Review by: KEN KORCZAK
Just a few paragraphs into the lead-off science fiction story in the Nov-Dec 2017 issue of ANALOG, I began to feel a strange swoon – it was borne of a certain brand of déjà vu that I’ll call … um? … synchronistic familiarity?
Let me explain:
The story is titled HYBRID, BLUE, BY FIRELIGHT. The setting is a ski-lodge sort of facility with a fine restaurant, rooms and other creature comforts for travelers – except this place is positioned in the year 42,967 BCE in a remote Arctic-like region — and the “guests” are time travelers from a variety of future timelines.
As it happens, I have been to this place many times. For real.
I call it The Restaurant on the Edge of Time (The RET for short) – and the way I get there is through the practice of lucid dreaming.
Years ago (somewhere in the 1990s) I perfected the practice of lucid dreaming after reading Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming written by Stanford University psychophysiologist STEPHEN LABERGE – even though I was a spontaneous lucid dreamer years before confronting LaBerge’s ground-breaking work.
Rather than retell everything here, I will now refer you to the first article I published on my visit to The RET – the earliest publication of this story (that I can find) appeared on one of my blogs in 2006 – but for right now I suggest you pause before you read the rest of my review of Bill Johnson’s science fiction story, read about my dream adventure at The RET which I have re-posted here:
Okay! Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed the trip to The RET!
So now let’s talk about this novella, Hybrid, Blue, by Firelight. It’s a challenging piece of fiction, to be sure, which is often the case with hard science fiction crafted in the best tradition of the genre. The author is BILL JOHNSON. He won science fiction’s top honor, the HUGO AWARD, in 1998.
I like science fiction that makes you think – even sweat a few bullets out of your forehead – if you are going to understand what is happening in the story. Grapple you must with solid, meaty scientific theory based on … you know … real science. ‘Hybrid’ is that kind of story.
A short synopsis: This tale involves two brokers of genetic goods – one is a man (a homo sapiens sapiens) by the name of Martin. His partner is a kind of omnipresent AI figure, appropriately named “Artie.”
Martin and Artie ply their trade at the Stone Eagle, a luxury ski-lodge hotel positioned some 40 thousand years in the past. Time travelers of multiple species of man – NEANDERTHALS, DENISOVANS, RED DEER CAVERS and others – all meet at this exotic nexus to wheel and deal on what they need to manage the future timelines of their races.
Accouterments of trade include things like human female ova, resistance to diseases, whole intact species of animal, such as dogs, and so forth.
But the set-up is unstable, in that, maintaining the Stone Eagle is subject to problems, such as time quakes and wobbly reality shifts that quaver amid an array of future timelines … this precarious footing adds tension and sense of urgency to the narrative.
It’s an ambitious premise and difficult to pull off.
Author Bill Johnson is counting on his readers to be intelligent and informed about the latest theories concerning the origin of the human species – but I also believe Johnson expects his reader to contribute mightily in another way toward making the story a coherent whole.
I could be wrong, but I believe the writing technique Johnson is using is what science fiction literary critic ALEXEI PANSHIN described as: “… a provocative vagueness deliberately introduced in order to prevent … readers from understanding too clearly and exactly what was happening and thereby losing their sense of mystery.”
Panshin ascribes the genesis of this writing technique to the legendary science fiction master A. E. VAN VOGT. The great man himself confirmed Panshin’s theory, saying:
“Each paragraph – sometimes each sentence – of my brand of science fiction has a gap in it, an unreality condition. In order to make it real, he reader must add the missing parts. He cannot do this out of his past associations. There are no past associations. So he must fill in the gap from the creative parts of his brain.”
When this technique works, it can create fiction that is rich, compelling and delicious beyond belief. Unfortunately, leaving subliminal gaps within a narrative tends to leave many readers baffled – such is the nature of their personal thought processes that subliminal promptings invoke no response for them – and the effect is only confusion. Some readers can “auto-fill,” some can’t.
On the other hand, there are some aspects of Hybrid, Blue, by Firelight that are problematic for less exotic reasons. For example, there is a scene where the characters come upon some dead bodies, and these are covered in buzzing flies – and yet, they are in a cold climate. Our characters are wearing animal skins and fur, there is snow on the ground, they’re traveling by dog sled – so how can there be carrion-eating flies under these frigid conditions?
There can’t be flies, and so this makes no sense. It’s a small detail, but jarring enough to sow uncomfortable confusion in the mind of the reader, who then begins to question the fundamental integrity of the overall scenario.
As for me, though, I enjoyed the story. My subconscious mind was auto-filling like mad. I felt I was treated to a vivid, sensual and luxurious science fiction feast. Also, I was delighted to confront an intelligent fictional scenario that so closely matched a beloved location so near and dear to my own dreams — literally.
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Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS
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