The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three. KEN MACLEOD

Ken MacLeod (Kenmacleod.blogspot.com) was born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland, on August 2, 1954. He is married with two grown-up children and lives in West Lothian. He has an Honours and Masters degree in biological subjects and worked for some years in the IT industry. Since 1997 he has been a full-time writer, and in 2009 was Writer in Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum at Edinburgh University. He is the author of thirteen novels, from The Star Fraction (1995) to Intrusion (2012), and many articles and short stories. His collection, Giant Lizards from Another Star, was published in 2006. His novels and stories have received three BSFA awards and three Prometheus Awards, and several have been short-listed for the Clarke and Hugo Awards.

“The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three” was first published in Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ian Whates, who had a particularly good year as an editor of anthologies in 2011. It is a model of SF plotting, and we feel that in it MacLeod engages both with the current state of the world and with the current state of science fiction in a gripping and entertaining fashion. So we chose to put it first in this book.

In the Year Three, l’ann?e trois as it’s called here, there are three kinds of Americans living in Paris: the old expats, the new ?migr?s, and the spooks. And then there are the tourists, who’ve travelled via Dublin, their passports unstamped at Shannon. You can find them all at Shakespeare and Co.; or they can find you.

I was browsing the bargain boxes for SF paperbacks when I noticed that the guy at my elbow wasn’t going away. At a sideways glance I identified him as a tourist—something in the skin texture, the clothes, the expression. He looked back at me, and we both did a double take.

“Bob!” I said, sticking out my hand. “Haven’t seen you since—when?”

“The London Worldcon,” said Bob, shaking my hand. “God, that’s … a long time.”

“How are you doing?”

“Fine, fine. You know how it is.”

I nodded. Yes, I knew how it was.

“What brings you here?” I asked.

“Business,” said Bob. He smiled wryly. “Yet another SF anthology. The angle this time is that it features stories from American writers in exile. So I’m systematically approaching the ones I know, trying to track down those I don’t have a contact for, and commissioning. The deal’s already set up with Editions Jules Verne—the anthology will be published here, in English. In the US it’ll be available on Amazon. That way, I can get around all the censorship problems. It’s not so bad you can’t read what you like, but publishing what you like is more of a problem.”

“So bad you had to come here just to contact the writers?”

“That’s right. Trying to set this up online from inside the US might be … well. Let’s just say I didn’t want to take the chance.”

“Jeez,” I said. “That bad.”

I looked back down at the books and saw that my forefinger had landed, as if guided by an invisible hand, on the spine of a J. Neil Schulman paperback. I tugged out Alongside Night.

“Well,” I said, “I’ve found what I’m looking for. You?”

Bob shrugged. “Just browsing,” he said. “Fancy a coffee?”

“Sure.”

I nipped inside, paid a euro for the book, and rejoined Bob outside in the chilly February afternoon. He stood gazing across the Seine at Notre-Dame.

“Hard to believe I’m actually looking at it,” he said. He blinked and shook his head. “Where to?”

I indicated left. “Couple of hundred metres, nice traditional place.”

The cafe was on the Quai des Grands Augustins. The bitter wind blew grit in our faces. Along the way, I noticed Bob looking askance at the flaring reds, yellows and blacks of the leftist, anarchist and altermondialiste posters plastered on walls and parapets.

“Must be kind of weird, seeing all that commie kipple everywhere,” he said.

“You stop noticing,” I said.

The doorway was easy to miss. Inside, the cafe seemed higher than it was wide, a little canyon of advertisement mirrors and verdegrised brass and smoke-stained woodwork. Two old guys eyed us and returned to their low-voiced conversation around a tiny handheld screen across which horses galloped. I ordered a couple of espressos and we took a table near the back under a Ricard poster that looked like it predated the Moon landings, if not the Wright brothers. We fiddled with envelopes of sugar and slivers of wood, and sipped for a few moments in silence.

“Well,” Bob said at last, “I suppose I have to ask. What do you think of the Revolution?”

“It always reminds me,” I said, “of something Marx said about the French state: how all the revolutions have ‘perfected this machine, instead of smashing it’.”

Bob yelped with laughter. “Fuck, yeah! But trust you to come up with a Marx quote. You were always a bit of a wanker in that respect.”

I laughed too, and we took some time to reminisce and catch up.

Bob was a science-fiction fan, an occasional SF editor, and an anarchist, but none of these paid his bills. He was an anthropology professor at a Catholic university deep in the Bible Belt. He spent very little time propagating the ideas of anarchism, even in the days when that had been safe—‘wanker’ and ‘hobbyist’ were among his kinder terms for ideologues. Instead, he worked with trade union locals, small business forums, free software start-ups, and tribal guerrillas in Papua New Guinea. This was all anthropological research, or so he claimed. Such groups tended to be more effective after he’d worked with them.

I hadn’t thought much about him over the years, to be honest—we were never exactly close—but when I had, I’d wondered how he was doing under the new order in the United States. Not too well, by the sound of things. Still, it would probably have been worse for him if I’d emailed to ask. This thought helped to quash my pang of guilt about not having kept in touch.

“Hey,” Bob was saying, “wait a minute—you must know some of these writers!”

I nodded.

“Maybe you could give me some contact details?”

At that moment I began to suspect that we hadn’t met by accident.

“I don’t know if I can,” I said.

I had the numbers of most of the writers Bob was looking for on my mobile. “But,” I went on, “I do know where you can find them tomorrow morning. Every SF writer in Paris, I shouldn’t wonder.”

Bob looked puzzled for a moment.

“The ascent,” I said.

He smacked his forehead with the heel of his hand. “Of course!”

Like he’d forgotten; like he hadn’t timed his visit just for this. The date had been announced on New Year’s Eve, in a special Presidential broadcast from the Elys?e Palace.

We exchanged phone numbers and finished our coffees.

“Fancy a glass of wine?” Bob said.

I looked at my watch. “Sorry, I’ve got to go,” I said. “But I’ll see you tomorrow. Jardin de Luxembourg, main gate, 11 a.m.”

“See you there,” Bob said.

I strolled across the ?le de la Cit?, pausing for a moment to soak in the glow of the low sun off the front of Notre-Dame. As always, it sent me down long passages of reminiscence and meditation. Something about that complexity that fills your eyes, that you can take in at a single glance, lifts the spirit. It reminds me of the remaining frontage of the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, which many years ago I gazed at bedazzled, dusty, heat-struck, light-struck, dumb-struck. The pagan and the Christian architectural exuberance are in that respect alike.

And as always, as a sort of footnote as I turned and stepped away, came the thought of another building on that island, one as representative of our age, in its chill cement modernism, as the cathedral’s gothic was of its. Embarrassing to admit: my response to the Memorial to the Deportation has always been shaped by a prior description, the one in Iain M. Banks’s novella The State of the Art. My eyes, as always, pricked at the thought; the hairs of my chin and neck, as always, prickled. Seeing the memorial, for a moment, through the eyes of an imaginary alien communist: why should that move me so much? That is on top, you understand, of the import of the thing itself, of its monstrous synecdoche. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic for that alien communist view. These days, in the Year Three, the view’s hard to conjure—but when was it not?

I took the Metro from Ch?telet to Bastille and walked briskly up Richard Lenoir, turned left to buy a few expensive necessities—a baguette, a half-litre of table wine, a handful of vegetables, a jar of sauce—in the local Bonne Marche, and hurried through the warren of small streets between the two boulevards to the tiny flat we rented off Beaumarchais. I had a pasta and salad ready by the time my wife came home. She was tired, as always. At our age it’s hard to find decent work. She’s stuck in admin, for one of the health associations. In the English-speaking world, mutualism is one of those wanker anarchist ideologies. In France, ‘mutualiste’ is a quotidian reality, a name on thousands of signboards for opticians, dentists, doctors. I hoped I had the opportunity to rub Bob’s nose in this at some point.

As for my own work … it too is exhausting, but in a different way.

I brought my wife coffee in bed at nine the following morning. She gave me a glare from under the cover.

“It’s early.”

“I thought you might want to come along.”

“You must be joking. I’m knackered. If I’m awake I’ll watch it on the telly.”

“Okay,” I said.

I kissed her forehead and left the coffee on the bedside table. I caught up with the news and online chatter over my own breakfast, and left the flat about ten-thirty. The sky was cloudless, the air cold and still. The low sun gilded the gold of the Bastille monument a few hundred metres down the road. Children whooped and yelled on the slides and swings in the little park along the centre of the boulevard. On a bench a homeless man slept, or lay very still, under rimed newspaper sheets. On the next bench, a young couple shared a joint and glanced furtively at the tramp. The market stalls had been up for hours, at this season selling preserves, knick-knacks, knock-offs, football shirts.

I’d intended to start the day with a brisk walk, but changed my mind when, after a hundred metres, my left knee played up. I turned back and limped down the entrance stairs of Richard Lenoir. The Metro was crowded and slow, stinking of Friday night. Things hadn’t always been like this, I reminded myself.

Of course, we’d been ridiculously optimistic about meeting at the agreed place and time. That Saturday morning, a good hour before the ascent was scheduled, the exit from the Metro at Luxembourg was as crowded as the entrance to a football stadium on the night of a Cup Final; the Boulevard St-Michel looked as if—ha-ha—the revolution had started, or at least a rowdy manif. Cops, traffic, meeting someone: you could forget about all of those.

I did the sensible thing and found in the middle of the boulevard a bollard against which to brace myself in the throng. I switched on my earpiece, fired up my phone, and called Bob.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“Just inside the gate,” he said. “Not going anywhere.”

“I’m just outside,” I said, “and likewise. Let’s do this electronically.”

Within a few minutes I had a conference call going with Bob and the half dozen American SF writers already scattered through the crowd. Jack, of course, and Nicole, and Catherine, and Seymour and good old Milton and Ali. I tuned out their eager catch-up gossip and flicked through news channels.

Nothing much was happening at the launch site in the middle of the park—the machine was still in its crate—so they were filling in with talking heads and shots of its arrival a couple of days earlier: the wide-load truck, the police outriders, the military escort vehicles, the faces and flags lining Rue de Vaugirard; the white gloves, the flashing lights, the gleaming rifle-barrels. Some comic relief as the convoy negotiated corners and the park gate. Then the crane, straining to lift the broad flat crate and lower it to the grass. The guard of honour around the hidden machine, and the real guard among the trees, armed and wired.

I thumbed over to the phone conversation.

“—got to be a fake,” Jack was saying, in his usual confident bray. “You wait.”

“We are waiting,” said Nicole.

Laughter crackled across the phones.

“Why d’you think it’s a fake?” Bob asked, a note of anxiety in his voice.

“Anti-gravity, come on!” said Jack. “Where’s the theory?”

A babble of interruptions, shouted names of marginal physicists and outright cranks, was drowned out by a collective intake of breath, like a gust of wind in the still air. I left the phone channel open and flipped to the news. Four technicians in white coats had marched out onto the grass, towards the crate. They slid the top off—it looked like an aluminium roll-up door, which they duly rolled up—and, staggering slightly, lugged it like a log to lay it down a few metres away. Then they took up positions at the crate’s corners. With a flourish, each reached for an edge, pressed some switch, and stepped well back.

The sides of the crate fell away, to reveal a silvery lens about fifteen metres across and just over three metres high in the centre.

A huge roar went up.

“My God,” Milton said. “A goddam flying saucer.”

He didn’t sound impressed.

“If this is a stunt,” said Catherine, “they’re sure doing it very publicly.”

“You know what this reminds me of?” said Nicole. “That scene in Jefferson in Paris, you know, the Nick Nolte thing? Where he’s watching a Montgolfier ascent?”

“Too right,” said Jack. “It’s a fucking balloon! Just like at Roswell!”

The SF writers all laughed. I smiled to myself. They’d see.

Another roar erupted as the pilot walked out, helmet in the crook of his arm. He smiled around, gave a wave. The news channels were beside themselves—the test pilot was Jean-Luc Jabril, an air force veteran in his thirties, something of a mascot for the Republic because of his origins: a son of Moroccans from the banlieues who’d made good, proving his French patriotism to the hilt in the fiery skies of North Africa. Everyone around me was looking at their phones, rapt. A few metres away in the crush, a girl in a hijab had tears on her cheeks.

Ceremoniously, Jabril put on his helmet, slid the visor down, took another wave for the cameras, and ducked under the machine’s perimeter. A hatch in the underside swung open, forming a short ramp. He disappeared inside, and the hatch closed. White vapour puffed from vents on the rim.

And then, without fanfare, on the stroke of noon, the machine lifted into the air. It moved in a straight vertical, without a wobble or a yaw. The news channels’ microphones caught and amplified a faint humming sound that rose to a whine as the disc ascended. I could see it directly now, rising above the wall and the tops of the trees. I stopped watching on the screen and raised my phone to record. Everyone around me did the same.

Up and up the machine rose, faster and faster, into the clear blue sky. A thousand feet, two thousand—I wasn’t thinking in metres at this point. At three thousand feet the machine was a shining dot. I wished I’d thought to bring binoculars.

The flash was so bright that I felt sorry for those who had.

There was a sound as if half a million people had simultaneously been punched in the gut. A moment later, a sound like thunder. Then screams.

I was still blinking at purple after-images when I spotted a black dot drop from the fading flare. A parachute snapped open, perilously low. It floated downward for a few seconds and passed out of view. I’d tracked it with my camera, open-mouthed. I turned the phone over and looked at the news screen, just in time to catch a figure landing and rolling, then standing as the parachute collapsed beside him. Mobbed, Jabril had time to take his helmet off and deliver a shaky smile before the technicians and medics bundled him away.

“Jesus,” I said. Nobody heard me. I could hardly hear myself above the yells and screams and cries of relief.

It was towards the middle of that afternoon before we all met up, at a bistro in the Marais, not far from my own flat. I’d dropped by and picked up my wife, who was by now well awake and as shaken as everyone else who’d watched the ascent. We strolled around a few corners and joined the now somewhat larger group outside a bistro off Beaumarchais. They were outside because Jack had evidently insisted on smoking one of his Cuban cigars (a gesture somewhat redundant in the Year Three, but he’d acquired the taste in the old days). I bought our drinks and joined the huddle, introducing my wife to Bob and to two writers who hadn’t met her before. She smiled politely and retreated to a table with Milton and Ali, over glasses of dry white and a saucer of black olives.

“But why,” Bob was saying, “would they have their big show-off demonstration flight blow up like that? In front of everyone? If it was a fake, a balloon for fuck’s sake, they’d have done much better just bringing it back down after a shorter flight.”

“A double bluff,” Jack said. He jabbed with his cigar. “Exactly so that everyone would think the way you’re thinking.”

The discussion went around and around, not getting anywhere.

“We’ll know soon enough,” Nicole pointed out. “With all those cameras and phones pointed at it, and no doubt all kinds of instruments—hell, there’ll be a spectrograph analysis—”

“Wait a minute,” said Jack. He dropped the butt of his cigar and crushed it out on the pavement, then reached into his jacket and pulled out his phone. He thumbed the screen.

“Knew I had the app,” he said.

He poked about for a moment, then triumphantly held up his phone screen for all to see. I peered at a colour-coded histogram.

“What?” I said.

“Analysis of the light from my pics,” he said. “Hydrogen and magnesium, mostly. No wonder the flash was so fucking bright!”

The sky had clouded over, the sun had set, rain began to spit. We headed indoors. After another round, of drinks and argument, we headed out. Across the boulevard and deeper into the Marais, wandering westward. It turned into one of those evenings. Standing outside a serving hatch in the drizzle, we dined on Breton pancakes out of waxed paper, reeled across the street, occupied a bar. Got into arguments, left, got turned away from a gay club that Milton and Ali had fancied they’d get us into, found another bistro. Bob bought more rounds than he drank. He worked his way around our tables, talking to each of the writers, and eventually squeezed in beside me and my wife.

“Done it!” he said. “Got everyone signed up.”

“Good for you,” I said.

“You’re forgetting someone,” my wife pointed out.

Bob mimed a double take. “Shit. Pardon, madame. Yes, of course.” He looked me in the eye. “You up for a story?”

“I’m not American,” I said.

“Hey, man, that’s got nothing to do with it. You’re one of the gang, even if you are a Brit.”

“I appreciate the offer, Bob,” I said. “But I think it would kind of … dilute the focus, know what I mean? And I don’t have any problem getting published, even in English.”

“Don’t be so stupid,” my wife said. “The Ozzies and Kiwis? They don’t pay well, and it’s not much of a market.”

I smiled at her, then at Bob. “She guards my interests fiercely,” I said. “Never lets me pass up a cent. But the fact is, I have a job that pays all right.”

“Yeah, maintaining university admin legacy code in the Sorbonne basement,” said Bob.

How had he known that? Maybe someone had mentioned it.

I shrugged. “It suits me fine. And like I said, it pays.”

“Come on, you haven’t sold a story in the US for years. And readers would like something from you, you know. It wouldn’t narrow the anthology, it would broaden it out, having your name on the cover.”

“Having your name as editor would do as much,” I said.

“The offer’s open,” Bob said. He leaned forward and murmured: “For you—fifty cents a word.”

I laughed. “What’s a cent, these days?”

“I’m talking euros,” Bob said. “Half a euro a word.”

My wife heard that, and yelped. I must admit I sat up sharply myself.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “A few grand a story?”

“Not for every story,” said Bob, ostentatiously glancing around to make sure no one had overheard. Not much chance of that—the bar was loud, and the conversation of the SF writers made it louder yet. “From you, I’ll take ten-kay words. Five grand.”

For the first time in weeks, I had a craving for a cigarette.

“I’ll have to go outside and think about it,” I said.

I bummed a Gitane off Nicole, grinned at my wife’s frown, and headed out. The rain had stopped. The street was dark, half the street-lamps out. My Zippo flared—I keep it topped up, for just these contingencies. After a minute, Bob joined me. He took a fresh pack from his pocket, peeled cellophane, and lit up.

“You too?” I said, surprised.

He shrugged. “Only when I’m travelling. Breaks the ice in some places.”

“I’ll bet,” I said. I glared at him. “Fucking Yank.”

“What?”

“Don’t mess with my friends.”

“What?”

“I know what you’re up to,” I said. “Checking them out, seeing who’s all mouth and who’s serious enough to be interested in one of your little schemes.”

“Have you got me wrong,” said Bob. “I’m not interested in them. I’m interested in you.”

He spread his hands, flashed me a conspiratorial grin.

“Forget it,” I said.

“Come on, you hate the bastards as much as I do.”

“That’s the trouble,” I said. “You don’t.”

“What do you mean by that?” He sounded genuinely indignant, almost hurt. I knew that meant nothing. It was a tone I’d practiced often enough.

“You don’t hate the revolution,” I said. I waved a trail of smoke. “Civil war, terror, censorship, shortages, dictatorship—yeah, I’m sure you hate all that. But it’s still the beginning of socialism. It’s still the revolution, isn’t it?”

“Not my revolution!”

“You were never a wanker,” I said. “Don’t mistake me for one, either.”

He tossed his cigarette into the running gutter, and continued the arm movement in a wave.

“So why … all this?”

“We have perfected this machine,” I said.

He gave me a long look.

“Ah,” he said. “I see. Like that, is it?”

“Like that,” I said.

I held the door open for him as we went back in. The telly over the bar was showing yet another clip of the disastrous flight. Bob laughed as the door swung shut behind us.

“You didn’t perfect that machine!”

We picked our way through the patrons to the gang, who by now had shoved two tables together and were all in the same huddle of heads.

“Describe what happened,” I said, as we re-joined them. “At the Jardin.”

“Well,” Bob began, looking puzzled, “we all saw what was claimed to be an anti-gravity flying machine rise in the air and blow up. And some of us think—”

“No,” I said. I banged the table. “Listen up, all of you. Bob is going to tell us what he saw.”

“What do you want me to say?” Bob demanded. “I saw the same as the rest of you. I was just inside the park, I saw it on my phone and when the thing cleared the treetops I saw it with my own eyes. The machine, or what we’d been told was a machine, rose up—”

“Not that,” I said. “Start from when you got to the park.”

Bob frowned. “The Place was crowded. I couldn’t see what was happening around the crate. There were people in the way, trees …” He shrugged. “What’s to say?”

“Describe the trees. Think back to looking up at them.”

Bob sipped the dregs of the green drink in front of him, shaking his head.

“Bare branches, clear blue sky.”

“Were the branches moving?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Well, were they?”

“Of course not!” he said. “There wasn’t a breath of wind.”

“Bingo!” I said. “There was a clear blue sky. There wasn’t a breath of wind.”

“I don’t get it.”

Nor did anyone else, by the looks I was getting.

“The machine moved straight up,” I said. “And we’re all fairly sure it was some fake, right? An arrangement of balsa and mylar, hydrogen and magnesium.”

I took out my Zippo, and flicked the lid and the wheel. “That’s all it would have taken. Whoof!”

“Yeah,” said Jack, looking interested. “So?”

“The ascent was announced a month and a half ago,” I said. “New Year’s Eve. Announced to the day, to the hour, the minute! Noon, Saturday fifteenth Feb.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Imagine what today’s little demonstration would have been like,” I said, “if there had been … a breath of wind. Or low cloud. The fake would have been blatant.” I held out my hand, fingers spread, and waggled it as I gestured drifting. “Like that.”

Jack guffawed, and Bob joined in. Everyone else just frowned.

“You’re saying the French have weather control?”

“No,” I said. “I’m saying they have weather prediction. That’s what they demonstrated today, not anti-gravity—and that’s what is going to scare the shit out of the Americans and the Brits. Probably has already.”

“It’s impossible to predict the weather forty days in advance,” said Catherine. “Chaos theory, butterfly effect, all that, you know?”

“Apparently not,” I said. “A lot of mathematics research going on at the Sorbonne, you know.” I turned to Bob. “Take that back to your revolution.”

He stared at me for a long moment.

“Fuck you,” he said. “And the horse you rode in on.”

He stood up and stormed out.

None of us heard from him again. Editions Jules Verne, the publishing company, never heard from him either. They honoured the contracts, but nothing came of the anthology.

The ascent at the Jardin de Luxembourg is still the best science fiction of the Year Three.

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