Trantor Publications (2006)
Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in March 2007)
When I embarked upon reading this anthology, I thought that I would get away with just commenting on the more interesting (or boring) of the stories. Yes. Well, turns out that Dartnall manages to write such eclectic stuff that what follows is a (necessarily brief) comment on every story in the set. First of all, though, I have to say that one of the things that made this really enjoyable to read was the authorial comments at the end of each story. Sometimes they explained a bit about how the story came about, sometimes a reflection on … anything else. Anyway, it was amusing and it lent a certain intimacy to reading the stories, as if Dartnall was there telling you the story and then sharing some personal anecdote with you.
The first story is the eponymous “Ladder at the Bottom of the World”. It’s a hard job, starting up an anthology; you (the story) have to be attention-grabbing, dashing, and make the reader want more I tell you, more! “Ladder” worked really, really well. The first manned expedition to Triton, Neptune’s moon, discovers a woman just lying out in the -235C cold. Ah, the joys of the Laws of Thermodynamics. Because she doesn’t react to heat in quite the same way as humans.
“Footfall” takes up the reins as the second story. It’s very short, and lots of things are never explained because there just isn’t time, but that’s ok. So what would youdo if your planet was, for some reason, a stepping stone to … somewhere else?
The first picture (one of few) of the anthology accompanies “Killjo”. Harrison is boring, and then decides to play Killjo – which, as the name suggests, involves killing people. That’s a bit weird; then there’s an alien invasion – only it turns out that what the Arcadians want to do is play, you guessed it, Killjo. There are a number of other twists to this story, all of which make for a very enjoyable nine pages.
“The Thirteenth City” has the potential to completely screw with your brain with its discussions of time and dimensions and other physics-type things. Dig out your set of babushka dolls, have a look at how they nest inside each other, and you’ll get the idea of what this story is about. And it’s all for love – ain’t it grand?
Another very short, very sweet story is “Santa Fe”. A couple of old blokes (I think) find an old train and go for a ride, reminiscing.
“Magic: a Quartet” is exactly that – a quartet of stories, all with a poem from one of the characters. The first instalment is “Some Day My Prince Will Come”: a princess is waiting for her prince, anticipating the memories that she will have with him, because memories are all she has. “Sphinx” is my favourite: it’s the thoughts of the Sphinx as he crawls through the sand, looking for his ship. And he is very annoyed about losing his nose. Then there’s “Winter” – again someone looking for something, and this time it involves Thor. Finally, “Geraniums”, about the joy that can be found in flowers. They’re a really lovely little mini-anthology, almost.
And now for something completely different: “I am Dan’s Brain: Memoirs of a Much Travelled Mind”. It’s told from a multitude of different perspectives, about what happens when a man has his brain removed and carries it around in a box. And then forgets it. Sounds like a Mel Brooks or Chevy Chase movie, really.
Dartnall borrows Sherlock Holmes for “The Strange Case of Starbase 6”. For me, this story didn’t work so well. I know Holmes had a drug problem, which might have led to rather interesting hallucinations. The juxtaposition of Holmes talking to Watson safe in his parlour, against Starbase 6 encountering a giant praying mantis, was just a bit too unlikely (is that word allowed in a review of scifi, I wonder?) without some explanation – the drugs just weren’t enough. Both of the stories could have worked, but I think that smooshing them together didn’t work.
However, I was encouraged to keep reading by “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s Arthropod”. It’s a courtroom drama, with the Commissioner figuring out why the defendant opened a vanity press in the Bronx … rather than the Orion Nebula. It’s very funny, and made me think of Judge Judy and so on, because the story just keeps getting wilder.
Someone’s decided to move the Earth, in “Did the Earth Move For You Darling?” This happened while Witherspoon was away getting therapy for an anger problem, and he gets a bit annoyed because his wife promised she’d wait. No matter that he’s been away for more than four million years.
I think “No Way to Treat a Lady” counts as flashfic, since it’s only half a page long. In that time, it follows the fate of a spaceship (I think), after Sol goes nova. It’s poignant, covers an immense span of time and space, and has a very funny last line.
“Egg” looks at what might happen when humans finally go interstellar and start finding interesting objects. It’s a fairly cynical look at the insatiable curiosity of the stereotypical scientist. It’s also a play on the phoenix mythology, which is quite neat, I think – the past and the future combined.
I was relieved to read that Dartnall himself doesn’t really understand what “Pushing the Envelope” is about. It’s a nice little tale about some blokes who are literally pushing an envelope – shades of Sisyphus here – but exactly what’s going on is completely opaque. Yet for some reason, I quite liked it.
“Raising Father Kilpatrick” is an anagramatic story involving raising the dead, Catholic priests, possibly demons and devils of some sort, and a small country town. It’s a bizarre ride, but a fun one.
If you’ve ever had to deal with a teenage boy, and their accidental insanity, “Naughty Boy” will appeal. If only because you’ll realise that – since they’re limited to their general neighbourhood, basically – they can’t get into as much trouble as they might if they, say, had access to interstellar travel.
“Baa Humbug” is a classically Australian flashfic story. The sheep – the sheep!
Another flashfic, “Our Starship is Stranded” made me think of Disney’s Aladdin, with the merchant at the start. It’s a discussion between a merchant and a starship sailor who really needs some gas.
Dartnall pulls out a quite left-of-centre story with “Will the Love Return and Aching Cease?” It’s Arthurian, which is unlike anything else in the collection. It’s not a new idea – based on Arthur returning – but it’s nicely executed.
In “A Strange Case of Perfection,” Dartnall takes Anselm’s Ontological Proof of God’s Existence (he says) and plays with it. He does so by saying that the greatest conceivable Being cannot exist. And the cruiser called The Emperor comes across just such a Being, and has a conversation with it…
I’ve always liked the idea of interstellar travel, but unless you get to use fancy-schmancy wormhole technology, you get that relativity issue where time is slower on the planet than the ship. “Wrong about Julia” is about exactly that problem.
What happens if humans and dragons coexist? And humans get a bit bored of being occasionally fried? See “Power Switch”.
One-upmanship has never been more impressive than in “The Rundle”, as the Rundle and the Schemer try and show which of them is the best.
Yeast goes crazy in “Radio Ham”. On a planet in the Horsehead Nebula (I think). Bog Gooball is called in to find out where everyone’s bodies have gone too. I have to agree with the commentators he quotes in the comments – it’s definitely detective noir, even if Dartnall didn’t realise it!
“Clarissa” is a bit Rosemary’s Baby and a bit that Simpsons episode where Maggy is an alien’s child. It’s funny.
“The Secret Life of Uss” (where Uss is a monster) harkens back to “Magic: A Quartet”, with one of its characters, which I quite liked. What exactly would it be like to be married to the monster who disappears whenever a parent enters the room? Uss finds it a bit frustrating, to say the least.
Lots of scifi deals with the idea of physical augmentation, near or actual immortality, and the like. Often it ignores the question of what the archaeologists amongst our descendants will think of our poor, unaugmented, fragile bodies. “Skeleton” deals with it.
“Dreaming of Jennifer” is almost on par with “The Thirteenth City” for spinning your head with discussions of time, paradoxes and such like. Again, it’s all done for love. This time, Professor Stromberg wants to re-experience his life, before it all went pear-shaped.
I had to read “The God Entering Anthony” a couple of times before I entirely got it – and the end comments definitely helped. It’s based on the legend Mark Antony was abandoned by Hercules (or Bacchus) when he was besieged by Octavian. This is from the god’s perspective.
“Heavenly Morning” is Dartnall amusing himself thinking about evolution, and the furor that could be caused by finding a really, really weird skeleton. And the paradoxes inherent in time travel to boot.
Linked to the previous story by the idea of time travel is “Within a Thousand Years.” If there are multiple ‘verses out there, just think how much trouble you could get yourself into if you’re off by even a small amount!
“Ones and Zeros” is a beautiful, if (appropriately) odd, story to finish this collection with. There’s a war going on between machines and humans, and Joshua has been banished to a planet with only machines for company – a nasty punishment, since Joshua is convinced machines may be intelligent but are without consciousness. This is probably one of the most straightforward of the stories in this collection, in terms of its narrative – it’s certainly one of the longest – and I really liked it. The characters worked, motivations worked … it was a satisfying read.
And finally, I lied a bit. The very last piece in this anthology is “Envoi”, but since it’s not a story I think it was only a small lie. It’s a poem, and it’s metaphor-heavy, and I really like the last three lines:
I will appear one evening
When the light is fading
And wake you from your dream.