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Fiction Review: Triangulation: End of Time, edited by Pete Butler

Triangulation: End of Time is the latest entry in a series of annual anthologies put out by PARSEC, “Pittsburgh’s premier science fiction organization.” Each of the stories somehow touches on the theme “End of Time,” but wide-ranging and far-reaching is the name of the game here. In typical speculative fiction fashion, the anthology’s twenty stories cover territory ranging from the wild west to the far future to even more exotic locales, some of which exist outside of time itself.

If I had to point out a weakness in the anthology–and I must point out at least one, as that is what reviewers do–then that would be it. Although every type of science fiction fan will greatly enjoy at least a few of the stories in the anthology, it is equally certain that few will be enchanted with them all. But then, that’s not so much a design flaw as it is a conscious trade off, and one that is not a bad choice for an anthology to make. The stories collected in Triangulation: End of Time will help expand your reading horizons, and they will help scratch your very particular, hard-to-reach, highly personal speculative fiction itch. Not bad for $12.

“A Job for Life” by Ian Creasey

The anthology opens with a quick, fun story about someone who is applying for a job as a receptionist. Of course there is a twist at the end, but there is not much more I can say without getting yelled at for spoiling it all, so I’ll leave it at that. The writing is engaging and personable, and it leaves just enough space between the lines for the reader to almost catch on before the payoff and to make a second read almost as amusing as the first.

Yes, I’m getting to the point. Lots of people did want to live on the crapper, because they were scared of leaving their bodies. We’d say, “come on in, the silicon’s fine,” but they thought it was all a plot to drag them into electronic Hell.

So I spent a lot of time counseling people who were about to leave their bodies behind. And I think that’s very appropriate experience.”

“America is Coming!” by Dario Ciriello

The second part of the opening one-two punch is not quite as smooth as the first stylistically, but it has that old-school sci-fi feeling the first story is missing, as more than anything else, it is a story about in idea. In this particular case, that idea would be a near-future in which North America disconnects from, well, everything, and starts spinning around the globe like a mad top, crashing into and destroying whatever gets in its way. Things like Italy and Africa.

While fun, I would have preferred an even pulpier, more ridiculous story, or an idea more solidly grounded in some sort of probable (even if only just) what-if. While the idea of an America run amok is ripe for winks and nods toward current events, the author chooses to avoid that combination goldmine/minefield almost entirely, and the joking banter of the two protagonists isn’t enough to unify the adventure heavy first half and the comic closing. C’est la vie–we don’t always get what we want, and I’m sure lots of readers will absolutely love it just the way it is.

“I read this article in La Republica.”

“That communist rag!”

“Well, why not? How does one explain that America only loses little bits of land along the coast, while everything it bangs into falls to pieces? Brazil, Spain, North Africa, all of them reduced to splinters.”

With a last, silent farewell to his beloved little rowboat, Peppino started toward the wheelhouse. “Well, Brazil was probably very soft, just soggy earth under all that water from the Amazon. Africa… hm.” Salvatore had a point.

“Exactly!” Salvatore exclaimed triumphantly. “Africa!”

“Morris and the Machine” by Tim Pratt

Warning: this section is particularly spoilerific

This story gets nearly everything right by spending very little time on the inconsequential, and lingering on the human. Everyone is familiar with the idea of time machines and time travel; no need to beat a dead horse to death. Pratt instead opens the story with an in-depth portrait of Morris, the driven inventor, and Penelope, the wife who has been driven to the edge by her husband. The well-written first pages, during which the couple argues, set the stage for the following act, in which Morris describes the machine (briefly) and how the time travel it enables is of the Sterling-Shinerian variety. As I can’t find anything online about the phrase, I’ll let the story speak for itself:

But this was Sterling-Shinerian time travel instead. The past was another country, time a garden of infinitely forking paths. I could change this path, but when I returned home, my world would be the same as always. Maybe someday that would change, if I could fix the machine, but for now, I did what I could, took the comfort it gave me, and seized what happiness I could.

The machine defies his attempts at refinement, always sending him back to the same place and time–his own past, on a particular day, when Penny was still young and beautiful and in love with him. Taking a cue from Groundhog Day, Morris has, through trial and error, perfected the moment: he has learned where to find Penny, how to approach her, what to say. He feeds her stock tips, so as to help her gain enough financial security to weather the turbulent times ahead, when his alternate self ruins them financially during his obsessive quest to master the time machine, and sometimes–not always, but sometimes–things work out just-so, and he and the younger Penny of his youth and dreams seduce each other.

The tragic irony of it all is delightful, as awful a thing as that is to say about tragedy. Morris helps alternate versions of himself avoid the trap he has fallen into, but he can never save his own life, his own doomed present, his own marriage. Or rather, he could, but he is too enthralled with the past to realize that attention, hard work, perseverance and love are what is necessary, not a magic bullet in the form of a time machine.

“That Ain’t a Mosey” by Jeff Parish

The first of the stories to carry a warning about potential disturbing content, “That Ain’t a Mosey” is your typical old west cowboy zombie horror mashup. Before you chuckle, there was very little irony in the description I just gave; while the setting is certainly unique (and anything set in the old west gets an automatic +10 from me), the actual story itself sticks very close to well-established conventions and is a bit more “typical” than I would prefer. Instead of a voodoo witchdoctor’s curse, or a chemical spill, this particular outbreak of zombies is caused by a Native American’s poison arrow. From there, it continues down a predictable course: the town is overrun by zombies, and a small band of survivors concoct a desperate, last-ditch plan to save the world, if not themselves. Even the “rules” that govern the marauding zombies are as close to the baseline as you can get, with zombies dying a second time only after being shot in the head, and the freshly-eaten rising to join the undead hoard.

Then again, why reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to? Fans of zombie stories will likely get a kick out of this one, and I have an inordinate fondness for the line from which the story’s name is pulled. Call me crazy, but I think it’s just plain good writing.

“It’s Billy Ray,” he said over his shoulder. “Doc said he’d be up and moseying in no time. I guess he was right.” He turned back to the street. “Billy Ray! Over here!”

“Pete,” John Boy said.

“We’re right here!”

“Pete!” His tone grew more urgent, and he grabbed Pete’s arm.

“I ain’t gonna leave him out there for those things.” He shook the hand off angrily. The monsters had nearly reached the corner of the courthouse. “Billy Ray!”

“Pate! That ain’t a mosey, and that ain’t Billy Ray–at least, not any more.”

“Late” by Idan Cohen

A quick, tense story about a man who almost misses his wedding, scheduled just before the end of the world. There is not much else that can be said. The writing is solid, and though the concept is not complicated, it certainly fits in with the anthology’s theme and is enough to justify the story’s length. Perhaps the item I found most noteworthy is that this story, out of all of the ones in the anthology, is the only one to deal with a somewhat traditional, Christian understanding of the end of the world. Later stories do go on to riff on some of the ideas of Christianity, but they are more reimaginings, whereas this story is simply an imagining.

Noon! Oh shit, Kole suddenly thinks, not yet certain why he’s panicking. Oh shit, he thinks, beginning to remember. He turns to the clock on the wall. His eyes widen. Oh shit!

He grabs his jacket, stuffs his cigarettes into his pocket, and tears out of the pub before anyone can think to ask him to pay for his coffee. The smoke left behind coils into the vague shape of a five-pointed star.

“Near Absolute Zero” Jetse de Vries

The second story to carry a warning about its content, “Near Absolute Zero” is one of those stories I found to be not quite my cup of tea. The plot follows Cherry Hall, an investigator who is sent to interview one Nigel Jackson, an inmate at a maximum security facility. Over the course of the story, we learn that Nigel Jackson was a scientist, a true genius and part of a team studying a powerful alien artifact that enabled people to travel to the center of the universe. Something he saw there caused him to destroy the artifact and kill everyone he worked with, and Cherry Hall intends to find out what.

For some, the world building, the interactions between the two main characters, and the ultimate revelation as to what Nigel saw will prove to be more than satisfying. As for me, I ended the story feeling somewhat disenchanted by Cherry Hall’s interrogation techniques, including the extended sex scene that earned the story its warning. They seemed too pedestrian, too ham-handed, for a situation with such colossal ramifications and for a woman who is supposed to be “the best.” I would have hoped for a slightly more tense and interesting battle of wits, particularly in a story set so far in the future, freed from many of the chains contemporary realism would demand.

Grain of salt time: you know what they say about opinions. If the story sounds like your thing, it probably is.

“Can you tell me what you have seen at the other side of the wormhole?” I ask him after our menu is served.

“Same as the rest: nothing.”

“That’s not much. Not quite enough to willfully destroy the single greatest artifact humanity ever found.”

“Exactly.”

“The Bridge” by Michael Stone

This story is one that loops back in on itself, and that is one of the hardest kinds of stories to pull off. I’m not entirely certain Michael Stone is successful in doing so, but the story does contain my favorite line in the entire anthology, and for that, I am grateful.

But the snow is not virgin, for a single set of footprints have compressed the snow into ice. They shine silver in the moonlight. Not silver like poets call the stars, because Manley knows the stars are really fire, but silver like the paper around a tube of Polo mints. Real silver.

“Surface Tension” by Kurt Kirchmeier

This story takes us to a place outside of our universe, where strange and powerful beings exist above the Forever Sea, an endless body of water that separates their universe above from ours below. It begins at a time when our universe is dying, and by proxy, so too is the Luphoran’s, for they suck energy from our universe to fuel their own. Every time our universe ends, there is a great gathering, in which all of the Luphorans travel to a certain location in the Forever Sea. One at a time, they drop unique, individual “fetal universes” through the sea. The universes progress down, their outer membranes being eaten away from until at last, the fetal universe reaches the space below the sea and creation takes place once more. Most universes collapse in on themselves shortly after the big bang, unable to sustain the act of creation. There is always one, however, that manages to stick, growing in scope and energy until it can be tapped by the Luphorans and used to fuel their society for yet another cycle.

This story is downright compelling, filled with interesting images and concepts. In particular, there is something about the “fetal universe” concept as Kirchmeier describes it that is more than intriguing. It sticks with you. So do the descriptions of the floating land masses the Luphorans live on, and the weighty importance of the gathering, which their way of life depends on. The protagonist is a satisfactory viewpoint character, and his final actions are exactly what they had to be. With strong images and powerful, strange ideas behind it, any shortcomings are easy to gloss over.

Then, one by one, as beings reached into pockets and bags, some right into their very skin, small globes of orange light began to appear amongst the gathered. Soon a thousand fetal universes were pulsing in the darkness, many in inexplicable synchronicity, as though sections of a single heart.

“Conversation in an English Pub” by D.K. Latta

Warning: the following is particularly spoilerific

I found myself disenchanted with this story, though not through any fault of the writer’s ability. It is a conceptual thing, that’s all. The concept behind the story is that at some indeterminate yet far-future point, humanity has exhausted its potential. There is nothing left for it to dream, and so the civilization is rotting from the inside, with no hope, no imagination, and no future. To help fix the problem, a small team of time travelers is sent into the past to kill off important artists before they can make their impact on the world, so that later artists can “discover” that which had previously been discovered long ago. This particular story tells of the termination of H. G. Wells.

I could never get into a story with that premise, as it is incompatible with my understanding of humans. That’s just not how we work. Humans will happily reinvent the wheel forever, if need be, particularly when it comes to art and entertainment. What is old is new again, and all that. The articulation of any particular idea is such a fluid, context-dependent thing, that there will always be room for one more tragic love story that is nothing more than Romeo and Juliet dressed up in different clothes, or one more coming of age story about a child faced with hard decisions, be it set in the depression, in middle-class suburbia, or in a futuristic, far-flung outpost of humanity’s galactic empire.

But then again, that’s just me. As we say on the internet, Your Mileage May Vary.

“When every story is told, every idea is conceived, every philosophy is debated, every dream is dreamed? What happens when it’s all been done?”

He thinks for a moment, truly considering my words. “I… I suppose the species would begin to die. Not physically, not at first, but emotionally. Withering away from hopelessness. I mean, if you can no longer imagine something new, then you can no longer imagine at all. And if you cannot imagine…”

The remaining ten stories will be reviewed shortly.