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

Asimov's -- July/August 2018

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Asimov's, July/August 2018

Ephemera” by Ian R. MacLeod

"Stones in the Water, Cottage on the Mountain" by Suzanne Palmer
Lieutenant Tightass” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Rules of Biology" by Dale Bailey
Unter” by Michael Cassutt
True Jing” by Zack Be
"The Backward Lens of Compromise" by Octavia Cade
"Attachment Unavailable" by Leah Cypess
"Liberating Alaska" by Harry Turtledove
"Straconia" by Jack Skillingstead
Starship Mountain” by Allen M. Steele

Reviewed by Pedro Silva

This issue of Asimov's presents an eclectic slate of stories.

In Ian R. MacLeod's “Ephemera”, KAT is an AI charged with maintaining the collective data of all human endeavors. Her home, the Argo, is an asteroid hollowed out for this purpose and outfitted with a cavern apiece for art, history and science. Every bit of data is enshrined in crystalline grids of sapphire, and like KAT, they're built to endure. While performing her duties, KAT observes an Earth in recovery; shortly after starting her mission, her home and her creator, Janet, perished in a geopolitical cataclysm. Now after centuries tending humanity's data, KAT detects a transmission from the surface; humans, perhaps, are rallying once again.

The story flashes back to reveal KAT's apprenticeship under Janet, and though a scene involving a classroom show-and-tell feels too convenient a vehicle for exposition, the bond between AI and maker is deftly illustrated via a shared connection to the ephemera they've sworn to preserve. An AI's encounter with human art is fertile ground for insights, and it's employed here to great effect.

The butterfly effect is on full display in Suzanne Palmer's "Stones in the Water, Cottage on the Mountain." Our unnamed protagonist, ill with cancer in a world preoccupied by larger troubles, treks a mountain path to a cottage she once visited with an old flame, Samuel, during a summer road trip. Once there, she dies. In another reality, a Social Darwinist dystopia ravaged by civil war, our protagonist flees for the cottage only to be shot by Samuel himself. In yet another, she's poisoned by mutated vines now on the verge of blanketing the planet. These realities revolve around a single defining moment: whether she chooses to indulge Samuel's after-graduation road trip, despite his apparent alcoholism, or pursue geology at university. Some realities play out very much as she predicts: Samuel's selfishness features across a swath of them. Some outcomes prove inevitable: whatever the reality, apocalypse awaits in the form of mutated vines, "violence culture," climate change or nuclear war. Despite lacking a traditional plot, the story arranges these parallel snapshots in an engaging narrative arc, climaxing with an insightful shift in POV, before resolving full circle.

In “Lieutenant Tightass” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Lt. Johnathan Cooper serves aboard the Arama, a search-and-rescue vessel. Traveling interstellar distances is accomplished via the anacapa drive, which tunnels vessels through foldspace—or, alarmingly often, strands them there instead. While in pursuit of one such vessel, Lt. Cooper grows anxious over his fellow crew members' fatalistic attitudes, also their apathy for protocol. Case in point: commanding the Arama is Captain Nisen, a tipsy drunk with a flagrant disregard for regulation.

A spirited investigation commences, peppered by snappy dialogue. Then, as the story climaxes and the Arama plunges into foldspace, things play out too smoothly, and it's clear the story's focus lies with Cooper and Nisen's budding relationship. The prose is clean and unadorned, and works well as a vehicle for warm and sympathetic characters. Especially of note for a novelette-length work, the Arama succeeds in feeling like a lively social web; even minor characters are afforded hints of off-stage drama through a shared glance, or a self-satisfied comment.

In Dale Bailey's "Rules of Biology," a father, Esterman, witnesses startling physiological changes in his seven-year-old daughter: a single strand of black among her once totally blonde hair. After dropping his daughter off at her mother's, Esterman escapes from the suburbs, from the "long drudgery of attachment" that had been his marriage, and into the arms of Kendall, his lover. Yet his daughter's transformation, what Esterman recognizes as the result of warring genetics, heightens his guilt; a new man is taking his fatherly role, he deduces. What unfolds is a deft exploration of a clever fantasy conceit and its consequences through the lens of contemporary family drama.

Drake, fresh off quitting an IT job at Amazon, loans his body to strangers for pay, in Michael Cassutt's "Unter." But Drake's recent trips prove unusually reckless: a concert experience while Unter is followed by a terrible hangover, and a helicopter ride escalates to a near-death experience. Drake's mother, Jessica, notices and urges Drake toward a healthier profession. Ignoring her advice, Drake searches the dark net in pursuit of his partner's identity—and finds the unexpected: unlike his usual clients (i.e. middle-aged to elderly men), this one is a twenty-year-old woman.

A compelling mystery unfolds. The relationship between Drake and Jessica, mother and son, provides an engaging perspective on the ramifications of going Unter. A tense confrontation caps off the story, and though the underpinning mystery feels too quickly tidied up, the historical nod at its crux makes for a thoughtful resolution.

Zack Be's "True Jing" follows Ko Tam, a hunter class crew member aboard Einstein's Tümler, a ship designed to search the pocket dimension in pursuit of its denizens: creatures called the True Jing, whose blood is capable of augmenting human cognition. Indeed, world governments believe the substance holds the answer to human longevity. In Ko Tam's world, much of humanity has migrated to an incorporeal state, living their lives digitally, or "tethered." For the Tethered, the blood's effects are heightened and the promise of expanded cognition all the more tantalizing. Soon a True Jing glances off Einstein's Tümler, and the hunt begins.

The gradual adoption of human augmentation is portrayed especially well as Ko Tam's friend, further along the adoption curve yet not Tethered, challenges Ko Tam's philosophy. Though the revelation concerning the True Jing will ring familiar to many readers, Ko Tam's solution to this final dilemma makes for a thematically resonant conclusion.

In Octavia Cade's "The Backward Lens of Compromise," Rosa, a director of an underfunded observatory, struggles with "the world's worst superpower:" the ability to trigger changes in reality, coupled with the inability to control it. In one harrowing, childhood experience, a classroom suddenly transformed into a fish tank, nearly drowning her. Adults label these changes hallucinations, but Rosa comes to find solace in the limited field-of-view of microscopes, then telescopes. Now as Rosa prepares to greet local students, the observatory's telescope vanishes; in its place, Rosa has conjured a white dwarf star. The students arrive, and eager to offer them a proper scientific education, which in this neighborhood also means a potential path out of poverty, Rosa welcomes them inside.

New objects continue to materialize, and Rosa's plot is intercut by historical vignettes, each retreating further into the past. The prose in these sections often ventures into the lyrical, skillfully capturing the tantalizing allure the stars hold for those who study them. Particularly well illustrated is the succession of artificial barriers erected before astronomers (or scientific inquiry, more generally) in past, present and future.

While trying to share an article about recently landed aliens, an online moderator contends with unexpected bugs, in Leah Cypess's "Attachment Unavailable." What follows is an excerpt from the Moms Together Facebook Group. Members, sleep-deprived parents mostly, debate the aliens' latest offer: sleep-training for babies. This story stands out as this issue's most comedic. Written as on online discussion thread, it's also this issue's most inventive; the playful choice of form is a breeze to read, and its reliance on online personas manages to succinctly flesh out a roster of charming characters.

In Harry Turtledove's alternate history tale, "Liberating Alaska," Marine Sergeant Eddie Houlihan, a hardened combatant accustomed to following orders, joins an advance on the Alaskan city of Siknazuak, currently held by the Soviets. The city was once the site of a gold rush, but diminishing returns mean few residents remain. Arriving ashore, Houlihan and his fellow Marines press closer to the target, confronting Soviets along the way.

With a flair for presenting weapons at their most practical, this story will most appeal to fans of military SF. The action here strives for authenticity, and though couched in the requisite technical milieu, remains accessible to readers not steeped in the sub-genre. Though light on characterization, the world-building is intriguing, and the meticulous advance on Siknazuak affords a compelling sense of progression throughout.

In Jack Skillingstead's "Straconia," Frank, a dispatcher at a Boeing factory, discovers his wife leaving on nighttime excursions and follows. Frank finds himself in a city called Straconia, then discovers his wife working as a waitress at a nearby diner. Surprisingly, she has no memory of him, and Frank's confusion escalates when the diner's owner confronts him over a skipped bill; Frank's money is worthless here. The confrontation lands Frank in a punishment facility, sorting lost articles delivered via shoots. Straconia is a place for those who didn't belong in their old lives, a fellow sorter explains. Many, like Frank's wife, return to their old lives, never returning to Straconia. Some, like Frank, must struggle to escape.

Frank navigates through an intricately realized setting, a city whose economy trades in a currency Frank has never seen before, whose numbers appear as hieroglyphs. Though Frank undergoes a character journey of his own, from drifter to proactive agent of change, the story's focus remains on the city of Straconia itself.

Citizen Crowe, a private investigator, takes on a new case, in Allen M. Steele's "Starship Mountain." Crowe's mission is finding Pilot Fletcher, daughter of a prominent Steward. Pilot has a habit of frequenting disreputable quarters of the city and has recently gone missing. Mid-investigation, Crow finds an unlikely ally in Philip, Pilot's finance; together the duo encounter bar fights, alley brawls and Cetans, intelligent dog-like creatures who share the city with humans. The Cetans prohibit humans from venturing offshore, seemingly guarding a secret about the city's history—a secret, it turns out, tied to Pilot's disappearance. The key to both, as Crowe and Philip come to learn, lies at the city's outskirts, beneath Starship Mountain.

Steele presents a fast-paced detective yarn, punctuated by action and intrigue in equal parts. The story's novella-length is put to great use in fleshing out Crowe's world, Tawcety, which itself brims with character.