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The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass by Vera Nazarian

Published by Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Whither humanity? Science fiction is often called the genre of the future, since its most common form involves taking the reader on a literary journey into the future. On one end we have the stories that take place Twenty Minutes into the Future, bringing bleeding-edge technology out of the lab and into everyday life, or predicting what happens if a current trend continues to its logical extreme. On the other, we have the exploration of deep time, the effort to imagine humanity's future not just a few dozen or hundreds of years in the future, but millions or even billions of years ahead. How will humanity change? Will our distant descendants even be recognizable as human, and will they recognize the Earth as the world we once trod?

That is the world into which Liaei comes, gathered from ancient gene plasm carefully maintained by the robotic horticulturalists who normally maintain the crops these far-future humans live upon in a world now old and tired. The Earth itself is desolate, its oceans reduced to a few tiny stagnant puddles at the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches, its land now a parched and sterile desert, almost all resources used up by so many ages of humanity that our own has been forgotten save echoes and shadows.

And that loss of vitality has extended to the humans of this far distant world. No longer are there teeming billions, but a mere two cities, and even they are reduced in numbers from the time of humanity's height. One lies on the sea bottom, at the shores of the dwindled lake that was once a mighty ocean. From its pumping stations it sends a stream of water through the air to its sister city, perched upon the edge of the continental shelf. Even as individuals humanity seems to have been robbed of essential vitality, having become thin, frail and sexless.

All except for Liaei, last child of an ancient genome now running thin. She has been brought into existence for a special purpose, to become what they call the Queen of the Hourglass. An almost messianic figure, approached with more than a little awe by all save Amhama, the biologist who brought her into being and nurtured her, protecting her developing psyche from being warped by exposure to adulation, even the staid and quiet awe of these far-future humans of a species that has grown old and weary.

But it is only a matter of time before she becomes aware that she is different from those around her, that she is bursting with a vitality not shared by the people of this future time. And it is only natural that she should want to know why she is different, a truth that she will be fed in small spoonfuls so that she will be properly prepared to fulfill her destiny, and not warped or destroyed by it.

There are the bits of humor, like the day Liaei plucks every hair from her scalp and body because she wants to look like everybody else, and the adults respond with those predictable platitudes about how You Look Beautiful Just The Way You Are. For all they live in a future so distant as to be almost alien, based upon the mysterious technology of the Harmonium which sometimes seems almost like magic, the generation gap is still with us.

At last she reaches the age when she is to fulfill the purpose for which she was created. Namely, she is to journey to the other city, the one perched upon the edge of what was once the continental shelf. In a time when resources are few, travel is a rare thing, and thus the voyage along the River that Flows Through the Air takes on an epic quality. Even their speculation of the now-forgotten mechanism that causes the water to flow uphill has a feel not dissimilar to some of the earliest Mars novels, of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the like, when it was still believed that the Red Planet would be the abode of intelligent life, and that their cultures would prove older, perhaps even decayed from an earlier and more vital civilization that had carved the giant canals everyone was sure they could see while squinting through the telescopes of those days.

It's a city very different from the one she has known, but there too the people have the strange ethereal quality, as though they're made of a thinner substance than herself. All save for one, the young man from an earlier age of humanity who is kept within a clockwork mechanism that suspends time and spares him from aging -- but also denies him any experience of the intervening time. He is the Clock King to whom Liaei is to become Queen of the Hourglass in a mating ritual by which they will together revitalize the human species.

Or at least that is the plan. It's worked in previous generations, when humanity needed an infusion of fresh genetic material to keep its ever-thinning vitality up enough to go on. But this time, things are different.

Oh, it's no horrible scene of revulsion, however calculated her initial moves toward him may be as the result of the careful training she's received. If anything, the two of them get along too well once they pass that initial stiff introduction -- they're fascinated with one another and quite happy to spend hours chatting together, discussing all the strange wonders of technologies now lost, of the mysteries of the human heart that have become lost to a future humanity even more refined than Wells' Eloi, to the point where the flesh is but a tenuous envelope, just enough to function. Had they time to get to know one another, they might well have been able to succeed -- but the Clock King doesn't have indefinite time. Allowed to remain too long outside his mechanical device to suspend time, he will begin to age and fade, and thus the last exemplar of the vital human male will pass forever from the world.

But if Liaei is indeed the last of her sort, and what human germ plasm remains lacks the vigor to create another Queen of the Hourglass, does it matter whether the Clock King is preserved for another mating that will never again come? And thus we have a story of melancholy flavor, of a world that is now passing forevermore, not with a bang, but with a whimper. And yet even amidst the profound regret of opportunities lost there is a hint of possibility, as Liaei begins to step beyond her carefully programmed role into a great Unknown, that road that continues beyond the city into a continent now long ruined and forgotten.

This novella was originally published as a limited edition signed hardcover with a companion trade paperback edition by PS Publishing. It was later included in After the Sundial, a collection of Ms. Nazarian's short science fiction. Now it is being made available as a stand-alone digital book.

Review posted August 20, 2012.

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