Short takes: ‘The Final Frontier,’ Denis Johnson’s ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’ and Poul Anderson’s ‘Tau Zero’

October 4, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 4, 2019

The 2018 book The Final Frontier is a collection of 21 stories that share the topic of deep-space travel. My favorite entry in the book was the final one, which I’d read before: Peter Watts’s “The Island,” which is essentially a three-character narrative.

The tale is set aboard Eriophora, a deep-space vessel that set out millennia ago and whiles away the centuries ceaselessly building a network of teleportation gateways. Each gate empowers not its builders but the offshoots of whatever civilization launched the ship; each one also destroys anything near it, which is among the reasons why the vessel cannot slow or even change course by more than a tiny degree.

The unnamed narrator, like all of her crewmates, is carrying out a limited rebellion against Chimp, the deliberately hobbled artificial intelligence that ruthlessly hews to the ship’s original mission. Make that most of her crewmates — the third player in the story is Dix, the 20-something son she’s never met, who is suspiciously loyal to Eri’s brain.

‘The Final Frontier’ edited by Neil Clarke.

The narrator and Dix are awakened as part of a seemingly random rotation of personnel who shepherd the assembly of each new gate. As so often is the case, there’s a wrinkle, which is precisely why the ship has a crew. Chimp has detected an anomaly and wants to know if it will affect the build. The narrator discovers something amazing, something the AI likely would not have perceived on its own. In the end, though, she finds that her intuition — her uniquely human wisdom — may not be as well geared to comprehending the immensity and variety of the universe and its strange creations as she initially believed.

Another fascinating story in the book that I’d previously read was “Twenty Lights to ‘the Land of Snow.’” This Michael Swanwick yarn posits an interstellar colony ship commissioned by Tibetans who have resigned any hope of throwing off the Chinese yoke that oppresses their country. The tale consists of journal entries written over long years by the daughter of two ship’s technicians — both Caucasian and neither followers of the Dalai Lama.

The 7-year-old narrator finds herself in the perplexing situation of having been named the likely spiritual successor to His Holiness. Greta Bryn Brasswell’s challenging personal journey (sometimes interrupted by stretches in a cryogenic chamber) parallels that of the religious pilgrims and would-be settlers who constitute the bulk of Kalachakra’s complement. The result is a very satisfying story that breaks from the tropes of much of the science fiction influenced by Western cultural norms.

Greg Egan’s “Glory,” which I’d also previously encountered, shows two envoys from a highly advanced panspecies federation attempting to glean insights from a planet inhabited by belligerent insects whose society mirrors that of 21st century Earth. Although the piece opens with a distinctly hard science fiction passage, Egan also offers an interesting portrait of a sympathetic person facing extreme duress.

The collection includes two stories of people launching a desperate covert voyage to an Earthlike exoplanet from a homeworld that is either ruined or on the brink of ruination, Carter Scholz’s “Gypsy” and Genevieve Valentine’s “Seeing,” both excellent. “Mono No Aware” by Ken Liu has a similar premise, although in this case humans are participating in a widespread exodus due to an imminent meteor impact; like those two spiritual siblings, the tale also ends on a haunting note.

Other stories that I particularly enjoyed: “Three Bodies at Mitanni,” by Seth Dickinson, in which the three-person crew of a faster-than-light ship must determine whether to exterminate extrasolar human colonies; Elizabeth Bear’s “The Deeps of the Sky,” told from the perspective of an insectoid cloud miner on a gas giant; “Permanent Fatal Errors,” a story of possible contact with a strange alien intelligence, by the talented Jay Lake, who was taken too soon by colon cancer; “The Mind is Its Own Place,” by Carrie Vaughn, a tale about an ailing interstellar navigator that has hints of H.P. Lovecraftian psychological horror; James Patrick Kelly’s “The Wreck of the Godspeed,” concerning a faster-than-light interstellar colony ship aboard which something mysterious is occurring; and “Sailing the Antarsa” by Vandana Singh, in which a voyager from an isolated planet attempts to use a mysterious force to visit a silent colony in a nearby star system.

I read this book through Hoopla, a digital service offered by my local library. The experience was degraded by a problem with the presentation of parts of the text, which may or may not be attributable to the publisher, Night Shade Books. A short author biography was placed before each story in this volume; however, these bios appeared immediately after the final lines of the preceding tale, as shown below:

A passage from “The Final Frontier,” a 2018 science fiction anthology edited by Neil Clarke.

This shows the end of “Permanent Fatal Errors” by Jay Lake and a bio for Carter Scholz, author of the following story, “Gypsy.” For a 2018 publication to feature such egregiously bad text positioning throughout the volume is inexcusably sloppy.

Poul Anderson’s 1970 novel Tau Zero is a well-regarded, relatively early example of hard science fiction. The narrative begins several decades in the future, in a world where Sweden has become Earth’s center of government after rival nuclear powers acknowledge that they’re not fit to oversee planetary affairs.

The story, however, revolves around the voyage of the starship Leonora Christine, which is at least the third expedition humans have dispatched to another star. Anderson uses several passages scattered throughout the book to describe issues involving the ship’s main source of thrust, a Bussard ramjet, which uses as fuel hydrogen atoms that it collects from the nearly empty vacuum of space as the vessel approaches light speed.

‘Tau Zero’ by Poul Anderson.

What was to be an expedition to a nearby star system is derailed when a rough encounter with a “nebulina,” or small nebula, destroys Leonora Christine’s means of decelerating. The crew resolves to increase its speed so that it might locate and travel to a suitably empty patch of space where they can safely make repairs before they die of old age. This strategy is dictated by the time-dilation effect of relativity: The closer a ship’s velocity comes to the maximum, the slower the passage of time on board the vessel as compared to its passage in other parts of the universe. The plan is technically complex, although Anderson, a science fiction and fantasy grand master, endeavors to explain it in comprehensible fashion to a readership that lacks a detailed background in physics.

The title derives from a factor that, in this case, represents the difference between the ship’s speed and light speed, the fastest achievable. (Tau has a number of other mathematical and scientific meanings.) Velocity becomes at once Leonora Christine’s greatest friend and its most insidious foe, not least because the faster one goes the harder it is both to perceive one’s surroundings and to slow down. The ship’s dilemma is in some ways a precursor to that of Watts’s Eriophora, described above; it’s interesting that I twice (at least!) read “The Island” before first reading Tau Zero.

Anderson’s novel is fascinating and enjoyable, but it suffers from a frequent problem in 20th-century science fiction: cardboard characters. Anderson’s protagonist, constable Charles Reymont, approaches his crewmates’ psychological stresses with about as much subtlety as a hammer tackles an upraised nail. Reymont — born in Antarctica’s equivalent of a shantytown, later a warrior on Mars and a high-ranking Lunar police administrator — is at the apex of a love triangle with the first officer and its planetologist, but I didn’t lose much sleep worrying about whose heart, if any, Reymont would ultimately win.

Tau Zero is technically inventive, and it probably deserves its revered status as an early hard science fiction classic, but a lot of readers are likely to find it tough going.

I recently listened to The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, a posthumously released 2018 collection by noted author Denis Johnson. The volume, which runs to about five hours and 20 minutes in audio form, contains five tales, each read by a different actor.

Some of Johnson’s narrators have established careers that fund relatively comfortable middle-class lives, like the advertising man of the title story and the poet, critic and professor of the closing tale, “Doppelgänger Poltergeist.” Others have hit rock-bottom, or close to it, such as the letter-writing client of a residential substance-abuse rehabilitation program with an increasingly tenuous grasp on reality in “The Starlight on Idaho,” or the psychedelic-ingesting jail inmate in “Strangler Bob.” The fifth narrator, a writer-cum-professor-cum-caretaker in “Triumph over the Grave,” inhabits a nebulous position in between.

They all have something in common, however. These five men are all world-weary and beaten down by life. That plaintive quality is aptly brought to life by the five narrators: Nick Offerman for the title story; Michael Shannon for “The Starlight on Idaho” (labeled “The Starlight and I Know…” in the chapter index); Dermot Mulroney for “Strangler Bob”; Will Patton for “Triumph over the Grave”; and Liev Schreiber for “Doppelgänger Poltergeist.”

‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’ by Denis Johnson.

Johnson has a gift for taking seemingly ordinary situations — an initially tame suburban party; a bull session by jail inmates; a desultory late night at a Manhattan dive bar — and using them to conjure strange scenes and memorable imagery. The stories are more exercises in character-building than narratives, although the final entry, “Doppelganger Poltergeist,” does chronicle a poet’s lifelong obsession with proving that Elvis Aron Presley was replaced by his twin, Jesse Garon Presley, who died at birth, as part of a nefarious plot by the singer’s shady manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker.

The collection as a whole is engrossing. I found the volume’s poignancy increased by the knowledge — which I learned only in preparing this appraisal — that it was published after Johnson’s demise.

The author was clearly wrestling with his own mortality, as death hovers over each of the stories here. In the end, however loudly or softly we speak, whether we keep to ourselves or engage with the world, Johnson seems to have been keenly aware that the grave awaits us all.

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