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Bones of the World is the fourth volume in the Darkfire anthology series published by SFFNet. As with the three previous volumes, this one is themed. Here, Mr. Rogers has challenged his writers to deliver tales set in the far, far future, to deliver tales about endings. There's a song by Semisonic titled Closing Time that contains the line "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." This book embodies this; it isn't just about things ending, it's also about new beginnings.
I was impressed with the quality offered here and especially with the scope of imagination the stories evidenced. I'm a hard reader to reach emotionally, but several tweaked a few of my rusty heart-strings. Others left me thinking about the issues they presented for some time after. On the sentimental side, my favorites are "They Went Up", by Lawrence Fitzgerald and "The Last Age Should Show Your Heart", by James van Pelt. On the cerebral side I recommend "The Guerdon Earth", by Jonathan Sullivan, for the questions he asks about the nature of reality.
Other stories of note are "Wind From a Dying Star", by David D. Levine and "The Courtesy of Guests", by Jay Lake. "Old Immortality" by David Ira Cleary deserves a special mention. This is an especially complex and involved story that I'm going to have to revisit. I'd also like to commend Lois Tilton for offering up an island of fantasy amidst this sea of science fiction.
Overall I rate this as a top-notch collection and well-worth buying.
"The Seeds of Time", by Jerry Oltion
Before the Sun died, humans built huge engines and wrenched the Earth from its orbit to send it drifting through space. The Guardian, an engineered being capable of existing on the frozen sphere the Earth has become, is charged with protecting the Earth as he seeks a new star for humanity's wandering home. As the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies head toward a collision, he detects a suitable sun. Now all he needs is to get there, a task much easier said than done. Mr. Oltion does a good job of evoking a strong sense of loneliness as he takes us through the passage of millions of years and, in my mind, an equally admirable job of reinforcing that we are societal creatures, dependant on one another for our continued existence.
"Red Queen", by KenWharton
Almost three billion years in the future (and about three billion years too soon), Nigel, his wife Diana, and their companions Londa, and Moham are awakened from their suspended sleep Deep Time when something nears their subterranean hiding place on Callisto. What arrives, and how they deal with it form the plot. Mr. Wharton does a good job with his characters, giving them distinct personalities as he explores the ages-old dilemma of performing a lesser evil for the greater good. Despite this, however, the hypothesis he uses as the core of the story didn't work for me.
"We Came Back", by Lois Tilton
End of the world/universe/creation stories aren't the sole providence of science fiction, as Ms. Tilton proves in this fantasy story. Tellariel and others, whom are evidently elves, return for one last look at Earth before it is consumed by an expanding Sun. Tellariel, in fact, is the Lastborn, the final elf born on Earth before they fled across the void to a new home to get away from the Others. As in the most high fantasy tales, elves are immortal, so for them the millions of years remaining before Earth is destroyed don't seem so long. They arrive to find a parched wasteland, which they transform by Elvin magic to the splendor Tellariel recalls. A parched wasteland isn't all they find, however. A nice inclusion in a mostly science fictional book, Ms. Tilton's tale is a refreshing break that does an admirable job of evoking a bit of the wonder and magic, and oftentimes sorrow.
"The Dove Cage", by Brian Plante
The far-future Earth Daudi, his wife, their talking dog Trotter, and a few other talking animal companions live on is a parched and barren place, greatly heated by the energy of an expanding Sun. One day while hunting, Daudi meets an a descendent of the humans who left for the stars countless generations ago. A missionary of sorts, this descendant (and others like it) are offering Daudi and the few remaining humans who call Earth home the chance to leave, since in only a few million years, Earth won't be able to support life. The conflict and experiences Daudi endures as a result of his decision aren't new, nor is the predictable ending. Too, I was somewhat puzzled by the descendants' offer to relocate humans, but not the (apparently) intelligent animals that are their companions. A not unpleasant journey, but it's a shame the path is so well worn and the sights along it so familiar.
"Love and Glass", by Michael Scott Bricker
Mr. Bricker departs from where H. G. Wells ended in his classic The Time Machine. Trapped in the final days of the Earth in a sort of Time Traveler's Graveyard, the Traveler (as Mr. Bricker identifies his character) finds himself in a struggle for survival among a strange variety of beings, not all of who are friendly. I enjoyed the high level of inventiveness here as well as the references to Wells' classic. I think Mr. Bricker makes a good point about the human will to struggle, even when all that is accomplished is delaying the inevitable.
"Hymnal", by Lee Allred
At the end of tine only a few humans survive. Powerful beyond our reckoning, with an innate understanding of the workings of the universe, will they be able to reverse the irreversible? Does the solution lie in science or in something more? I like the way Mr. Allred weaves all these questions (and more) together. The result is a fine, high quality, multi-layered story. I found it slightly opaque at times, but I chalk that up to its complexity and, in this case, the shortcomings of the reader.
"Clever People", by Mary Soon Lee
This short, sharp, essay-type tale makes a pointed observation about a not-so-desirable aspect of our society that we are all familiar with. Short enough to keep the interest and insightful enough to leave us nodding our heads.
"We Finally Go Back to Mars", by Ray Vukcevich
This off-the-wall fable tells the tale of Terra and Bob. I don't want to give anything away, so go read it yourself. Just the right length, and zany enough to incite a chuckle or three.
"Old Immortality", by David Ira Cleary
This is a long and complex story that requires some effort on the part of the reader, effort that will be rewarded as this rich tale unfolds. Aleta steals one of her father's concubines, a beautiful boy named Banij. Although a boy, Banij exhibits the secondary sexual characteristics of a woman, kept that way by the hormones Aleta's father gives him. With Banij in tow, Aleta leaves her father's house, planning to take Banij and herself off planet. Things don't quite work out as planned, of course (isn't that how almost all adventures begin?). There's a lot more here than these few sentences can summarize. Mr. Cleary deals with some serious issues; free will, religion, gender roles, even life after death. It takes some work to get there, but the destination is worth the effort. Read it twice to catch all the stuff you'll miss the first time.
"The Niman Project", by Susan J. Kroupa
Ms. Kroupa's story has its roots in Hopi mythology as she retells the journey of the Hopi peoples from the underworld to the upper world. Honani hopes to recreate ancient Hopi society as he leads a select group of people to a new planet, gifted to them by a charity dedicated to Ethnic Recovery. It is Honani's dream that they rediscover the old ways and develop a society that is in harmony with themselves and their new home. In the original Hopi legend, the Hopi peoples fled to the new world to escape the evils of the witches and sorcerers that lived among them. Despite their precautions, they discovered that evil can't be escaped by fleeing from it. A worthy lesson, and a well-written story to impart it.
"Wind From a Dying Star", by David D. Levine
Born to the stars, humans have left behind the physical form and now live in small tribes as mutable energy beings, feeding on the quantum energy of the Universe, zeren. One member of the tribe is Old John, the last to have not only seen Earth, but to have actually existed on it. When he learns Earth will soon be consumed by the expanding sun, he plans one last visit to see his home world--the journey that forms the basis for this enjoyable story. Mr. Levine does an admirable job of drawing the reader in with a homecoming tale that sure to tweak a few emotions.
"To the Sea, Our Tears Returned", by Justin Stanchfield
Pe and Djah assume physical form for the purpose of observing the few humans still remaining on Earth and the strange religious ritual they've developed. As observers, their task is to study, not to interfere; yet when Pe becomes attached to a human girl, it is difficult for her to retain her scientific detachment. Pe and Djah are well-realized and sympathetic characters. A little more explanation on how everything works would have helped, since I had a few problems accepting the world the way Mr. Stanfield set it up. Despite my quibbles in that area, I did enjoy and become involved in the story.
"The Guerdon Earth", by Jonathan Sullivan
In this far future, most of humanity exists as disembodied consciousnesses in the Jovian Congregation. The Congregation is constructing the Shell, a huge sphere that will completely enclose the sun. Earth's orbit is inside the Shell and as a result the Earth will be destroyed. Charles Crook is an unwilling ambassador sent to the Earth, where he takes physical form for the first time in countless centuries. His mission is to present to the remaining humans a choice; stay on Earth and be destroyed or join the Congregation. A fertile setup for where Mr. Sullivan takes us. Some stories are good because of the answers they provide, some because of the lessons they relay, and some because of the questions they raise and the contemplation they provoke. "The Guerdon Earth" raises some interesting speculations as to the nature of reality and existence. It's a story that stays with you and will leave you thinking afterward. For any author, that's a success.
"A Good Move in Design Space", by Daniel Abraham
Even though it will be millions of years before the planet is uninhabitable due to the expansion of Sun, most of the populace has left for far off colonies in huge generation ships. Barbara and Paul (Babu and Pipu), a retired married couple, have decided to remain on Earth, along with a few others (who don't play a role in this story). Though they worked hard to prepare the ships, they decided they would spend their remaining years on Earth rather than die aboard a space ship en route to a colony they would never live to see. Their retirement is spiced up a bit when Babu, an ecological systems consultant, discovers something interesting in a nearby like. This languid story depicts the hum-drum life of retirement (too?) effectively. I'm afraid the discovery is fairly scientific in nature and didn't mean much to me; I wasn't nearly as excited about it as the characters.
"The Sol Supernova Bakeoff", by Christos Tsirbas
To celebrate the destruction of Sol, Sam has a special evening planned for himself and his fellow historians as they assume the roles of what they think is a 1950's man. The interplay between the characters and the assumptions they've made about the ancient history of our society are enjoyable. This lighthearted tale pokes some fun at current-day conventions and raised its share of smiles. The joke ran a little long for me however; by the end I was more than ready to move on. Good writing, good story, but not as good as it could have been at a shorter, sharper length.
"They Went Up", by Lawrence Fitzgerald
This story raised some mixed reactions. It's more science fantasy than science fiction, since the science here isn't even glossed over--it's ignored completely. Pick it apart and it doesn't hold water. Too many contradictions, too much left unsaid, to many things that don't make sense given the tale we are being told (such as problems that shouldn't be problems given the level of technology we are dealing with here). But--and this is a big but--this story is one of my favorites from the book. I don't think any one who has on occasion pondered his or her mortality and the what-is-it-all-about of life will be left untouched. The main character, Pug, is a man of vision and impact. The things he does, and the things his descendants do, have an irrevocable impact on all of humanity. But that's not what the story is about. It's about life, death, hopes and dreams, love and more. Nice job, Mr. Fitzgerald.
"Ragnorak of the Post-Humans: Final Transmissions, Sam 43 Unit 763", by M. Shayne Bell
The story is presented as a series of transmissions from Sam 43 Unit 763. Sam 43 is Post-Human, an android who has traveled back to Earth to touch the soil and breath the air of the home world. Supposedly uninhabited, when Sam 43 arrives on the planet surface, he not only find something out of legend but out of myth as well. An interesting presentation and a nice blending of elements from both science fiction and fantasy make it a worthy read.
"Fallow", by Todd R. Supple
As younger races develop and expand beyond their solar system, existing races retreat, leaving behind worlds that have been wiped clean of all traces of their existence. This process is called Fallowing. Having joined the Universal society, humanity is now retreating from the potential expansion of a younger alien race that might one day discover Earth. Differing philosophies clash here as Dembry Sath, the human in charge of the Fallowing of Earth, must deal with the interference of a One-Body, one of a group of humans who oppose membership in the Universal society. Making way for the new by abandoning the old makes for a good theme and Mr. Supple's speculation as to why we've yet to make contact with any other intelligent race has an interesting plausibility.
"New Song of Old Earth", by Philip Brewer
Martin Tyo is accused of violating the Earth Compact by interfering with the polymer-based life that now rules Earth's biosphere. The truth behind his actions is revealed through a series of VR recordings viewed by his lawyer (who is also the narrator of the story). Some thirty million years past, as a result of careless biotech research, polymer-based life forms managed to escape and drive out DNA-based life. Despite attempts to eliminate the polymer life, it has continued to thrive. Earth has been placed off limits except for research. An interesting tale unfolds as we discover, along with the narrator, the purpose behind Tyo's mission on Earth. I enjoyed the speculation here, and the mystery, while not irresistible, is interesting enough to pull the reader through. I thought the descriptions of the VR recordings especially good.
"The Courtesy of Guests", by Jay Lake
This engrossing story succeeds on the strength of its characters and the straightforwardness of its plot. Ahirman isn't human, but he has come to Earth in the hopes of meeting one. There he forms a relationship with Port, a sentient city that maintains itself and has taken an active hand in the evolution of the local fauna. But the existence of Port and the Earth itself are threatened when humans do arrive--two of the species H. Terminus, the final step in the evolution of man.
"The Last of the Black Wine", by Darrell Schweitzer
This somewhat obscure and dense story follows the life of Adamphos, a young poet on a quest to prove his love. Such quests, of course, rarely turn out as expected. Rich with imagery, Mr. Schweitzer's skillful prose paints some admirable scenes as Adamphos braces humans and gods alike, as well as himself. Fans of Moorcock or Wolfe are in for a treat.
"Engines of Similarity", by Joe Murphy
At the end of time, all that is left are the Engines of Similarity and the 3,333 Earths they maintain. But existence is fragile and dependent upon the lack of variance; everything must be the same on all Earths and humans must live in a state of Similarity, aware of all their existences at once. Yet some humans rebel and become Variants--they no longer adhere to similarity and actively seek to be separate. Such variance threatens the existence of all the Earths and all the humans who remain. Once of Leastor's duties is to assume singularity (to separate himself form his other existences) for the purpose of tracking down those who have defied the Engines of Similarity. Dianchi Tarbrok is one such, and Leastor must hunt her down before what remains of the universe is destroyed. A big idea convincingly presented, with a lot left to explore. Let's hope Mr. Murphy revisits this idea in the future.
"The Last Age Should Show Your Heart", by James van Pelt
Marvell and ThreeAndrea are repair bots working on the giant power grid that encircles the sun. But the Sun is dying and the Makers seem to have disappeared. ThreeAndrea and Marvell must decide what is left to them and what they will make of it. A well-done and sentimental story, with a lesson thrown in there as well for those astute enough to realize it.