Reviewed by Douglas R. Cobb
If you enjoy reading Military Science Fiction (MilSF), and want to check out the best short stories by some of today’s most renowned MilSF authors, then the anthology By Other Means (Defending the Future series Book Three) is definitely for you! I have read & reviewed the first two anthologies in the Defending the Future series, Breach the Hull and So It Begins, and really liked the short stories in it, and By Other Means continues in this trend. The only difference that I can see is perhaps a thematic one, as many of the stories in By Other Means are related to achieving minor or major victories over foes not necessarily through raging battles, but by–as the title suggests–other means. I can’t get into each of the fifteen excellent stories in the collection, but I’ll touch on a few of the anthology’s highlights.
By Other Means opens with “Mother of Peace,” by James Chambers. Something went horribly wrong with the Centry program, which wedded mobile weapons of war with human brains of soldiers who died in battle and still wanted to continue at least a partial sort of existence and serve their country. All of the human brain-directed machines shut down at the same time, and this resulted in prolonging a lengthy and costly war. Dr. Bell (one of the original scientists behind the Centry program), Corporal Dolan, Sergeant Tanner, and the telepathic being Calypso try to locate one of the machines and figure out why it and the others stopped, and how to reactivate them. If possible, her main objective is to find not just any of the Centry machines, but one that houses the brain of Captain Bowman, who was the love of her life. None of their individual nor collective lives, to Dr. Bell, is as important as reactivating the Centry machines and bringing about an end to the war.
The second story is “Cybermarine” by Bud Sparhawk. This is somewhat similar to the first story, in that soldiers at the very point of death have the option to continue to serve their countries, but not in mobile machines. Instead, they are given new seven-foot-tall bodies, with multiple eyes that can see different ranges of light. They are stronger than the other soldiers, and are kept segregated from the rest of the crew in general because of their rather monstrous appearances. The first-person narrator relates some of the ways they help in battle, and the story shifts between the chasing down of an enemy spaceship and its attempted capture, and what happens to the narrator when he has to face the decision to become a cybermarine, himself. “Winslow, Harold,” is a cybermarine who the narrator is especially struck with, and who influences the narrator’s ultimate decision.
The third story, “Blankets,” by Jeff Young, is a future scenario example of the way Europeans treated the Native peoples of America, through genocide, by spreading fatal diseases like smallpox to them, which lead to their vast reduction in numbers. Some of the story is told as it’s happening, and some is told through transcripts of a “Committee Hearing, Sylvan Seven Atrocities.” General Pressman is left in a moral and strategical quandary, because the government has severely cut funds to fight a war. The only way he sees to achieve a victory of sorts with the limited funding available to him, is to send soldiers onto the planet called Sylvan who have received a super inoculation. They are safe, but unwittingly, they carry with them viruses that are extremely deadly and drug-resistant.
Although I have mentioned these stories in the order they appear in the collection, and continue to do so with the fourth short story by Mike McPhail, “Sheepdog,” this is just a matter of convenience for me, and I’m not trying to suggest anything else by this arbitrary method to discuss the tales. “Sheepdog,” is not about dogs at all, but is about laboratory evolved cats who have become soldiers of the future, working hand-in-hand with human soldiers. They are armor-clad, and are on a mission, scouting for “bad-guys.” The cat Ra’Ewl, with the male human, Owens, discover three-year-old “Christine ‘Chrissie’ Carter,” alone in a building near her dead mother, and they save her life, while fighting off mercenaries trying to kill them. It’s a great story, revealing the softer side of soldiers.
The three other short stories I’ll mention are Danielle Ackley-McPhail’s “True Colors,” “A Thing of Beauty,” by Charles E. Gannon, and “Alone and Afar,” by Peter Prellwitz. “A Thing of Beauty,” is about ruthless megacorporations of the future, ones who rule over entire planets. The colonist/artist Elnessa, or “El,” is the main character. She overhears the schemes of Simovic, the Director of the company (the Indi Group, LLC), talking with Ms. Hoon, a high-ranking officer in the company, about “liquidating the children.” The children are unaccounted-for assets of the company, orphans, likely the offspring of employees who died. Simovic and Hoon are unaware that El is able to overhear them, as her hearing has been damaged by a xenovirus. Occasionally, her hearing comes back, though, or other senses that were damaged do, and are hypersensitive, so El hears everything they talk about as she is working on a frieze. El wants to protect the children, but how far will she go to do so?
Danielle Ackley-McPhail is the wife of the editor, Mike McPhail. She is also a very talented author and editor, and has written several books and short stories, both fantasies and MilSF short stories. “True Colors,” is an Alliance Archives Adventure, featuring the soldiers of “the 142nd Infantry–or Daire’s Devils.” Private Katrion (“Kat”) Alexander and Corporal Jackson “Scotch,” Daniels are the two main characters of the tale. The ship is faced with coming under attack by space pirates, and a traitor within their very midst. When Sergeant Kevin Daire, one of Kat’s best friends, is kidnaped, and the pirates demand as ransom computer files the soldiers aboard Kat’s ship have hidden away on board, will the remaining crew give in to the demands? “True Colors,” is a pretty cool story, one of many in this great collection.
Finally, I’ll briefly mention yet another great short story in the anthology, “Alone and Afar,” by Peter Prellwitz. It’s unusual, in that it combines elements of fantasy with MilSF. Spaceships in the short story have at least one alien, or “Marks,” on board, who are able to conceptionalize imaginary numbers and open up alternate dimensions/futures withe their hands, manipulating reality in a way we would consider to be magical, though they use science and mathematics. They come under attack by someone who appears to be a rogue Marks aboard another ship, working through humans. It’s an excellent story, combining the fantasy and MilSF genres.
By Other Means (Book Three in the Defending the Future series) is a worthy addition to the series of MilSF anthologies. The short stories are great examples of fantastic MilSF by today’s masters. I would highly recommend this anthology to anyone who loves to reead MilSF.