Asimov's, August 2005

Friday, 24 June 2005 02:15 E. Sedia
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"Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck" by Neal Asher
"Point of Origin" by Catherine Wells
"The Summer of the Seven" by Paul Melko
"Kath and Quicksilver" by Larry Niven & Brenda Cooper
"He Woke in Darkness" by Harry Turtledove
"A Shadow over the Land" by Liz Williams
"Bottom Feeding" by Tim Pratt
"A Birth" by Carrie Richerson

This issue of Asimov's is quite a good one. Such appraisals are a matter of taste, but for me, this issue combined everything I look for in any fiction collection–nifty ideas, strange beasties, heart-wrenching tales, and top-notch writing.
"Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck" by Neal Asher is a straightforward adventure tale on the surface. The protagonist takes a couple of wealthy tourists and their PA to hunt one of the most elusive and legendary creatures on the planet of Myral, the gabbleduck. Things start to go wrong from the very beginning when one of his charges shoots a sheq, a sentient being. They go more wrong when the shooter is abducted by sheq.
 
This story has everything a good adventure tale is supposed to have—chases, gunfights, man-eating monsters, and zeppelins. In addition, it does a wonderful job of exploring the nature of legends and the role of the unknown in their creation. Gabbleduck, the purpose of the journey, is a giant and fierce predator. Yet, the way it constantly mumbles to itself is almost comical. And even though all linguists are convinced that gabbleducks speak nonsense, the story hints at the possibility of understanding of, and friendship with, the most alien of creatures.
 
In this story, Neal Asher appears to continue the theme of "Mason's Rats" (Asimov's, April/May 2005)—both stories ask if we will be able to recognize an intelligence different from our own. And what will we do once we find it?
 
"Point of Origin" by Catherine Wells takes place in a near future and follows Ozzie, an investigator for DWR (Department of Wildland Resources, a newly created government agency), and a Forest Service specialist, Ellie, as they try to figure out the cause of a new forest fire. I found this a fascinating story, which skillfully blended the logistics of fire fighting by underfunded agencies with personal experiences of the two protagonists. Both of them have an intimate knowledge of forest fires and the devastation they may cause; both struggle with their memories as well as the present problem. A solid and engrossing tale.
 
"The Summer of the Seven" by Paul Melko reminded me of Henry Kuttner's Hogbens stories—the story has the same gently humorous tone and deals with different kinds of humans trying to find their place in the world. The protagonist of the story, Apollo, is in fact six people—a so-called pod, where the members of the group communicate their thoughts and feelings chemically. Such coordinated functioning allows them to specialize in various disciplines. Apollo lives on a farm, ran by Mother Redd (a triplet—three-person pod), and spends their summer by genetically engineering a pod of ducks. Life is simple until Candace (a seven-person pod) shows up. Candace is more advanced, and arrogant. Just as the tension between Apollo and Candace reaches its peak, Candace starts to get ill.
 
Besides a very neat premise, the story addresses questions of human evolution, and sustainability of a pod society. Social issues, biology, and history of the world Mr. Melko creates are fascinating, and his protagonist (despite being six people) is believable and deeply sympathetic. And the ducks are just adorable.
 
I just couldn't get into "Kath and Quicksilver" by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper—probably my own shortcoming, as the ideas in the story are fascinating. In this tale, Kath, a genetically modified human (with some bear genes, I think) is preparing to leave the dying Mercury. Before she leaves, however, she wants to go outside. Even though Kath is thirty-one years old, her development was artificially arrested so that physically she remains a child, and is treated as one—she even has a nanny robot, Joplee. Joplee is committed to protecting Kath and thus will not allow her to venture outside. Kath decides to modify Joplee to disable his protective programming. Kath encounters Quicksilver—a human mind recorded onto Mercury's iron core, and Quicksilver guides Kath on a tour of Mercury's most interesting places. However, very soon things go wrong.
 
My problem with this story stemmed from the fact that the protagonist felt underdeveloped, and her trials left me indifferent. On the other hand, the science was well thought-out, and the scenery was vivid and menacing.
 
"He Woke in Darkness" by Harry Turtledove was a bit of a disappointment to me. The protagonist, Cecil Ray, wakes up in darkness, and realizes that he is dead. Then, the events that led to his demise replay in his mind. Turns out that he was one of the activists murdered in 1964 in Mississippi—but with one difference from the story we know: in Turtledove's alternative history version, the whites are prosecuted by the Black Knights of Voodoo. This simple racial role reversal is explained in the end. The writing is vivid, and the details are chilling, but ultimately I felt manipulated. While I do enjoy political SF, I found this story a bit too simplistic in its approach, and it did not seem to offer any new insight into the events of 1964.

"A Shadow over the Land" by Liz Williams is about a geologist who goes to another planet and discovers much more besides the minerals and interesting crystals. There is a presence over this land, immaterial yet real. The story details the trials of the protagonist: her relationship with her colleagues, and with this new world she becomes enamored with.
 
I very much liked the premise of the story, and Ms. Williams' gift for providing breathtaking visual details is impressive. Yet, I couldn't shake off the feeling that there's more to this story, that this beautiful premise could be explored in greater detail, that the impact of the mysterious force on the protagonist's life could be greater. Because of that, I didn't find this story entirely satisfying.
 
"Bottom Feeding" by Tim Pratt is my favorite tale of the issue. More of a fantasy than science fiction, it explores the themes of memory and oblivion. The protagonist of the story struggles with the death of his brother and the loss of his girlfriend. He drops out of school and spends his days in a haze until he finds out that a giant catfish named Shiteater lives in a pond in his backyard—a very unusual catfish. Desire to catch the fish gives his life a purpose, and the story mirrors an Irish legend of the Druid Finegas who caught the salmon of wisdom. Only catfish are quite different from salmon.
 
Along with Mr. Pratt's delightful prose, the story offers a deep insight into the nature of memory and forgetting. This is a very human story, and the trials of the protagonist are so universal that everyone can relate to them—we all struggle with the loss of loves and family members. Not all of us encounter a giant catfish who consumes and returns mementos of those we have lost. This story is touching, wise, and absolutely brilliant.
 
"A Birth" by Carrie Richerson is an interesting story, told from the point of view of a rancher who very much dislikes his son-in-law. To complicate matters, his daughter is about to give birth. The tension between the two men reaches its peak as both wait outside the delivery ward. The two seem very different indeed.  The rancher thinks of himself as a hardened man, a carnivore. His son-in-law is a gentle soul, who minds the health of the cows and forms a bond with them. His father-in-law sees him with the same disdain a predator views grass-munching, placid herbivores, and there does not seem to be any common ground between the two.
 
I enjoyed the juxtaposition. Richerson does a wonderful job of exploring and explaining the differences between the two protagonists. The ending is quite touching without being sappy, and the resolution of the conflict is as natural as it was impossible just two pages earlier. And yes, it is a science fiction story. But even without it, the story is an honest and moving exploration of family relationships.

Overall: A very good issue, with three excellent stories (Asher, Melko, and Pratt). The variety of themes and styles should appeal to readers. Some statistics:

• Number of stories that feature other planets: 3
• Number of stories featuring eight-fingered aliens: 2
• Number of stories featuring a shiteater: 2
• Number of stories with child protagonists: 2
• Number of stories with immaterial alien intelligences: 2