Apr 13, 2021, 06:28AM

Passions Amid the Stars

Dark Matter: Artificial, a sci-fi story collection, probes feelings among humans, aliens and AI.

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Nearly 30 years ago, I attended a wedding of friends of my girlfriend, in Maryland on a grassy elevation overlooking the Upper Chesapeake. It was a beautiful ceremony, its warmth enhanced by the bride’s ex-husband’s being a key participant. That weekend gave me a glimpse of some of the potentialities of love and reconciliation. And rejection; my girlfriend broke up with me, and I drove us home with tears streaming down my face.

I thought about this as I read Dark Matter: Artificial (Dancing Lemur Press, May 4), an absorbing collection of science fiction stories by multiple authors. The “dark matter” that forms a theme refers in some stories to the missing mass that physicists seek to identify to account for celestial gravitational interactions; in other tales, the term applies loosely to something mysterious or disturbing. Yet amid exotic physics and advanced technologies, the stories emphasize emotions, particularly ones of love and loss, felt by various humans and non-humans.

Much science fiction, in contrast, tends to emphasize the arcane over the emotional. For example, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, is memorable for concepts and visuals, but not for the personalities of its characters. As critics noted, the lethal computer HAL seemed more human than the astronauts it accompanied.

The opening story in Dark Matter, “Artificial,” by Stephanie Espinoza Villamor, is told from the viewpoint of Bryan, an artificial intelligence serving as personal assistant to Lina, owner of a bakery. Bryan strives to be attentive to Lina’s needs, including organizing a photo collection from her past, but becomes disconcerted upon discerning that a typical AI assistant’s role in its patron’s life may differ significantly from what Lina wants from him.

“Space Folds and Broomsticks,” by C.D. Gallant-King, is set in the interstellar Federacy Navy. Captain Sawx wants to remove two incompetent yet politically-connected cadets from his command, and so hatches an illicit scheme with his superior officer, Commandant Jacob, whom he finds sipping whiskey in a hot tub. Sawx, all business, declines Jacob’s invitation to join her in the water, a decision that’ll prove fateful when their plot’s consequences reach fruition.

In Kim Mannix’s “Rift,” a dark stain on a woman’s wall seems to offer a chance to obtain a different version of her life, one in which the family can be together again but at an awful price. “The Utten Mission,” by Steph Wolmarans, is about generational space travelers who inherit a mutation that gives them extraordinary empathy, letting them tap into the emotions of countless beings and creating what could be a problematic relationship with the galaxy itself.

“Sentient,” by Tara Tyler, is a compelling story told from the viewpoints of two dark-matter entities, Absi and Grav, responsible for assessing whether humanity poses a threat to the cosmic order. They observe Evan, a distraught man unsuccessfully begging his girlfriend not to leave him. To understand human possibility, Absi seeps into Evan’s consciousness, while Grav enters that of Karris Johnson, a dynamic congresswoman perceived as Evan’s polar opposite. When Evan and Karris meet, Absi and Grav encounter passions beyond what they’d anticipated.

“One to Another,” by Deniz Bevan, tracks the activities of survivors after a mysterious burning snow has fallen across Earth, examining the challenge of building trust in a collapsed world. “Resident Alien,” by Charles Kowalski, is an evocative story about being a member of a disdained group. Alexander Adams, a descendant of explorers who arrived on the planet of the Ogygians, seeks to become the first human there allowed a university education, while navigating the social implications of dating his green-skinned girlfriend, Lhuara.

In “Nano Pursuit,” by Olga Godim, two programmers respond to a theft of their nanotechnology bugs, known as Dark Matter. In Elizabeth Mueller’s “Resurgence,” a couple experiencing strange dreams and hallucinations turn out to be living in a different reality than they thought.

The book’s final entry, “Vera’s Last Voyage,” is by Mark Alpert, whom I worked with at Scientific American before he became a full-time novelist. The story’s an imagined homage to the late astronomer Vera Rubin, discoverer of dark matter, who likely was overlooked for the Nobel Prize because she was a woman; next year, a telescope named for her is scheduled to begin operations. Alpert imagines Rubin in a reverie in her final days, receiving an otherworldly visit from her late husband in which they discuss her work and its cosmic significance. Dark matter just might make the difference between a universe that dies and one that’s reborn.

Dark Matter: Artificial offers an impressive assortment of style, substance and emotion in its varied tales, with much darkness and heartbreak but also knowledge, connection and hope.

—Kenneth Silber is author of In DeWitt’s Footsteps: Seeing History on the Erie Canal and is on Twitter: @kennethsilber


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