Some writers are prolific to the point of saturation. Every time you open a magazine there they are, lurking in the contents page, until you can’t make out the signal from the noise. Others are slower, less easy to find, a rare truffle nestled amongst the mountains of common dirt. Chris Lawson is one of these (although I’ll bet you real live actual Australian dollars he’s never been called a truffle before).
Lawson’s writing is superb. This collection of ‘hard’ SF stories from MirrorDanse Press is imbued with the kind of deep, personal, insights many other hard SF writers can only dream about. Lawson’s ability to infuse his technologically-based work with a deep understanding of humanity marks Written in Blood as an extraordinary collection, far superior to many of his contemporaries. If he were more prolific he would rightly be considered the finest writer of technological SF Australia has produced. As it is, there are only 6 stories in this slim volume, although they are joined by 5 essays from his “irregular pseudoblog for both cultures”, Frankenstein’s Journal.
Don’t think you’re being shortchanged, though, by these essays. Lawson is as adept at the opinion piece as he is at fiction, and while some may grinch at the thought of spending money on something they can trawl the web archives for in their own free time, the fact is they form a perfect counterpoint to the often heavy themes presented in the stories, and are thoroughly entertaining in their own right. In particular, ‘Evolutionary Pressure on Creationists’ is an acerbically fun take on a subject dear to my own heart, and provided your barely-humble reviewer with more than a few “Yeah!” moments along the way. But it’s the stories that are the crux of the matter. And the stories are, without fault, brilliant.
“Chinese Rooms”, which opens the collection, is a masterful examination of the ramifications of artificial intelligence, and what may happen when the mind that controls the mind has an ulterior motive. “Unborn Again” is a truly unsettling tale, a skin-crawling mixture of medical technology, human weakness, and moral bankruptcy that had me putting the book aside for almost a fortnight while I attempted to contemplate the ramifications Lawson presents. “Lacey’s Fingerprints” is a straight-out detective story, on the surface, but the secret lying at its heart once more displays Lawson’s uniquely bleak view regarding the results of technology handled by the inept and greedy. “Matthew 24:36” is an all-too-plausible dissection of the effect of religious fundamentalism (and let’s face it folks, if you’re religious, you’re a fundamentalist of at least one description) on the kind of folk who believe in things like Y2K and the Millennium. My personal favourite, “Faster, Higher, Stronger” falls into Lawson’s own field of expertise, the medical profession, to give us a human, and humane, account of the effects of performance enhancing drugs on athletes, and the price they have to pay to stay clean in a world founded upon cheating. And then there’s “Written In Blood”, the story that gives the collection its name, a tour-de-force effort that brings together many of Lawson’s personal hobbyhorses: religious fundamentalism; the ability of technology to both enhance and inhibit our lives; the damage that can be done to the human condition by those small-minded power-cravers we allow to run our lives. It is a fitting summation of Lawson’s power as a writer, and a marker to the great talent he can exhibit at will.
There’s something rotten in the writing state of Denmark when the shelves are filled with firelighter after firelighter of the brands Jordan, Feist, Wurtz, and all the other boring sub-Tolkein hacks who clog the arteries of literature like low grade cholesterol, and skilled practitioners like Lawson are consigned to small press, small run editions that are only accessible if you meet someone in the know. You’ve read this review. Now you’re in the know. So go buy it.
From the Old Shelf
Continuing the small press theme, I’ve been trawling my way through Ghost Seas, the collection of Steven Utley short stories published by Russell B. Farr’s Ticonderoga Publications a few years ago. This is a fantastic book, brim-full of the wonderfully gonzo creations that have always marked Utley out as a genuinely fabulous nutcase to read. If you’re unaware of his work, (and if you are, ferpetesake put down that crap Jordan book and pay attention!) then you need to get hold of Master Farr and get yourself a copy. He tells me he has a bunch left, so they’re there for the taking.
1. The Apostle
And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was.
And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
2. The Wise Man
The star, always the young come to me asking of the star. It appears in none of your charts, you find no trace of its path through the other celestial bodies you observe, and so you doubt.
But you forget that the star foretold the birth of the King of the Jews. You forget that the charts revealed that a sign would burn in the heavens. Where is this rogue now, eh? Where was it before we saw its light?
When we knew that we should be able to mark it, we set out for the West, even though we’d seen no trace of it in our midnight observations. Faith, eh? The wise trust their wisdom.
And then we did mark it, but thought that we had miscalculated and come too late. For this was a star at the end of its life, a dying ember already falling to the sea.
But as night followed night and day followed day — for in the end, it burned so bright as to be seen even in full sunlight — the old became new. All the phases — we saw them, the three of us. It burned dark and red and cold lie the aged stars, yes, but then yellow and hotter like one of middling age.
By the time we’d finished our interview with that odious little Roman puppet, Herod, we had calculated that we were only a few days from witnessing a birth unlike any other in all the history of the world.
The night we left the little village, it burned more brightly than the sun and the moon and all the stars together. Then, having been born, it was gone. Gone back to the womb of the sky.
How is such a thing possible? What did it portend? The wise trust their wisdom, yes. But they know as well when their wisdom holds no answers.
3. The Alien
Paramount Hivemaster, this one survives only to bring you its report. Were it not for the graveness of its tidings, this one would have given itself to the void so that you would have been spared the displeasure of casting the least of your eyes on its wretchedness.
In your wisdom, you have declared that any encounter with superior technologies be reported directly to you. This one’s mission to establish a feeding station in the outer arm has failed, despite the strictest observation of the protocols, because of just such an encounter.
The herds on the target planning are cunning. There was no evidence that they possessed even the slightest capacity to impede upon your glorious destiny of ruling every sun. From orbit, we saw only the most primitive indications of intelligent life.
After some few of us escaped the destruction of the first battle lander, we returned to the main vessel where this one immediately demanded an explanation of the Predictor Drones. Their feeble answers failed to satisfy. For their impudence, this one of course devoured them, along with their mates and young.
It is the least of this one’s inadequacies that no other explanation than that of the Predictor Drones has arisen to explain this one’s abject and most dishonorable failure. The herds of the target planet, Exalted One, possess the ability to travel through time.
Through means unknowable to this one’s paltry intellect, they have stationed their defending ships in the future. The very presence of these ships in close proximity to a battle lander was enough to wilt that great ship’s power glands. In seeking to avoid the just punishment of this one’s mandibles, the last Predictor Drone declared that the emissions from the time craft caused the lander to grow rapidly younger, until its flesh was unable to sustain the weapons and habitation pods. Moments after our escape, the Predictor said, the lander exploded backward through time.
Glorious Hivemaster, the outer arm must be avoided at all cost. There are many other systems to shuck and devour. This one implores you to turn your immortal predations elsewhere.
This one’s fondest hope is that the ignominy of its defeat has not caused a putrescence of the flesh that would render it unpalatable to you.
4. The Time Traveler
No, no, you guys don’t know what you’re talking about. First century CE isn’t on the verboten list because of any “unusually high risk of biological contaminants.” What the hell kind of reason is that? Do those polysuits work or don’t they? Carl there’s been to 13th century Prague twice and didn’t get any flack from the brass about the plague.
Hey! Carl! Bring me another beer while you’re up!
No, I know why it’s off limits because Shoji and I were there. For about five minutes anyway. Local minutes. Thanks, Carl.
And here’s the deal. We weren’t alone. I don’t know what the odds are of this happening in preindustrial airspace, but they’re long, I can tell you that. See, we came out of the Flux right under another ship. Not one of ours, either, from any era.
We’d programmed it so we’d arrive at night, coming in over the Dead Sea — no insertions over populated areas, right? Just like the book says. We were fairly high up, because we were heading east and the Judean Mountains are pretty much right there on the shore, and well, Carl can tell us all about slamming a time ship into terra firma, can’t you, Carl?
We used to call Carl “Captain Crater.”
Anyway, at first I thought we’d miskeyed something and inserted in the mountains after all, because as soon as the Flux shields withdrew we started getting proximity alarms and off the scale mass readings and all kinds of scary shit. I was out in the bubble, set to take over with atmospheric piloting routines and Shoji is yelling “Dump altitude! Dump altitude!”
I thought he was crazy, right? Because remember, I was figuring we were in the mountains. But I looked down and there was the water, maybe ten thousand meters below, just like we’d planned it. And there was our shadow.
Yes, Carl, it was night, but I could still see our shadow because there was one hellaciously bright light source right above us and a little bit behind. This was all happening very fast, so at first I noticed it but not really noticed it, know what I mean? Kind of like how you can not notice the Tunguska Forest, right, Carl?
So, I dumped altitude like Shoji said, and pulled the nose around to get a better look. God, it was huge. And weird.
Alien? That’s what Shoji thinks. I don’t really know. It was…ornate. That’s the word, I guess. It looked decorated, all carved up and monstrous, like a flying cathedral.
And you know how cathedrals were always burning down? This one was doing even more than that. There were huge gouts of silver fire boiling out of some kind of ducts on one side of the thing, looked like they were trying to vent some kind of internal explosion, maybe.
I don’t think it did them any good, though, the way it was vibrating and twisting. Shoji swore he saw the whole thing shrink down to nothing at the last second on the screens. I didn’t see that, because the bubble opaqued as soon as Shoji keyed the emergency recall sequence.
Yeah, Shoji toes the line, that’s for sure. That was as “untoward” an untoward circumstance as I can imagine, so I guess he was right to default to the regs. Still, I would have liked to have seen what happened.
I mean, think about it. Some kind of alien ship with God only knows what kind of bizarre propulsion system interacting with the temporal flotsam we were dragging out of the Flux in our wake — that’s what Shoji thinks caused the break up, see. Two sets of very different technological variables ramming right into one another over the Dead Sea over two thousand years ago.
Like I said, what are the odds?
5. The Mother
A miracle. It was a miracle.
Niles, the lead elf in the wooden toy division and union president, couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “You’re canning us? And on the day before Christmas?”
Santa Claus sighed sympathetically. “I had hoped to do this through attrition, Niles, but it’s been six hundred years since an elf retired. And things had to change.”
“Had to change? What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about globalization,” Santa said. “It’s a fast world these days. If you can’t adapt, you go under. That’s how it is.” He patted Niles on the head. “I’m sorry. We’ve been operating at a loss.”
The elf batted Santa’s hand away. “Are you crazy? We’ve always operated at a loss.”
“Yes, on finite resources. It couldn’t go on forever.”
“Without elves, who’s going to make the toys? Who’s going to take care of the reindeer?”
“The reindeer are already gone, air-freighted to a retirement pasture in Lapland. As for making the toys, the same subcontractor who is streamlining the transportation division will be handling that.”
Santa pointed out the window toward the warehouse. Niles put his hands on the sill and looked out. Standing next to the warehouse was a building on stilts. Stilts that shivered in the cold. No, they weren’t stilts at all. They were chicken legs. It was a little house standing on enormous chicken legs.
Niles said, “Gross. What is that? It wasn’t there when I came in.”
“It moves with absolute silence, even quieter than the sleigh. And as for capacity, well, you can see that I’ll need to make far fewer trips.”
“What is it?”
“The hut of Baba Yaga, the Russian witch.”
“A witch? You’re replacing us with a witch?”
“I know it seems an unlikely alliance,” Santa said as he sat down behind his desk, “but she backed up her proposal with some attractive numbers. If you take a look at this spreadsheet…”
“You know where you can put that spreadsheet,” Niles said. “You may have timed this so we can’t go on strike, but that doesn’t mean that we’ll take this lying down!”
Santa pressed a button on his desk. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The office door opened and two security guards came inside. “These gentlemen will escort you off the grounds.”
Santa watched the elf go. Other pairs of guards were escorting other elves. Santa shook his head and sighed. Was he making a mistake? He looked at the spreadsheet numbers. No, this was how it had to be. It was a fast world now. If you couldn’t adapt, you’d go under. He sat behind his desk thinking, then got up to warm his hands by the fire. Then he paced.
Perhaps he’d feel better if he went to Baba Yaga’s hut for some tea. He needed to discuss the night’s work schedule with her, anyway. He stepped outside, closed the door behind him, and found, when he looked up, that the hut of Baba Yaga was gone. And it wasn’t just somewhere else on the grounds. He checked the elves’ dormitory courtyard. He looked behind the empty reindeer stables. The hut had vanished.
Worse, the toy warehouse was empty. There was no positive interpretation that Santa could give this situation. Baba Yaga wasn’t just taking a load of toys for a test run. It would have taken multiple trips to empty the warehouse. Santa had been ripped off. Without reindeer, he had no way to pursue the witch.
“I’m ruined,” he groaned. He put his head in his hands. He wept. And he heard…sleighbells.
Santa looked up. A troika drawn by three black horses approached. A man in a blue coat trimmed with fur held the reins. There was a beautiful young woman on the seat beside him, and a man in a black business suit next to her. “Ho, ho, ho!” the driver said. His beard was as long and white as Santa’s. A bag of presents lay in the back of the troika. “Having little bit of trouble?” the driver said. He gave the reins to the girl and stepped down. “You need help, da?”
“Who are you?”
“You don’t know? Russian counterpart, Ded Moroz.” He held out a bony hand.
“Make fun all you like, but you need me. You made contract with witch Baba Yaga. Big mistake. Snegurochka and I always have trouble with her at Christmas. She is big present thief, that Baba Yaga.”
“Snegurochka. My lovely…granddaughter.” Ded Moroz indicated the girl. She smiled at Santa with a smile that said many things. One thing that it said was that she was not Ded Moroz’s granddaughter. “We knew if you accepted Baba Yaga’s offer it would create trouble for you.”
“You knew this was going to happen? Why didn’t you warn me?”
“In business you do your own due diligence, da? We have experience dealing with witch. You want help?”
“You can get the presents back? We can save Christmas? Then of course I want your help!”
“Good. This man is attorney. He has papers you must sign.”
“Merger agreement. Santa Claus becomes wholly owned subsidiary of Grandfather Frost.” Ded Moroz pointed to himself.
“Wholly owned… You’re buying me out?”
“Don’t worry. Your operations change little in first few years. Eventually, you retire with nice pension to dacha on Black Sea.” He nodded at the attorney, who got down from the troika and opened his briefcase.
“But, but I’m Santa Claus! I can’t retire! Who will bring presents to all the good children?”
“Times change,” said Ded Moroz. “Capitalist system rewards best service. I bring presents on Orthodox Christmas and New Years Day. Kids get presents from me just for being kids, not for being nice. Also, they don’t have to write me letters, so everything is easier for them. Grownups like me, too. Ded Moroz is more fun at parties. I like vodka. I bring Snegurochka along.” He winked. “She is fun at parties, too.”
“But,” Santa said, “I’m the tradition in many parts of the world.”
“Global marketplace now. You move fast, or you fall behind. You sign now.”
The attorney gave Santa a sheaf of papers and a pen. “Sign here and here and initial every page,” he said.
Santa took the pen in a trembling hand. He hesitated. Then he signed.
“Ho, ho, ho,” said Ded Moroz as he opened a bottle. He filled a glass for everyone.
Snegurochka smiled a pretty smile. “S Rozhdestvom Hristovym!” she said, lifting her drink.
“Yeah,” said Santa. He slugged the vodka down. “Merry Christmas to us all.”
Apologies for the delayed publication of December’s Ideomancer — too many Christmas parties. Which brings us to the the theme for this months magazine. We have original Christmas stories from Bruce Holland Rogers, Christopher Rowe and Catherine M. Morrison, plus a classic from G. K. Chesterton.
Lee Battersby reviews Chris Lawson’s Written in Blood.
Hope you enjoy this month’s issue