Sharon Lee &
Steve Miller, editors,
Low Port
(Meisha Merlin, 2003)

Within the realm of the printed page, science fiction is not unduly glamorous. There are plenty of cyberpunk worlds and crumbling space stations, and galaxies of worlds destroyed by war or by plague. But the heroes of science fiction are too often the best and brightest, heroic representatives of their cultures or noble outcasts struggling and destined to change the troubled worlds they live in. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Low Port collection has set out to look beneath the smooth panels of space stations and through the gutters of space colonies for the people who aren't heroes of their own series, or even supporting characters in their worlds.

Here is grit and grimness to spare. Science fiction seems to free authors to consider the bigotries of class and privilege, and there are some brutal views of life on the bottom. And even the tales of triumph serve to highlight the desperation of their characters' situations. Ru Emerson's homey "Find a Pin" and Chris Szego's "Angel's Kitchen" make it especially clear that triumphs in these underworlds are rare and hard won, a product of the individual and not the system.

But the world below is also given a chance to show its own heart, bruised as that may be. Even the truly vile poverty on the "Bottom of the Food Chain" doesn't destroy the basic kindness of Jodi Lynn Nye's mildly ambitious hero, and the machinations of a petty little dictator are thrown over by slum unity in the course "Spinacre's War." There are even occasional glimpses of humor and contentment. Lawrence M. Schoen creates an optimistic version of the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" while "Bidding the Walrus," and the musical hero of John Teehan's "Digger Don't Take No Requests" embraces the poverty and freedom of his chosen position with an eye on the stars that promises hope for all artists of the future. The authors of the more uplifting pieces do an excellent job of capturing the edged kindness and weary hopes that manage to survive at the very bottom of the barrel, without glamorizing poverty or deifying their struggling heroes. And while some protagonists manage to achieve their own kind of glory and power, most of the lives captured here are painfully normal. The people of Low Port plainly live in their berths, and many are too absorbed by the fight to survive to worry about success or changing the world.

But for those residents alert enough to look, there are some fine science experiments littered around the ports. Joe Murphy's cleaning machine achieves an alien clarity of thought that redeems the otherwise hopelessly fannish "Zappa for Bardog." The collection opens with a sly comment on the compelling power of the unknown, as Eric Withcye introduces us to a "Voyeur" lost in horrible contemplation of the world outside his normal life. Paul E. Martens' tale of "The Times She Went Away" dares to grapple with the problems of time dilation and its effects on the sedentary in a space-roaming culture, with powerful snapshot encounters between a man and his seemingly immortal traveling love.

It would be easy to wallow in despair and isolation, or swing to unrealistic noble heroism. Lee and Miller have managed to find a collection of tales that capture the reality of life in any Low Port, whether in far-flung nebulas or nestled on the bad side of a local town. There are stories of hope, and dull struggle, and even a quiet, unrecognized glory. In telling the stories of people always overlooked, Low Port is deserving of close attention.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 22 May 2004

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