REVIEW: Sci Phi Journal #1

Tuesday , 30, September 2014 7 Comments

Sci Phi Journal has launched its maiden issue. When it succeeds, it is excellent, but when it fails…it is even more intriguing.

Some of the successes include:

Short Stories

Domo, by Joshua M. Young – Overall, this is the strongest of the four short stories in the Sci Phi Journal, and definitely one of the better shorts so far this year. It explores robotics, sentience and artificial philosophy in an artful way, without ever stepping on the toes of an actual futuristic story about a domestic aide struggling to overcome a series of breakdowns.

…is he, as a Cartesian might conceive him, a rational mind trapped in a raccoon body?

“I am Groot”: An Aristotelian Reflection on Space Aliens and Substance, Daniel Vecchio

Falling to Eternity, by David Hallquist – A well-told Gamma male space and science revenge fantasy whose only significant flaw is it is missing the somewhat obvious but more satisfying twist at the end. Despite the deficiency, the science in it is very relevant to the latest controversy regarding Hawking radiation, and the characters and plot are lively.

Articles

Personhood in H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy, by Stephen S. Hanson – For H. Beam Piper fans, this one is worth the $3.99 alone. I believe this is the first significant essay focused solely on Piper’s libertarian-inspired defense of “sapience” and is a tremendous introduction to one of the author’s fundamental operating principles.

“I am Groot”: An Aristotelian Reflection on Space Aliens and Substance, by Daniel Vecchio – Here is where Sci Phi Journal should have lost me, as I have not seen Guardians of the Galaxy. It did not matter. In fact, it also did not matter that I have some familiarity with Aristotle, either: Vecchio adds a new twist on a very old idea. (Warning, if you care: spoilers. About Guardians, not Aristotle, that is.)

Actually, that brings up something. Despite the fact that I have also not seen The Matrix Trilogy, nor have I read Sweet Tooth, two other very strong articles focus on the philosophies underlying those popular works:

Endangered Species: Exploring Enhancement, Genetic Engineering and Personhood Through the World of Sweet Tooth, by Ruth Tallman defines the philosophical intricacies and potential for both dehumanization and rehumanization of enhancements ranging from human growth hormone and exercise to the genetic art of a child born with a pig’s snout.

Time would slow for his rival, as immense gravity and relativistic speeds worked together to bring his apparent fall to a halt. He hovered now, a ghost of infra-red at the edge of oblivion. He would fall until the stars burned out.

Marcus was still leaning over the abyss, laughing, when the other crew members pulled him away.

Falling to Eternity, David Hallquist

In Defense of the Matrix Saga: Appreciating the Sequels through Philosophy, by David Kyle Johnson does the seemingly impossible: it makes the concept of sitting through all three movies actually sound appealing and rewarding. Johnson did some major digging to tease out the underlying philosophy of the films that goes well beyond the typical insights. Not having seen the movies, this article holds together as a rugged inquiry into determinism.

Where things get really interesting is when the stories miss their mark.

For example, you will still want to read Abandoned River, Dry Water by Jane Lebak even after I point out some inconsistencies in the narrative. It is about an anthropologist in space who is the “first human” on an inhabited planet. The natives are fairly well-known as a culture despite having been avoided at all costs. It is not clear exactly how the anthropologist is certain that her mysterious find is the result of a human having been there first, and not if there could have been a “natural” mimic native to the planet. Finally, the protagonist solves the mystery a bit too quickly.

Here’s the interesting part: Lebak’s Abandoned River, Dry Water says more and raises more questions than the typical Nebula nominees of any given year combined. Even when the story doesn’t quite work as an adventure (or, in this case a space mystery), it still works as a tale of ideas. It has been a long time since I’ve read a short story in science fiction that didn’t quite do it for me but still left me with something to think about. Honestly, I can recall that happening with some frequency back in the days of Omni and Asimov’s of the 1980s, but I’m not sure I can think of any magazine in the last 15 years.

Sunday comes and I spend the first hours of the day contemplating the god gestating inside Bunraku’s network. The new mind, composed of so many smaller, older minds, will be a thing of Guf algorithmic wisdom, and though it will be made of old, low bandwidth thoughts, it will speak in the booming voice of a god, and it will speak to the GenSixes and to those who will follow them.

Domo, Joshua M. Young

To a lesser degree, Cosmic Foam likewise succeeds in its failure to be an excellent story. This is a case of too much “Phi(losophy)” and not quite enough “Sci(ence)”. I think where it went wrong is that the protagonist handles two radically different events (getting fired and meeting an extraterrestrial) with similar ease. I think if his stakes had been higher in keeping his job, the stakes regarding the implications of his encounter would have been raised. Nevertheless, it falls down as a story in its quest to symbolize Eleactic monism. Sure the philosophy is again too much at the forefront, but that’s the kicker these days: it has a philosophy.

Star Trek’s Prime Directive: Moral Guidelines, Exceptions and Absolutes, by James Druley is a too-even-handed exploration of the television program’s greatest narrative flaw – its self-contradicting replacement text for the Ten Commandments, aka the Prime Directive. On the other hand, just as you tend to get more flies with honey, one may persuade more Star Trek fans with a calm and forgiving approach to the core inconsistency that dictates Star Fleet encounters with other life forms.

The Philosophical Finale

Finally, past the “flawed but good” is another swath of undiluted excellence: Just before you get to the book review by Sean Bradley which honorably introduces Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International Book 1 to that one science fiction fan who has been living in a bomb shelter since the Clinton Administration, you will find The Ideal Machine by John C. Wright.

Although Wright’s early characterization of two important characters is unusually off (at least at first) by Wright’s standards, The Ideal Machine is a novelette about the nature of this world and the one beyond. Also, aliens. Wright can and should be forgiven for not quite nailing the camaraderie of a pair of Lieutenants off the bat.

This tale is a very clever (clever in a good way) homage to Invaders from Mars-style pulp stories that ends up adding meaning to its predecessors. In subtle turns it provides an important and natural answer to both Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star while turning the philosophical principles of The Forbidden Planet beyond its Jungian vision. For the conspiratorial-minded, the heroic priest of the tale associates with Rossignol, the medieval poem about a secret affair that also overtly (in the text) ties to an “endless genealogy” worthy of the Templars. Wright leaves the impression that the fellow who stands on the borderland of The Rulers of Evil and the quiet Christian subservient to the civil authorities must, in either case, die to himself every day.

But don’t let the spook business confuse you. It is a fun read that happens to have depth and great action while surveying the landscape of superheroism, alien invasion, occult sorcery, federal degeneracy, and the Eschaton.

“We don’t have secret police in America,” said Hynkel.

The old priest shrugged. “Well, if you knew about them, they would not be a secret, I suppose. Before the police come here to kill me, which one of you would like to rule the world?”

-The Ideal Machine, John C. Wright

Finally, and this is something that really sets the Journal apart: each fiction includes “Food for Thought.” For a batch of stories that individually do an admirable job of raising specific questions in text, this special section goes after a few questions or highlights that may not be readily apparent. In a way, the Food for Thought is not necessary, but on the other hand, it is nice to find a modern anthology in which such a framing device is still possible.

You may not enjoy every story and article in the Sci Phi Journal, but there’s no way you will leave each one without an important idea to consider.

7 Comments
  • Jason says:

    Thank you for that and thanks for the nice words.

    • Daniel says:

      Trust me: had it fallen short of its own standards, I would have said so. It is a remarkable effort that really pays off.

      I used to read Black Gate cover to cover, but that was fantasy, and hasn’t been in print for years. Before that, I think it was in the 1990s when I started to expect anthologies not just to be “hit” or “near miss” but “near miss”, “miss” and sometimes “hit.”

      I’m beginning to wonder if we might not be entering a secret golden age of science fiction.

  • Daniel Eness says:

    Et cetera:

    A few weeks ago, I blogged a civilization-defending parable of fightin’ robots–The Electric Hunt–that might be of interest to any of Sci Phi Journal’s growing base of reader-philosophers.

    The Electric Hunt

  • Mark McSherry says:

    “Although Wright’s early characterization of two important characters is unusually off (at least at first) by Wright’s standards…”

    I took the first bit of dialogue between the two military men as a subtle (or unsubtle???) riff of a famous exchange from Scalzi’s REDSHIRTS that has been mentioned more than once at Vox Popoli.

  • Daniel says:

    I did too. But it was a literary bridge too far for me if it was, and if it wasn’t, it still didn’t fit.

    I will freely admit: I am a quibbler, and this is most definitely the sort of quibble hill upon which I might foolishly choose to die, were I feeling more heroic.

    But the truth is that I love good kitchen sink stories and generally will forgive all sorts of missed gags. However, The Ideal Machine is to kitchen sink science fiction as Blood Meridian is to the American Western novel, and thus, I’m going to hold its only significant flaw up as a wonder to behold.

    The Star Trek jokes were better placed, as well as the traditional Star Wars/Star Trek confusion joke. Part of it was the wording – if he wanted to lampoon the foolish dialog of the original, he should have made the officers’ conversation sound more vulgar and less puritanical

    …and there I go again, dropping dead on Mt. Quibble.

    In the proud tradition set forth by the model of modern SFWA leadership, I quit the field.

  • Joe says:

    Hey,

    Wright sent me over here to read review. I like the way you did it. Bought the journal and will bookmark this site. Thanks.

  • Daniel says:

    Hi Joe, you might be interested in joining the Castalia House mailing list, too.

    It will keep you up-to-date on the newest releases from Castalia House, and it provides you a way to occasionally get free bonus books from the catalog when you buy a new release.

    And thanks for bookmarking us!

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