Friday, December 21, 2018

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Sean McMullen

Today is Australian writer Sean McMullen's 70th birthday. In honor of this, I'm posting a compilation of my reviews of his short fiction in Locus. (My review of his story "Electrica", from the March-April 2012 F&SF, somehow has disappeared from my hard drive, but fortunately Steven Silver reviews it in Black Gate here.)

Locus, September 2002

From Sci Fiction,  "Voice of Steel" by Sean McMullen is a delightfully loopy (no pun intended) story in which a contemporary woman stumbles on a way to communicate through time with the early 15th Century English scientist William Tynedale. The working out is goofy in almost a pulpish fashion, but the consequences of the plot machinations are thought-provoking.

Locus, December 2002

Sean McMullen's "Walk to the Full Moon" (F&SF, December) is nice, mainly for its quite original explanation for the appearance of a pre-Neanderthal woman in modern day Spain.

Locus, October 2006

Interzone for August has a fine mathematical fantasia from Rudy Rucker and Terry Bisson, “2 + 2 = 5”, in which a mathematician proves that there are holes in the number system; and another story about numbers, “The Measure of Eternity” by Sean McMullen, a lush piece set in the legendary Arabian city Ubar, in which a cruel king, a beautiful courtesan, her servant, and a beggar who has, quite literally, nothing, learn how important nothing can be.

Locus, September 2009

As for the new stories in the August-September F&SF: the cover piece is something of a departure for Sean McMullen. “The Art of the Dragon” is told by an art historian who happens to be one of the first witnesses to a dragon who eats human works of art, beginning with the Eiffel Tower. He is anointed an “expert”, and as such gets a front row seat for the dragon’s continuing career, which basically involves a lot more destruction, and he also witnesses the sometimes daffy human reaction, such as the Dragonist cult which ends up trying to appease the dragon with a virgin sacrifice. McMullen’s point is interesting, though I think he took too long getting to it – still, a thought-provoking piece.

Locus, August 2010

Sean McMullen has the best story at Analog for September. “Eight Miles” tells of an expert balloonist in 1840 London hired by a rich man to take him and a passenger to unusually high altitudes. The passenger is a strange foxlike woman, apparently only barely intelligent, but she gains mental acuity as altitude increases. The rich man thinks she is of a race inhabiting the Himalayas, hence her preference for altitude. The reader will quickly know where she really hales from, and the story doesn’t surprise in getting to that reveal, but the ending slingshots nicely from there.

Locus, January 2011

Sean McMullen’s “Enigma” (Analog, January-February) is a classical SF puzzle planet story, and also something of a Fermi Paradox story. A group of explorers, each a mix of human/animal traits, tries to figure out the meaning and history of a strange, nearly indestructible, and quite abandoned, alien city. The answer is perhaps a bit of a stretch to believe, but it’s wrapped around a decent theme, and the result of the team’s discovery is interesting and bittersweet.

Locus, June 2017

The March-April Interzone includes a new Sean McMullen story, “The Influence Machine”. This has a bit of a steampunk flavor. It’s set at the turn of the 20th Century, told by an Inspector for the Metropolitan Police in London, a man with a scientific education. He investigates a disturbance caused by a young woman with an intimidating looking machine, and decides she is harmless, but not before seeing what her machine can do: it takes pictures of what seems to be an alternate London. In somewhat reluctant sympathy with her position as a woman with scientific ability who is not respected, he continues his association with her, as she is able to use her machine to learn scientific secrets from that alternate (and more advanced) world, until her discoveries attract the attention of the authorities, who become very interested. This puts the narrator in a tricky moral situation. All is resolved in a satisfactory fashion.

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