Short Fiction Review #31: Interzone Issue #229 July-August 2010
The lead story for the July/August issue of Interzone (the cover of which has nothing to do with its contents, serving instead as a panel for a complete artwork comprising all the issues in 2010) is “Mannikin” by Paul Evanby. The story opens in July 1776, the date of American declared independence from British colonial rule (sidenote: the writer is Dutch and the magazine is published in the U.K.). But this isn’t about Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, and doesn’t even take place in the colonies, but rather signifies the irony of a revolution that resulted in freedom for white Protestant male landowners who relied on the exploitation of African-American slaves to maintain economic autonomy.
The title refers to artificial creatures fashioned using 18th century pseudo-scientific notions of “animalcula” blowing about in the atmosphere that contain the essence of life; the male reproductive system somehow absorbs these animalcula (beware windy days!) to power sperm production. Consequently, the “man”-nikins are entirely male, produced like fermented spirits out of barrels.
Kilian Caduceusz assumes the Dr. Frankenstein role, in the employ of the Dutch West India Trading Company seeking a source of even cheaper labor than the African slave trade as it hedge its bets to maintain profitable markets on both sides of the political divide between the British and its American rebels. To pile irony upon irony, Caduceusz is provided with an African slave to serve as his chief assistant, an irony to which Caduceusz the obsessive scientist is completely clueless. A violent storm (God’s wrath?) ravages the Dutch island where the mannikins are spawned, during which Caduceusz saves the life of his servant. Following this, the British invade with their own separately developed artificial creatures, based on a competing scientific philosophy based on the idea that life originates not with sperm, but a women’s ovum, and can germinate without male contribution. These creatures are called, somewhat condenscendingly, “wifikins.” This leads to hilariously unintended consequences when the Dutch send their mannikins to battle the wifikin invasion.
I’m a sucker for this kind of alternate-history based on “science” of the time more rooted in wild philosophical speculation than experimental proof. Even if you’re not, this parable about the single-minded pursuit of scientific accomplishment at the expense of moral consideration (though the oblivious Caduceusz eventually does have his “Eureka” moment) is worth consideration in light of our actual technological “accomplishments” inventing nuclear bombs and cell phone texting.
Originally a radio play, Toby Litt’s “The Melancholy” covers similar terrain in depicting a human who may identify to closely with an artificial intelligence, and what happens when that artificial intelligence may start acting too human. The point of “Candy Moments” by Antony Mann seems to be that any technology that can ease our psychic pain is likely to achieve widespread acceptance, even at the expense of our humanity. Both are okay stories, but unlike Evanby’s, don’t bring much new to the conversation of these longstanding tropes.
One that does, though, is by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, a Filipina living in the Netherlands, an experience which no doubt inspired her tale, “Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life.” The life in question is that of an android created by obviously mechanical beings as an “ambassador” to humans; the plot hinges on Alternate Girl’s expatriate life away from her mechanical home as the surreptitious wife of a human, whose own existence is no less mechanical than that of the machines, fulfills a larger mission that, like most diplomacy, she remains unaware of even in completing it. Ruiz deftly depicts values of both the human and mechanical worlds that, of course, reflect the daily desperation of our own existential wasteland in modern society.
“Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark Matter” by Jim Hawkins is an obvious play on the name of the 1980s British electronica New Wave band. It’s also one of the strangest things I’ve read lately. Never cared for the band; loved this bent pastiche of Heinlein, political satire and the personality dynamics of a classical music orchestra.
The premise is an orchestra is dispatched to 13 (get it? we’re back to the American revolution theme) rebellious colony planets in the attempt to reaffirm the cultural ties to ruling Earth. The covert mission is for the musicians, psychologically programmed as elite soldiers, to put down the insurrection. Our main characters are an acne scarred violinist, Cherry, whose sexual orientation is reprogrammed for better carnal relations with Kovak, a Polish brass player, and Mike, an oboist whose conscience eventually overrides his programming. Along the way we meet some additional bizarre characters such as planetary President Maria Kronkite, noted for saying, “I can’t see why unborn babies shouldn’t have gun rights. They have a right to shoot abortionists.” Then there’s the Mithras colony, divided by religious conflict no more silly than any of our real ones:
It all hinged on the status of the Mithraic toenail. In the South they certain that during a celebration of the Mysteries in their underground temples the toenails of the believers actually became the toenails of Mithras; in the North they thought that was rubbish, and the hari became imbued with invisible fire. Following this crazy logic, in the South the wearing of open-toed sandals was compulsory, but they were banned in the North, where wearing of hats was obligatory.
And I haven’t mentioned the conflict on the colony that’s having a dispute about healthcare. However strangely funny this may sound, it doesn’t begin to adequately describe the marvelous absurdism. Suffice it to say, in the end, and unlike in real life, everyone winds up making beautiful music together.