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Warrior Wisewoman 3 by Roby James, editor

Published by Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Warrior Wisewoman series of anthologies was conceived to be the science fiction companion to the long-running Sword and Sorceress series after it was taken over by Norilana. As such, editor Roby James has insisted that all the stories be based around a firmly scientific element. There will be no science fantasy here, in which magic is given the trappings of science and technology. In her introduction to this volume, she illustrates the concept with the story of how the movie Apollo 13, a docudrama of an actual moon-mission disaster and safe return home, won the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo -- an award for science fiction movies. Although it was the story of actual events in the US space program, it felt like science fiction to so many viewers in the community that they gave it the same accolade usually given to stories of imagined flights in space.

However, that shouldn't be taken to read that she wants only hard sf with all the science meticulously accounted for according to present theories. She's willing to overlook a little rubber science, as long as it feels scientific, and the world feels like one based upon science rather than magic.

That is the case with the very first story in this volume, Gwendolyn Clare's "Driving X." Although I can't figure out the mechanism by which the titular gene would actually be able to work as described in the story, it's not that critical to the story. Rather, its focus is firmly upon the sociological implications of a world in which X chromosomes are somehow pushing aside the Y chromosome which creates males. In many ways it's a mirror image of Leslie Brown's "The Last Nice Afternoon in October" in the second volume of the Warrior Wisewoman anthology series, in which an estrogen-activated cancer was killing off women, leaving the men facing a womanless future and the choice between completely artificial reproductive technology and extinction.

"Heart of Stone" by Joel Richards may well be the one fantasy story that Ms. James mentions in her introduction, dealing as it does with the survival of a certain mythological being into the modern age. To say more would be to spoil the Big Reveal at the end, but I will say that the social implications are thought through in a thoroughly scientific fashion.

We all know what a tourist trap is -- most of us have probably visited a few over the years. In her story of that title, Aimee C. Amodio imagines a world in which the expression isn't just metaphorical, but literal. Endless Summer is a world of deadly beauty, with its siren seas that call humans to their doom. Some people come just to be able to say they've seen this particular notorious world, while others come seeking a quick and painless release from one or another fatal disease consuming them. Haryn, one of the survivors of the original colonists, works as a guide, and is quite surprised to encounter a tourist whose purpose in coming doesn't follow the usual pattern. Its ending makes me think very much of Greek myth, of how Odysseus got his ship safely past the original Sirens by plugging the ears of his sailors with wax so they could not hear these mythical beings' deadly call, but had himself bound to the mast so that he would be able to hear their song but not act upon it.

From a deadly alien ecosystem we come back home to an Earth become deadly as the result of ecological collapse in Bruce Golden's "Dinner for One." After Violet's husband left her and took their beloved son with him, she has been struggling to survive in a dying city. After months of careful saving, she has bought herself a special treat -- a tiny steak of real beef. After a whole workday of anticipation she's sitting down to carefully broil it and savor every bite when what should happen but a power outage. Now she can't cook her steak, and neither can she keep it for another night without refrigeration. So out she heads onto the mean streets in search of a black-market powerpack, because she wants her steak, dammit.

As a previously law-abiding citizen, Violet is hardly streetwise and as such is ill-prepared to deal with the casual brutality she encounters. She doesn't even know who she can trust and who might well betray her in a heartbeat. It's one close call after another, and there were several times when I was certain that things would go very badly. But the ending proves to be not only happy, but positively heartwarming proof that selfishness does not always triumph and kindness can lead to further kindness.

Racing is probably one of humanity's oldest sports -- almost every known human culture has footraces, and as humans have developed other forms of transportation, we have begun racing them as well. Domestication of the horse led to chariot races and horseback races. The first boats may have been mere methods of getting across bodies of water, but soon people were racing one boat against another in contests of both shipbuilding and seamanship skills. As soon as the automobile was invented, people began putting it on the race track.

The idea of racing space yachts is not original to Jennifer R Povey -- Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story using technology very similar to what she describes in his own 1964 short story "Sunjammer." What makes "The Race" special is Ms. Povey's look at the social and economic aspects of solar-sail racing. Even here in the Primary World automotive racing is a very costly sport, and professional teams in NASCAR and the open-wheel racing leagues have to spend significant time and energy soliciting corporate sponsorships to fund their racing endeavors. How much more so would be the case for people racing space yachts -- which is the problem Elayne and Charlotte face in carrying on their father's legacy. If they don't win this race, they'll have to give up their own yacht and hire on with one of the corporate racing teams -- but can they bring themselves to win by leaving another team to die the way their father was?

The ending is a real Crowning Moment of Heartwarming -- yet something about it seems almost too good to be true, a little too much like one of those stories you read in a certain kind of children's book where the good little children always get a tangible reward. Sadly, all too often goodness has to be its own reward for the simple reason that it's the only reward that you get -- which makes it all the more disappointing if you've been brought up on stories like this in which the characters nobly sacrifice their goal in order to help someone else out, and instead end up with an even bigger reward at the end than they were pursuing originally.

The next story is a darker one in which the hard prices will be paid and there is no wondrous last-minute save. The protagonist of Al Onia's "The Envoy" is a member of an order of peacemakers who help to bring quarreling alien races to see one another's point of view by bringing a representative of each side into their minds to see one another from the inside out. But it's a one-time posting for each Envoy, for what it does to them is downright shuddersome. Yet they gladly embrace this fate worse than death for the higher good they hope to achieve through it.

In "Bearer of Burdens" Melissa Mead gives us a story of substitutionary atonement of a most peculiar sort that will have the reader re-thinking their notions of women, size and eating. The protagonist, an unnamed painter, comes to a distant world to paint the titular Bearer, and as a result becomes entangled in the politics of the strange religious movement to whom she has become a sin-eater in a rather literal way -- with the obvious consequences. Now she is reaching the point at which she can go on no longer, and she is becoming increasingly concerned that one of her servants is being manipulated into taking her place without having truly consented to the role. But in a community with very rigid ideas about how things will be done, bucking it will take not only intense cooperation, but trust.

Swapna Kishore takes us to a grim future India in "What Lies Dormant," the story of a family who is fleeing fear and hatred. They are gatherers, people capable of harvesting lifeen -- life energy -- from the corpses of the dead. In the worst years right after the horrors of the war, their quasi-vampiric ability was tolerated because it enabled a saving remnant of regular humans to survive. But now they have become hate objects, and the protagonist soon gets a brutally personal lesson in just how violent such irrational hate can become. But she is determined to not just survive, but carve some kind of life for herself, and that means having to find some way to show the rest of humanity that her people can become a positive force in the world rather than just vulture-like drainers of corpses, defiled and defiling.

Susanne Martin's "Katyusha's First Trip Out" is also a story of the struggle for survival in a ruined world, but of ecological catastrophe rather than war. Some time in the story's past, global warming and pollution reached a critical point in which a runaway reaction was set off, leaving the entire Earth's atmosphere a foul soup of toxins. A tiny community has survived in the shelter of one of Murmansk's canneries, but it can keep going only by scavenging resources from the surrounding countryside, which means braving the deadly foul soup of pollution that exists beyond its carefully guarded doors. So tight are the margins of survival that every adult who is physically capable of the job has to shoulder it -- but Olga wants to protect her daughter, whom she still sees as her little girl, thus leading to an act of subtle but nearly disastrous sabotage. Although there's not a whole lot of hope for the future at the end of this story of a very grim world, I really liked the way that the author took the time to make the usages of Russian names correct, particularly the forename-and-patronymic form of address and the various degrees of diminutives. Although the transliterations of certain names were different from what I'm used to (Sergej rather than Sergei, Alexej rather than Alexei), I really felt like the author was familiar with Russian culture and naming conventions.

There's an old saying that no good deed goes unpunished, and sadly it often seems all too true. Alfred D. Byrd's "Natural Law" is the story of a compassionate woman who tried to keep loving families from being torn apart as a technophobic community prepared to leave the Solar System to colonize a distant star system according to their beliefs. However, in doing so she had to help break their laws, which forbade them to break one law to undo the previous breaking of another -- and careful as she had been to keep her actions secret, there was no way to hide the recipients' joyous reactions. It's a story where there aren't any nice tidy answers, even when certain people desperately want them and are willing to shut out anybody who's even just a little smidgen on the wrong side of their line.

What's medically necessary? Who gets to decide, and on what criteria? Susan Tsui's "Baby, Be Mine" is the story of a future in which artificial uterine environments are available -- but insurance company beancounters get to decide who gets to use them and who has to use other therapies to get through difficult or dangerous pregnancies. The protagonist has an autoimmune disease, but the bureaucrats insist that immunosuppressive drugs are a perfectly adequate solution to enable her to carry her pregnancy to term, never mind the risk to the developing baby of an immunocompromised mother. So she battles the whole system for her yet-to-be-conceived child's best chance at good health -- and when it refuses to budge, faces an even more unpalatable choice. But even with her child yet unconceived, she is already a mother within her own mind and heart, so her final decision is hardly surprising. Some prices are too high, particularly when they're made by people who don't even regard that little mite as a person, but a thing, be it an expense on a balance sheet or a trophy.

Three-score and ten shall be the span of a man's life. The universality of old age and death has been a great leveler -- but what if it were not necessarily true? Or rather, what would happen if it were still true for men in the sense of male persons, but not for women? This is the world of Gary Kloster's "Mayfly," in which a radical breakthrough which undoes aging for women but is deadly for men has led to anger and terrorism. And now that humanity has a chance to go to the stars, they're so angry they're willing to risk it all to get a lick in at what they see as an enemy.

Throughout history men have made the decision to go to war while women have dutifully sent their sons off to kill and die and have kept the home front going in their absence. In Therese Arkenberg's "To the Altar," a woman president on a far distant colony world is fighting a war not dissimilar to our own War on Terror, yet at the same time reminiscent of the Japanese kamikaze of World War II. The enemy is too weak to have a chance in a stand-up battle, so they send their fighters in more subtle ways, creating an endless stream of wounds. Frustrated by the inability to gain a decisive victory with conventional warfare, she is seriously contemplating using the terrible weapons described in the records of the ships that brought their ancestors to this world. And then comes a suicide fighter of the other side on a most extraordinary mission, very different from what everybody expects. Although the story ends on somewhat ambiguous note, the important moral and philosophical issues have been firmly dealt with.

We are already talking about information overload, about the limits of people to assimilate and process the continual stream of incoming news and other data with which modern life inundates us. But for the protagonist of Paul Abbamondi's "Sustain Nothing," it's even worse. Maurene is an Informant, a person implanted with computer technology that enables her to have every fact in the entire city of Redgather at her fingertips. When it finally becomes too much to handle any more, she decides that she has to make it stop, if not forever, at least long enough that she can relax and take a break. But Makehouse, the company that created the Informant system, insists that there is no way to shut off the information stream.

Determined not to be thwarted, Maurene finds a hidden file in an old friend's computer which proves to have the keys she needs. Or is it? Somehow it works too well, with disastrous consequences. Suddenly she is on the run, and there are hints that what she found was not the respite she wanted, but a failsafe intended to ensure that the watchmen would still be watched. A failsafe which has instead failed the whole city, leaving it without any watchmen -- and leaving Maurene in a desperate search for the real answers behind the ones she's been given.

First contact gone wrong has been a common trope of science fiction -- we need only look at what happened to the native peoples of the Americas and Australia after the arrival of the Europeans to see just what can happen to local populations when technologically superior outsiders arrive. But in science fiction we can have the possibility that locals who are inferior in terms of the technologies with which we are familiar may have other ways with which they might be able to hold their own. In "The Truth One Sees," Kathy Hurley gives us a seer of a most interesting sort, and maybe just a little hope that this time things will turn out better than they did for the civilizations that were in the Americas when the conquistadores arrived

William Highsmith's "Mater Luna" is a story of what happens to a colony on the Moon after Earth destroys itself in war. But while all may look hopeless, a race of aliens who arrive in the Solar System millennia later see a glimmer of hope that perhaps one small saving remnant may yet be rescued, thanks to a mother's love and desperate determination.

In Leslie Brown's "A Pearl of Great Price," humanity is much sought after by the viler elements of galactic society, who take sadistic delight in our capacity to endure pain. But even those humans who have been rescued from slavery by the more principled galactic races are not truly free, as the aliens keep the saving remnant in their Sanctuary that is in many ways little more than a zoo or nature preserve. However, humanity's spirit has not been completely broken, and there are those who resent the condescension of the aliens and want to free their fellow humans from slavery on their own terms -- not to be carefully protected like perpetual children, but to have full freedom and self-determination. However, as the protagonist discovers, such groups can have disastrous consequences upon the more careful operations of galactic law enforcement with which she is involved, and sometimes one really does need to swallow one's pride in order to bring about long-term good.

In "Dark Mirrors" John Walters gives us another story of a woman faced with the horrors of war. Earth is besieged by mysterious aliens of extraordinary power. No matter what we do to fight them off, they hit us back twice as hard. Increasingly desperate, humanity is scraping the bottom of the barrel to find soldiers to attack the alien ships. The protagonist is adamantly opposed to war, and she believes that there may be another way to bring this disastrous conflict to an end, beside continuing to fight until the last human dies in one last futile sally against the aliens. However, I will warn you in advance that this story has a lady-and-the-tiger ending. This may be frustrating for some readers.

The final story, Douglas Smith's "A Bird in the Hand," begins with a woman being held in a super-secret government laboratory. What country exactly is uncertain -- it has a Department of Justice like the United States, but its legislative body is Parliament rather than Congress. Perhaps it is not intended to be any specific country, but is instead intended to have a universality representing the potential of any purportedly democratic government to become repressive in the operation of its law enforcement system if it feels itself under siege.

And according to the government researchers, they are under siege of a most peculiar nature -- the Herok'a, a race of shapeshifters who are the source for our legends of werewolves and the like. A race of vicious murderers, according to these two men, who are part of a law enforcement effort so super-secret that the government is actively denying its very existence. They've captured her off the street and are trying an experimental drug that will compel Herok'a to transform into their beastly forms.

Except she's swallowing more of the drug than any previous subject and showing not the first sign of a shift. Could they be wrong about their identification of her as a Herok'a? Will they be willing to admit the possibility that they were wrong in capturing her and let her go, or will they decide to murder her out of hand to eliminate an awkward witness? Or maybe they could be even more wrong than they imagined. Suppose not all of the Herok'a are humans that take animal form? Suppose there was also something else that turned into humans?

It's a very interesting turn-around story, in which our expectations are upended at the last minute. However, since the story is written from Ms. Hoyl's point of view, it might have been good to have just a little more foreshadowing of the Big Reveal at the end so that it doesn't come across as coming out of nowhere. However, it is still a good read, and sadly, far too relevant to our own present world.

The volume is concluded with biographies of the various contributors.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Roby James
  • "Driving X" by Gwendolyn Clare
  • "Heart of Stone" by Joel Richards
  • "Tourist Trap" by Aimee C. Amodio
  • "Dinner for One" by Bruce Golden
  • "The Race" by Jennifer R. Povey
  • "The Envoy" by Al Onia
  • "Bearer of Burdens" by Melissa Mead
  • "What Lies Dormant" by Swapna Kishore
  • "Katyusha's First Trip Out" by Susanne Martin
  • "Natural Law" by Alfred D. Byrd
  • "Baby, Be Mine" by Susan Tsui
  • "Mayfly" by Gary Kloster
  • "To the Altar" by Therese Arkenberg
  • "Sustain Nothing" by Paul Abbamondi
  • "The Truth One Sees" by Kathy Hurley
  • "Mater Luna" by William Highsmith
  • "A Pearl of Great Price" by Leslie Brown
  • "Dark Mirrors" by John Walters
  • "A Bird in the Hand" by Douglas Smith
  • About the Authors

Review posted May 20, 2010.

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