Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Future is Ours (2015) by Edward D. Hoch (edited by Steven Steinbock)

I admit, I don’t really care for sci-fi that much.

At that. JJ suddenly sat up, bellowing in rage, but it’s true. Beyond watching The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron as a kid, science fiction has escaped my interest. I’ve never been able to understand why, beyond maybe thinking that the “soft” science is just space magic and the “hard” science is just a PhD thesis. But my friends, when Edward D. Hoch puts his name on something, I get it.

The subject of this review is The Future is Ours, a collection of Hoch’s sci-fi/horror/crime stories, edited by Steven Steinbock. There are only a few series’ stories here and they do not star the detectives I think that most Hoch fans would recognize. Very few of these stories are mysteries, and I’ll admit that the few that are mysteries aren’t among what I would consider Hoch’s best. But again, this is not my genre, and perhaps others will get more out of them than I did.

And it’s still a Hoch.

Since some of these stories aren’t crime, my comments might be briefer than normal.

We start off with some sci-fi stories in the "Strange Futures" segment. It is fair to note now that there is a fair bit of overlapping categories in these stories. “Zoo” is a quick, two-page story which involves a professor who brings in some aliens for a zoo. There’s a twist, but it’s a good, solid story that is even taught in schools.

Next up is “The Other Paradox,” which is also a bit of a horror story. A professor builds a time machine, albeit a limited one. It only sends people through their own personal timeline. Of course, something goes wrong.

“The Wolfram Hunters” is one of the longer stories in the collection. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where it seems the only survivors are the members of a Native American reservation. Hoch’s explanation for how they survived nuclear fallout is a little eyebrow raising, but I’ll chalk it up to the time period. This is actually one of the few stories in the collection that’s a mystery, as one of the guards of some executed criminals suddenly vanishes. It’s a neat idea, but comes too late in the story for it to really matter, and I honestly think that the killer is never mentioned before the reveal.* The story starts as a coming-of-age story with a young boy learning under a priest in the mountains, and I think Hoch should have stuck with that.

“The Times We Had” features a family man back from a year on the Moon getting ready for an interview with a reporter about his experience. The opening by editor Steinbock spoils the twist, but I thought it was done pretty well, even if the conspiracy theory at the heart of it isn’t as accepted nowadays as it might have been as the time of writing.

“God of the Playback” is one of the religious-themed stories in this collection. In a world where people have taken to literally recording prayers for their own convinces, a priest comes with a convert from an Amazon tribe, who’s talked into staying in the fast-paced modern city to record his tribe’s language for more auto-prayers. It’s an interesting idea and I agree with what (I think) Hoch is trying to get at with this, but it’s a little too shallow. The evil recorder man is too blinkered to make any good arguments for pre-recorded prayer (and I can think of a few), but not bad enough to deserve his fate.

“Cassidy's Saucer,” which is a story of a reporter’s investigation into strange balls of light seen in the night sky, shows my main issue with this collection: There are plenty of good ideas in this collection, like the one in this story, but a lot of them are just that: an idea thrown out there and then left with nothing else to work with. I haven’t read many speculative fiction stories, so maybe that’s common, but with this collection I did wish that some stories like this were a little longer or at least had some more build-up.

“Unnatural Act” is another alien story, although much better than the previous one. This time the aliens are happy to subject themselves to study, but the scientists can’t figure out how they reproduce. This hunt for alien sex organs and its resolution is hands down the weirdest version of the “hunting for the object in plain sight” that I have ever seen in a mystery. It’s actually handled well, but isn’t given enough focus for my tastes. My issue is that I don’t buy the worldbuilding. Essentially, we have an anti-sex group in the background who have so much influence that they can whip the people up into a frenzy in a day, but apparently have no issue with the aliens running around until the twist. I don’t buy it, frankly, either that they would be totally fine with the aliens up until the reveal or that they could whip people up into a frenzy about it all so quickly.

“The Boy That Brought Love” involves a vicious tyrant who is brought low by a young boy who deals with him via a very literal application of “love your enemies.” I like it, and the tyrant is well-drawn, but the plan is a little too based on his willing cooperation. But even so, it was very charming.

“Centaur Fielder for the Yankees” is honestly pretty good. It can be argued that it lacks structure, since the narrator is just an observer and the plot is just a series of events without a lot of flow, but I enjoyed reading about the trials and tribulations of a centaur playing for the Yankees.

We now move on to “Future Crimes” with “Co-Incidence,” the earliest published story in the collection. The unnamed narrator is an employee at Neptune Books fascinated with the methods of his coworker Rosemary, a woman who has an uncanny ability to know exactly when and where to sell books. Her secret is a strange form of math magic that seems perfectly harmless, until a jealous superior stands in the way of promotion. I actually really liked this one, if just because it feels like a complete story that uses the central plot point to the fullest.

“Versus” tells the story of a crime boss brought down by a wronged man, but it feels like the end of a longer story. There’s no real build-up, the boss doesn’t get to do much evil, and the way he’s taken down is simple and not really explained well enough.

“The Future is Ours” was read last due to my own tendencies, and it was actually pretty solid. A cop uses a time machine to go to the future and learn new crime-solving techniques and technologies in order to deal with the present rise in crime. It’s a bit of a joke, but a well-done one.

“The Forbidden Word” is a dystopia story, but one that doesn’t fully hang together for me. It’s a semi-chilling story of a man who accidentally utters the titular word while on a business trip. It rambles a bit, but it is effective. But the whole thing is really based on the main character being ignorant of something that he probably should have known about (and this is even worse with the ending!) and the wider world isn’t given enough detail, leaving the reading wondering why any of this is happening. Is that the point? Maybe, but I didn’t care for it.

“Computer Cops” is one of the longer stories in the collection, and a mystery to boot. The detectives are Earl Jazine and Carl Crader, the titular computer cops who investigate computer-based crimes. They’re also the protagonists of three of Hoch’s five novels, not that I’ve read them. The two are brought in by Nobel Kinsinger, a former war hero turned businessman who’s reporting a strange bit of sabotage. His computer, a bulky thing dedicated to stock exchange, has apparently been hijacked by someone using it to make stock exchanges. The computer is kept locked at all times, so how is the saboteur using it?

I admit that I didn't care for this story the first time through. It felt overlong, filled with too many details that went nowhere, and a somewhat muddled denountment. A re-read made me slightly more optimistic; with some decent world building and red herrings, but the culprit’s plan makes no sense. There is one bit of cluing that I liked, which is wrapped up in the very nature of the crime, but on the whole I thought this needed some work. The solution for the impossible crime is good if simple, but I don’t know how fair it is, since you'd need a little bit of computer/stock knowledge to figure it out.

The next story, “Night of the Millennium,” is one that I hoped I would like more than I actually did. A college student gets wrapped up in a conspiracy on the eve of a new millennium, and while the story looked like one of those guilty pleasure stories for me, it just didn’t work. The actual plot kicks off very late in the story and is on too small a scale for it to feel impactful. I guess I found some of the worldbuilding interesting, but the story is just too light.

The next two stories star Barnabas Rex, a detective who deals with minor scientific problems. “The Homesick Chicken” has Rex looking into a genetically-engineered chicken that suddenly escaped confinement to make a dangerous walk into an empty field. Yes, it’s Hoch’s take on “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and while it’s amusing, the solution relies a little too much on last minute science fiction for my tastes, and Rex makes (to me) a major deductive leap with no evidence.

“The Daltonic Fireman” is the better of the two. In this story, “firemen” are those who fire rockets into space like air traffic controllers (in space). They wear green suspenders as a comfort to the astronauts, but one man has come in occasionally wearing red suspenders, and while he always changes when asked he refuses to explain why he wears them in the first place. The answer as to why he wears red instead of green is pretty simple (the title gives it away), but there’s still another reveal about why this is happening. It reminds me of “Computer Cops,” in that the fact that the crime happens a certain way is a clue pointing to the culprit. If there were more stories in the collection like this (or even more Barnabas Rex stories like this) I would enjoy the collection a lot more!

Next up is “Tales of the Dark,” where Hoch goes for horror. “The Maze and the Monster” has a man shipwrecked on an island controlled by the descendant of Captain Cortes. The man is not fond of visitors and sentences our hero to a pitch black maze where he must find salvation...or a monster. A decent horror story.

“The Faceless Thing” is good but flawed. An old man returns to his family home to confront the creature that drowned his sister fifty years ago. It’s an interesting story with a good melancholy tone, but marred by Hoch going “THIS IS THE THEME DO YOU GET IT YET” every line.

“In the Straw” has a similar tone of rural horror, this time revolving around a farmer’s wife who seems to think that something in growing in a bale of straw. Very unsettling. My only real objection is that the monster has the superpower of, “Can do whatever the plot needs him to do,” but that’s a minor gripe.

“The Thing in the Lake” is more light-hearted fare, with a young boy getting to join a private detective in rooting out a monster in a lake. It’s split into two parts for some reason which really doesn’t make sense to me. I get that it was published serially, but I really can’t tell how it would be split. No matter which way I look at it “Part 1” would have to be nothing but set-up. Thankfully once the story gets going, it keeps a good, steady pace. Befitting the magazine it was published in it’s not as horrific as what we’ve had before, but the ending is fun.

“Exu” is weird but probably my favorite here. A man named Jennings goes south to Rio de Janeiro to learn about voodoo and the spirit cults. Fun times are had by all. This is one where Hoch’s slightly clipped style works very well, giving the story a surreal feeling of a world where the old gods are lurking beneath the veneer of civilization. The only false note for me is a last-second plot twist about our protagonist, which seemed to come somewhat out of nowhere.

“The Weekend Magus” was I assume the result of a bet to cram as many horror elements into one story as possible. It’s got everything; mummies, mad science, the Loch Ness Monster…

No really. The main plot has a reporter going to interview a scientist who’s doing dark science in Scotland. He finds out that the scientist is trying to reanimate the skeleton of a sea serpent that used to be the steed of an Egyptian general. You’d be forgiven for expecting Mulder and Scully right about now, or at least Kolchak. The whole thing is bizarre, and I enjoyed it as a pulpy story. But nothing can make the image the story ends on serious in any way.

The intro of "Just One More" promises a little more than it delivers. Art Muller is a photographer...of dogs for dog food promotion. His job makes him of interest to a professor who’s looking for a new kind of werewolf. It’s an interesting story, but the ending comes a bit out of nowhere.

“Bigfish” could have fit into the “crime” section, but fits easier in horror. A retired couple decides to see the titular Bigfish, a giant fish that serves as a tourist trap and sideshow. Then a young boy goes missing…

This is one of the few stories here to actually scare me. The story doesn’t go in the direction that you expect and manages to be all the more unsettling for it. It even has one of my favorite horror elements; the scenes and dialogue that makes perfect sense when you first read them but then take on a more disturbing light once the reveal lands. The only thing I don’t like is the last line; I get what Hoch was going for, but it can easily read as silly even with context. I would have maybe moved it just before the reveal.

“Remember My Name” is one of the longest stories in the collection, and sadly one that I forgot about after I first read it. It’s more of a slow burn, with a writer of mystery short stories meeting up with an old friend and the daughter of said old friend’s flame who bears an uncanny resemblance to her mother. I liked it on the re-read, but it feels very disjointed. My major issue with Hoch as a writer (at least in this collection, although it has cropped up in some of his other stories that I've read) is that some of his scenes don’t transition from one to the other very well and his characters sometimes do things for what feels like little reason. Such as our hero jumping into bed with a girl with what felt like to me very little set-up. I know that this is far from a Hoch-specific problem, but it stands out in these stories. The story itself is actually somewhat touching, although someone more familiar with the genre Hoch is writing in here will probably pick up on what’s going on sooner than I did.

We now move on to the last section, “History Retold,” a collection of historical stories. “The Last Unicorn” and “Who Rides With Santa Anna?” are quick stories with a twist. “The Maiden’s Sacrifice” proposes a different reason for the Aztec sacrifices, and while it’s interesting, the last line is a little too on-the-nose for me, blandly stating what will happen and ruining the implication that should be left to the reader to see.

“The Other Phantom” was the biggest disappointment for me in this collection, because it promises a Hoch-style mystery before fumbling it. Franz Vinding is a curmudgeon who hates this new-fangled Eiffel Tower that’s all the rage. He also hates being challenged, resulting in him taking a bet from a professional and romantic rival to spend the night in the Opera House, where it is rumored that the Phantom lurks in the tunnels below. He’s looking forward to using his prize money to continue his campaign against the Eiffel Tower, but he barely makes it five minutes before being stabbed to death by a mysterious figure.

This one got my hopes up: There’s a murder mystery at the center. There’s a dying message that implicates The Phantom of the Opera. There’s even the hint of a locked room, since all the theater doors were locked. But all of it amounts to nothing: the dying message can’t be solved unless you have very specific opera knowledge, the locked room doesn’t mean anything, and the killer is pretty easy to spot. Disappointing.

The collection ends with “Dracula 1944.” The story goes down in one of the Nazi work camps, where the commander is becoming unsettled by the fact that someone is going through and draining the guards of blood. Not to mention that some old woman is claiming that some irritating prisoner named Vlad can’t work in the sunlight for some reason. The story goes about how you would expect it to, but I found it enjoyable. The ending rings false for me though, if just because I don’t buy the main character’s actions with the presented logic.

All in all, this collection didn’t do it for me. I admit that part of it is just the fact that I read Hoch for his mystery plotting, and these stories just didn’t click with me. There were some good stories, good ideas even in the poorer stories, and if you’re a fan of more speculative horror/sci-fi, you might enjoy this collection more than I did. But otherwise, unless you’re a Hoch fan, I would skip.

Christian Henricksson has a more positive review here.

*EDIT: See Jack Hamm's comment below, I'm actually wrong on this. That being said, I do still hold that the killer gets so little mention that you're likely to forget about them, and there's no real evidence pointing to them until the reveal.


  1. I might have been a bit more positive, but I think in the main we saw the same strengths and weaknesses here. We're obviously in agreement on "Bigfish" as probably THE most memorable story here.

    Like you, I would have preferred an actual mystery collection instead, but to me, any Hoch is preferrable to no Hoch...

    1. I wasn't sure if we would agree that much, like you note, you're much more positive about this than I am. I tried to go in with lower expectations but I don't think it worked! Also, I'm not very familiar with speculative fiction, so I'm sure I couldn't appreciate some of these stories as much as they deserved.

      But yes, "Bigfish" is a highlight (that end honestly made my skin crawl). I'll always take more Hoch over less Hoch, especially when there are creepy gems like that lurking in his bibliography.

  2. Great post!

    The only two stories I've read from this book are "The Wolfram Hunters," which was reprinted in EQMM a few years ago, and "Zoo," which has been reprinted everywhere. Not sure if the text is different in this book, but in the EQMM version of "The Wolfram Hunters" the killer is mentioned a few times before the reveal and even gets a line of dialogue. He's still not exactly a major character, though.

    Hoch also wrote an absolutely terrific Ben Snow story where the villain is mentioned only once before the reveal, in a single sentence in a paragraph that also contains the names of many other characters. It would be an awful cheat in the hands of a lesser writer, but Hoch pulls it off beautifully.

    1. See my edit; you're right about "The Wolfram Hunters" and I was wrong. After doing what I planned to do and searching the killer's name in the Google Books preview, I found it mentioned. But like you note, they're not really a major character and the story isn't really fair play to me. It's possible that I planned to mention that, but forgot to edit it in/write it.

      I haven't read the Ben Snow story in question, but there is a Dr. Sam one with a similar gimmick: the killer is mentioned in the intro and then doesn't come up again until the summation (although they are involved in the story under a different name).

    2. And I'm glad you liked the post! Hopefully in spite of my errors. I'm trying to do them more often.