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

Double Review--March 2010 Asimov's

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Once again we offer two separate reviews of the same publication; this time the March 2010 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.

“Helping Take the Old Man Down” by  William Preston
“Blind Cat Dance” by Alexander Jablokov
“The Speed of Dreams” by Will Ludwigsen
“Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising” by Derek Zumsteg
“The Tower” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Centaurs” by Benjamin Crowell

Reviewed by C. L. Rossman

“Helping Them Take the Old Man Down” by William Preston

In this literary novelette built from a comics background, the author tells us in first person how he helped betray “the old man” who once used him as part of his team. At first you don’t know who this “old man” is, because Preston only speaks vaguely about him. Is he a former corporate boss? God?  A superhero? Then he mentions a certain building structure and of course anyone who followed the Golden Age of Comics knows who it is.  I thought this a neat literary attempt at “real”-izing a legendary but fading comic book hero, done with a faint pathos for the youths we all used to be.

“Blind Cat Dance” by Alexander Jablokov

“So this cougar walks into a café.” So help me, one of the infamous “bar” jokes was the first thing that popped into my head when I started reading this novelette. Later, I managed to settle down and read it for what it was—a serious story about the final disposition of wild animals in our future. Humans have blotted out all the habitats of Earth, and the only way we can preserve other living creatures is by “brainwashing” them to believe they are in a natural setting. So this cougar walks into a café where four friends are seated round a table and chatting, and it proceeds to hunt down its natural prey.  The secondary thread of this story concerns two of the friends trying to re-ignite a romance between their third (female) friend and her ex-husband, despite the huge crush one of them has on her.  To me, that was a very secondary story and I could gladly have read on about how humans could acculturate wildlife to live among them and not notice they were there. An intriguing proposition.

“The Tower” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

This novelette is about time travel involving a scientist (Neyla), who wants to go back to the Tower of  London in 1674 to study the deaths of two little murdered princes, along with a jewel thief, Thomas Ayliff, who is joining her team under false pretences in order to steal some Crown Jewels. Mistakes could be made—they have only three days to accomplish their mission, and the jewel thief endangers them. As soon as she finds out, Neyla tackles him in a fury. While the story builds up in grand fashion, I felt rather let down by the ending.  Neyla’s discovery of what she is capable of didn’t seem as important or significant a climax as the rest of the story led me to believe. And the “red flag in the flowerpot” as a signal is getting to be old and tired. It’s even used once before in this issue, in another story, “Take the Old Man Down….” The switch on points of view, from Thomas in the first half to Neyla in the second is rather abrupt and could have been handled more smoothly. I don’t like to give negative reviews, since writers pour their life’s blood into their art, but sometimes it’s better to point out a discord early than to praise the whole symphony without thought.

“Centaurs” by Benjamin Crowell

How would teen dating and courtship proceed if you lived someplace as exotic as the planet Neptune’s Trojans?  Ginny has to be certified at handling a vacuum before she can zip over and see a new boyfriend. They decide to explore a dangerous old mineshaft on another of the asteroids.  I thought this was an interesting take on dating in a possible future. The young people are nicknamed “Centaurs” after the mythological half-man half-horse because the constellation Centaurus is the brightest object in their sky; and in a way it fits; because they are trying to adapt human bodies to a deep space environment in this short story.

“Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr in the Glorious Human Uprising” by Derek Zumsteg

A rather long title for a short story—and it lets us know immediately what’s going to happen, just not how it’s going to happen. Gliden, a ticket inspector on the Berlin train,  dresses in disguise hoping to catch  freebooters trying to ride without the proper tickets. He apprehends two young aliens, who seem to be a buglike species, and when two adults try to appeal to his compassion, he forces them off the train. At the end, we can see what’s going to happen—to the adult bugs anyway, not necessarily Gliden. I think the story failed to build enough of a case for human enslavement or mistreatment in order to prompt a revolution.  Gliden may or may not be in league with human conspirators—that wasn’t clear. I think it needed more work so we could feel that humanity is indeed under the antennae of the bug creatures.

“The Speed of Dreams” by Will Ludwigsen

This is an elegant little story about a student, Paige Sumner, who owns a retired racing greyhound just like the author does. For her 8th grade science project, she decides to see if she can measure the actual time which passes in dreams. She can do this because she knows exactly how fast her dog can run in real life, and exactly how long the greyhound racecourse is. At the same time, she is drawn into the grief of her beloved “Nannah” dying, and observes that the old woman, too, twitches and dreams in her sleep like the dog.  Her rather objective recitation of her discoveries will not prepare her for her decision at the end of the story.  The scientific method is juxtaposed with the human emotional toll in this superb short tale.

“Helping Take the Old Man Down” by  William Preston
“Blind Cat Dance” by Alexander Jablokov
“The Speed of Dreams” by Will Ludwigsen
“Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising” by Derek Zumsteg
“The Tower” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Centaurs” by Benjamin Crowell

Reviewed by KJ Hannah Greenberg

What’s not to love about Asimov’s? In this science fiction publication, first rate writers approbate a name long associated with quality genre literature. Like the issues before it, the March 2010 offering maintains the magazine’s high standard.

For instance, in “Helping Them Take the Old Man Down,” William Preston successfully blurs the boundaries between suspense and science fiction to provide a remarkable account of a “retired” spy, who breaks rank with his espionage coterie. That shadow lurker’s actions are catalyzed by government agents who, themselves, are desperate to divert attention from their leaders’ failure to ward off terrorists. That is, the undercover man helps federal employees locate the blame for the Twin Towers disaster on his former boss, a reclusive superman. Ultimately, that traitor leads the regime’s soldiers to the lair of the world’s single most benevolent protector. At the hidey hole of that possibly extraterrestrial being, justice is served only in that the champion once more insures that few lives are lost.

This story does not center, however, around violence. Rather, this tale’s energy is focused on exploring ways in which heroes and villains use “a quotidian substructure of lies [to support] an utterly authentic architecture of the fantastic.” That is, this story is not really about action but about the rhetoric behind action. It is a tale of motivation and intentionality and of society’s lagging moral development.  

Preston, a practiced raconteur, uses enthymematic reasoning to guide readers in building conclusions about the nature of “evil” and of “innocence.” Although he sacrifices his übermensch to the cause of illuminating social ethics, the writer’s forfeit, like the title character’s eventual surrender, becomes the advantage of the careful follower. Both The Old Man’s remaining minions and Preston’s astute readers are invited to appreciate “the inability of intelligence and force to solve all problems.”

“The Tower,” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is not your grandmother’s sort of alternate world narrative, but is a story about weaknesses in the human condition. Thus, the main characters’ interpersonal communication, not the plausibility of and dangers inherent in devices capable of conveying persons across time, holds readers’ attention. Whereas it is constructive to follow Rusch taking into account the relative merits of corporations willing to increase their fortunes at the cost of their employees’ well being, it is even more beneficial to take up her comparison between the malevolence of ambition and the wickedness of avarice.

On the one hand, her main character is a sophisticated crook, who is set upon stealing some “minor” crown jewels, from the Tower of London during an interregnum, a period when it might be easy to obfuscate such behavior. On the other hand, his plans are confounded by an academic, i.e. his expedition’s leader, a woman who lacks the compunction not to resort to violence when thwarted. Frustrated by the main character’s attempted thievery and by her consequential need to abandon her research into the brutishness which caused the death of Prince Edward V and of his brother, ironically, the scholar nearly kills the outlaw. At this story’s conclusion, it is the chronologer, not the bandit, who remains blameworthy.

Not only does Rusch deconstruct stereotypes about axiology by making her consummate criminal more affable than her professor, but she also surfaces questions of costuming. It is not clothing or other palpable artifacts that this writer reveals as comprised of components, but, more importantly, it is human identities. Accordingly, “The Tower” is not only a compelling read, but also an informal treatise on social psychology.

“Pease Porridge hot, / Pease Porridge cold, / Pease Porridge in the Pot/ Nine Days old. “ In Alexander Jablokov’s “Blind Cat Dance,” romance of the ordinary and of the extraordinary kinds are served up hot, cold, fresh and old. Readers quickly realize that the narrator has been charged with morphing vast and varied landscapes for the purpose of his employer again receiving the favor of a lady love. Wooing in this tale becomes the stuff of transforming elks, mule deer, muskrats, alligators, and especially cougars into creatures stymied in their ability to detect the coexistence of humans. In short, for love’s sake, dangerous beasts’ survival mechanisms get tweaked.

The narrator, too, has been modified against self-preservation; automaton-like, he dutifully fulfills his master’s wishes while mostly disregarding his own feelings of lust and of love for his master’s woman. Paid to make his employer’s wife feel freshly impassioned with his employer, the narrator tries to make her into a nature princess. Birds alight on her fingers and only she, among her peers, is allowed to detect the furtiveness behind the animal trainer’s orchestrated vignettes.

Yet, rather than feel powerful, or even somewhat validated, the employer’s wife becomes peeved. She elects to learn about the chicanery behind the illusions and studies to become a manipulator of ecosystems. Eventually, she confronts her husband’s manservant and demands of him both the purpose of the work he executes for her spouse and the particulars of his personal life. Having gained those data, she flits away. Her new capabilities for enforcing artifice upon the natural world, rather than emancipate her, enslaves her to husband’s perpetual care.

“Blind Cat Dance” is not valuable because of its lessons on prey and predator, though those data have utility. Rather, the potency in this story rests within its layering. At one echelon of abstraction, readers enter a domain where few persons see past the guise of their surroundings, i.e. past their fancy restaurants and shops, and into the veracities of wildlife. At a higher echelon of abstraction, though, this story instructs about the harms concomitant to denying the facts of or rationalizing about human relationships. Jablokov wants us to know that life lived in love, analogous to life lived in the bush, is life filled with death and decay, not life filled with “fair” dealings.

This story is suitable for quickening discussions about scientists’ impact on culture, specifically, and on scientists’ accountability, in general. Also, like “The Tower,” “Blind Cat Dance” is useful for generating talk about compromising personal ethics in the name of professional goals. I’d like to see “Blind Cat Dance” on the reading list of both graduate level philosophy of science and freshman level biochemistry classes.

Per “Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising,” by Derek Zumsteg, I’d like to see it reprinted in lots of anthologies. This story reminds us about the ways in which world leaders exploit less influential individuals. For instance, in place of rescuing poor ticket inspector Phillip Gliden from the literal mandibles of marauding aliens, i.e. from beasts who refuse to participate in a futuristic Germany’s orderly society, the globe’s chiefs choose to allow their civil servant to be turned into a dead icon, into an emblem of Earth’s uprising against its conquerors.

Interestingly, that outcome is only alluded to within the tale proper. Instead, the greatest portion of the story is consumed by descriptions of the arrogant extraterrestrial beasts, which act contemptuously toward the human society over which they have laid claim. Those warlords from places unknown refuse to pay for their literal and figurative passage and refuse to pay penalties for even grosser crimes against humanity. It is insufficient to them that they nuked the planet; they rebuff all attempts to make restitution for their occupancy.

Gliden, the story’s hero, though, is no less thwarted by those space beings’ narrow proprieties than he is by human drunks, druggies or soccer fans. He teaches the witnesses, who share a train car with him and with his alien commandeers, about bravery. He teaches the spectators, who alight on the platform where he confronts the ignorant celestial beings, about valor. He teaches the members of unified Earth that even a supposedly small man can have the pluck to be a big contender.

I enjoyed that Zumsteg’s aliens are depicted as cockroach-like and that the social order of Germany, a realm historically notorious both for its ambivalence toward genocide, specifically, and for its heads of states’ unrelenting intolerance, more generally, is chosen for his story’s venue. Such wit, coupled with the author’s parsimony of words, and with his keen pacing of events, come together to make the dystopic social satire “Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising,” a literary treat.

“Centaurs,” by Benjamin Crowell, is a bit less of a strenuous trek than is “Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising.”  In the ultramodern “Centaurs,” a lyric-writing teenage boy meets, via videophone, a girl who is a composer. They live among the asteroids near Neptune. The two rendezvous in order to explore the music of the orbs at an old, abandoned asteroid mine. There, the girl, who carelessly jumps down a shaft, finds herself frozen to one of the shaft’s walls by the liquefied water that has escaped from an outgassing. Upon tearing herself free, she rips her pressurized suit. In the end, the boy, despite his more junior age, rescues the girl and proves himself to be her senior; he refuses her charitable offer of intimacy and in doing so keeps his gallantry uncompromised.

I could read entire books worth of Crowell’s work. Consider that while “Centaurs” wholesomely reminds us about the hormonal torment endured by adolescents and about the array of means teens use to cope with developmental anxieties, this story neither poses its characters as saints and sinners or shies away from dealing with bravado, with sexual impulsiveness, and with other aspects of youthful blustering. I’m getting in line, now, to order more of this writer’s principled lessons.

Likewise, adolescent angst is handed round in “The Speed of Dreams” by Will Ludwigsen.  In this tale about a girl’s dubious junior high school science project, the main character’s disturbed reality finds her pursuing access to the sphere of dreams. Given her beloved, coma-imprisoned grandma and her faithful, retired, often exhausted, racing greyhound, this teenager has lots of opportunity to observe her loved ones live their mentations. Although, superficially, her school assignment is meant to demonstrate the quantifiable difference between living in dreams and living in the real world, her task also instructs her on the desirability of spending time away from mundanities. Simply, her unconscious grandmother and her frequently napping dog seem happier than she is.

Consequently, at the tale’s conclusion, the main character, rather than face additional spurning from boys, rather than survive more of her mother’s criticism, and rather than muddle through further uninspiring classes, sucks down her grandmother’s pills. It is her aim to find the Elysian Fields where her cherished others run and play.

Ludwigsen is adept at storytelling. His scenes, like brain waves, flow into each other in inimitable, unaffected rhythm. He reminds us that whereas none of us would encourage suicide as an instrument of solace, many of us would readily welcome methods for living  that provide us with more than four times as much longevity than is ordinarily possible, especially if we believed that such methods would be gratifying. Correspondingly, whereas none of us would set aside unlimited time for leisurely reading, many of us would readily welcome opportunities to take in more of Ludwigsen’s writing.

To a one, the fictions in March 2010’s issue of Asimov’s are meaningful, forceful, and well-directed. For readers who enjoy being piqued by words or who otherwise take pleasure from engaging in skillfully designed speculative works, I recommend this issue.