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Literature / Mirabile

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Mirabile is a science fiction short story collection/fix-up novel by Janet Kagan, composed of stories originally published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in 1988-1991.

The stories concern the work of Annie Jason Masmajean, a geneticist living on the colony world of Mirabile, which was settled from Earth via a fleet of Generation Ships. In addition to the usual problems of (relatively) young colonies, Mirabile has a special problem brought on by 1. overenthusiasm among the geneticists who set up the colony's supply of plants and animals and 2. a major accident that messed up the colony's computer system. To provide redundancy, every plant and animal sent along on the trip has extra encoded genetic information for several other plants and animals, and under the right Environmental Conditions a flower might produce dragonfly eggs instead of seeds, or a chicken might hatch owls — or newts. Trouble is, the information on which ECs produce which results, and how to stop unhelpful results happening, was lost along with a chunk of the ship's records in the aforementioned catastrophe. And then there's the fact that the mixing of the extra genes can result in weird and sometimes dangerous Mix-and-Match Critters. Harmful critters resulting from the gene mixing are called "Dragon's Teeth", after the Greek myth about sowing dragon's teeth that produced a crop of soldiers, and the people who deal with them, like Annie, are called "Jasons".

The stories are:

  1. "The Loch Moose Monster": Jason Masmajean is called to investigate a mysterious creature sighted at Loch Moose, and meets Leonov Bellmaker Denness.
  2. "The Return of the Kangaroo Rex": A change of EC produces a fresh outbreak of the notorious carnivorous kangaroo rex. The herders want it destroyed before it eats their sheep, but are they giving it a fair go?
  3. "The Flowering Inferno": When a forest fire threatens the town of Milo's Ford, the townsfolk have a scapegoat in mind, but the jasons' investigation suggests the culprit is in the forest itself.
  4. "Getting the Bugs Out": Jason Masmajean's long-held belief that Mirabile needs more insectivores gains new urgency when a plant produces Mirabile's first mosquitoes. Meanwhile, Bellmaker Denness makes his most impressive bell yet, and his clients want something from Jason Masmajean too.
  5. "Raising Cane": Jason Masmajean's investigation of an apparent Dragon's Tooth — a stand of carnivorous cane plants — proves that it's a native Mirabilan life form. So then why did it only appear in the area after humans settled there?
  6. "Frankenswine": The neighborhood of Loch Moose is menaced by Dragon's Teeth with a large helping of wild boar genes, Susan has a secret, and Elly has a proposition for Annie and Leo.

Mirabile provides examples of:

  • Alien Sky: Mirabile has no moon; the main light source at night is a nova, which consequently shows up as the hippogriff in several usually-moon-related figures of speech.
  • Ambiguous Gender: When Mabob is first introduced, Annie calls him "it", pointing out that they don't know whether he's male or female (or even if his species has males and females). Leo persuades her that "him" will result in less confusing sentences.
  • Chekhov's Gun: "Getting the Bugs Out" establishes that the ship's records catastrophe took out part of the index, meaning that some of the lost information is actually still in the computer, but with no way to find it if you don't know where to look. In the final story, it turns out that this includes the information on how to control the expression of the back-up genes.
  • Cool Old Lady: Annie Jason Masmajean is white-haired but still active, a deft hand with a gene reader or a double-barrelled "persuader", and beloved of pretty much every kid she meets.
  • Cute, but Cacophonic: Mabob (short for "Thingamabob"), an alien "bird" Leo acquires in "Raising Cane". Ugly Cute, but equipped with a hundred-decibel built-in airhorn. GRONK!
  • Debt Detester: In "The Return of the Kangaroo Rex", Jason Masmajean rescues Crafter Sangster from an enraged kangaroo rex despite personally preferring the rex, and Crafter Sangster goes out of her way to find a way to help Jason Masmajean so they can be even. Jason Masmajean is bemused by the whole thing, since as far as she's concerned she was just doing her job and Crafter Sangster doesn't owe her anything.
  • December–December Romance: Annie and Leo aren't senior citizens, but neither are they spring chickens when they pair up. Leo has some adult children around, but there's no mention of Annie having any previous romantic relationships.
  • Earth That Was: The colony has no contact with Earth, so it's already receding into legend.
  • Fantastic Naming Convention: On Mirabile, everyone has a middle name reflecting their occupation, and the formal short form of a name is Middlename Lastname; for instance, Leonov Bellmaker Denness, known for short as "Bellmaker Denness" (but "Leo" to his friends). The middle name can change if the occupation does; for instance, Bellmaker Denness used to be Opener Denness before he retired (an "opener" is an explorer type who opens up new territories for human occupation) and by the end of the book he's started a new career as Jason Denness.
  • Fossil Revival: The collection of animal and plant genomes sent to Mirabile with the colonists apparently includes reconstructed genomes for a number of creatures that had become extinct on Earth; at the end of "The Return of the Kangaroo Rex", they're looking forward to the revival of the thylacine.
  • Full-Boar Action: The Dragon's Teeth in the final story are boars and boar/mole hybrids, both of which are quite dangerous. (But also it turns out quite tasty..)
  • Future Imperfect: Mirabile has societies, such as the Australian Guild and the Texan Guild, which seek to resurrect and preserve the language and traditions of an Earth cultural group. They're working from written and filmed records rather than actual members of the group in question (everyone's great-grandparents originally arrived on the ships from Earth), so the results tend to be The Theme Park Version at best. "Getting the Bugs Out" has a subplot involving a guild that's come across the expression "bats in the belfry" and got the impression that this is a necessary element of the Gothic-style cathedral they're building.
  • Generation Ships: In the backstory, this is how the colonists got to Mirabile.
  • Mama Bear:
    • The boars in the final story do not take well to their offspring being killed.
    • Annie herself when confronting threats to her young apprentices.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: The Dragon's Teeth. Some are a result of back-up genes mixing (a rooster with owl secondary genes and a chicken with newt secondary genes might produce a brood of nowlets), while others turn out to be deliberately-engineered intermediates between two Earth-authentic species (the odders, an intermediate stage between otter and moose, and the kangaroo rex, an intermediate stage between kangaroo and thylacine).
  • No Indoor Voice: Mabob with his hundred-plus decibel GRONK! The speed at which Jason Masmajean trains him to acquire an indoor voice is the first clue to his real nature: He's not just a native animal, but a proto-sapient.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • The reader never does learn exactly what happened to damage the computer files so badly.
    • We never hear anything at all about the woman Leo had his first batch of children with.
  • Parental Substitute: On Mirabile, the "population is still so small we can't afford to lose genes just because someone's not suited, one way or another, for parenting", so there are professional "raisers", people who are well-suited to parenting and make a living raising other people's children as well as their own.
  • Patchwork Story: Mirabile is composed of short stories previously published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.
  • The Plague: In the backstory, this killed a lot of people on one of the generation ships, and it's why Annie is so worried about mosquitoes as a disease vector in "Getting the Bugs Out".
  • Rousseau Was Right: There are no villains in any of the stories; at most, some of the stories have people who act in antagonistic ways because they're frightened and/or working from incomplete information.
  • Schizo Tech: The colonists tend to live like 19th-century homesteaders, but have access to high technology, albeit in very limited quantity. The book is set on a third-generation (and very poorly populated) Terran colony that came from generation ships.
  • Shaming the Mob: "The Flowering Inferno" deals with mysterious forest fires, and at one point the townsfolk want to leave a man they think has been setting the fires to die in them. Susan puts herself between the mob and the man and tells them off, personally calling out a couple she thinks should know better. She doesn't stop them, but she does hold them long enough for Jason Masmajean to get there and break things up with force of personality and a "persuader" full of rock salt.
  • Shout-Out: The town of Milo's Ford in "The Flowering Inferno" is a shout-out to John M. Ford.
  • Stock Ness Monster: The Loch Moose Monster.
  • Supreme Chef: Chris, the cook at the Loch Moose Lodge.
  • Team Pet: Annie and Leo get one in "Raising Cane", in the form of a particularly weird alien "bird" with a hundred-decibel built-in airhorn. He's named "Mabob" (short for "Thingamabob", is very friendly and sociable, and an extremely efficient hunter of vermin. It also turns out he's very close to, if not outright, sentient, at least as smart as Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon.