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

Asimov's, Apr/May 2010

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For this Asimov’s double issue we invited a pair of reviewers to share their thoughts on the stories. Each was given the assignment of half the contents.

“Jackie’s-Boy” by Steven Popkes
“Alten Kameraden” by Barry B. Longyear
“Unforeseen” by Molly Gloss
“Malick Pan” by Sara Genge
“Pretty To Think So” by Robert Reed
“The Union of Soil and Sky” by Gregory Norman Bossert
“Adrift” by Eugene Fischer
“They Laughed at Me in Vienna, and Again in Prague, and Then in Belfast, and Don’t Forget Hanoi! But I’ll Show Them! I’ll Show Them All, I Tell You!” by Tim McDaniel
“Mindband” by Pamela Sargent

Steve Fahnestalk reviews the following stories:

“Jackie’s-Boy” by Steven Popkes
“Alten Kameraden” by Barry B. Longyear
“Unforeseen” by Molly Gloss
“Malick Pan” by Sara Genge
“Pretty To Think So” by Robert Reed

Steven Popkes envisions a totally different kind of post-apocalyptic world than the familiar tropes of, say Earth Abides (George R. Stewart), The Postman (David Brin) or The Road (Cormac McCarthy) in “Jackie’s-Boy,” a tale about a young person set adrift in a world with little or no adult supervision. Although severe weather is mentioned, the main reason our world and society have collapsed is bacterial warfare. (Over 650 plagues at last count.)

Most of the adults are dead from various infections, as are many kinds of animals—as one character says, “First, the weather went to shit. Then came plagues, one after another. And not just people. Birds. Cattle. Sheep. Wheat. Beans. There was about six years where you couldn’t get a tomato unless you grew it yourself. Even then, it wasn’t much better than fifty-fifty. Oaks. Sequoias. Shrimp.”

So Michael grows up in a world run by kid gangs, and lives near the St. Louis zoo; he is fascinated by the animals that are left (protected by a robot zoo-keeper and many automated defenses), especially the elephant. The zoo has one rhino left, and one elephant, named Jackie. Jackie was originally part of a group of four intelligence-enhanced animals that were being bred to send to Africa and India to maybe repopulate the world’s elephants, when it all went to hell. Jackie is not fond of humans at all, and has few words of kindness for Michael when she meets him. Yes, Jackie can talk.

For various reasons, the zoo is shut down and Michael and Jackie go on a search for the nearest elephant sanctuary, where Jackie hopes to find more of her kind. It’s a typical coming-of-age story for both boy and elephant, where it’s not being atypical, and is compellingly written. For me, this novella was at least as interesting and well written as Earth Abides, and (in my opinion), much better than The Postman, and as refreshing as the grand-daddy of all post-apocalyptic SF stories, Stephen Vincent Benét’s “By The Waters of Babylon” (1937). (And in case you care, The Road was not, in my opinion, a good book. It was done better by many SF writers, of which McCarthy is not one.)

“Alten Kameraden” by Barry B. Longyear shows that he hasn’t lost a trace of his ability in all these years. The same man who brought us the City of Baraboo and Enemy Mine turns his eyes on some of the German perpetrators of the last two World Wars, and perhaps shows us a little humanity in “the Hun.” For a novelette, there’s a lot of meat in these 12,000 plus words.

Kurt Wolff was a sniper in World War I, one of the best in the German Army. In fact, he made so many kills that he was awarded the Iron Cross on the same day as one of the corporals in his own regiment (the 16th Bavarian Reserve) whose life he had saved one day in 1918: one lance-corporal Hitler. (Snipers were awarded their medals in secret, as the British tended to concentrate sniper fire on the best-known of them and went out of their way, for obvious reasons, to kill any they could.)

In April, 1945, Kurt Wolff is now an electrician who is called to the Reichsbunker in Berlin to fix an ailing ventilation system so the few Nazi bigwigs left can celebrate the marriage of their Führer to Eva Braun. By chance, the two old comrades-in-arms (“Alten Kameraden” means “old comrades”) meet again, and Hitler poses the old sniper one last task before the war is to end. I can’t tell you what that is, but the fact that Wolff is a Jew, and that Hitler knows it, is part of it. At the end of the story, a fantasy element crept in, but that didn’t detract from the story for me. Curiously affecting, and wonderfully well researched and written.

“Unforeseen” by Molly Gloss is a bit of an oddity. It’s science fiction, but written in a very mainstream sensibility, and it has a very mainstream sort of “slice of life” feel to it, without a real resolution—but for all that, it works fine.

Forbes Kipfer is an insurance investigator who works for RDI—Remediable Death Insurance—and it’s his job to check out all claims in the LA/Hollywood area to ensure that they don’t fall under the various clauses that relieve RD from responsibility for fulfilling the claim on the late insured. Madison Truesdale (no relationship to our editor, I am assured) has just lost her mother, but has been paying RD premiums on her mother’s life for several years against just such an occurrence as killed her mother. Should the claim be allowed, then RD will be responsible for bringing her mother back to life.

Well written, probably as true to life as any SF story involving life (or rebirth) insurance can be; but again, without a clear resolution—which was fine by me, just not the norm for an SF story.

“Malick Pan” by Sara Genge continues the theme of youths living on their own in a world that’s quite a different future from what you and I think of when we think of what’s coming. Malick lives outside a future Paris, and wants desperately to be part of a certain gang, but is a kid, and wants to stay a kid, because there are places kids can go to get rats (for food) and adults cannot.

But Malick has a secret weapon, his “nanners.” These nanites have certain powers, like keeping Malick forever a kid, but that was not their primary mission, and he can only control them to a certain extent. They were actually sent to bring him, a lost child, back to Paris. How Malick begins to gather his Lost Boys and become a latter-day Peter Pan is the crux of the story. An interesting (and in a certain way, fun) take on an old tale.

“Pretty To Think So” by Robert Reed continues the other theme in this set of tales, that of apocalypse. Cory is a little boy who is dragged out of bed at three in the morning by his parents, because they need to “make an emergency trip to Disneyland”—which is what the parents told Cory and his little sister, Amy, to keep them quiet as they packed the car so the family could go on the run eastward.

An asteroid, the President has told a shocked nation, is on the way, and when it hits in the Pacific, everyone on the West Coast had better have their butts as far east as possible… but that’s the story for general consumption. In the White House, and on Capitol Hill, the insiders know it’s really aliens that are invading the Earth.

But is that the real story? Does anyone know the real story except, perhaps—the reader? What happens to Cory and his family reminds me, in a twisted way, of “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Henry Kuttner—in that there’s a reason the protagonist is a child, and not set in the way he views the world. Like most of Reed’s stuff, this one’s well written, and a bit thought-provoking. And, I think, ultimately satisfying, although the middle section (the explanation for all this) has been done better by others, and perhaps was a bit intrusive… but it works. (By the way, The Last Mimzy was a not-too-good movie made from that story, in case you care. The story was terrific, the movie not so much.)

Nathan Goldman reviews the following stories:

“The Union of Soil and Sky” by Gregory Norman Bossert
“Adrift” by Eugene Fischer
“They Laughed at Me in Vienna, and Again in Prague, and Then in Belfast, and Don’t Forget Hanoi! But I’ll Show Them! I’ll Show Them All, I Tell You!” by Tim McDaniel
“Mindband” by Pamela Sargent

Gregory Norman Bossert’s debut novella, “The Union of Soil and Sky,” is the gripping tale of a band of archaeologists slowly unearthing the complex, possibly incomprehensible, secrets of the Aulans (nicknamed ‘Snips, for their uncanny resemblance to parsnips). After a slow and somewhat convoluted opening, Bossert grips the reader with elegant, unerring prose, and characters worth caring about. Though they don’t stray far from genre archetypes, the cast is full of relatable human beings (and one intriguing alien); Bossert actually takes advantage of the genre reader’s familiarity with types like “the bumbling but witty professor” and “the surly, cursing warrior” to make the reader comfortable with the characters even before they are fleshed out. In its first third the story is held back by its reliance on formulaic narrative telling for exposition: one character makes a statement about something the team should do, another voices an objection, and the narrator explains to the reader the reason for the objection. But this is trumped, in the end, by Bossert’s triumph: creating a story that is interesting not only because of the technological ideas it presents, but also for the characters and their keenly relatable struggles. In just under thirty pages Bossert explores a fascinating and original world populated with people the reader cannot help care about.

“Adrift” is Eugene Fischer’s first print publication, a short story dealing with the struggles of Janet Candle, director of an intercontinental, oceanic “FloatNet.” The story blends together Janet’s more mundane concerns, the dissolution of her marriage, with the more extraordinary, the sudden arrival of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The scientific concept of “obviate ports” is fascinating, but more impressive is the way Fischer blends that idea into a unique and heart wrenching story of turmoil, both personal and political. Everything about the story is believable, from the science to the politics to the characters’ interaction, and, despite a conclusion that fails to properly satisfy, the story is expertly crafted and well worth the time it takes to read.

In “Mindband,” a novella by Locus- and Nebula-winner Pamela Sargent, a former newswoman returns to the scene of a horrible catastrophe she once covered in search of closure and, perhaps, retribution. Her life blends with other townspeople’s, including the owners of the bed and breakfast at which she stays, a country-crossing divorcee, and the head of a mysterious corporation called MindData Associates. Sargent’s prose is smooth, as are her frequent viewpoint transitions, but her handling of the plot is clumsy: exposition is delivered in heaping doses and feels forced, and the generally realistic characters occasionally deliver chunks of utterly unrealistic dialogue. It is essentially a mystery tale: what caused this catastrophe, and what is the secret behind MindData Associates? Sargent’s great success is the creation of a compact ecosystem of interrelated characters, well balanced and interesting. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the other elements of the story. The plot is not innovative; it has the uncomfortable feel of a Twilight Zone episode you think you saw a long time ago. The evil corporation plot has been done before, and more successfully, and by the story’s conclusion, Sargent has not altered or improved the model enough for her tale to stand out.

Tim McDaniel’s long-titled “They Laughed at Me in Vienna, and Again in Prague, and Then in Belfast, and Don’t Forget Hanoi! But I’ll Show Them! I’ll Show Them All, I Tell You!” is the brief and hilarious tale of Dr. Clive Crawley, a wild-eyed mad scientist much adored at the World Science Conference for his crazed manner and the apparent insanity of his schemes. Hilarity ensues as Dr. Crawley’s inventions creep into widespread use without any boost in the poor man’s credibility. McDaniel traces Dr. Crawley’s life in a series of vignettes involving him, his daughter (“Molly Cule”), and his son-in-law. Unapologetically silly, the story is a blast to read, and a testament to the power of funny SF. Douglas Adams would be proud.