[Begin of excerpt]
I: Daybreak in a little village in the Zambian highlands.
She’s teaching. Maths and science at the village high school. The school itself puts the word derelict to shame. A building so run-down our own country’s squatters would find it uninhabitable. Windows are an illusion, walls that are more crack that brick, benches that should be reported to Amnesty’s human rights watch and a roof that doubles as a communal shower in the wet season.
She writes large letters on a shabby blackboard. Her class, slowly getting used to the sight of a freckled redhead whose skin is shining from the liberally applied sunblock, starts to give more attention to the teachings than the teacher.
Hard to believe she’s really doing this and enjoying it. Stranger still that she took a whole year off from one of the world’s premier scientific projects. Most baffling, though, is the project she’s taking up with her class.
At first everybody—me included—thought it was a strange after-class hobby thing involving manual skills. Carving wood: something she’s not terribly apt at so she goaded the local sculptor into helping her and the children out with the practical parts. Making a flat, laptop-sized wooden box with a hinged cover. Each child making her or his own. So far, so good, so innocent.
Then she told her schoolkids they were going to fill their boxes up with something special, layer after layer. She made two large vats, filled them with certain ‘secret ingredients’, let them stand for a couple of days (so that they would ‘grow full’) and then added salt to one and zinc sulphide to the other until both solutions were saturated.
Right now they’re applying the first layer.
“Miss,” One of her class asks, “why we do this?”
“You have to say: why are we doing this, Timmy.” She can be a bit bitchy in class, too.
“Why are we doing this, Miss?” Timmy rolls his eyes but complies.
“Because—if we follow the instructions carefully—these boxes will become your window to the world and beyond.”
Which leaves me wondering, but those young kids can be very sharp.
“Like your laptop computer, Miss?” A large-eyed girl with knobby knees.
“Very good, Melissa. Only better and on a purely biological basis.”
“Really, Miss?” Neither the class nor I believe our ears.
“I know this sounds too good to be true. We will need several months and we will have to be very careful. But if we follow the instructions and do our very best we might succeed.”
A mix of skepticism and expectancy from the class. Liona saying you sometimes need to do crazy things to get even crazier results. I can’t believe it.
That same night, in our barracks, I can’t hide my disappointment.
“How can you do it?”
“Do what?” With that semi-innocent look saying she knows exactly what I mean.
“Saddle those poor kids up with illusions. Biological laptops, my arse!”
Uh-oh: that smile: “You’ll be surprised.”
“Unpleasantly surprised. But your class will be devastated.”
“They won’t be. David, you have to trust me on this.”
“Trust you? Some of these kids may believe in magic, but I don’t.”
“The magic we’re developing here is of the technological kind, the one so advanced as to be indistinguishable...”
“Something’s going on, and I haven’t got a clue, right?”
“David, I’m walking a fine line here. I’d like to tell you more but for the moment it’s better if you don’t know.”
“Is this illegal? I don’t want—”
“Depends on your definition of ‘legal’. About as ‘legal’ as achieving patent rights on the genome of certain tropical plants that indigenous people have used for their curing properties from times immemorial. Trust me: I’m doing the right thing.”
“The right thing?”
“Remember the Worldchanger? I’ll tell you more as soon as we have some BIQCO’s running.”
“Biko? As in Steve Biko, the activist?”
“That’s a good one, very appropriate, thank you.”
Then she kisses me and does all those things that make further talk impossible. In the upcoming unrest I let it rest.
[End of excerpt]
(NB: this is one of my most-reprinted stories, and most probably the most reviewed one. I'm including most of the reviews below that I was able to retrace on the internet, and I suspect that there have been quite a few more in print. Thirteen reviews shown below, and there are 25 + 19 more on the Escape Pod website + forum, and 33 more on Goodreads [of The Apex Book of World SF, which do not all mention my story]. Positive reviews on top, negative reviews at the bottom, and a number of translated reviews in between.)
(I do like the irony of a female redhead reviewer commenting on the female redhead protagonist.)
—Val’s Random Comments (*);
Then, quite apropriately (as the story did appear in the first “Apex Book of World SF”, there are a few international reviews, which I’ll quote both in theor original language and the—sometimes slightly edited—Google translations.
First, a Spanish review:
Second, a Danish one:
Here’s the Google translation:
Third, a Dutch one (hey: I m flattered):
Google translation (with a few minor edits from my side):
Also, 25 comments below the original post on Escape Pod, and 19 more on their forum. And 33 reviews on Goodreads of the Apex Book of World SF Volume 1, although my story is not always mentioned in these.
As with the comments in both Escape Pod threads, there are reviewers who didn’t like “Transencendence Express”, to wit:
—GUD Magazine (#)
- Originally appeared as the cover story of Hub #2, in February 2007.
- Reprinted as an audio podcast on Escape Pod #122, September 2007;
- Reprinted in Hub Online #44, February 2008;
- Reprinted in The Apex Book of World SF 1, edited by Lavie Tidhar, September 2009;
- Translated in the Romanian in Anthology of European Speculative Fiction, April 2013;
(*) = The reviewer is absolutely correct here, as I did get back to this world and wrote several more—and much longer—stories about the subject. To be posted right here after they’ve been published (or even despite of that, we’ll have to see);
(#) = I do agree with the remarks in this critical review. And I actually think there is plenty of conflict—rising above the circumstances of poverty, illiteracy and destitution is riddled with conflict—but I failed to highlight that in “Transcendence Express”. In subsequent stories I do try to address that—they are literally filled with conflicts—so I hope people will check those out, as well. When they come out (either there or here).