's reviews of
science fiction by
M. Shayne Bell

This is not a bibliography. Bell has a large body of work which has not been reviewed here.

Jacob's Ladder

In Writers of the Future: Volume III (Algis Budrys, ed.). Los Angeles: Bridge Publications (1987)

This is a fairly early M. Shayne Bell work, and it shows both great promise as well as Bell's inexperience as a writer. This story features many themes prominent in Bell's fiction, including loyalty between friends, a concern for ethical behavior, the use of characters from the Utah-Idaho region, and a focus on very ordinary people.

Even in this story written early in his career, Bell's characterization is extremely realistic and believable. The story's plot and setting certainly form a science fiction premise: three newspaper reporters escape from a terrorist takeover of the top platform of a newly opened space elevator. But contrasting with the futuristic s.f. background are characters so subtly drawn that one could describe Bell's approach as minimalist. The motivations and mindsets are present and fleshed out with rare maturity and perception, but they aren't always spelled out for the reader in bold type and brazen language. Sometimes one has to squint. This approach, seen throughout Bell's later work, may be off-putting to some readers, but it will appeal to readers who enjoy a more literary, thoughtful, human approach.

"Jacob's Ladder" maintains tight focus on three individuals and one specific predicament and one piece of technology: the space elevator and the "angel wing" devices used in an emergency to descend the prodigious length of the elevator's cable. Bell exhibits impressive attention to the minute yet important details of the space elevator technology. Materials, power source, engineering details and design have all been carefully considered and believably described. Each element contributes to the very human scale of this story.

The Shining Dream Road Out

In Tomorrow: Speculative Fiction 1 (July 1993): 38-45.
Reprinted in Simulations: Fifteen Tales of Virtual Reality, ed. Karie Jacobson, 98-119. New York: Citadel Twilight, 1993.
Reprinted in Washed by a Wave of Wind (M. Shayne Bell, ed.). Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books (1993)

Yet another everyman stars in this story set on the highways -- real and computer simulated -- of Salt Lake County. The protagonist, similar to many other Bell characters, is remarkable not for the usual s.f. cliches such as genius intellect, alien birthright, or smugly detached arrogance, but for his ethical behavior and common sense problem solving. In this fast-paced story a pizza deliverer in Salt Lake City races against time on the virtual reality roads of Salt Lake, training in order to reduce pizza delivery times. The VR road net is used by many others, however, and the delivery boy encounters a woman trying to escape an abusive husband. When he figures out that she's a real person, in need of real help, he mentions the situation to his parents. He has been unimpressed with his apparently humdrum mom and dad during his teenage years. But his parents surprise him with the willingness and ingenuity with which they provide assistance.

Although the plot does not match the author's life (the decision at the end of the story is different from Bell's at the same age, for instance), "The Shining Dream Road Out" has a very personal, even autobiographical feel to it. Along with its subtly introspective and elements it also features plenty of harrowing real and VR driving, a realistic near-future scenario, some truly comical moments, a surprisingly positive portrayal of an imperfect but functioning family, and a solid story of a young person's growth. Unfortunately, the story is marred by one gratuitous and inexplicable harsh vulgar word. But on balance I recommend this story highly. It was entertaining, original, truthful, and thought-provoking.

Dry Niger

In Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine 14 (August 1990)
Reprinted in Bright Angels and Familiars: Contemporary Mormon Stories, ed. Eugene England. Salt Lake City: Signature Books (1992)
Reprinted in Future Earths: Under African Skies, ed. Mike Resnick and Gardner Dozois. New York: DAW (1993)

Lock Down

In Starlight 2 (Patrick Nielsen Hayden, ed.). New York: Tor (1998)

The Thing about Benny

In Vanishing Acts (Ellen Datlow, ed.) New York: Tor (2000)

The titular Benny would be an unusual character for any writer, but is especially unusual for Bell. Unlike the frequently utilized everyman that populates many other Bell stories, Benny is rather quirky and inscrutable. Benny is an employee of World Botanics, circa 2020, whose job it is to find previously undiscovered plants in the cubicles and offices of old office buildings. Apparently many species or subspecies no longer found in the wild have been unknowingly preserved as potted plants by office workers. The hope is that other plants will be found which yield cures for disease, such as the plant found which prevents artery blockage. Benny has an unusual knack for the job, which he ascribes to the Aba music he listens to constantly on his headphones.

The story is narrated by Benny's co-worker, who describes how Benny sets his player on continuous loop and listens to a single Aba song constantly for a week, at which time he switches to a different song. When he has run through all of Aba's songs, he starts over. This story takes place over nearly a week of time, spent in the offices of Utah Power and Light in Salt Lake City. Benny listens to "Dancing Queen" the whole time. Benny never responds physically to the music -- he never taps his fingers or foot, sways, or gives any indication that he's listening, except for occasional inscrutable comments. Benny has other quirks, such as always eating the same thing for dinner -- a hamburger and fries, which his co-worker always has to order for him. When the narrator/co-worker asks Benny over dinner if he has any goals in life, Benny waits a day before answering him: His goal is to discover four new species of plants, to name after each of the members of Aba.

Like Benny, this story has a deceptively plain exterior which masks unknown depths. The plot is easy to follow, but there is clearly a lot more going on underneath the surface. I'm still not sure just what the story is all about, although I'll guess at a piece of it. Benny talks about the bridge of a song, and then says of bridges in general that they get you to someplace new, but still let you go back to where you came from. Bell himself is somewhat of a bridge, simultaneously a part of two very different cultures, cultures which usually prefer walls rather than bridges between them. The environmentalist concerns providing the impetus for Benny's work, and the motivation for this story, may also form a sort of bridge -- one which has potentially universal appeal and wide support, but which is also frequently ignored. Looking for rare plants while listening to Aba's "Dancing Queen" in offices populated by Latter-day Saint returned missionaries may be another example of Bell's attempts to navigate choppy waters between opposite, parallel shores.

We finished eating, and I carried Benny's things up to his room for him. At the door he turned around and looked at me. "Bridges take you to a new place," he said. "But they also show you the way back to where you once were."


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Web page created 4 September 2000. Last modified 14 March 2002.