Review: Jim Baen's Universe Volume One Number Three
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Jim Baen's Universe arrived as a zip of .htm and other files. Once I'd worked out that I was supposed to start with the toc file, navigating through the issue in my browser was straightforward. However, reading the issue on screen was uncomfortably like working through slush, and I found it difficult to turn off the inner editor, or even to bash it into silence for long enough to enjoy the read.
This issue offers a cornucopia of content. Seventeen stand-alone stories (one a classic), two episodes from serials, and five non-fiction pieces, including a thoughtful and affectionate obituary for Jim Baen, who died around this time last year. Illustrated throughout with original artwork, JBU amply demonstrates the added value of e-publication. It's impossible that even the most discerning reader of SFF won't find something here to enjoy.
My favourite story, which I remember seeing in slush on the Baen Bar, comes from the "Introducing New Authors" slot that's reserved for up-and-coming authors who haven't previously broken into professional markets. Jeremiah Sturgill's "Songbird" is a nicely understated story of a vasya, a singer of the sounds of nature, and a boy who seeks to be his apprentice. The narrator's external crustiness contrasts effectively with his compassionate nature, and the story is well paced and ultimately satisfying. Editor Eric Flint makes no secret of his preference for third-person stories, but this piece demonstrates how well first person can work in the right hands. Another outstanding story is John Barnes' "Every Hole is Outlined", which almost pulls off the difficult feat of setting a short story over a long period of time. I say "almost" because I felt myself losing interest towards the end. Unity of place helps hold the story together, but the disappearance of characters you're just getting to know is frustrating.
The classic story, Rudyard Kipling's "A Matter of Fact", again in first person, is also engaging and well told. Kipling, better known for "The Jungle Book", brings us a tale of a sea monster's tragic death, and the consequences for an ambitious journalist. It's not so much, here, what the story is, but how it's told, an area in which, unfortunately, many of the other stories in this collection fall below Kipling's standard.
JBU's stated aim is to publish "Golden Age" Science Fiction, as well as Fantasy. Although the Golden Age of SF is popularly considered to be thirteen, my own understanding of the term is that the story's ideas are considered more important than literary values, characterisation, or story and character arcs. Thus we have Mike Resnick's "All the Things You Are". Intrigued by the have-a-go-heroics of a handful of survivors of a military action on the supposedly-uninhabited planet Nikita, security guard Gregory Donovan investigates beyond the point of safe return. This one falls straight into the first person trap: the cold, clinical narrative voice renders the character's motivations impenetrable, and therefore implausible. His refusal, or inability, to see what's staring him in the face makes it hard to care about him. But the idea is clever, as is the idea behind S. Andrew Swann's "A Time to Kill", another piece with a protagonist who, it seems, won't ever learn.
Less engaging were "The Power of Illusion" by Christopher Anvil, which bogs down an intriguing idea in superfluous dialogue, and Wen Spencer's "Protection Money," a potentially interesting tale of prejudice and victory against the odds that stops rather than ending. If you love twee, you'll love Rebecca Lickiss's "Gnome Improvement". If you don't, then there are sixteen other stories you might love. That's the real advantage of JBU, and it's a shame that the future of the magazine is apparently dependent on a reduction in the amount of content.
In non-fiction, we have a considered piece about terraforming Mars that'll confirm every doubt you've ever had about whether it's possible outside the realms of fiction. In "Terraforming: A Bumpy Road Ahead," B.B. Kristopher sets out the problems with the proposed methods. Elsewhere, Eric Flint argues for a short copyright term--the author's lifetime or forty-two years, whichever is the longer. After beating writers over the head with the unlikelihood of their work ever seeing print, Flint goes on to compare royalties to a waitress's tips. Argument by analogy, although superficially convincing, ignores the fact that although many things are similar in one or more respects, very few are similar in all their respects. At some point, the analogy will break down, and the only hope for the argument then is that nobody notices.
JBU is a massive read. Even at an accelerated pace, with a deadline looming, it took me days to read it all. This is what I want from a magazine: a variety of stories to get my teeth into and some non-fiction to leaven the mixture. The only drawback was that I couldn't take it with me to my usual reading place--it just isn't possible to snuggle up in bed with a computer.
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