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Chasing Rabbits


By Charles Sheffield 

25 Oct, 2020

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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Charles Sheffield’s 1979 Vectors is a collection of science fiction stories, one that contains the majority of Sheffield’s short pieces published prior to 1980

Although no doubt Sheffield’s name would have been enough, I suspect the cover cinched my decision to buy this collection. Who doesn’t like a John Berkey cover? Except on closer examination this is an Attila Hejja cover. Hejja’s style is similar to Berkey’s, which raises an interesting question. How many of the books I thought had Berkey covers actually have Hejjas?

I picked up this old volume to see how a comfort read from the 1970s had aged, only to discover that the first story is about an unpleasant man unsuited to power clawing his way towards the presidency….

The only reason Sheffield does not figure more prominently in my Tears reviews is that while some of his short fiction (and two novels) were published in the correct period, most of the collections containing his early short fiction postdate my cut-off date. 

Comfort read? Well, his stories were the sort of hard SF I inhaled as a teen, the sort of hard SF I would never offer to my Young Readers lest they think even more poorly than they do of my youthful taste in fiction.

These stories are early Sheffield publications and they are often unpolished. In his afterwords, Sheffield admits that were he writing these stories again, he would solve various narrative problems differently. Oh well … doing is how we learn to do better. Several of the stories here marked the debut of settings and themes that appeared in stories and series developed over the course of his long career. This fact may have contributed to the out-of-print status of Vectors. A fair number of the stories were included in later collections that focused on individual series. One story, The Long Chance, was later expanded into a full novel, 1997’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow.

Vectors does not appear to be available from any of the usual booksellers. 

If you want to know more, here’s a guide to the individual stories. 

Introduction (Vectors) • essay 

This essay tells the reader that Sheffield does not care for introductions. Rather, each story has an afterword, which provides context for each story. 

What Song the Sirens Sang” • (1977) • short story 

What is the secret behind Webster’s rise to power? And what will the reporter who discovers it do with this knowledge?

As Sheffield notes, What Song” is a curate’s egg. An odd detail: Sheffield assures the reader he did not have Jimmy Carter in mind, a possibility that would never have occurred to me. Carter was a popular hate figure in SF of the time. So was Proxmire, also mentioned in this collection. 

Fixed Price War” • [Merle Walters • 1] • (1978) • short story 

Military contractors conspire to make the world a better place.

Hard SF is that SF that provides enough detail so the informed reader can be sure that the mechanisms key to the story could not work as the author has them working. Oddly, while Sheffield is convinced the story has a fatal flaw, in that a competent audit would reveal what’s going in, that is only an objection for regimes with competent audits. This scam may be possible, which means the story may not be hard SF at all…

Marconi, Mattin, Maxwell” • [Burmeister and Carver • 1] • (1977) • short story 

A greedy lawyer is recruited to find funds for unpleasant genius Mattin’s revolutionary teleportation system. Mattin is every bit the genius he believes himself to be … but human factors are the characters’ undoing.

This is the first in a series of comic stories about a pair of characters whose complete lack of moral compass inexplicably does not provide either with untold riches. It’s very Road to… save that it is missing a Dorothy Lamour. 

Power Failure• (1978) • novelette 

Young Carl was very bright. Bright enough to spot that Newtonian physics cannot be reconciled with Maxwellian. Bright enough to that he’s a valuable resource for the rulers of the distant future.

This would be yet another example of The Secret Cabal That Secretly Ran the World for Its Own Good, In Secret. Oddly, the justification used in this case, that modern science denies people the certainty offered by 19th Century models, appears in somewhat altered form on Conservapedia1.

Killing Vector” • [McAndrew Chronicles • 1] • (1978) • short story 

Fanatical soldiers of a genocidal leader stage a jailbreak, only to be brought low by obfuscatory physics jargon.

This is the first story starring McAndrew, who starts off as a very bright engineer and gradually evolves into a super-genius rivaling Mattin himself. He is also a pacifist, of the very technical sort who maneuvers his enemies into killing themselves without McAndrew having to pull the trigger himself. 

My memory betrayed me: I remembered Sheffield’s kernels, the mini-black holes at the centre of this story, as the old sort that do not radiate. As a moment’s consideration would have made clear, this story post-dates Hawking’s 1974 work on the matter. Sheffield’s kernels emit Hawking radiation, which constrains how they can be used.

Dinsdale Dissents” • [Burmeister and Carver • 4] • (1977) • short story 

Carver’s equally amoral but somewhat dimmer pal Burmeister is sentenced to space prison for his willfully oblivious role in a drug-smuggling operation. This unexpectedly provides the lawyer with an undeserved chance for redemption. 

Both Carver and Burmeister lack morals. Carver is the smart one and Burmeister is the fat one. Burmeister’s girth figures into the plot on a number of occasions. Also noted is his talent for landing in unpleasant substances. The other name for this sequence is the Sewer series. 

We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident • (1977) • novelette 

Classical philosophers struggle to comprehend a new, unfamiliar form of genius.

One of the morals of the story is that some slaves prefer slavery. Sounds like a Campbell pick, although of course by 1977 JWC was too dead to purchase stories. It was in fact a Ted White purchase, which just goes to show how pervasive and enduring Campbell’s influence was. Although perhaps Campbell would not have chosen a white engineer to figure as the natural-born slave. 

Skystalk • (1979) • novelette 

Rascally terrorists plant a nuclear device on an orbital beanstalk, forcing the narrator to explain what an orbital beanstalk is.

In the afterword, Sheffield admits that of the three options open to him — a story with rich characters and no science, a story with acceptable characters and familiar props, and a story with cardboard characters and extensive exposition on subjects unfamiliar to the reader — he chose the third. What was to me the most pressing question — how did terrorists get a nuclear device? — is not satisfactorily answered.

How to Build a Beanstalk • (1979) • essay 

A non-fiction piece on the challenges posed by the effort to build a suspension bridge from the Earth’s surface out to geosynchronous orbit and beyond. 

About the same amount of exposition as the story before it and only slightly less characterization.

Transition Team• (1978) • novelette 

An Earth woman is recruited to discover why (despite being the product of strict eugenic standards) space children are weird. The answer turns out to be parents are idiots who never examine their expectations.”

I am still waiting for the story in which it turns out the diligent breeding program has produced Space Habsburgs or perhaps Astro Ptolemies.

This tale is mainly notable because it has a woman in a speaking role, something not common in early Sheffield stories. 

Bounded in a Nutshell• [Merle Walters • 2] • (1978) • short story 

The wily contractors of Fixed Price War” set out to discover how a competitor is skunking them. The answer is both awesome and disturbing in its implications. 

Again, although Campbell had been dead for years at this point, Sheffield includes a short discourse on Rhine. As it turns out, psionics, at least of the conventional sort, is not the explanation.

There’s one interesting speculation in this story: connectivity could curtail human ambition. Once one gets used to ubiquitous light-speed communication, one may become reluctant to move anywhere outside of the communications network. Sheffield would revisit this idea in the next story. 

The Long Chance• (1977) • novelette 

A musician resorts to extremes to save his mostly dead lover: he writes popular music, he steals a starship. His cunning blinds him to the fact he is recapitulating Orpheus and Eurydice. 

How many lines are spoken by the woman whose terminal illness drives the plot, you ask? That would be none. 

Rot13 for creepy spoiler: 

Gur aneengbe vanqiregragyl xvyyf uvf ybire jvgu nccyvrq vqvbpl naq unf gb frggyr sbe envfvat ure pybar. Gur raqvat vapyhqrf guvf cnffntr nf ur pbagrzcyngrf uvf ybire’f vasnag pybar:

Va gjragl lrnef’ gvzr, V znl or ab zber guna sngure naq zragbe gb ure.” 

Znl” yrnirf bcra gur cbffvovyvgl ur zvtug abg. BU PUNEYRF FURSSVRYQ AB. Ba gur cyhf fvqr, gung pybar’f shgher gurencvfg jvyy ab qbhog or noyr gb nssbeq n frpbaq fcnpr lnpug sebz gur srrf gurl znxr sebz gur pybar. 

Decode here at your peril.

The Treasure of Odirex • [Erasmus Darwin] • (1978) • novella 

Charles Darwin’s grandfather sets out to determine whether or not a friend’s wife is mad or if there is an overlooked secret in the wilds of Britain.

The Dalmatian of Faust” • [Burmeister and Carver • 6] • (1978) • short story 

Burmeister is strong-armed into protecting a child far smarter than he is — not all that rare — which goes about as well as you can expect. 

Carver was relegated to narrator in most of these stories because Burmeister’s poor judgment made him a more effective comedic protagonist. 

1: You may think you want an explanation but you don’t.