Jason Stoddard won the L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest a couple years back, but somehow I managed to miss the first handful of stories he’d had published at the time. The first stories I remember seeing were published at Strange Horizons, but I really sat up and noticed when he made his Interzone debut with novella “Winning Mars”. Smart SF is disappointingly thin on the ground these days, and it was a breath of fresh air. I made a note of the story for this year’s ‘year’s best SF’ and moved on. Now, all of a sudden, it seems like it’s Jason Stoddard week.
Way back on Monday, Interzone 200 dropped through the mailbox with Stoddard’s “Saving Mars”, the same day that his new novella “Exception” was published on Strange Horizons. Then yesterday I was over at SciFiction and read his new novelette “Panacea”, which I think is pretty fine.
Any alternate history, when summarised, has the potential to suffer from what I call the Matter of Credulity. When summarised, no matter how intelligent or serious, alternate histories tend to sound a little silly. It may only be me, but when I hear that so-and-so has a new story where Billy the Kid teams up with Jack-the-Ripper to save the Confederacy, I think it’s bound to be … silly.
And yet Stoddard’s “Panacea” is not a silly story at all. Set in a world that diverged from ours in the 1830s when a chemist stumbled upon a serum that conferred long life (if not actual immortality) on those who drank it, “Panacea” presents a world where Edison and others of his generation are still living, powerful and very influential in the late 1980s. Most of the action takes place on a luxury liner steaming towards the Antarctic on a holiday cruise. Edison and his young wife are, ostensibly, on holiday, though much more is going on. Edison is travelling to a scientific installation to review progress on some investigations being made on his behalf. At the same time, he is being strongly petitioned by a young employee to change one of is most profitable businesses, and she in turn, finds herself affected by the views of an unpredictable young man.
That summary is deliberately vague. I think “Panacea” is a strong story, well worth taking the time to read, and possibly amongst the year’s best. Rather than list all of the name checks to be made and so on, I’ll leave them for you to enjoy.
Stoddard’s website suggests that more short stories should be coming up soon, and I’ll be waiting with great interest. He’s definitely one of the newer SF writers to watch.