Short takes: ‘The Devil in Silver,’ ‘The Third Lynx,’ ‘Odd Girl Out’ and ‘The Eagle Has Landed’

February 21, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 21, 2020

Victor Lavalle’s 2012 novel, The Devil in Silver, begins in the early weeks of 2011 with a large, powerful man named Pepper being committed to Northwest, the psychiatric inpatient unit of the fictitious New Hyde hospital in Queens. Pepper isn’t really crazy; he’s just hot-tempered, and a little socially isolated. Three cops bring him to the hospital because it allows them to bypass an hour or two of unpaid overtime that they’d need to book him in jail for scrapping with them.

The system is hard to escape, Pepper discovers, especially after two altercations indefinitely extend what could have been just a 72-hour stint in the psych ward. He loses two months after being heavily medicated; even when his mind has fought off the drug-induced fog, the 42-year-old professional mover still thinks and moves and talks like an unsteady nonagenarian.

The sense of being trapped extends to the staff, especially Dr. Samual Anand, who rails against his unit’s chronic lack of funding, and nurse Josephine Washburn, who’s targeted by Pepper and his friends in a breakout attempt. At one point, New Hyde’s bungling administration purchases a (real) software suite, Equator, which banks use to oversee mortgages, when they really needed a medical services program called Equator Zero.

The latter seems to be Lavalle’s invention, but the mixup enables an authorial digression over the subprime-mortgage defaults that put thousands of families on the streets. Those ill-founded loans and the financial instruments that monetized them helped crash the economy in 2008, which is why Washburn and the orderly Pepper calls Scotch Tape and all the other staffers need to keep their jobs, almost no matter the cost.

There are at least two big differences between the staff and the patients. One, of course, is that the staff get to leave the facility when their work is done. The other, more important distinction is that they’re completely unfazed by the man-beast that appears to be stalking the ward.

Most of the inmates — there is one major exception — have learned to fear the creature they call the devil. Pepper joins their ranks once he sees the gruesome biped emerge from the ceiling.

This book is difficult to categorize. The creature’s appearances are genuinely frightening, which is one reason I’ve labeled this a horror novel. But Lavalle really uses the apparent monster as an excuse to introduce us to Pepper and his compatriots: Dory, the ward’s ambassador and mother figure; Lucci, at 19 years old already a veteran psychiatric inpatient; and Coffee, the Ugandan immigrant desperate to expose what he sees as the ward’s scandal to what he doesn’t realize is an utterly uncaring world. They also have encounters with other patients, including one who strikes a Trumpian note with his loathing of immigrants and freeloaders. The Devil in Silver offers a low-key but engaging visit to an environment most of us would prefer to ignore.

The Third Lynx and Odd Girl Out are the second and third entries, respectively, in Timothy Zahn’s five-volume Quadrail series. We once again journey with troubleshooter Frank Compton and his partly telepathic companion Bayta. They’ve been hired to fight an alien menace called the Modhri, a hive mind that can control infected people and aliens and that wants, naturally, to rule the galaxy.

In The Third Lynx, Compton and Bayta try to work just why the Modhri is acquiring a set of rare alien statues. Both the heroes and the Modhri travel the faster-than-light Quadrail network in an effort to track down a young human who’s absconded with the titular objet d’art.

Odd Girl Out involves an preternaturally calm girl who’s hiding from the Modhri on a backwater human colony world. The protagonists need to find and extract 10-year-old Rebekah Beach; they also need to learn the nature of the vital cargo that she insists come with her.

I didn’t find either book quite as entertaining as Night Train to Rigel, the first entry in the series. Still, Zahn knows how to write an entertaining detective thriller that has a few inventive twists. I know that I’ll be checking out the last two books in the saga, The Domino Pattern and Judgment at Proteus, to see just how Compton and Bayta manage to avert disaster.

Editor Neil Clarke’s latest anthology, The Eagle Has Landed, was published last year, 50 years after humanity first touched down on the moon. The collection’s 24 stories were all published over that half-century, from 1976 through 2018; the book offers a picture of how science-fiction writers have considered our nearest neighbor in space.

They have, to put it succinctly, used it as an excuse to imagine a great variety of possible futures. In many, we destroy ourselves or our home planet, or at least come perilously close to doing so. In at least two, Stephen Baxter’s “People Came from Earth” (1998) and Gregory Benford’s “The Clear Blue Seas of Luna” (2002), both rather melancholy in tone, we have terraformed the moon.

In two pieces, Luna serves as the backdrop for adventure stories. John Varley’s “Bagatelle” (1976, the earliest entry) has a talking nuclear bomb threaten to destroy a moon settlement, while Michael Alexander and K.C. Ball’s “The Moon Belongs to Everybody” (2012) sees an ex-cop go undercover as a lunar miner in an attempt discover who’s been sabotaging the Mars mission that the United States is scheduled to launch from Earth orbit on Jan. 1, 1980.

Some of the book’s best stories are its most challenging. “The Lunatics” by Kim Stanley Robinson (1988) shows miners working in oppressive conditions; their rebellion leads to unimaginable hardship and destruction. “Waging Good” by the excellent Robert Reed (1995; revised 2018) is one of the stories in which Earth has been devastated; in it, a lunar native returns from exile on Terra and is surprised to receive a friendly reception. We learn, however, that everyone is concealing secrets — some deadlier than others.

John Kessel’s “Stories for Men” (2002) is set in a matriarchal lunar colony; it follows Erno, a moody teenager who falls in with a men’s rights activist, whose philosophy is mostly but not entirely as appalling as it would be in 2020 America. The story threatens to veer into caricature but ultimately strikes an interesting balance as Erno finds himself repelled both by the society he finds oppressive and the self-styled rebel who would remake it. “Tyche and the Ants” by Hannu Rajaniemi (2012) is the tale of an isolated young girl who finds her life disrupted by a force that could represent salvation or destruction.

I’d read three of these stories previously. Geoffrey Landis’s “A Walk in the Sun” (1991) is a story about an astronaut who has to push herself to the limit to survive a crash; I enjoyed it the first time but felt the main character to be rather thinly drawn the second time around. “How We Lost the Moon, A True Story by Frank W. Allen” by Paul J. McAuley (1999) is about an experiment gone awry as told by a member of the moon’s general labor pool, who happens to be a doctor of geology with some fairly good piloting skills. It’s kind of a goofy story, but parts of it are rather haunting, too.

The best piece in the volume, though, is Michael Swanwick’s 1999 story “Griffin’s Egg,” which also takes as its main character a lunar contract worker. Gunther Weill just wants to do his job, collect his paycheck and hang out with his friends on his off hours. Unfortunately, his corporate overlords don’t like his attitude and his tendency to bend the rules.

And Weill has bigger worries than company politics. In one early scene, he’s caught out in the open by a sudden, potentially deadly solar flare. War is brewing on Earth, and Weill discovers — but only too late — that the supposedly weapons-free Moon is not quite the peaceful paradise he imagines it to be. His attempts to salvage a rapidly deteriorating situation put him in bad odor with some of his colleagues.

I’ve loved this story since I first read it, many years ago. It takes a hard science fiction approach to lunar colonization, showing us robotic factories at work and taking us across the still mostly barren landscape. But it also delves into psychology — psychoactive drugs and brain chemistry plays a major role over the latter half of the tale. I don’t have a list of all-time favorite science-fiction stories or novellas, but if I did, “Griffin’s Egg” would be on it.

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