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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Asimov's, April/May 2005

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"Bean There" by Jack Skillingstead
"California King" by Michael Jasper & Greg van Eekhout
"Dallas" by Robert Reed
"Dark of the Sun" by William Barton
"Down Memory Lane" by Mike Resnick
"La Gran Muerte" by Liz Williams
"Lover of Statues" by Ian Watson
"Mason's Rats" by Neal Asher
"Shadow Twin" by Gardner Dozois, George R.R. Martin, and Daniel Abraham
"Solidarity" by Walter Jon Williams
"They Will Raise You in a Box" by Wil McCarthy

ImageAsimov's tends to publish less humor than its main rival, Fantasy & Science Fiction, so it's nice to find such an effective example in Jack Skillingstead's "Bean There." Burt is the proprietor of Bean There, a failing java joint, and he isn't coping well. It's not just his empty cafe; it's the aliens that have arrived. They call themselves the Harbingers of Evolution, and with their coming, miracles have started to occur: a woman spontaneously teleports in Graceland; a boy levitates his bicycle, ET-style. Like much of the population, Burt is in denial. Unfortunately for Burt, his girlfriend, Aimee, is not, and her interest in these miracles and the Evolution the aliens bring is more than he can cope with.

Although humor plays a large part in this story, it is not its raison d'etre. At its core, the story is about Burt's struggle to cope with what he sees as madness in Aimee in the context of his own background of dealing with an alcoholic father and a bi-polar sister. At times, this leads the story to be slightly split in its focus. "Bean There" might, for example, have made more of how Burt is held back from accepting what Aimee believes by his family background, however that element does not come over quite strongly enough to fully convince. The ending, too, is a little predictable—after all, what other choice can Burt make, in the end?

Despite these minor reservations, I thought "Bean There" rattled along at a good pace, and there were plenty of smiles on every page.

Two of the hottest new writers around, Michael Jasper and Greg Van Eekhout, offer an inventive and original piece of fantasy in "California King." Out of sight of the mundane world lies another, stranger world of magic. The hero of this story, the California King, is charged with defending his kingdom against supernatural and sometimes mundane threats. This he does through stealing his adversaries' powers by tattooing them on his body, a unique and painful idea. Guided by Jonah, a man in whose debt he is, the California King is sent from state to state, confronting minor threats. But there is a far greater threat to the king, because his is an embittered, feuding dynasty, and he has forgotten that.

Contemporary and urban fantasies have become quite a staple of the genre in recent years. This is the territory inherited from Megan Lindholm's "The Wizard of the Pigeons," Terry Gilliam's "The Fisher King," and a thousand others. As such, it has become almost as difficult to come up with an original take on the genre as it is to do so in high fantasy or hard science fiction. Jasper and Van Eekhout attack the problem from two sides, with a unique narrator's voice and with an original lead character.

"California King" is a highly-stylized piece. For the most part, that stylization works well. Occasionally, it distracts, but never fatally, and there is enough that is new and interesting that the story does not disappoint. It is always a delight to experience the nova-imaginations of the best new writers at their creative heights, and Jasper and Van Eekhout may well lay claim to their places in that minor pantheon.

(Note that the following review may contain several spoilers.) Robert Reed's "Dallas" is a traditional SF what-if piece. In this case, Reed considers what would happen if the Earth was protected by a vast, godlike alien machine which preserved mankind and guided it past its destructive urges. The story begins with the narrator, a clinically depressed science fiction writer, coming across a nasty motorcycle accident. A group gathers, and among them is an old friend of the narrator—Dallas. They soon become close friends, despite Dallas's extreme religious and political views. "I've always thought," the narrator tells friends, "if you forget what he believes, Dallas is a perfectly good guy." But Dallas is also racist and sexist and a member of a cultish church. And Dallas may be gaining control of the god-machine.

The vision of the world guided always to safety by an omnipotent machine is in some ways a right-wing wet dream. After all, why worry about global warming or resource depletion or the consequences of military build-up and adventurism if each crisis is negated by the controlling machine, the god determined to preserve the species, if not the individual. But it also undermines the case for vast missile defense programs,  nuclear deterrents, and so on. Reed makes these points well, and the story could be interpreted as a satire on such extreme religious and political views. Yet I am not convinced that that is what Reed intended with his story. At the end the narrator wonders:


"What would happen if there was such a machine, and if a man like Dallas took charge of it?
"The Soviet Union would eventually vanish, I decided.
"Prosperity would rise, and the power of our own great nation, while crime rates would fall to their lowest levels in decades."

Indeed, it is a rather positive view of the world, and the effect of Dallas's extreme racist and sexist beliefs are brushed aside with a slightly unconvincing, "People can change their minds and natures," and the possibility that, one day, more than one person might control the machine. The thesis that the state of the world as is might be caused by the controlling influence of someone with far-right beliefs is a tempting but ultimately over-simplistic and unbelievable one.

Reed is a good writer and he addresses the issues tangentially through the point of view of his depressive narrator. This is a good choice, allowing the necessary suspension of disbelief required for the unlikely premise. The story is well-told—if somewhat overlong—and if you like a strong speculative idea to shake in your teeth, "Dallas" will provide it.

The end of the world is the theme of William Barton's schizophrenic novelette, "Dark of the Sun." Set in a fairly near future where an astronomical occurrence, called the Cone of Annihilation, has permanently blotted out the sun, the story follows two men, Scott and Paul, as they attempt to survive this disaster for as long as they can.

The events of the story follow a standard post-apocalyptic-storyline, although in this case we know that there can be no hopeful new dawn for the protagonists nor for the world. Reading "Dark of the Sun" was almost like reading two entirely separate stories. One, consisting of the prose sections, is interesting, captivating, and sometimes touching. The other, consisting of the dialogue (both spoken and unspoken), is awkward, unconvincing, and often clumsy. Perhaps it is supposed to be witty and sharp; if so, it fails, and is instead simply annoying. The author also appears to suffer from a tic in which the characters address each other by name in almost every sentence they speak. Listening to real people talk only for a few minutes reveals how unrealistic that is. As a result of the problems with the dialogue, the characters come across as unrealistic and unsympathetic. They appear to have no depth.

When the prose dominates, the story moves forward well and the author presents a convincing depiction of the collapse of civilization, complete with government and media reassurances about how the crisis will all soon be over—a nice touch. When the characters speak, I simply wish they would shut up and get out of the way of the story.

We return to the end of days with Mike Resnick's "Down Memory Lane." The end here is not of the global proportion of Barton's "Dark of the Sun"; it is an individual tragedy, but it is no less cataclysmic for that. The tragedy here is in the Alzheimer's (or a similar dementia) that engulfs Gwendolyn and which her husband, Paul, witnesses, and its redemption, if it can really be called redemption, comes in the unusual solution that Paul finds for the disease.

Resnick is a remarkably accomplished writer. His prose is fresh, clear, and never becomes over-elaborate—a virtue of which some writers appear unaware. He seems to write with an ease that is enviable, and with simplicity can draw emotions in his readers. And perhaps that is the origin of the one problem that "Down Memory Lane" exhibits. For "Down Memory Lane" bears the hallmarks of being written perhaps too easily, without the struggle that is sometimes necessary to create a great work. Maybe that is too pretentious. The problem with the story is that it deals rather perfunctorily with the powerful emotions it should—and to some extent does—generate in its Algernon-style denouement. While that denouement's obvious progenitor left the reader with an almost unbearable sense of loss, "Down Memory Lane" slides too quickly to its end and only leaves a mild feeling of sadness.

None of that is to say that it is a bad story. It's not. Resnick does not do bad stories. "Down Memory Lane" is a good story. It is just not quite as good as it could have been.

Liz William offers us a fairly direct political allegory in "La Gran Muerte." On one level, it is the story of a Mexican woman crossing into America in search of her daughter who has preceded her and then lost contact. On another, it is an allegory about the loss of identity for illegal immigrants—in this case in America, but the point is universal—as they are forced to work, unnoticed and unrecognizable, below the consciousness of society, at least until the immigration service comes to call. These are the voiceless and the anonymous.

To cross the physical border between the countries, Lagrimas Ruiz takes a darker route than most immigrants. She is shot with a silver bullet, her heart removed, and she enters another borderland, the mexcla, the border between life and death. In this borderland, she begins to lose hold of who she is.

"La Gran Muerte" is all about borders. The physical border between Mexico and America. The border between life and death. Ruiz's identity and her beliefs—the borders she and others impose upon her. And it is about crossing those borders. It is a story packed with coherent, well-thought-out symbolism.

The story loses its ways slightly toward the end, when Williams seems to lose the confidence that her readers will follow all of this and where she engages in a slightly heavy-handed explanation. But it redeems itself in the strongest part of the story, a dual-ending which calls up echoes of Robert Holdstock's "Lavondyss."

This is a thoughtful, timely story—particularly at a time when immigrants are treated with increasing intolerance. If the prose is a little dense, that is because it carries a weight of ideas. "La Grand Muerte" is a story to be read slowly.

As a teenager, I nearly worshipped at the altar of Ian Watson's short fiction. His collection, Slow Birds, provided a significant bolt of sense-of-wonder at a particularly influential time for me. Years roll on, and sense-of-wonder inevitably fades, but Watson is still creating interesting, challenging fiction.

It is tempting to compare his latest story, "Lover of Statues," with my hazy, nostalgic memories. It would also be unfair, because little could hope to live up to time-edited memories and our own personal golden ages of science fiction.

"Lover of Statues" is a first-contact story with a startling twist. The aliens—or alien, in this case—have arrived. This alien, rather than asking to be taken to our leaders or scientists, has asked for a tour of the world's greatest statues. Its guide is Mary, a young woman who has just been dumped by her selfish lover, Jeremy. Their tour takes them to Madrid and to a statue of Satan falling, cast out of Heaven by God. In this statue, Mary sees a parallel to her relationship with Jeremy. She feels herself to have been cast out of their relationship for failing to submit entirely to Jeremy and for daring to consider herself his equal. The statue thus represents her. The alien, however, sees something else entirely in the statue, and we discover exactly why it calls itself Lover of Statues.

The parallel between Mary/Jeremy and Satan/God felt slightly strained and non-organic, requiring Watson to stretch rather awkwardly the Biblical tale. However, the story idea is wonderful, and Watson's writing is to-the-point and evocative.

"Lover of Statues" is a fine story that could have been more integrated, and that will no doubt cause outrage in some readers.

One of the best stories in this issue is also one of the shortest. "Mason's Rats" by Neal Asher is a simple story drawn on a simple idea, but it is that simplicity that provides the emotional satisfaction.

One day, Mason finds that his cats have gone missing. When he goes into his barn, he finds (and shoots) a surprisingly large rat. The rat appears to be wearing a tool belt. So he hires Traptech, a pest extermination company, and a battle begins between the high-tech rat killing machines of Traptech and the intelligent rats that have evolved in Mason's barn.

This is a very human story, told with warmth and sympathy. Within it are questions as to how we treat other species and our reactions to even the slightest challenge to human hegemony. It is a very nice little piece of science fiction indeed.

"Shadow Twin" is an intriguing idea, a collaboration between one of speculative fiction's most successful and brilliant authors (George R.R. Martin), one of its most respected editors (Gardner Dozois, who is also an admired author in his own right), and a relatively new talent (Daniel Abrahamson). Set on a new colony planet, "Shadow Twin" is the tale of Ramon Espejo, a violent prospector scraping out a living and trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with his equally screwed-up girlfriend.

On a trip to search for a new area he hopes will be profitable, Ramon uncovers an alien complex. He is attacked, and when he awakens, he is forced into service of the aliens, hunting down another man who the aliens say have escaped them and who, if he reaches civilisation, will give away their existence. To the aliens, this would interrupt their flow and would be a cause for them to commit racial suicide.

Martin, Dozois, and Abrahamson do a good job of devising a convincingly alien alien. Indeed, it is the aliens that are the most interesting part of this novella, and we, like Ramon, struggle at first to understand their thought processes. At times, the aliens are a little too Spock-like with their insistence on logic and their failure to understand emotions or untruth, but they are deeper and more alien than a Vulcan.

"Shadow Twin" is a little patchy, with some sections brilliant and others (such as the opening section) being stolid and uncompelling. Indeed, the whole story might have benefited from some trimming.

Even so, this is a very good story, full of ideas, imagination, and well-rounded characters, and it is unlikely that any science fiction fan will be left unsatisfied at the end. My only real reservation is that this story is a reprint, having previously been published on the SCI FICTION website, which readers may access for free. Despite this being a good story, readers who have read this before may feel slightly cheated to find a sizeable chunk of this issue of Asimov's taken up by it.

The most ambitious story in this double issue of Asimov's is by Walter Jon Williams. Set in the universe of his Dread Empire series, "Solidarity" is the story of Lady Sula, a vicious Peer—one of the aristocrats of this slightly feudal universe—who is leading resistance against the alien Naxids who have taken over Zanshaa. Lady Sula is short of manpower and resources, so she plans to involve the local crimelords in the struggle. The story follows this effort and Sula's developing affair with one of those crimelords.

Being part of a larger sweep of story, "Solidarity" suffers from not being able to achieve all the reader might hope it would. The Naxids cannot be defeated completely, because they are needed in the novels. Sula cannot resolve all personal issues nor complete all her goals, because she is a character beyond this novella. However, the advantage the story has is that this universe is developed to a far greater degree than would normally be the case even for a novella. There is a sense that there is much else: a wider universe, a past, a future, a complete social and political system. When these tools are placed in the hands of a writer as good as Williams, the story nearly becomes a mini-masterpiece of far-future science fiction. The pace is rapid, but never over-fast; the characters are rich and complex; the writing is a pleasure.

There are only two things that prevent the story from actually becoming a masterpiece: the first is that the novella does not feel like a complete story by itself—at the end, we are left feeling we have only read the first part of the story; the second is that the Naxids are, within this story at least, rather generic alien baddies, all oppressive violence and uniform nastiness. As such, the reader would be well advised to read this story in conjunction with William's other Dread Empire stories. Despite these minor flaws, this is still an excellent story, and is also one of the best stories of the issue.

"They Will Raise You in a Box" by Wil McCarthy is an interesting piece of stylistic science fiction. This very short story is a tragedy whose power is at least partly derived by its telling, using second person, future tense. This style is fully justified because it mirrors the story itself, wherein a conscious part-human, part-machine is raised within a sealed box and fed restricted information so that it can tell the future to the ones who created it. Thus the story is, in itself, a prediction such as the ones that the human/machine tells.

In a way, this is almost an anti-science fiction story in its portrayal of the greed, ignorance, and unconscious cruelty of the scientists who have raised this thing in its box.

I was a little unsure about "They Will Raise You in a Box" at the beginning, thrown off by the unusual style, but by the end, I was a convert, and McCarthy's story is the third of the trio of stories that most impressed in this issue.

Summary
Of the eleven stories in this double issue of Asimov's, two are fantasy and the remainder are science fiction. There are two novellas, two novelettes and seven short stories. There were no really outstanding stories. The strongest and most interesting were "They Will Raise You in a Box" by Wil McCarthy, "Solidarity" by Walter Jon Williams, and "Mason's Rats" by Neal Asher. Also noteworthy were "California King" by Michael Jasper and Greg Van Eekhout and "Shadow Twin" by Gardner Dozios, George R.R. Martin And Daniel Abraham.