Jeff Duntemann’s collection, “Cold Hands and Other Stories” shouldn’t work.
The works included span more than four decades of writing. His largely Campbellian style gives way to urban magic and deep looks at the role of religion in space exploration. This collection lacks a consistent voice or theme. And yet it works wonderfully!
This collection of short stories hangs together thanks to the foundation of Duntemann’s solid writing and his clear insights into the human – and not so human – condition. Duntemann writes cold science stories that have a lot more warmth to them, and technology stories that really look at the human effects in line with the best of the Campebellian stories of the 1950s.
The opening story, Cold Hands, tells the tale of a space freighter pilot who learns that the replacement arms given him by his employers come with a few more strings attached than he expected. Given the recent revelations about tech companies surprising users with their own hidden strings, this story feels like one ripped from the headlines. It was written in 1980. Aside from the normal concern of corporations offering “too good to be true” improvements in quality of life, this story features technology extrapolations that don’t feel dated in the slightest. It also delves into the body horror genre as the pilot struggles to find a way to escape his new prison while keeping his true intentions hidden from his own hands.
It gets better from there.
From there, we turn to “Our Lady of the Endless Sky”, a story of the first extra-terrestrial church and the priest charged with building and maintaining a house of worship as a part of the first lunar colony. With only brief discursion into the balancing act the modern Catholic Church walks between proselytization and ecumenism, it focuses instead on the balancing act conducted by a priest between serving his congregation’s spiritual needs versus serving its physical needs. In sharp contrast to the bleak and grim science-fiction of its day, this story features not just a happy ending, but a reminder that where ever you go, God is there waiting for you. Many commentators would have you believe that the Church is a vestigial organ best left behind as man heads out into the stars, but Duntemann reminds the reader that religion is as old as mankind himself, and leaving religion behind would mean leaving a part of mankind behind – and an important one at that.
“Born Again, With Water”, again presents the story of a house of worship, but this one set much farther away from earth than our own moon. It also tells the story from the perspective of an orphan alien adopted by the priest and nuns of the order that started a small mission on the far-flung desert world of the narrator. To make things even more interesting, the narrator is a young alien who struggles to learn his place in his rapidly changing world. Thanks to the loving, but naïve, aid of one of the nuns of the mission, he finds his own path through the change. The mistakes he and the young nun make lead to a path that is truly horrifying.
Speaking of horror, “Whale Meat” might have been just another urban magic story with a nice Lovecraftian frosting smeared over the top, but again Duntemann crafts a narrator with a unique voice. Yonnie, a witch, struggles to keep his pregnant wife safe in the modern world from monsters both human and alien. Ancient and weary, he views the world through eyes that are both wise and inexperienced at the same time; imagine an old man for whom the changes in the world rushed along at a pace too fast to keep up with, but this old man has watched centuries flow by. He understands deep truths about mankind, but struggles to understand why printed money should take the place of gold coinage. Just as the reader begins to get his bearings in the story and understand the terminology used so naturally by Yonnie, Duntemann adds the witch-man’s first encounter with Calculus (yes, the mathematic subject) into the story in a way both alien and approachable, lathers on shadow-monsters and psychopathic witch-killers and a unified magic system ready for the tabletop RPG system and ties it all together with an epic fight for the fate of humanity in a dingy late-night café. It’s too much all at once, and yet Duntemann’s pacing and knack for ramping up both the situation and the jargon make it work. This turns out to be yet another one of those cases of modern Lovecraft done so much more effectively than just tentacles and nihilism.
If weird magic isn’t to your taste, Duntemann presents a roller coaster ride in “Inevitably Sphere”. A story with no real enemy save time and the march of progress, this one features an old fighter pilot enjoying one last spate of usefulness as a rocket jock tasked with chasing down the wobbly end of a wormhole. The earth-side of the tunnel through space has been anchored above the Mojave Desert, but the alien side of the tunnel wiggles about, nudged hither and yon by slight perturbations in everything from Earth’s orbit to passing solar winds to slight gravitational tugs out in the vastness of space. The pilot knows this too shall pass as the poindexter crowd continually smooths out the wrinkles and nails down the alien end of the tunnel. For now, he enjoys his work, and the reader can enjoy riding shotgun on his made chase through the sky, and as he realizes exactly how his job will come to an end.
The collection also includes introductions to Duntemann’s extended universe, “The Gaian Saga” and an excerpt from his full length novel, “The Cunning Blood”. The five stories I’ve delved into here are alone worth the price of admission. So much so, that I forbore reading the excerpt of “The Cunning Blood” simply because I’m already sold on the book. Rather than read a bit now, I’ll be reading the whole thing in one go.
In the final analysis, I have to give this collection my highest recommendation. It’s a nice glimpse into the direction science-fiction could have gone if the dreary earthbound and hidebound elements hadn’t grabbed control of the genre. These stories convey a warmth and generosity of spirit, and an enthusiastic embrace of technology as a means to improve upon the best of mankind. Duntemann is an author whose science-fiction looks to the stars with excitement and wonder rather than looking upon mankind as broken and irredeemable and in desperate need of repair by important minds…minds like those possessed by science fiction authors. It’s a refreshing change from the miserable fiction that has been in vogue for so long, and if you’re looking for modern sci-fi and fantasy that doesn’t leave you feeling like you need to take a shower, you’ll find it right here in “Cold Hands and Other Stories”.