“Amor Vincit Omnia” by K.J. Parker (2010, free at Subterranean Press, republished in Academic Exercises, a short fiction anthology by K.J. Parker)
In a world where magic is considered a branch of natural philosophy and is practiced only by a secretive group of scholars, the normal order of things is upset when a rogue magician appears and starts violently murdering innocent villagers, displaying a complete defensive power against physical and magical attacks. This magical defense, called Lorica, has never been proven and most scholars believe that it doesn’t exist, even if it is theoretically possible. The idea that it might actually be real frightens the scholarly establishment out of its wits: this may be someone who can’t be contained or controlled at all! So they send the hapless young magician Framea out to investigate and take care of the problem. Also, by the way, he is informed that he needs to seduce a woman so that he can use her as an unwitting source for additional power in combatting the rogue magician ― a process that is likely to kill or permanently disable the woman.
I found this story initially rather difficult to become immersed in, with its dry, academic tone and esoteric arguments between the scholars. In particular, the scholars tend to use Latin words and phrases, especially for the magical spells, which may gratify Harry Potter fans. But the magical system and this world are intriguing, with quasi-religious aspects to the scholarly group, who resemble monks in the Middle Ages. Gradually I became wholly absorbed in the unfolding story of Framea’s attempts to collar his target, and to find out if the man really knows the Lorica defense. If he does know it, should Framea kill the man with the secret untold, or try to find out how Lorica works, creating a danger of unleashing it on the world?
K.J. Parker raises some interesting issues relating to the way we categorize and treat other people, and use them for our own purposes, even if we think it’s right or necessary. The master scholars are using Framea, Framea is using the woman he has sex with, and the rogue uses his powers without conscience, not viewing people without magical skills as one of “us.” They all display varying degrees of heartlessness, though one can debate the moral justifications. The climactic showdown, and what happens afterwards, are compelling reading, and the ethical questions linger, underscored by the ironic title of the story.
“Inspiration” by Ben Bova (1993, free at Baen (sample story from The Best of Bova anthology)). 1994 Nebula Award nominee (short story)
In this rather dark time travel tale, a nameless time traveler makes his way to Linz, Austria in 1896, in the company of one Mr. Wells. They meet a seventeen year old boy, Albert, and have lunch with him in a sidewalk café. Lord Kelvin, a respected physicist and proponent of traditional Newtonian theories, also joins their party for lunch. The time traveler is secretly on a mission to inspire Albert, who recently failed the admission tests for the Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, to try once more. Having Albert read a fantastical story very recently written by Mr. Wells, opening his eyes to new ideas, might just be the key to avoiding a terrible future path for our world.
In the prologue to this story, Ben Bova comments: “When H. G. Wells first published ‘The Time Machine,’ Albert Einstein was sixteen. William Thomson, newly made Lord Kelvin, was the grand old man of physics, and a stern guardian of the orthodox Newtonian view of the universe. Wells’ idea of considering time as a fourth dimension would have been anathema to Kelvin; but it would have lit up young Albert’s imagination. Who knows? Perhaps Einstein was actually inspired by Wells.” Although this sounds like a positive viewpoint, the story that Bova developed from this idea is surprisingly somber.
It’s interesting to see all of the maneuvering that the traveler does to bring the right parties together and to try to motivate them to take certain actions. The personal cost of doing this for our time traveler, and the risks to our world if he fails, have an impact on the reader, even if it isn’t at all clear how the traveler is aware of all of the potential future pathways for our world. The ending, with a surprise revelation, emphasizes the bleak aspects of this tale. There is hope, but at best it’s bittersweet.
“The 43 Antarean Dynasties” by Mike Resnick (1997, free at More Red Ink, originally published in Asimov’s, anthologized in Alien Contact anthology, ed. Marty Halpern). 1997 Hugo Award (short story)
On the planet of Antares, a native of that planet, who goes by the name of Hermes in the Terran language, acts as a guide for a family of three humans, showing them the wonders of his city. Unfortunately, the humans are bored and insensitive and generally exhibit all manner of loutish behavior. Hermes, a former university teacher forced for financial reasons to become a tour guide, is both disdainful of the humans’ behavior and troubled by how far his own culture has fallen because of its conquest by humans and other alien races. Brief vignettes about the former glories of the forty-three Antarean dynasties are woven into the story, creating a poignant juxtaposition with the decay and boorishness that now prevail.
It’s a simplistic tale, though well-told, and it relies on the Ugly American Human trope for all of its impact. In a quote that appears on More Red Ink, Mike Resnick explains the genesis of this story to Marty Halpern: “We were traveling in Egypt — my wife and I, my agent and her kids, and a couple of friends — and we kept asking our private guide questions. At one point he thanked us, because the last group he took out kept getting annoyed when he would speak about the wonders of some ancient dynasty they were theoretically observing, when all they wanted to do was talk about the point spread of the upcoming Steelers-Cowboys game. I thought about that — this dignified, highly educated, well-mannered man showing off the highlight of his country’s antiquity to the latest set of bored conquerors — and ‘The 43 Antarean Dynasties’ practically wrote itself.”
Frankly, that’s easy to believe. Just translate idiot foreign tourists from Egypt to an alien planet, and done! While the social commentary is pointed and may be well-deserved, I was hoping for more complexity and nuance. Despite the 1997 Hugo win and my general love for Resnick’s short fiction, I don’t consider this one-note story one of his better works.
“Ratspeak” by Sarah Porter (August 2016, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle edition)
Young Ivan is obsessed with the idea that the rats living in New York City speak a meaningful, profound language, and that if he could only understand it he would find personal happiness and acceptance with the rats. One day he saves a young rat in the subway station from being stomped on by some other boys, getting beaten by the boys for his trouble. Afterwards the rat’s grateful mother, speaking English, offers Van a boon for saving her child: The assistance of a rat horde if he ever needs it? Stock tips? ― rats can prophesy with great accuracy. Riches and good fortune? But Van knows what he really wants: to speak and understand Rat. The mother rat tries very hard to talk him out of it, but Van is obstinate and patient and eventually gets his way.
It doesn’t work out the way he planned it. Van wants only to be the rats’ friend, but rats value their privacy and resent that he can now understand them. Rats have the ability to make a human’s life very difficult, in ways that one might not expect (but perhaps should, given that the rats here have prophetic and other supernatural abilities). Van remains obdurate; he still believes that he can win his way into their hearts and lives.
It’s a surreal story that gets more and more weird as it goes along, further burdened with an indeterminate ending that leaves the reader hanging. There seems to be a theme in this tale about searching for meaning and a sense of belonging, along with how we’re swayed by our selfish desires, but it got lost for me somewhere around the time Van’s home turned into an oozing, creeping block of slime with him inside of it.
The Mike Resnick story leads me back to that classic question: Why science fiction? If you remove the science fictional element (another planet) nothing changes in the story, and it could just as easily be set in, well, Egypt.