal.”

Of course something happens to cause Simon’s crew to lose their AISages, which renders them helpless at first and sets them back hundreds of years to the primitive computer technology of 21st century humans. Of course our heroine prevails because she was never dependent on artificial intelligence in the first place.

But this book is about so much more than AISages. Earth has become a near Utopia, “everyone able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as they don’t hurt anyone else,” and everyone can get the basic necessities of life, plus all those upgrades and enhancements. However, with all that freedom, someone is sure to abuse it. “There are some things too monstrous to allow, even in the name of freedom,” so governments still exist, and DuQuesne worries they’ll use AISages to monitor citizens’ thoughts.

But that, too, is not the focus of this story. Nor is Hyperion, an ultra-cool scientific experiment to create people with super powers. DuQuesne is the last of them, sadly, but Ariane begins to develop certain powers—until something inhibits them, and we really need Book Three or more to see how far she’ll go. These days, it’s no longer a given that sequels are pale imitations of the original. “Spheres of Influence,” the sequel to “Grand Central Arena,” brings more knowledge of the ways and the people of the Arena, the dark triumph of Hyperion, our solar system in 2375, and the sheer excitement of Captain Ariane Austin coming fully into her own as the Leader of Humanity.

“If the book sells well enough to let me tell the rest of their story,” Spoor blogs, “there are still so many questions to confront—so many answers to discover. Answers that I know, right up to the ultimate ending of the series.”

I found Spoor, “author, gamer, geek god,” through Twitter—don’t laugh! I’ve discovered at least a thousand new authors there, but few of them loom large the way Spoor does. Well written prose is harder to find than a fresh new angle on familiar ground. Still harder to find is a story that can be read for pure entertainment or pondered and re-read for all the thought-provoking ideas presented. Spoor delivers. (“Grand Central Arena” and “Spheres of Influence” Ryk E. Spoor, Baen) 5 stars —Carol Kean

 

Clever Prequel is Incomplete

WHEN I FIRST HEARD THAT there was a new entry in Jack McDevitt’s “The Academy Series” I was very excited and confused. I was a long-term fan of the series and would love to revisit the universe of intelligent civilizations that had already faded out before mankind came on the scene. But I was confused because the last book wrapped everything up nicely and there didn’t seem to be anything left to say. And then I learned the new book, “Starhawk,” was a prequel. If you had a beloved, well received, and award-winning series would you tamper with it by writing a prequel?

We start off by seeing our favorite heroine/interstellar pilot Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins as she is trying to qualify for her license. Along with simulated problems, Hutch and her superior, Jake Loomis, run into a couple of real problems. They find the remains of a long lost starship and a record of first contact with an intelligent life form. McDevitt decides not to explore this any further in the book or the rest of the series. It is a tad annoying but it is something that he has done in other books as well. While the idea of the other species is intriguing, the fact that we know it is out there in the Academy universe adds another layer of depth and richness to the world he created.

After finding the lost ship, the duo gets a distress call from a tourist ship that has been bombed and needs rescuing. An anti-terraforming terrorist (or freedom fighter from the attacker’s perspective) has set off the bomb to draw attention to a terraforming operation. In the process of terraforming a planet for human habitation, all of the native life forms are being killed off. Hutch and Jake load the tourists aboard their ship but they begin to run out of oxygen before help arrives. Without telling the others, the captain of the rescued ship walks into the airlock and releases the air, killing himself but sparing more oxygen for the others. Jake gives Hutch her license but decides after this death that he can’t be a pilot anymore, and retires.

Hutch comes back to take a pilot job with one of the companies involved with the terraforming. After one flight she decides that she is ethically and morally against what they are doing and quits. Hutch discovers that all other intestarhawkrstellar flight companies have blackballed her so she takes a desk job that has a backup pilot provision in case she is needed. McDevitt spends a little too much time here going over the boring aspects of desk duty and what Jake does in his retirement. I’m not sure if he was trying to build tension with everything that was going on in the background, or if he was trying to get the reader to relate to the yearning of not quite being able to do what you enjoy in life. Either way it dragged on for too long.

An Academy mission to go to a nomad planet goes wrong and the only way Jake will come out of retirement is if they send Hutch with him. When the two get there they find no survivors, but they do find an intelligent presence. Upon reporting their find, The Academy sends Jake back out to the nomad planet. Hutch picks up a gig taking a presidential nominee out to tour the monuments left by an intelligent species some 20,000 years earlier. All ships get called back to the space station after a threat comes in to destroy it. Jake finds that he has lost control of his ship and it is on a collision course with the station. Hutch is left with only one option, to ram his ship with her own.

Prequels tend to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. With few exceptions (such as “Temple Of Doom,”—yep, it’s a prequel), most prequels don’t live up to what they are supposed to be preceding or they do something that strains continuity. The main problem is expectations. It isn’t just the fans, either. Critics tend to review things based on what could have been versus what it actually is. “Starhawk” is a pretty good book, not great, but not terrible. As far as a book in the Academy series, it is near the bottom of the list.

Aside from a big chunk of boring narrative dealing with deskwork and early retirement, the rest of the book is a fascinating look at new life forms and heroism. McDevitt does not disappoint. He provides great writing and teases us with amazing ideas of which he only gives us a glimpse. We are greeted with a sharing civilization near the beginning of the book that is, unfortunately, never expanded upon, and a planetary intelligence latter in the book that never gets mentioned again in the rest of the series. This may seem like a continuity error, but McDevitt’s books are very character driven. In our day-to-day lives, though we may find something amazing or horrifying, we don’t continue to bring it up as we go on to new adventures.

Although “Starhawk” is a good book I still would recommend reading the original series first. If you have acquired a taste for Hutch and her adventures this book will appeal more to you. In other words, I think this was written for the fans. A little sample to keep us hungry for more. (“Starhawk,” Jack McDevitt, Ace) 3 stars —Adam Armstrong