Weeding Womb

At Dorado

At Dorado by Geoffrey A. Landis. An unimpressive story that uses exotic physics to make a semi-believable situation around nominally compelling characters.

Take your basic seafaring relationship, where every sailor has a girl in every port, and every girl has a sailor on every ship*. Add one character, the heroine, who has a husband who's faithful. So she thinks. Turns out he's one of the worst, notorious even among sailors. He's the navigator on a ship called the Hesperia, so I'm not even going to bother telling you what happens to the ship yet, odds are you already know.

(*Indeed, I just realized that there's no women on the ships. The people at home were all waiting for men. Straight women or gay men, waiting for their boys to come back for a few days shore leave. It amazes me how many stories are accepting of homosexuality but still biased against women.)

Okay, now put this in space. The sailing ships are starships, their oceans are the jumpspace beyond wormholes, and the port town is Dorado, a space station out in the interstellar boonies that's on the cusp of three wormholes. Two supposedly (it's not made clear) lead to the far corners of the galaxy, the third goes back to the densely populated worlds. Evidently there's nothing viable in the way of planets around, as the statement is made that if the back-home wormhole closes, the space station's residents will have to hoof it back doing sublight. (The exits to the other places must be pretty sparse too, then, if they couldn't absorb Dorado's population between them. So why all these ships...?)

There's a lot of convoluted physics at the start of the story, but it boils down to this: The wormhole spans both time AND space. There's the claim that this is theoretically a controllable effect, with a centuries-old ship and some centuries-old - or centuries-yet-to-be-born - wreckage having turned up before, but that idea is abandoned as quickly as the author brings it up. For all intents and purposes, the ends are locked in to different times. Most are, conveniently, only a few days apart. But if a ship takes a circular route from a station, instead of retracing its steps, it risks getting back before it left.

(So why aren't they just required to retrace their steps? Or do some holes just throw you backwards no matter what end you start at? That's another thing that wasn't explicitly stated. Specific routes were stated as being 'upwhen' or 'downwhen', but for all the mishmosh metaphysics the writer throws at the reader, the exact mechanics - like the time-distortion on a reverse route - were left unexplored. If you're hanging the plot on this kind of thing, you should either carefully think out the nuts-and-bolts of it or avoid them entirely. Half-complete jobs never work. Burn those pages on demonstrating the real-world results of the device instead.)

Evidently the station locals are careful not to let the sailors catch in on current gossip because, if causality is violated, one (Why only one?) of the back-time wormholes closes, and there goes your reason for being a wormhole station. (So if someone brings you a birthday gift from Regulus IV or something, and then his past self comes back later and sees that sitting on your mantelpiece when it's still in his cabin, he's not going to know he's been there "before"?)

But enough of the physics. The heroine finds proof of her sailor-man's infidelity and throws him out. He leaves on the Hesperia, and a few days later wreckage of his ship come back through the wormhole. She does much wailing and crying and gnashing of teeth for the cheating bastard she just threw out of her life forever, then goes to see the recovered corpse. Then she does a bit more wailing and etc. etc. etc.

Then Mr. Dead Navigator comes to see her, very much alive. Apparently, he switched over to another ship that needed a navigator badly. He's found out about the wreck while on Dorado, but he's going back out on the next ship to "catch up" to the doomed Hesperia, so he can rejoin the crew before the disaster. He gives the same speech he gave when he was thrown out, about how the heroine is the "only one", etc. etc. etc. But this time it gets him back in her good graces. They have a farewell screw and he leaves to keep his date with destiny. The text seemed to make him a hero for it. Hell, I don't know about my esteemed readers but if it came down to being dead or the focus of a paradox, I'd go the safe way and die.

Of course, this points out a continuity flaw. For reasons superstitous, apparently, the names of wrecked ships are never spoken aloud once the wreckage is all in. They all become "that ship". Between that superstition and the rule about not talking about interstellar current events to the returning sailors, how the hell did he find out? Did someone see the guy and say "Hey, didn't your ship bust up?" And how did he know that he specifically died? "Hey, aren't you dead?" Without seeing his corpse or someone else telling him about his corpse, all he knew was that his regular ship would, in a few days time, be wrecked. How does he know for sure (at least, before seeing the heroine) that he succeeds in catching up with it? That he dies?

All in all, the story wasn't very good. While the prose had no technical faults, the wormhole physics involved was confusing, the characters were uninspiring at best, and the end was quite literally predetermined.

The Archon

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