Forty-Eight Minutes at the Trainview Café by M. Bennardo

I tend to prefer stories with a clear setup where the world is established and there is a mostly straightforward plot. This story is one of the exceptions because the plot is minimal and we don’t get much background information about anything. Yet it has stayed in my mind for a while and clearly made an impression.

A man is living inside computer simulations and no longer has a physical body. But he has grown bored by them. He tries a new rather expensive one that on the surface is very mundane. It is basically just a short train ride. But the level of detail is so much richer than the other simulations. Everything is individually modeled and not just a generic texture. Birds are fully simulated animals and not simply basic repeated patterns. It feels more real.

It is not a story with plot-twists or big revelations, but it has a lot of atmosphere with a sense of melancholy. There are countless stories of computer uploaded minds but this captures how such simulations will likely still miss something to feel completely real. We don’t get any background information on any of the characters, but we get a very clear sense of their motivations and internal struggles with living inside computer simulations. They all seem to be missing their real physical life and will happily settle for a simulated world that has more depth than breadth in its level of details. Whatever goes on in the real world is story is not mentioned but not important. The story works very well within it its own little microcosm.


Read in Asimov’s November/December 2022
Rating: 4

The Last Command by Keith Laumer

This story from 1962 takes places more than 70 years after a big war. A war fought with big intelligent war machines. Now the war is almost forgotten, but some of the machines are still buried deep underground and one is awakened by nearby construction work. The intelligent machine is still operating as if the war is going and it is heading straight for the city. Now an old and retired soldier is the only one who may be able to persuade the machine to stop its mission.

What I found most interesting about this otherwise pretty straightforward story, is how differently my reading was compared to the editors of The World Turned Upside Down. Their comments on the story focuses on its portrayal of being a war veteran and showing the sense of duty soldiers have. They even see the machines as somewhat sympathetic. My take on the story was more in the direction of being a warning against autonomous war machines. How dangerous it is to have intelligent weapons acting on their own lying around, especially after the war has ended. A concern that becomes even more relevant with the military technology of the present, where we are already seeing autonomous drones being used to some extent. That doesn’t negate what the editors say about the story though and I still found it worth reading.


Read in The World Turned Upside Down
Originally published in Analog January 1967
ISFDB Link
Rating: 3

When the Signal is the Noise by Rajan Khanna

Khanna gives a first contact story where the actual contact part is not that easy. A large object appears over Los Angeles and it just hovers there doing nothing. All kinds of methods at communication is attempted. Visual, sound, smell, every kind of radio transmission and nothing happens.

The story follows Monique as she gets involved with the project for her ability to find hidden connections in seemingly noisy data. When they try physical contact with the object, the people come back sick – but with very different kinds of symptoms. Monique thinks this is the key to finding the right way to communicate with the aliens.

It is a risky choice to build a first contact story around aliens that are not communicating anything at all. There is a payoff in the end explaining what is going on and I found it to be quite a good explanation for why aliens might not try communicating with anything obvious like sound, radio or visual. The problem is that the whole story is one long buildup to that point and then the story stops. The payoff is good, but not enough to justify the whole story that I felt could have been used for more.


Read in Asimov’s November/December 2022
Rating: 2+

Cryptonic by Aurelien Gayet

The bio of Aurelien Gayet says he has a passion for cyberpunk and this certainly has all the elements of a classic cyberpunk story. Cyborg-like tech, futuristic drugs, dark nightclubs, detectives and evil megacoperations.

The story starts with a crime scene in a thrashed hotel room. A man is dead, likely from an overdose, and a destroyed proxychip is found. In this future, a technology exists that makes it possible to transfer a copy of ones mind and consciousnesses to a proxychip. The chip can form a holographic version of the original human and act and think like the him. The experiences can be synchronized back to the human mind, thus allowing people to live basically two lives at the same time. Like attending school while going to work. These chips are under strict regulation and technical lockdown.

At the crime scene we meet both a regular detective and an insurance investigator for the company making the chips. Because every destroyed chip becomes an insurance issue, the owner needs to be informed in the right way (people can get somewhat emotionally attached to their proxies), compensated properly for their loss and so forth. But of course this turns out to be no ordinary case for any of them. Suffice to say, the plot goes where these crime solving cases tend to go with two different people needing to work together. Drugs, nightclubs, conspiracies, hackers, cool tech and all that.

I generally found the story to be pretty entertaining and I think this is the authors first professional sale, and with than i mind – a quite decent debut. As I have said, it has all the elements of a classical cyberpunk thriller – but also maybe too much of all the known ingredients. It is great such stories can still be published, but here it becomes a bit too formulaic and predictable. I am missing something outside the tropes to make it more interesting. The ending is serviceable, but also kind of felt like I have just watched a pilot of a new tv series that might or might not get an entire season.

Worth reading and I am glad Analog is still publishing these types of stories. I would like to see more from this author in the future, and hopefully he can find his own voice in the cyberpunk genre.


Read in Analog November/December 2022
Rating: 3

And Wild for to Hold by Nancy Kress

Kress is mostly known for using biology and especially genemodifications in her science fiction, so this time travel story from 1991 is a bit different but still very much a Kress story.

Everyone knows the trope about going back in back to kill some historic person in order to prevent a terrible war, though I can’t really recall many stories directly doing that. Here Kress creates an interesting setup where a mysterious church group tries to manage different time streams. They do this not by killing people in the past, but taking them hostage. The story follows Anne Boleyn being taken hostage and held in a facility with other historic figures like Helen of Troy and Herr Hitler. She is treated well given the circumstances, but what she wants most of all is some explanations on why she was taken out of her time and what her now cancelled future would have looked like. Rightfully she feels robbed of having the freedom to live her own life and decide her own destiny. This causes some problems for her hostage takers and are forced to reevaluate their methods.

Anne Boleyn was the queen of England from 1533 to 1536 when she was executed. Removing her before that apparently would prevent the great English Civil War about a hundred years later. I am not that well versed in that period of history, but while interesting – that part of the story is really not that important. What makes this story good is Anne, her perseverance and vigor to work within this system that has captured her and robbed her of her life, to achieve some kind of justice in the end.

You don’t need to be a history buff or even know who Anne Boleyn is (admittedly I didn’t) to enjoy the story. The characterization of Anne is what makes this story worthwhile. The time-travel stuff is just a delightful bonus.


Read in Asimov’s July 1991
ISFDB Link

Rating: 4

A Gun for Dinosaur by L. Sprague de Camp

Using a time machine for a safari trip to prehistoric times, especially the time of dinosaurs, is a well known science fiction trope. This story from 1956 is a classic example of this.

The story is told by a time-travel hunter, who runs a small business taking customers back to prehistoric times to shoot extinct species – like dinosaurs. He recounts a specific trip where he took two very different men back in time to hunt dinosaurs. A small successful businessman, August Holtzinger, who wants to prove to himself and his fiancée that he is “man” enough to take down a big animal. And Courtney James – a hot tempered playboy seeking thrill and adventure. On the trip James acts totally irresponsible shooting everything that moves, Holtzinger gets nervous and he soon questions whether the trip was such a good idea. He could settle for just a minor hunting trophy while James wants the big dinosaurs. And the tour leader just tries to get everyone out alive. Unsurprisingly things go horribly wrong. Suffice to say without spoiling too much – the usual time-travel paradoxes also comes up in the end.

This story is entertaining and pretty straight forward. It has all the classic archetypes for a hunt-in-the-wild story with the levelheaded leader that does things against his own better judgement, a scared passenger regretting even coming along and the hothead causing trouble with his stupid behavior. Especially the last part makes the story less enjoyable for me. I am generally not a fan of stories where the action is driven forward by dumb decisions. Not because everyone is always rational in real world situations, but it is just more interesting to read something where the characters ends up in dangerous situations despite doing most things right. The leader even had the “this is a bad idea” internal dialogue from the start, but went on anyway. Still, it is an important classic for the genre – especially when it comes to dinosaurs and time-travel.


Read in The World Turned Upside Down
First published in Galaxy Science Fiction, March 1956
ISFDB Link
Read the story at baen.com
Rating: 2+

Code Three by Rick Raphael

A long novella that follows a highway patrol squad on duty in a future where the highways a several miles wide and the cars are going several hundred miles per hour. There is not much of a story. The squad do regular things like handling accidents, bank robbers and even a baby birth.

The writing is competent but I fail to see any point to this story. It doesn’t really need to be science fiction. It is basically just faster cars and larger highways as a background setting for a rather mundane description of the working lives of this highway patrol.

I suppose the appeal is that it shows appreciation for the everyday working heroes and such professions are still needed in the future, but there is not much appeal to this story today.


Read in The World Turned Upside Down
First published in Analog February 1963
ISFDB Link
Read the story at baen.com
Rating: 1+

Falling Off the Edge of the World by Suzanne Palmer

The cover story for this issue of Asimov’s brings us aboard a spaceship that has some kind of accident. This gets told from two alternating point of views. From the rescueship and from the livestock manager Gabe aboard on the other ship.

I was a bit confused about the structure at first because switching between viewpoints and time usually means that they merge for some reveal in the end. However here it is quickly revealed that the rescue will be successful and that Gabe has survived almost 30 years on the ship. So a good deal of the story is various flash backs of his time on the ship, how he makes food and such, and most importantly – gets in contact with the only other other survivor, Alis. She is in another part of the ship that is sealed off, so they are never able to reach each other but stay in touch with radio communication.

At first I thought the story was well written with a steady engaging flow, as is to be expected by Palmer, but lacking a bit in drama and tension because the immediate dangerous situation is relatively quickly resolved. I also didn’t feel that engaged in the main characters – yet.

Because without saying too much, there is a twist and reveal later in the story that turned things around. That started a very emotionally engaging end to the story and made the Gabe character much more interesting. So it started out as sort of fine 3 star story for me, but turned around to a story I will definitely consider for my vote in the yearly Asimov’s Reader Award poll.


Read in Asimov’s November/December 2022
Rating: 4

Live Update by Lettie Prell

There have been written countless stories about people uploading their mind to a computer simulation, but this story did it from an angle that I haven’t seen often. A group of scientists are working on an early prototype of a computer simulation where they can upload their minds before the die. The premise here is that people die from the procedure. The protagonist of the story is a scientists who is dying of cancer but is hoping to be able to continue her work in this simulation.

Clarkesworld 192

What I like about this premise is that it follows the mind upload technology in its very early stages and convincingly show that that is a very error prone process. Science fiction too often portrays almost perfect technology, but reality is usually more messy with software full of bugs. In this story things go wrong while still being successful. A group of various scientists is living inside a computer simulation but their memories are weird and not reliable. They need to work together with the technicians in the real world to set things straight.

The story is told with alternating scenes from the past and the present situation with the simulation and this works quite well. At 20.000 words it is a bit too long in my opinion, but worth reading none the less.


Read in Clarkesworld September 2022
Rating: 3+

Rescue Party by Arthur C. Clarke

This is the first story in the anthology The World Turned Upside Down edited by Jim Baen, David Drake and Eric Flint. Their premise for the selection was stories that impressed them when they first read them – usually at a young age. I found that important to remember when reading this story from 1946 today, because it didn’t “wow” me that much but it is clear to see why it would have made an impression if I have read a story like that earlier in my science fiction reading life.

The story is told from the perspective of aliens visiting our solar system because the sun is about to explode and they want to save as many lives as possible. They are surprised that radio signals is coming from the system because the system was visited “only” four hundred thousands years ago and for these beings it is almost inconceivable that an intelligent species could have evolved so quickly. They find an Earth devoid of life, but with abandoned cities and structures – among that where the radio transmission was coming from.

There is a lot to like about the, for the time, original perspective of letting aliens explore Earth and tell a future human history from their perspective with various misconceptions. But it is somewhat lacking as a story because it is mostly aliens observing and making their conclusions. Also, many stories have been written since then exploring similar themes – and many were likely inspired by this – so it comes out as somewhat predictable.

However, it is a good example of what science fiction stories in the Golden Age of Astounding in the 1940s could produce and an important story for the history of the genre.


Read in The World Turned Upside Down
First published in Astounding Science Fiction, May 1946
ISFDB Link
Read the story at baen.com
Rating: 3+

Shepherd Moons by Jerry Oltion

This story is very typical Analog. NASA is testing its very early stages of an asteroid defense system – the DART system (this mission actually happened recently), but during the test they discover something that looks like an artificial structure. After ruling out China and Elon Musk it is clear it must be aliens. NASA prepares a mission to check it out. Who will go and what will they find? The story is mostly light in tone and the discovery is amusing but a little overly positive.

I did find it odd how Oltion apparently felt the need to add a few bashes at American politicians. There is literally a congressman saying:

“… but if we approve this boondoggle, we’ll be sending a man up there. A white man”.

p. 12

With how things are going this is probably pretty realistic, but just seems offbeat to add weird things like that in a story that is about something totally different.

The story has more than few nods to Contact with similar obstacles for the female astronaut to be the one to go on the mission, but this short story doesn’t provide nearly enough depth to the cardboard villains to make it even worth adding in the first place.


Read in Analog September/October 2022
Rating: 2+

Act One by Nancy Kress

This novella is about genemods which Kress more or less made her writing career on. In this story gene modifications are still in the early stages, but a rogue group have successfully modified babies with a gene that make them more empathic. What I found interesting with this story is the perspective it is told from. Not directly from those involved with the gene modifications, but here from a manager of an actress preparing for her role in a movie about the first kids with this empathic gene. This is what Kress does best with these kind of stories, telling it from a more indirect angle. Following the consequences of new developments in research rather than the actual inventions. As the story goes, the manager and the actress gets more directly involved as things spiral out of control.

Even though the story is well written and the plot flow nicely, I did feel like some parts of the stories were a little constructed. Like the main character is a dwarf and has a broken relationship in the past involving a non-dwarf kid. All this of course makes a nice parallel to the gene modifications that are central to the story, but it is also a bit too neat.


Read in Galaxy’s Edge July & September 2022
Originally published in Asimov’s March 2009
ISFDB Link
Rating: 3+

The Monsters by Robert Sheckley

I have been reading science fiction for far too many years without reading Robert Sheckley. The first story in the collection Untouched by Human Hands sets the tone for what to expect from Sheckley. “The Monsters” is a story from 1953 that subverts the usual tropes of the genre by telling a first contact story from the aliens perspective.

A reptilian-like race observers a rocket landing on the surface and strange bipedal creatures exits the ship. The aliens refer to themselves as humans and the Earth-humans as monsters, but it is clear for the reader what is going on. Through casual conversations among the reptile aliens we get a sense of what kind of society they have, their moral values and how the interpret the actions of the visting “monsters”. Sheckley’s writing is very clear and to the point, but still conveys a lot of information.

For a modern reader the plot and the concept of challenging our moral values with an outside look might not seem that original here 70 years later, but I still think Sheckley’s writing is above many authors of the present. It is clear without being dumbed down and has a lot of satirical subtext without being pretentious. Highly recommended.


Read in Untouched by Human Hands
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1953
ISFDB Link

Read the story on archive.org
Rating: 5

One Night Stand by Eileen Gunn

Every fall issue Asimov’s has a few horror-stories for Halloween, so here we get a ghost story with rape, violence and murder. Terry picks up a shady guy at a bar looking for a one night stand. She ends up dead and her sixteen year old daughter gets kidnapped by the guy. But Terry stays conscious as a ghost where she is able to watch everything that happens and with some effort has the ability to slightly influence the living. She uses that to help the police and help her daughter fleeing from the kidnapper.

There is no science fiction element but I actually liked this rather hard-boiled exciting thriller. Usually not a fan of ghost stories but this was an exception.


Read in Asimov’s September/October 2022
Rating: 3+

Things to Do in Deimos When You’re Dead by Alastair Reynolds

This story by Alastair Reynolds was disappointing – mostly because I expect more from him. The title “Things to Do in Deimos When You’re Dead” is pretty accurate for what the story is about. It is not a fantasy afterlife thing, but more of a uploaded mind stuck in a computer limbo virtual world thing. A man wakes up in a strange place he can’t figure out. Two other people tells him he is dead because the cheap cryosleep method of transport he has used to get around the solar system sometimes fails. The company behind it have written in small print that they are allowed to use the minds of people for whatever purpose in such accidents. But in even rarer cases the minds gets stuck inside a server on Deimos in some sort of virtual limbo before their mind pattern dissolves completely. The man has a hard time accepting that, but the two other people work with him and teach him how to put this situation to good use. Apparently the computer they are stuck in is also a communication hub for very secure digital information in the solar system, but they have found a way of manipulating the datastreams in order to make slight changes that will have positive impact in the real world. Like changing someones credit score so they can get that loan they desperately need.

I have several problems with this. Not the writing because Reynolds can do that, but the whole concept is explained in a very handwavy manner. Reynolds is usually on the harder side of things and too much here didn’t make much sense. Especially the whole manipulation of the datastream annoyed me. They make a point about how this is meant to be a very secure channel, but somehow the data is not even encrypted since they are able to easily manipulate it. There isn’t even a handwavy explanation for why basic data security should have gone backwards in this far future or how these virtual dead minds can do that. That aside, the story is also dragged down by being mostly the two people explaining things to the newcomer. Not much is really happening other than infodumps.


Read in Asimov’s September/October 2022
Rating: 2

Sparrows by Susan Palwick

This short story barely has a plot, but it does contain a nice character study in what some people might do in the last moments before some unexplained apocalypse. Here we follow a student who basically just want to hand in her paper on Shakespeare to her professor before the worlds end. I was impressed with how much character and personality Palwick creates for the student and the professor in such few pages.


Read in Asimov’s September/October 2022
Rating: 3+

Solidity by Greg Egan

I found this story to be quite interesting. It follows a young high school boy when everything in the world slightly changes. Everyone is similar to who he knows but not quite. People are not the same, but are being replaced by other with similar looks and background. It becomes clear that everyone is somehow shifting around in parallel worlds. Everyone else is experiencing the same thing and if you look away for a few seconds everything shifts again. The boy manages to stay together with a man resembling his father – as long as they keep watching each other.

In this world breaking event society doesn’t quite break down but everyone is struggling with this new unexplained world shifting. In typical Egan style people start to work on the problem in a logical, methodical and scientific manner. Testing various things to see what makes people able stay together, how to communicate across worlds or test if the process can be stopped by video recording.

What I think Egan is going for here is to comment on whether society will descend into anarchy or solidarity in the event of a global crisis. Egan is somewhat mostly in the positive camp here, which is a nice change from all dystopian stories.


Read in Asimov’s September/October 2022
Rating: 4

Music to Me by Richard A. Lovett

This story is part of a series of stories with recurring characters, but I think it stands quite well on its own. In a future where spaceships have an AI personality, after a long journey to the outer parts of the solar system a ships AI, named Brittney, have become more self aware than is usual for these AIs. Going back to Earth Brittney must adapt to “survive” so it can keep its memories and unique personality. Brittney gets sort of refurbished into a personal AI for a human host. They start working together for shared and individual goals.

There are so many AI stories in the last couple of years that I become tired of them quickly, but this story tells me that better and more interesting AI stories were written several years ago. Lovett creates the right balance between a relatable and interesting AI character – without it is too much like a human. Very much recommended.


Read in Analog January/February 2014
Rating: 4

Work Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh

This story is sort of a sequel to his 2009 Hugo Award winning short story “Bridesicle”. That story was brilliant so I was somewhat skeptical that it should need a sequel. In my mind “Bridesicle” was perfect on its own and didn’t need any followup. Maybe I am biased because of that, but I don’t think this new story works nearly as well. In fact it has a good deal of problems.

The premise of both stories is a future where people can be revived from the dead, but the insurance is expensive so not everybody has that opportunity. A company has taken advantage of this by picking deceased young woman and putting them in frozen storage. Then rich, mostly old, men can order short dates with them and then pay for the revival if she agrees to a marriage contract. It is not even implied, but clearly stated that this basically means that these women only get a second chance at life if they agree to become sex slaves. At least until the rich guy dies.

The original “Bridesicle” handled this beautifully by not dwelling excessively on this abhorrent business concept, but built an interesting story told from the point of view of one of the dead women and her complex relationship with the guy who falls in love with her. That story was in my opinion perfect and a very worthy award winner.

“Work after Eighty” tells a similar story from the point of view of a woman who works at the clinic. One day an old high school friend turns up as one of the newly dead women in the clinic. She takes it upon herself to try and coach her old friend into how she can get out alive by saying the right things to the dirty old men coming to date her. The problem with this story is that it spends almost every page telling the reader how awful this concept is and how horrible these rich old men are.

I don’t mind stories with a political message and there can be plenty of good reasons to make rich men the villains in a story, but in my opinion that cannot stand on its own. There is still a need to write a good story with interesting and complex characters. Perhaps even introduce some ambiguity and create a sense of doubt about the morals for the reader.

I don’t think most people need much convincing that a company that let’s rich men revive young woman to become their “wife” if they want to live again is immoral. Then it becomes somewhat tiresome with a whole story with basically different ways of saying the same thing.

I am probably more harsh on “Work after Eighty” than it objectively deserves. On its own it works for what it wants to achieve, but go read “Bridesicle” if you haven’t.


Read in Asimov’s July/August 2022
Rating: 2