My 1000th post!
Every morning for the last few years, I post on Twitter the birthdays (pre-1955) of artists, authors, and editors involved in some way with science fiction. In the last year, a singular compulsion has hit and I’ve started to include even more obscure figures like Gabriel Jan (1946-) and Daniel Drode (1932-1984). On May 31st, while perusing the indispensable list on The Internet Speculative Fiction Database, I came across an author unknown to me–Melisa Michaels (1946-2019) (bibliography). She’s best known for the five-volume Skyrider sequence (1985-1988) of space operas “depicting the growth into maturity of its eponymous female Starship-pilot protagonist” (SF Encyclopedia).
As I’m always willing to explore the work of authors new to me, I decided to review the first three of her six published SF short stories. Two of the three stories deal with my favorite SF topics–trauma and memory.
“In the Country of the Blind, No One Can See” (1979), 3.5/5 (Good): First appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Marvels of Science Fiction (1979). It was reprinted in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (January 1979). You can read it online here.
On a terraformed Mars, Allyson Hunter and her two clone sisters, Rebecca and Kim, are societal outcasts. They spent their lives trying to be “real people” yet were “reminded, every day in a dozen little ways, that they weren’t real people” (87). Clones retain their first usage as replacement body parts. Permitted to live only due to indications of telepathic potential (needed to guide spaceships), the sisters attempt to live meaningful lives and develop useful skills. The sisters charter two identical twins, Frank and Todd, to convey them across the Martian landscape. A horrific crash kills Kim and forces the survivors to work together and move past the deep resentment and hatred the brothers hold.
Michaels’ take on the social effects of cloning would have been a great addition to Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois’ anthology Clones! (1998). The trajectory of the story is a common yet refreshing one–two groups separated by the gulf of prejudice and hatred–are forced to work together. Despite my own perpetual confusion over the imagined moral quandaries of cloning in science fiction, I found “In the Country of the Blind, No One Can See” (1979) and effective and well-told story.
“I Have a Winter Reason” (1981), 3.5/5 (Good). First appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (March 1981). You can read it online here.
In the same mold as Joan D. Vinge’s The Outcasts of Heaven’s Belt (1978), the pioneer frontier societies of The Belt are far more egalitarian than Earth, beset by traditionalist gender roles where “women stay home and raise families” and “wear make-up and long dresses and giggle behind fans” (24). Melacha, much to the chagrin of her Earth relatives, lives and works as a shuttle pilot between the scattered asteroid communities. An accident compels Melacha to return to Earth and rendezvous with Michael, a cousin from Mars with whom she shares “the intimate details of [her] life and time” across the vastness of space (26). But one secret she keeps clutched close to her heart. Reluctant at first to share the details of accident due to her perception that Michael experienced far worse as a foot solider in the “Colonial Incident” (23), her seemingly mystical ability to delve into the traumatic pasts of the dead leads to a moment of reckoning as both confront the realities of life and loss.
I’m a sucker for science fiction stories that chart across a fantastic future backdrop, in this instance a contested past between Earth and its scattered colonies, small interior moments of reflection and growth. Michaels incorporates careful details that suggest transformation both politically and socially in the future–God is referred to as “She”, Mars practices polygamy, and the “Incident” and its violent memories impacts every family. Michaels weaves a story where grief and survivor guilt manifests in unusual and powerful ways.
“I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes” (1982), 2/5 (Bad). First appeared in The Best of Omni Science Fiction No. 4, ed. Ben Bova and Don Myrus (1982). You can read it online here.
The orders from Professor Bernstein were clear: “Take them to the stars” (79). And into the ship’s computer the directive went. And it cannot be rewritten. A colonizing vessel’s artificial intelligence recounts achieving that directive and the disturbing problems that arouse among the “four thousand three hundred forty-two” colonists waiting within the metal bulkheads. The ship cannot understand Bernstein’s frantic attempt to modify the traveling orders after they were inputted. And of course the oxyacetylene torch-wielding colonists attempting to cut their way into the ship’s control room know something went drastically amiss.
Like a psychotic criminal mastermind, the ship can only relay what occurred without understanding the moral implications of their actions: “I diminished their life-support systems for a while. That made them stop” (79). The original programing means everything. Even if it was programmed in error.
A found “I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes,” as with so many twist ending stories, far from satisfying. The ship’s computer as narrator does add a disturbing element of unease–you know, Hal’s red “eye” in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the entire premise is truly ridiculous!
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