The Phobos Experience by Mary Robinette Kowal, Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, July/August 2018

This bit of space opera came at a bad time for me. I’m about 550 pages through Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, and so much of this story mixed with Seveneves in my brain and even as I was reading it, the two seemed to take place in the same world–and maybe even on the same timeline. Did I say it came at a bad time? Maybe it was just right.

Plot:

Three scientists are sent to Phobos, a tiny moon of Mars, to explore a cave system on the 14-kilometer moon. They find much more than they bargained for.

Character(s):

The main character, Darlene, is a NavComp who plots a course through space for pilots cov1807lg-250to follow. She is on this mission in that capacity. She also suffers from benign, yet incapacitating vertigo. Sorta a big deal in space. While it’s an interesting character trait, it also becomes a nucance, as her vertigo is the sole construct that causes most of the tension in this story–which, to me, feels a bit sloppy, or lazy. The whole plot would be very boring without her vertigo, so the whole plot hinges on the fact that Darlene doesn’t follow protocol and tell her superiors that she is unfit to go on this mission, which doesn’t make her seem smart of likable.

Setting:

Phobos is a moon covered in 3-4 feet of dust. Its light gravitational pull means that when the dust is disturbed it goes everywhere. It also means there’s a ton of stuff that can hide on Phobos. I think this is the best part of this story. It seemed real to me and I felt as though I now know what it’s like to be on Phobos.

Conclusion:

It’s a fine story, but like so many the ending doesn’t really pack a punch. It peters out instead. The main character never really changes, though her actions change the circumstances she is in. At the end I found myself asking, “so what,” mostly because this seems like the beginning of a much larger story–the inciting incident of a longer story, that still needs to be told.

Artisanal Trucking LLC. by Mary Robinette Kowal, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Mar/Apr 2018

This story starts with a heartbreaker of a moment. In a world where autonomous cars (and trucks) are the norm, a man named Dude has a sweet spot for “Artisanal Trucking” which means human-driven trucks. Unfortunately, this goes horribly wrong when he hits a dog. An autonomous car would never have hit the dog at all. Though he does his best to save the unfortunate animal.

Right when he’s mourning the dog, he finds 5 puppies trying to cross the highway. He saves these puppies and as he’s late now for his delivery, he takes them all with him. The rest of this story is less emotional but very cute.

This piece does a great job of connecting emotion to the concept. Does a human driver have any business trying to compete with machines that don’t make (maybe even, can’t make) mistakes? What is the cost of human error compared to the benefits of automation? This is a hot topic right now, of course, and I think this piece does a good job showing a concrete example of the dilemma.¬† (C+)

Jan 26th, 2018, A Feather in Her Cap by Mary Robinette Kowal, Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, Jan/Feb 2018

This story is light on speculative aspects. While it may fall into the realm of fantasy, it reads more like historical fiction.

The protagonist, Biantera, is a hat maker in what seems to be a fictional Italian town. She’s also an assassin who poisons people. When she completes a job for a wealthy client who refuses to pay, she asks her friend, Evario (a thief), to get her into this mansion and rob the safe while she delivers a poisonous¬†message to this man who has cheated her.

It’s a straightforward adventure story with few surprises. It is, however, well written and I found myself really enjoying the time I spent with Biantera and Evario. I’d really like to read about them more, actually, and hope to see more stories about these two in the future. (B)