Asimov’s, July/August 2020
“Nic and Viv’s Compulsory Courtship” by Will McIntosh
“Father” by Ray Nayler
“The Last Water Baron” by Hollis Joel Henry
“We All Lose if They Take Mizuba” by Tom Purdom
“The Beast Adjoins” by Ted Kosmatka
“Imaginary Children” by Janet Stilson
“Marbles” by Sean Monaghan
“Bereft, I Come to a Nameless World” by Benjamin Rosenbaum
“Why I’ll Never Get Tenure” by Peter Wood
“Generations” by Megan Lindholm
“Tool Use by the Humans of Danzhai County” by Derek Künsken
Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
A pair of strong novellas serve as bookends for the latest issue of this award-winning magazine, with two novelettes and seven short stories between.
“Nic and Viv’s Compulsory Courtship” by Will McIntosh takes place in a utopian city managed by an artificial intelligence. The AI decides that the two title characters are a perfect couple, although both already have romantic partners. It forces them to go on a series of dates, or else leave the city. As an extra incentive, it will pay them ten thousand dollars each if they go through with the meetings.
The author manages the difficult task of blending science fiction with romantic comedy in a graceful way. The reader can relate to the characters, with their flaws and quirks, including the AI itself. Besides being a lighthearted love story, this tale has something important to say about the balance between freedom and security.
“Father” by Ray Nayler takes place in an alternate version of the year 1956, with highly advanced technology. The narrator’s father died in battle before he was born. His mother wins an expensive robot companion for her son in a lottery. The boy soon accepts the machine as a surrogate father. An encounter with teenage hoodlums leads to tragic echoes of the past, as well as a touch of hope.
The alternate history background of the story builds in a subtle and gradual manner, allowing the reader to accept this parallel world as real. The plot has strong emotional appeal, without becoming overly sentimental. The many meanings of fatherhood come across in a powerful way.
The island of Trinidad is the setting for “The Last Water Baron” by Hollis Joel Henry. The narrator is one of the speculators who bought water rights for Africa in a future of severe drought. After their actions led to the deaths of millions by thirst, the others were killed by assassins. The narrator remains in hiding, ever wary of the possibility of his own murder.
The dystopian background is intriguing, but plays little part in the plot. The story’s local color is more enjoyable than its melodramatic aspects. Readers may find themselves more interested in a Trinidadian card game than in a violent battle with a killer.
“We All Lose if They Take Mizuba” by Tom Purdom deals with a space battle in the asteroid belt. The author portrays the actions of a single combatant in a realistic and imaginative way. In essence, however, this is a standard work of military science fiction.
“The Beast Adjoins” by Ted Kosmatka features a woman and her son, already dying from radiation sickness, facing destruction by a spaceship operated by an artificial intelligence. In multiple flashbacks, we learn how AIs became the remorseless enemies of humankind.
AIs are unable to cause the multiple probabilities of the universe to collapse into a single reality by observing them, the way people do. They need to interact with human consciousness in order to perform any actions at all. This causes the AIs to see humans as gods, then to resent them for possessing the power to create reality.
I have probably explained this part of the story very poorly, as it depends on difficult philosophical concepts of quantum physics. The theme is an original one, but the plot is reminiscent of the Berserker stories of Fred Saberhagen.
In “Imaginary Children” by Janet Stilson, a device allows a woman to perceive, in virtual reality fashion, the offspring she might have with a man who could be a potential mate, if he is within a certain range. The story deals with themes, generally thought of as women’s issues, not frequently seen in science fiction. The way in which the technology works is difficult to accept as plausible.
“Marbles” by Sean Monaghan is one of a series of stories about an artist who works on a planetary scale. Her latest project involves manufacturing hundreds of millions of glass marbles from the sand of a world, then allowing them to roll down a slope in an extremely complex way that will create vast, changing images. The main character is a young woman whose job is to select the perfect site for the project. She tours the manufacturing facility, and begins a romance with another of the artist’s associates.
The story is full of striking images of great beauty. There is almost no tension in the plot, as the only crisis involves the possibility that the protagonist’s love interest will have to leave her for another project that will require many years of work; a problem that is solved with great ease.
The title of “Bereft, I Come to a Nameless World” by Benjamin Rosenbaum hints at the story’s literary style. The setting, characters, and events are so exotic that they are very difficult to describe briefly. The narrator is a created being, apparently immortal and able to take on many forms, who flees a world lost to disaster. A meeting with an old acquaintance of the same kind, who watches over a world with inhabitants who possess multiple virtual bodies, leads to a strange transformation.
One cannot fault the author for a lack of imagination. At times, the story ceases to be prose, and instead becomes poetry. Some readers will appreciate this work’s high ambition; others will find it confusing and pretentious.
“Why I’ll Never Get Tenure” by Peter Wood takes place on a research station at sea. An experiment in quantum physics causes land and water to transform into each other, threatening worldwide disaster.
Despite the apocalyptic theme, the story is mostly about the narrator’s interactions with a former lover and an unpleasant fellow scholar. The intent may be comic, but nothing particularly amusing happens. The premise is implausible, and the resolution strains credibility to an even greater degree.
“Generations” by Megan Lindholm is a very short account of a meeting between a young woman and her great-aunt. The ending reveals that they are far from ordinary people. This tiny story makes use of a popular form of imaginative fiction, often seen in motion pictures, in a minor, but pleasant way.
“Tool Use by the Humans of Danzhai County” by Derek Künsken follows two characters living in a rural area of China from the present day to a high-tech future. One is a man who leaves his pregnant lover in order to achieve his political and economic goals. The other is a woman who overcomes sexism and creates a tech company with ambitious plans for artificial intelligence. The way in which their lives intersect involve many other people, and lead to profound changes in society.
This brief synopsis only offers a taste of the multiple themes and events in a novella with the complexity and depth of a full-length novel. The author creates fully developed characters, as well as a fascinating portrait of the future of the most populous nation on Earth.
Victoria Silverwolf notes that this issue also contains an appreciation by Robert Silverberg of L. Ron Hubbard’s 1940 novella “Fear,” which is a classic of psychological horror fiction.