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Warrior Wisewoman 2 by Roby James, editor.

Published by Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Warrior Wisewoman series of anthologies was developed as the science fiction companion to the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthologies. As such, editor Roby James has been very strict in insisting that there must be an actual element of science at the heart of each and every story. That is, it cannot take place on Mars or some other planet but have technologies that might as well be magic except that they happen to use the language of science and technology, of machines rather than spells and the like. So we're not looking at sword-and-planet romances in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, but something closer to the kind of science fiction John W. Campbell was looking for when he was editor of Astounding (which would later become Analog).

However, this should not be taken to mean that only hard science fiction with rivets is welcome. Most assuredly not, given that a number of the stories in this volume dealt with the social sciences as much as they do with chemistry and physics and the technologies based upon them. Questions of how societies change as their circumstances change in ways never before imagined, for instance in response to a nuclear war or an alien invasion -- or as a result of the deliberate manipulation of their society toward particular ends by those in positions of power.

When I read the very first story in this anthology, "The Executioner" by Jennifer Brissitt, I was oddly reminded of Shirley Jackson's famous short story "The Lottery." Oddly because the two stories have almost nothing in common, other than a death at the end -- one is about ritualized murder, while the other is about justice for murder. Yet as I pondered on why I should immediately flash upon the Shirley Jackson story, I realized that both of them seem to start in an unremarkable rural community, but then reveal a surprising and disturbing element of the society which make us realize that this is most decidedly not our world.

At the same time, this story really makes me think of the place of capital punishment in a society's system of justice. Traditionally, the executioner has been something of an outcast, perhaps formally as was the case of the eta in Tokugawa Japan (whose descendants remain sadly stigmatized to this very day in modern Japan, to the point that the euphemism treadmill has been running through polite terms for them at a truly astonishing speed), but more often symbolically by the hood or mask that hid the executioner's identity as he performed his duties, in order that the deep stigma of this distasteful duty might not carry so strongly onto his off-duty life. But if a society deems capital punishment to be a necessary part of the criminal justice system, is it wise to have it being performed by a stigmatized outsider who is often seen as little better than a criminal himself? If we the good people of society regard it as necessary to put to death those who have taken life, shouldn't we as citizens take some measure of responsibility for carrying it out, rather than shuffling it off onto someone we can then despise?

One of the common tropes of science fiction is the reversal of the expected. In our world, we go to the store, but in Ian Whates' "Shop Talk," the shops go to the customers. The Earth of his future is worn out and resource-poor from the colonization of the stars, with nothing to spare for people to go gallavanting around. As a result, Terran society makes a great effort to supply people's needs locally so that people don't need to travel. The semi-sentient shops, half machine and half organic construct, teleport from community to community according to a prescribed pattern that permits them to remain in a given locale only a limited time.

However, the new shop that has just appeared in Calli's community is most decidedly peculiar. Even in the impoverished Earth of the future, there are still fashions in clothes, but the strange fashions this shop has brought from distant worlds are just a little too alien for the staid tastes of the villagers. When Cally brings one particularly interesting item home, her father becomes offended by its mere presence and adamantly insists that there will be no such things in his house. Troubled, Cally views the video which the shopkeeper gave her and discovers that the occupational assessment system which classified her as most suited to work in the hydroponic farms is in fact a sham which measures nothing about the individual, only the needs of the society to keep everybody in place and everything stable. A stability which those around her treasure so greatly they are willing to resort to violence to preserve it, as she discovers to her horror the very next morning, leaving her with a wrenching choice to make.

It is often said that only Nixon could go to China, that is, that only because President Richard M. Nixon had firmly established his credentials as an anti-communist that he was able to bring about a rapproachment with mainland China. Similarly, the protagonist of Jennifer R Povey's "Working the High Steel" is able to work at a very non-traditional occupation only because she has established herself as being completely traditional in all other aspects of her life. Malisse is a Mohawk, a member of of that Native American nation who have won a place in modern society by building the steel frames of skyscrapers, and has earned herself a place alongside the men of her people, doing that difficult and dangerous work.

In many ways, this story is the most hard science fiction with rivets of the entire anthology, dealing as it does with very technical problems of a space elevator and their resolution. Yet at the same time, the social issues of the place of women in men's world and of ethnic minorities in a whitebread world remain front and center at all times, challenging our presuppositions both about universality and uniqueness.

In Ardath Mayhar's "Changer" we have a situation that is all too frequent here in the Primary World; namely, a small community faced by a rapacious and amoral corporation that wants a resource located within their homeland and doesn't care what kind of harm it will do in the process of obtaining it. The most egregious examples involve tribal peoples who lack the scientific and technological knowledge to understand what they are being asked to agree to, but there have also been incidents in which small towns here in the US have been subjected to abusive practices by corporations who subsequently evaded responsibility for their depredations by the simple expedient of hiring more lawyers than the townsfolk could hope to afford. Memories of such activities are what makes "city slicker" a term of opprobrium in many small towns.

However, Sashemi and her chameleon-skinned people have one peculiar advantage that set themselves apart from human small-town and tribal people trying to resist the encroachment of corporate greed: their ability to read and manipulate electrical fields in their environment, which gives them abilities almost like the typical sf-nal telepathy. They were warned by an earlier space traveler that a deposit of highly valuable mercanium (perhaps an ore of mercury?) is located near their village, but that attempting to extract it would poison the entire region, and that warning, combined with their natural abilities, gives them just enough edge to avoid being taken in by the cynical scouts' manipulations. The portrayal of Sashemi's people may be just a little too close to the stereotypical Noble Savage for some readers, but if you enjoyed the movie Avatar, you will probably enjoy this story of courage and self-sacrifice as well.

In "The Last Nice Afternoon in October" Leslie Brown revisits the theme of the Last Woman On Earth, in a world in which being female has become deadly and women are dying out. The protagonist isn't the very last of her kind (there are a number of little girls being kept perpetually pre-pubescent in order to stave off the inevitable progress of the disease), but the very fact that she is the last adult female survivor of the mysterious woman-killing cancer has made her simultaneously revered and hated. As a result, she and her fellow survivors have been placed under protective custody in the Dakota apartments in New York, a place with poignant historical connotations, in hopes of keeping them safe from those fanatics and madmen who would do them harm.

But even the most luxurious gilded cage can still become stifling, and this is the story of our protagonist's efforts to gain her freedom, even if only as a momentary escape. Disguised as a young man, she slips away from her bodyguard to visit Central Park and view a chillingly transformed New York City in which heterosexual men struggle to cope with the loss of real adult females and the very probable approaching extinction of humanity, unless cloning or some even stranger technology can save something that is at least reasonably human.

Lee Martindale tackles two of humanity's oldest professions -- prostitute and slaver -- in her story "Lady Blaze." When beautiful young Felicity comes to the narrator's ship looking for work, the experienced madam knows that something's amiss. Oh, her references and presentation are impeccable, but they're all an act. A little firm questioning gets the truth -- she's attempting to track down the criminals who murdered her husband and kidnapped her little boy. Thugs from a notorious brigand ship captained by a woman, the infamous Sick Jenn Shick.

So it's just a matter of tracking down her ship, the Vulture and finding a way to get inside her guard long enough to interrogate her and find out what happened to the missing little boy. Or at least that's the theory. I'll warn you right now that this is not a story with a happily-ever-after ending, and while the narrator's role in the story is over at the end, I'd really like to read the rest of Felicity's story and know how it ends. Never mind that it's going to be a grim story in which she may well end up dirtying her hands so badly that she can be regarded as nothing better than a criminal herself, all for the love of that little lost boy, I just want to know how it ends up and whether she ever does find out what happened to him.

In "The Making of Her" Sarah Ellender and Michael O'Connor give us a world divided between two groups of settlers, those who specialized in the mechanical sciences and those who concentrated upon the biological. After generations of sundering, emissaries are now being sent in an effort to reunite them, or at least form some kind of rapproachment between them. But the Geneers are divided among themselves, and Lady Shaarel's trip to the meetingplace is imperiled by rebels, in spite of the efforts of her guardian Sygia, a symbiotic not-quite-animal of striking beauty and intelligence. A creature that must struggle to control the animal side of herself, even as she must use the very violence which brings forth that animal side in order to protect her beloved mistress. This is another story with a bittersweet ending of terrible prices, although at least it definitely resolves and I feel like it is complete.

In "Sister Grass" Deborah Walker gives us a poignant story of a girl who's had to grow up far too fast. In a future in which Earth has been conquered by the alien Kristralls, Neve and her sister Penny live in a refugee camp supposedly established as an act of benevolence by their conquerors. But it's a narrow and impoverished existence, and when the Kristralls speak of their subject races earning a place in their society, they speak in terms of generations, not years. Many of the camp's inmates have given up any hope of bettering themselves and just sleepwalk through life, satisfied to have enough to eat and clothes on their backs, not even bothering to take care of the small tasks that might help make the place a bit nicer.

Neve is determined not to let their situation beat her down, and has determinedly saved the small allowance the Kristralls dole out to refugees, even doing small errands in order to gain a little more money, all in order to put together the fee to enter the games. These games apparently serve as amusements to the Kristralls and the few subject races that have been given status, but Neve knows almost nothing about them because mere refugees aren't allowed any entertainment media. Thus she has nothing to go on but the vague, circular answers given to her by the administrators when choosing which game to play -- and quickly discovers that she is over her head, that the games involve not only super-advanced technologies, but ways of thinking that are quite alien to humans.

And just to make things even worse, one of the Kristralls is inserting himself into the game for some purpose of his own. He claims that he is helping Neve, but it is clear that he intends to get the better of the bargain. However, Neve is determined not to end up a mere puppet of humanity's alien conquerors, but neither is she going to forfeit the game simply to spite him. The ending is suitably poignant, yet offers hope that Neve will not be crushed by the stultifying existence the Kristralls impose upon their conquered races.

The next story, Jeff Crook's "Heart Bowed Down," is also about war and conquest, but there is none of the Kristralls' benevolent condescension in the Pythonians, only the determination to crush absolutely all human resistance. And the humans are equally determined to retain at least some fragment of their own independence in a ruined city surrounded by an alien atmosphere, protected only by a powerful force field which the Pythonians can disrupt in order to punish humanity. Into this horrific situation comes Joan, an android in the form of a human female, badly damaged by an attack during her attempt to infiltrate but still surprisingly functional. If she is to succeed in her mission, she must connect with the inventor who created the shield -- but he is weary of war, weary of watching his people die from the alien occupiers' brutalities, and most of all he no longer trusts humanity's Republic to play straight with him and not sell his people down the river for some advantage in the greater war. It's a grim story, grittily realistic in its handling of the ugly prices of war, and I could just as easily have imagined it being published by Baen in one of their military science fiction anthologies.

In "Peacock Dancer" Catherine Mintz gives us a woman struggling with the ending of her career, and the fact that she will soon be replaced by her successor. Like a professional athlete, a professional dancer often has a very short productive life, such that just as she has begun to truly master the skills of her art, her body is becoming old enough that she can no longer perform them at the peak. Just to add insult to injury, the protagonist of this story has the knowledge that her successor is not some bright-eyed newcomer from the hinterland, but her own clone, created when her talents became obvious and raised for the sole purpose of replacing her when the time comes. Thinking to recapture her own lost youth, she goes home only to realize just how much she's changed in the time she's been away from the dingy little village in which she was raised, and worse, how much her own family has changed in his absence. But in the end, she discovers a new purpose, a new work through which she can continue to use her carefully-honed skills after she has passed her prime as a performer. Here's another story that makes me want to know what else happens to the protagonist, even if the story has technically reached its resolution.

David Bartell gives us a different look at the weight of the past and the problem of setting it aside in "Bloody Albatross," the story of a saving remnant on the Moon as Earth is about to be destroyed by a giant meteor. Each of the carefully selected refugees has been allowed to bring a small number of mementos by which those who were left behind may be remembered. For the most part they are of happy things, memories of which humanity may be proud. But Netty has brought with her something that speaks of darker times, of cruelty and oppression and exploitation -- and now she must decide whether to preserve it or to destroy it. On one hand, the destruction wreaked by the meteor offers the possibility of a clean start, an opportunity to set behind us the ugly deeds of the past. On the other hand, if we throw all evidence of the crimes of past generations down the memory hole, will we also forget why we must make sure they do not happen again?

In "Gardens of Wind" Kate MacLeod takes us to a future in which the entire surface of the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable as a result of pollution, and the few remaining humans live in crude arcologies which float above the filthy clouds, visited betimes by airships. Akeli has been under pressure to remarry since her beloved Brandon's airship was reported destroyed, but she has been resisting. Already she has watched her children fall to their doom, and the torment was made worse by the way in which her son went, in a makeshift parachute trying to find his way to the lost surface and the ruins of the cities that once stood there. It's a grim world, but the author still manages to give us a hint of hope at the end, at least for Akeli.

Environmental concerns are also at the heart of the next story, "Silent Whispers" by Karen Elizabeth Rigley and Anne Miller House. The protagonist is a Xenologist whose duty is to ensure that mining operations on an alien world do not unnecessarily damage its ecology, and particularly that it does not infringe upon the rights of any native sapient life. In the beginning she befriends a telepath exiled from his own people because he cannot control his ability to send and is therefore constantly spewing his thoughts upon everyone else, welcome or not. Just as they are getting to know one another, a disastrous accident kills several miners, and the alien telepath agrees to help her determine its cause. What she discovers will challenge people's understanding of what it means to be a person, not to mention several vested interests who would seriously prefer that these awkward discoveries did not become generally known.

Z. S. Adani's "Beneath the Alien Shield" is the story that comes closest to horror, in the tradition of the Alien series of movies. There's no malign supernatural here, only an alien whose very existence is inimical to human life. In this case, an alien whose life cycle rather resembles those of digger wasps, using a human-inhabited asteroid to make the nest in which it will raise its young, and using human bodies as raw material not only for the feeding of its young, but for its technology which seems to be a mixture of the mechanical and the biological. All attempts to communicate with the alien Hermit, whether directly or via the proxy of the human heads that have been incorporated into some of its sentinel robots, have failed dismally and there is some serious question as to whether it is even intelligent in the usual sense of being conscious and self-aware -- perhaps it, like the Scramblers of Peter Watts' Blindsight, has attained technological capability without the ability to contemplate and alter its own thought processes. In any case, it poses a deadly threat to all human life in the Solar System, and the protagonist is a nanotech-enhanced super-commando who has been sent to infiltrate the asteroid and eliminate this horror by whatever means may be necessary. I will give fair warning that this is an exceedingly grim story, perhaps the most frightening in the entire anthology. I was reading it in the evening and I knew that I had to finish reading it before going to bed because otherwise I would not be able to go to sleep for wondering how it ended -- and then I was very relieved when I didn't have nightmares about it afterward.

The final story, "Rainfire by Night" by D. J. Cockburn, is another post-apocalyptic story, set in a world that has technologically and socially regressed to warring tribes who regard the relics of our own time as imbued with magical power. The protagonist has grown up in a tribe that seems to be little more than a street gang, for all they use the language of corporate leadership in titling their leaders. When she is sent as a spy to a neighboring tribe under the guise of being a peace-offering bride, she discovers that there are other ways for men and women to relate to one another -- but to embrace them would mean betraying everything and everyone she knows.

Overall, it's a very strong anthology that doesn't have one single clunker among them. Although a couple of the stories were not quite to my tastes, even the scary ones had a terrible power that has to be appreciated even by someone who relentlessly does not like horror.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Roby James
  • "The Executioner" by Jennifer Brissett
  • "Shop Talk" by Ian Whates
  • "Working the High Steel" by Jennifer R. Povey
  • "Changer" by Ardath Mayhar
  • "The Last Nice Afternoon in October" by Leslie Brown
  • "Lady Blaze" by Lee Martindale
  • "The Making of Her" by Sarah Ellender and Michael O'Connor
  • "Sister Grass" by Deborah Walker
  • "Heart Bowed Down" by Jeff Crook
  • "Peacock Dancer" by Catherine Mintz
  • "Bloody Albatross" by David Bartell
  • "Gardens of Wind" by Kate MacLeod
  • "Silent Whispers" by Karen Elizabeth Rigley and Anne Miller House
  • "Beneath the Alien Shield" by Z. S. Adani
  • "Rainfire by Night" by D. J. Cockburn
  • About the Authors

Review posted January 1, 2010

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