The title of Charm, Strangeness, Mass and Spin, a new story collection by Australian science fiction and fantasy writer Stephen Dedman, draws from quantum physics, and the stories in this collection all explore a kind of physics of human relationships in the midst of technological and societal turmoil.
People, like quarks, show up in strange places and in odd pairings, and the stories explore how they respond in unpredictable and difficult situations. The stories cover a range of science fiction and fantasy genres, with ghosts, alternate worlds, time travel, monsters, mythical figures, and bioengineering all making appearances in this rich and expansive collection. These are stories of survival, and they examine the ways humans can adapt and evolve, shift, and transform—all in the name of carrying on.
Ultimately, these stories explore what it means to be human in worlds that are constantly transforming. Humans in these worlds find themselves bounced around and put into unexpected positions, and these stories follow them as they strive to adapt and survive.
“Shades of Green,” for instance, follows the experiences of newly settled people on a planet called Lila. Lila is coping with an influx of human refugees from another planet, Ararat, which is undergoing political upheaval. Animals on Lila are known to use photosynthesis for part of their energy intake, and human researchers on the planet are in the process of studying how this animal photosynthesis works. Faced with many more mouths to feed and an impending food shortage, the people on Lila decide to try an experiment. As Tad, one of the human settlers, explains:
Some of the local green algae form small colonies; if you break down the colonies and inject yourself with the individual cells, they reproduce inside you, but only the ones that reach your skin and can photosynthesize survive for very long. (p. 65)
Ultimately, becoming a kind of plant-animal hybrid looks like it will be key to surviving in the treacherous situation:
After a few days, it reduces your need for food and oxygen—not completely, but enough that the converters should be able to feed all of us. (p. 65)
Those converters, which convert any carbon-based material into a kind of “food” for the planet’s human colony, were themselves an original survival strategy, and now the photosynthesis plan will, potentially, offer a way to continue living on the planet. It’s a tale of humans doing whatever they can to survive, and also to help others to survive—even if it involves becoming slightly less “human.” And like many of the characters in this book’s stories, the ones in this story take the transition in stride and with a sense of both dry humor and hope: the story ends, after all, with Tad saying, while looking at the “half-green” people surrounding him, “‘I think it’s about time I put down some roots’” (p. 70).
Human transformation, evolution, and adaptation are also at the heart of another story, “This Pleasing Hope, This Fond Desire,” which explores what it would mean if a phage were developed that grants immortality, but only for women. For men, on the other hand, the phage causes sterilization. The story takes place in the office building of a company called Proteus Biotech, and it follows a conversation between a company bioethicist named Papaioannou and an executive named Best about whether to pull the plug on a project headed by a woman researcher named James, who has been studying these immortality-granting phages.
Papaioannou is hesitant, but Best wants the project to go forward—that is, until he learns that James, with whom he’s had a relationship, might have been experimenting on herself with these phages, and that they might have infected him, and therefore also his wife. Out of this triangle, Best will be the loser, and the women will—potentially—live forever. The story has an open-ended, darkly humorous conclusion, with Best suddenly realizing the peril he’s in: “The exec’s eyes turned wide, and he grabbed at the wall to prevent himself falling” (p. 87). It’s a kind of revenge story, with Best getting, it seems, what he deserves, and the women possibly getting immortal life. It’s another study in what it means to evolve into a different kind of humanity—this time, possibly, without men.
Another story, “A Sort of Walking Miracle,” uses time travel as a way to explore humanness and compassion. In this story, a “messenger” named Colin Patterson travels through time at the direction of several women—whom he thinks may be the same woman but at different ages—in order to save the lives of people who are considering suicide. As the story opens, he shows up in the room of a young woman named Jenny, and over the course of their conversation he manages to convince her to live.
Colin has a dry, take-it-or-leave-it approach to his work, but he does seem to care about the people he tries to help, as he reveals in his conversation with Jenny:
I don’t know how long you’re going to live, or how you’re going to die. I don’t know what sort of difference you’re going to make to the world. But the women sent me back here to talk to you, so they must think there’s a chance. (p. 107)
We learn in the story that he saves others in a similar manner, including Sylvia Plath, though it remains something of a mystery why he’s been assigned to do this work. The story—like many in this collection—ends with a twist, as Colin returns to his home city of Seattle, which is now a bombed-out crater in an apocalyptic landscape. Apparently, he’s taking these missions back to the past to save one life at a time, perhaps in the forlorn hope that saving these individual lives might eventually avert a much larger disaster. It’s a unique take on the classic paradoxes always associated with time travel, and the story uses this central trope to explore what small steps humans might be able to take—if they had access to time-travel technology—to avert what otherwise could be their grim destiny.
Ghosts offer another way to explore humanity and compassion, and the meanings and limits of each. “Dead of Winter,” for instance, follows several ghost hunters in their research into two different ghosts—a woman who asks for a ride home with men at a dance club and a man who’s periodically seen speeding down a country road late at night on his motorcycle. Alan, the story’s narrator, and the other researcher, Leah, go to the spots where these ghosts regularly appear and manage to see them and interact with them.
Eventually, Leah forms a plan to sort of introduce the ghosts to each other, and the motorcyclist ends up roaring off with the vanishing hitchhiker on his bike. It’s a sweet story that’s a unique take on a ghost story, particularly since one of the goals of the ghost hunters has been to determine whether ghosts are static recreations of past events or are actually autonomous and able to make choices—some sort of “humans,” as it were. As Leah says, “’We’ve established that ghosts can be aware of each other, and interact. I think that’s proof that they’re autonomous, not just recordings. And I told you I was a sucker for romance’” (p. 130).
In the end, Alan initiates a relationship with Leah, inspired by the ghosts who could also interact in new ways. As he says, “‘If ghosts can change their routines … then I guess I can, too’” (p. 131). In a way, this ghost story serves as another vehicle to explore what it means to be human, and what it means to change and evolve.
While most of the stories have a grain of hope, some explore the darker sides of evolution and adaptation. The final story of the collection, “From Whom All Blessings Flow,” for instance, explores parallel worlds—which, in this story, are actual different worlds, with names like World Green, World Blue, World Cyan, and World Indigo—that can be visited by one other’s inhabitants.
Many of these worlds share similarities, since they developed in parallel, but some diverge more drastically. Different—though often related—languages and religions have developed on these various worlds, and the characters in the story are left to deal with the intricacies of travel, translation, and interaction between them:
hundreds of lawyers, politicians and other bureaucrats were trying to write a set of interworld trade laws that would give their own homeWorld the maximum share of any hitherto undiscovered uninhabited or underdeveloped Worlds. … (p. 339)
The legal, social, and political conundrums faced by these parallel worlds are detailed, and perhaps inevitably some of these differences lead to conflict and war. The story seems to posit a question that underlies many of the stories in this collection: “What does it mean to be human?” And in this case, the answer isn’t particularly hopeful.
This collection studies the quantum physics of human relationships, cultures, and societies, and in so doing it also suggests that there’s a mystery at the heart of humanity. The stories explore the extremes of conflict and empathy, aggression and love, all the time with an eye toward defining humanness. And humanness, it turns out, might simply be whatever survives in the end.