Direct Message by Tom Pike

A single tweet on Twitter can have massive impacts in the real world. This amusing little story begins with a poll on Twitter asking which region should be destroyed by a heat ray, with Appalachia “winning” by a large margin.

The story is told by a man who has been engaging with this specific Twitter account for a while. He discovers that it is not just a joke account, but actual aliens who really have a death ray capable of killing everything in that region with 25 million people. But maybe he can talk them into a different deal.

As might have been guessed, this is a somewhat quirky story written in a humorous light style, while still keeping it serious enough not to be completely silly. We only see the aliens through correspondence through Twitter – still, I found them to be rather convincing even though the whole scenario is a bit far-fetched.


Read in Analog January/February 2023
Rating: 3

Descartes’s Stepchildren by Robert Scherrer

This was a very Analog-esque story. Scientists discover something incredible but the consequences are more messy and complicated. Here we delve into a test for human consciousness.

John and his research partner have developed a special MRI scan that can detect where the consciousness lies in the brain. The twist is that their tests show that about 20% of human test subjects are not really conscious. This discovery hits Johns partner hard, because according to the test his wife’s brain shows no activity in the consciousness-center. She is a what is named a Blank in the story. John wants to publish their results anyway and the world changes drastically when their findings become public knowledge.

A test becomes widely available and many people start to test themselves, their kids, future employees and so on. The Blanks quickly become second-rate citizens unable to get a job or stay in a relationship. Many kids ends up as orphanages because their parents don’t want them. John gets rich for his patents on the tests, but he has increasingly moral qualms about the whole thing.

This story has a lot to unpack. There are plenty of philosophical and existential questions to ponder with the concept of human consciousness. I like the general premise of this story, but the consequences to the greater society are only dealt with in broad headlines since the primary focus is on John. Also, I found that their test was a little too easily accepted as scientific fact. Of course these simplifications are needed for the story to work, but I wasn’t totally convinced of what happened. My reading experience might have been hampered a bit by reading “The Algorithms for Love” the same day. It has a completely different approach to dealing with humans free will, but managed to create a more personal depth to it, whereas this story had a broader and distanced perspective.


Read in Analog January/February 2013
Rating: 3

The Algorithms for Love by Ken Liu

Ken Liu is a gifted writer that has a talent for combining hard science fiction concepts with human emotions in beautiful written stories. This story from 2004 is among his best.

The story follows Elena who is a genius with robotics and language algorithms. She has created a very lifelike robotic doll that is both able to speak almost fluently and has very advanced motoring skill. The doll quickly becomes immensely popular and the company she works for has trouble keeping up with demand. She partners up with Brad, the CEO of the company, and she gets pregnant. Sadly, they lose the child during pregnancy and Elena is unable to get pregnant again. This emotionally devastates Elena and she buries herself in working on a new robotic doll, this time one that resembles a newborn. That too becomes a product sold by the company, with mostly other grieving mothers as customers.

As the story progresses, Elena becomes more and more obsessed with her creations. Working so intense with especially the speaking algorithms, she starts to view the real world in the same algorithmic terms. She knows how her own algorithms work and that everything they produce are mathematically predictable, which she increasingly believe is also true for human behaviour. Basically her worldview breaks down as she questions whether human are even conscious or any different from the artificial intelligence she has created. That everything we do is inherently deterministic. There are some direct references to the Chinese Room argument on the matter.

Liu manages to weave all these philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness into a very beautiful written short story, that has the technology used described in a plausible way while still keeping focus on the human emotions and making them engaging and believable for the reader.


Read in Twenty-First Century Science Fiction
Originally published on strangehorizons.com
Rating: 5

Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky

This was a real positive surprise. At first I was a bit weary with yet another AI robot human relationship story. 2021 and 2022 has had too many stories with that sort of theme. This story reconfirms my opinion that the best AI robot stories are at least 10 years behind us, even though it is immensely popular now.

We follow Adriana and her relationship with the android Lucien she has bought for companionship. During their together Lucien develops his own personality and they also end up having a child. The plot is minimal, the important stuff is in the development of these three characters and their feelings for each other – especially as Lucien develops more free will. Hence the title of the story with the different types of love.

What I think works exceptionally well here is how it is told with various jumps back and forward in time. We know the outcome, or at least hints of it, but not why or how yet. Even in a relatively short story, the author manages to show us the developments of three personalities at once. The point of view is mostly for Adriana, but the childs and Luciens character development is equally important.


Read in Twenty-First Century Science Fiction
Read online at Tor.com
Rating: 4

The Last Man by Eric Leif Davin

This is a pretty short story set in a post-apocalyptic world where a virus has killed almost everyone. A woman is strolling through an abandoned supermarket for supplies when she spots a man. Seeing other people alive is a rare event, so her first response is to flee.

However the man overpowers her, captures her and they go back to where she and another woman lives. The man tries to convince them that they shoudl get pregnant with him, so they can repopulate the Earth – and this will be a spoiler for the ending but I honestly don’t think readers will be missing much, but the women manages to kill him. Apparently they have killed several men before in a similar fashion.

It seems like the story at least to a degree tries to mimmick “Houston, Houston, do you read” by James Tiptree, Jr. with a premise of characterizing men as ultimately violent and misogynistic. Where the classic Tiptree story had fully fleshed out characters and handled the topic with plenty of ambiguity and nuances, this story simply turns the caricature of an incel man up to 11 only to kill him off instantly. All rather pointless and without any depth at all to the topic the story wants to deal with.


Read in Galaxy’s Edge January 2023
Rating: 1

The Impossibles by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Rusch is usually a reliable author of good entertaining stories and this court-drama is no exception. It is part of her Retrieval Artist stories, but I only realized that afterwards and the story is perfectly fine on its own.

The story follows a lawyer trying to do her best in an interspecies court system where humans have to accept being prosecuted by alien law. This has created a very stressful system for the lawyers, where the best case scenario usually is just a reduced sentence, even though the crime is something small like stepping on a flower or simply touching a specific alien.

As what is often a main ingredient in these types court room dramas, a special case comes along that needs some creative thinking and the use of loopholes in some old laws. That aspect of the story is fine, but the highlight for me was the whole background setting, where we get small drops of details about how this whole ordeal is one big diplomatic trade between Earth and various aliens in order to get access to the galactic trade network. Rich people can of course buy their way out of trouble, but regular people just have to accept being judged cruelly by alien laws they have little way of avoiding. In addition, the main character is a likeable type that really tries to good within the system. All in all a fairly straight forward story that mostly goes where you expect it to, but it was an enjoyable and entertaining read.


Read in Analog December 2011
Rating: 3+

Ray of Light by Brad R. Torgersen

Aliens have turned down the light from the sun causing a global iceage and humans have fled into underground habitats where there is still some heat from the Earths core. A few decades later, some teenagers want to see the sun and the sky – even though they have only heard about in stories from their parents. They set out to make it happen by taking some submarines further than anyone has ever done.

This plot unfolds between the present where a father is searching for his daughter and uncovering what she and her friends are up to, and some flashback scenes from when the girl was younger in which she and we as readers gets some more background on the events that led to this.

This story is quite similar to “A Pail of Air”. Similar premise and same theme about humans finding almost poetic hope in a terrible situation. In places Torgersens tend to be a bit on the sentimental side, but I was still somewhat moved by the story and how it portrays the need for hope and optimism in desperate situations.


Read in Analog December 2011
Rating: 3+

What We Call Science, They Call Treason by Dominica Phetteplace

This story is set in a near future Silicon Valley where a tech billionaire gets his friend to test a prototype of a bracelet that is able to detect the current mood of the wearer. It glows different colors depending on whether the person is intrigued, skeptical, afraid, excited and so on.

At least that is where it begins, because the story quickly takes some wild turns where we end up in a parallel world with an highly advanced Roman empire. Apparently, the tech billionaire has stolen some of his tech through a portal to this world.

There are quite a few interesting concepts introduced here and a couple of noteworthy jabs at the tech billionaires of the present, but it is simply too many things crammed into too few pages. The story starts in a normal pace, then quickly goes into overdrive and then it is all over with a couple of timelapse paragraphs. These kind of ideas could really have benefited from at least a novella to come properly together.


Read in Asimov’s January/February 2023
Rating: 2

Off the Map by Dane Kuttler

This debut story had a setup that reminded me of “Welcome Home” by Jendayi Brooks-Flemister in Asimov’s January/February 2022. In a dystopian future Ava is struggling raising her three children alone and she is under constant surveillance by the government. Even minor missteps might get her to lose custody of her kids. One day she gets an offer to relocate to a company owned small community town in Florida and she see no other option to accept.

At her new home she meets with other families like herself and the staff that treats her and her kids well. Their basic needs are taken care of, the kids can go to a good school and everyone is helping one another in this small community. It is almost paradise. Ava barely has time to question the whole thing, but we as readers are just waiting for the catch or the twist. It has an overtone of everything being too good to be true.

Unsurprisingly there is a twist at the end that turns things around, but I found it to be a very rushed and a bit unlikely ending. Still, this is a debut story and I genuinely think the author has successfully written an engaging story with properly developed characters, but the actual plot could use some work.


Read in Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2023
Rating: 2+

Up and Out by Norman Spinrad

This long novella was a tough one to get through. It is basically one long love letter homage to Elon Musk. Even without the recent Twitter debacle I don’t think Musk is someone who deserves much praise. He might have grand ideas about humans colonizing space in the near future, that can seem admirable especially for science fiction fans. But with his complete lack of basic human decency, I wouldn’t wish for a future led by people like him. At times I was unsure whether this whole thing is meant as satire, but I actually don’t think so.

The story takes place at least 100 years in the future and a slow colonization of the solar system is in progress. The story is told like a journal and autobiography by a business man who has named himself Elon Tesla in honor of Musk – who allegedly showed humans the way to colonize space. Now Elon Tesla takes the credit for terraforming Mars, building space habitats around Jupiter and the creation of hibernation technology allowing humans to travel great distances in time and space without reducing their biological lifespan. The background frame around Teslas lifestory is the discovery of an alien spacecraft on course for Earth that will reach us in a thousand years. And he wants to meet them.

The whole Elon Musk fanism is bad enough but even if I tried to read it with that name erased, the story is really just very boring. Things are told with broad strokes about all the big developments without any details. A story written as an autobiography really needs an interesting character to be worth it, but Elon Tesla has basically no personality at all. It is unclear what he even does. He is not a brilliant engineer inventing stuff making it all possible. He doesn’t even has the big ideas. Seemingly all he does is provide funding for other peoples ideas and then takes the credit. In that sense, I guess he resembles Elon Musk.


Read in Asimov’s January/February 2023
Rating: 1

Upstart by Lu Ban

Clarkesworld continues to bring great translated stories. This story is translated from Chinese by Blake Stone-Banks and is another story that deals with death and especially what makes a life worth living.

In some unspecified dystopian future a state handles the overpopulation by offering a program that gives people a good deal of money if they accept certain death at a younger age. The story follows a man called K Li who takes such a deal and the story is split between his meeting with an advisor that administers the practicalities when he accepts the deal as a teenager and later in his life when his time is almost up. The deal is enforced with a drug that will slowly and painfully kill when the specified time of death is reached, which can be avoided if they seek out voluntary euthanasia at the states clinic.

Most of the story takes places when K Li is around 40 years old and the drug will soon kill him. He lives in an apartment building with other “upstarts” – the term used for those who have taken this deal. It is clear that even though he got several millions he could use until his death some 20 years later, he hasn’t had a good life. He spends most of his time being passed out drunk in his apartment, not unlike many of the other “upstarts” in his apartment complex. The deal might give people money, but lots of rights are also taken away and the rest of the population seems to resent the “upstarts”.

One day a young woman shows up at his door and convinces him that there might be an antidote for the drug that will soon kill him, and she leads him to what appears to be some sort of resistance group. The story evolves into an exciting thrillerplot with quite a surprising ending.

What I think makes this story work so well and why I would consider it worthy in a “best of the year”-anthology is how it tackles this “deal with Devil”-type scenario with a proper amount of emotional depth without going overboard into melancholy. There is also a pretty exciting thriller plot and both parts are given enough space in the story, so one is not merely a piece to make the other element work. We don’t get a lot of background information on this society or why it handles overpopulation in such a way, but it is not needed to make the story engaging and thought provoking in how to put value on a human life.


Read in Clarkesworld December 2022
Rating: 4

Murder by Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness by S.L. Huang

This story is a unique mix of non-fiction and fiction dealing with a very realistic near future technology of chatbots run by AI – especially with the recent ChatGPT.

The story takes the form of a mix between an article referring to past events and a regular short story told from the point of view a reporter. It starts with events leading to a suicide of a businessman who was under investigation for knowingly selling faulty pacemakers. Apparently he got a ton of private messages through various digital channels in the months leading to his suicide. The messages were very demeaning and could have pushed him over the edge to commit suicide. The reporter investigates the origins of these messages in this and similar cases, and through her investigation discovers an automated chatbot named Sylvie. But the bot doesn’t just try to push bad people to commit suicide, it also uses the same machine learned algorithms to help people in need. All this is mixed with various fact infodumps about machine learning technology and some philosophical arguments about the ethical and legal issues of such an autonomous chatbot.

The story is very successful is introducing some interesting dilemmas we might very soon face with current technology. I am just not sure it entirely works as a fiction short story since it is mostly an opinion essay on the subject, but I can also see how using a fictionalized case study to explore the issues makes the morale questions easier to relate to. A story worth reading but a mixed experience.


Read in Clarkesworld December 2022
Rating: 3

Sacrificial Drones by John Shirley

There is a lot going on in this near future thriller. Drones, high tech weapons, rejuvenation technology and more all mixed into a fast moving story about an old multibillionaire, a young scientist and murderous villains.

The short story has a tragic prologue about a boy witnessing the assassination of his parents. The story jumps to the year 2049 and early in the story it becomes apparent that the boy is Jacob Maweela – now a rich philanthropist in his 80s who has recently had rejuvenation treatment making him around the age of 30 again. The story is told from the point of view of a young researcher, Kaela, who is approached by Jacob to further develop her nanodrone technology to provider better healthcare in poor countries. However, Jacob is also under constant threat of assassination from the same people who killed his parents. Kaela and Jacob develops sort of a close non-romantic relationship while the plot unfolds.

There are plenty of things to like in this story, but also quite a few issues that make me wish that it was given an extra round of editorial rework to reach its potential. The story lacks focus in my opinion. Too many elements and plotpoints are introduced that it is hard to keep track of what is actually important. The rejuvenation? The technology that can help poor people? The assassination plot? The relationship between Jacob and Kaela? All fascinating topics on their own, but the story is not long enough to give enough depth or meaning to much of it. The main focus seems to be Jacobs internal struggle with how he can protect his family and employees from the death threats, but since the story is told from Kaelas viewpoint, we only get a distanced look at Jacobs thoughts and actions.

The author does manage to create a very authentic and believable future, which makes the story recommendable, but I feel it is also a missed opportunity for a tighter and more focused plot.


Read in Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2022
Rating: 3

Jazz Age by Mark Tiedemann

This long novella is set in a future where humans have been in contact with an alien race called the Trishti for about 50 years. These aliens tell of a huge galaxy with plenty of other peaceful aliens. But humans must develop their own stardrive first to join this galactic community, while the Trishti are helping in small ways.

The author paints a peaceful and prosperous future in this scenario, where humans have adapted a lot of Trishti culture like naming their children inspired by Trishti names. Most people seem to like the aliens, but a few are also skeptical because humans have now become so dependent on them.

The plot gets going when the leader of the Omicron–project, the project that is working on the stardrive, declares they have succeeded. The Trishti then announce that their work here is done and starts to leave. However – the project is nowhere near finished and it was all a lie that somehow should have deceived the Trishti into revealing more of their secrets. This sets several things in motion with a political and diplomatic scandal as people try to convince the Trishti to stay. But the aliens may also have their own secrets that turns things around.

This story has plenty of good elements for an interesting thriller with mysterious aliens, political intrigue and deceitful plot treads. It is slow going though and the story is too long. It presents some interesting glimpes of how society has changed with 50 years of influence from the aliens, but it isn’t used for that much in the story. Also, most of the plot development is driven by people keeping various secrets and only reveal them when the story needs it. It is not my favorite way of storytelling, but the plot twists are interesting in their own right. Throughout the story there are a few mentions of the Trishtis music, which I assume explains the title of the story, but it was never really clear to me why that element should be so important – other than being something intriguing about them.


Read in Analog November/December 2022
Rating: 3

Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper

This is one of the all time classic stories of science fiction in my opinion. It also has all the elements that got me reading science fiction in the first place – ancient alien civilizations and scientists doing proper deductive reasoning.

Humans have discovered ancient ruins on Mars of a now extinct advanced civilization. They find buildings, machinery and books, but no remains of the martians. The story focuses on Martha Dane who desperately tries to decipher the martian texts, but without any sort of primer or Rosetta stone she makes little progress. Her coworkers are not making it any easier by demanding that she drops her research because they deem it impossible.

This is one of those classic science fiction stories that isn’t just “good for its time” or “important for the genre”, but a genuinely great story to read today. In my opinion, scientists and their research process are too often portrayed in an either dumbed down or overly dramatized manner. This is one of the great exceptions that makes the whole process believable and engaging. That the main protagonist is a woman isn’t something you think much about today, but I would assume for its time it was a bit out of the ordinary. Just another plus point for this story. Haven’t been many great female characters in the anthology The World Turned Upside Down so far.


Read in The World Turned Upside Down
Originally published in Astounding, February 1957
ISFDB Link
Read the story at gutenberg.org
Rating: 5

What Would You Pay For A Second Chance? by Chris Kulp

This debut story published in Galaxy’s Edge is a decent space opera type story about a human mind uploaded into a machine.

The story follow Susan who is working in an environment with lots of radiation and she has been diagnosed with a cancer she cannot afford the cure for. She does has the option of continue to “live” with her mind uploaded to a military robot. To continue her existence she must do well in the war. All her actions are rewarded or penalized with a point system and she will be terminated if her point score goes too low – or buy upgrades with enough points earned. On her very first mission she will need to think outside the box to survive.

I like how the story is straight to the point and just throws the reader and the protagonist right into a tough situation. The downside is that we barely get any character development, so even though it is easy to sympathize with Susans situation, it doesn’t have much weight and I didn’t really cared much what happened to her. It is easy to see the story as an allegory for the healthcare system in the US with its unequal access to proper treatment, and I am fine with stories with a message, but this story only manages to scratch the surface of the rather big science fiction theme on mind upload and getting a second life in an artificial body. Still, it is a decent debut story.


Read in Galaxy’s Edge November 2022
Rating: 2

Turning Point by Poul Anderson

This story from 1963 lives up to its title and is an interesting read in the context of also showing a turning point in how science fiction writers wrote about humans and aliens.

A human space exploration team discovers an Earth-like planet with human-like intelligent species. Their level of technology is around the stone age, but they quickly establish communication and the natives to the planet turns out to be very quick learners. Like extremely quick. Over the span of just a couple of days they go from being presented with the invention of the wheel to using it for quite advanced bandwagons. The humans, while impressed, gets somewhat scared. They see these people as a potential rival that might overtake humans in very few years and dominate the galaxy. Drastic measures, such as total genocide, are discussed but dropped again.

What I personally found interesting about this 60 year old story, is that it is built around a human mindset towards aliens that we don’t see much anymore in fiction. I grew up with stuff like Star Trek that generally has a positive and optimistic view of alien species – where the default assumption is that advanced species will be peaceful. Of course this story is not the first to challenge the view of the old pulps where humans are entitled to dominate the galaxy, this anthology also has The Aliens by Murray Leinster from 1959, but it is a good example of the shift in how aliens, and more to the point – how humans viewed other species, was portrayed in science fiction at the time.

I found the ending to be bit rushed but liked the overall more positive tone, so definitely worth a read.


Read in The World Turned Upside Down
Original published in Worlds of If, May 1963
ISFDB Link
Read the story at drabblecast.org
Rating: 4

Seen by Lisa C. Herbert

The premise of this story is an advanced technology that allows scientists on Earth to see distant planets through a microscopic black hole. The details are somewhat handwavy, but we follow Kary who have been studying a fishlike alien species on a faraway exoplanet through this device. The use of the device is under tight regulation to ensure that the observed aliens are not influenced in any way. In a session Kary ignores an alert about a fault in the device and a small glimpse of light gets through to the planet. That turns out to be a big deal, because the working theory of her research group was that the fish aliens are blind since they live in complete darkness under water – but one of the observed aliens clearly reacted and saw the flash of light.

Analog November/December 2022

I think it is a story that starts better than it ends. The story convincingly depicts Karys moral and scientific struggle between having her whole theory blown away and that she also broke the rules. I found the ending to go a bit overboard, but I always appreciate when scientists and how they work are portrayed in a reasonable realistic manner.


Read in Analog November/December 2022
Rating: 3+

Hummingbird, Resting on Honeysuckles by Yang Wanqing

Clarkesworld have published a lot of translated Chinese stories in recent years. Many of them have dealt with death in different ways and this does too. Translated by Jay Zhang.

About 50 years in the future a technology exists that allows people to have their whole life recorded by a small flying drone resembling a hummingbird. The story is told by a mother who has lost her daughter to cancer at a young age. She ponders whether she should use the recordings of her daughters life to make a simulated recreation of her.

This a story that isn’t focused on plot and the structure is not straightforward with various diary like entries from the past, the mother that her addresses her deceased daughter in second person about her life, and the process of creating the simulation. None of the science fiction ideas presented here are exactly new, but they don’t need to be, because it is presented in such a way that I found emotionally engaging in a way I rarely get with these kind of “recreating the dead” type of stories. Even though the subject is tragic, it is not a sad story per se and it doesn’t become sentimental. There is a lot of celebration of the life lived by this woman and how her mother have conflicted thoughts about recording technology. In addition, even though it is a very character focused story – we also get a sense of an interesting complex future through various worldbuilding hints.

It is great to see how Clarkesworld continues to bring translated works of science fiction to a wider readership and this is one of the highly recommended ones.


Read in Clarkesworld November 2022
Rating: 4

Lonely Hill by James Maxey

This short story follows an older farmer named Buck living in North Carolina. He recently lost his wife and is generally not happy with life at the moment. Then a storm hits his farm and the rainfall reveals something underneath a small hill on his farm. His farm is on otherwise flat land, but since the small circular shaped hill have always been there, he hadn’t given it much thought. Underneath the now washed away dirt he finds what appears to be a crashed flying saucer. The saucer appears to be still “alive”, but weakened. With help from his UFO-enthusiastic cousin they manage to reactivate the saucer, following its “instructions” – since it appears to be able to communicate with them in some telepathic function to their subconscious.

I got a very Clifford D. Simak like feeling reading this story. The characters are likeable farmers portrayed with a lot of respect, like Simak was also famous for doing. The story manages to balance and combine something lighthearted and a bit funny, while also dealing with serious issues such as loss and loneliness in an appropriate manner.


Read in Asimov’s November/December 2022
Rating: 3+