Asimov’s, March/April 2022

Asimov’s, March/April 2022

“Mender of Sparrows” by Ray Nayler

“The Magpie Stacks Probabilities” by Arie Coleman

“Venus Exegesis” by Christopher Mark Rose

“Dollbot Cicily” by Will McIntosh

“Sailing to Merinam” by Marta Randall

“Quake” by Peter Wood

“Aurora” by Michael Cassutt

“The Gold Signal” by Jack McDevitt and Larry Wasserman

“Maryon’s Gift” by Paul McAuley

“The Short Path to Light” by William Ledbetter

“Do You Remember?” by Steve Rasnic Tem

“Offloaders” by Leah Cypess

“Blimpies” by Rick Wilber

Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf

Thirteen is a lucky number for readers of this issue, for that is the number of stories it offers. Almost all are pure science fiction, with one tale of fantasy to add a little spice to the mixture.

“Mender of Sparrows” by Ray Nayler takes place in Istanbul, at a future time when consciousness can be uploaded into a new body. There are also androids, who are treated as second-class citizens. The protagonist is unique, in that his consciousness was transferred into an android body instead of a human one. He discovers a bird containing a human consciousness, an illegal procedure that leads to a revolutionary change in the accepted philosophy of mind. It also leads him to reconsider his own nature.

Although the plot is structured like an espionage thriller, the author avoids the familiar clichés of the genre. The antagonist is a fully developed character rather than a simplistic villain. The climax avoids melodrama, and offers an unusually realistic resolution to the story’s conflict. The themes of self and identity are treated in a thoughtful way. As a bonus, the setting, exotic to many Western readers, is vividly realized, adding greatly to the work’s verisimilitude.
The narrator of “The Magpie Stacks Probabilities” by
Arie Coleman barely survived an accident in space, thanks to an incredible stroke of luck involving a small object left where it should not have been. The experience causes her young son to hide similar things in various places. The narrator ponders randomness and entropy.

The premise transforms an Astounding style problem-solving yarn into a character study. The narrator’s experience in space is described in detail during a flashback sequence, complete with all the technological details one might wish for, but the heart of the story is her psychological state after she returns home. This brief tale serves as an interesting meditation on an unusual form of post-traumatic stress, but some readers may find its philosophical musings a little vague.

In “Venus Exegesis” by Christopher Mark Rose, a naval officer, a civilian scientist, and a robot study Venus from inside a vehicle high in the planet’s atmosphere. An unexpected encounter with Venusian lifeforms leads to a crisis of survival, and tensions among the unlikely trio.

The portrait of Venus is compelling, and the story is told in an informal, matter-of-fact style that is convincing. The way in which the plot’s major conflict is resolved makes the otherwise sympathetic protagonist seem heartless, although the author is careful to make his actions almost inevitable. Some readers may find this dark and cynical conclusion distasteful.

The narrator of “Dollbot Cicily” by Will McIntosh is a homeless woman, living with others of her kind in a tunnel under the city of Las Vegas. She barely survives by taking on low-paying technological repair jobs. Her daughter, taken away by the government, exists in what is essentially wage slavery.

The narrator discovers that sophisticated but mindless robots, intended to be sexual partners and companions for the wealthy, have been created in her form. (The data needed to make these humanoid machines was collected without her knowledge before she was homeless, when she worked as a model.) She uses her technical skill and access to robots needing repairs to rig a device that allows her to speak through the robots, as if they have acquired full consciousness. Her motive is to trick the owners of the machines and obtain money from them, in order to win back custody of her daughter.

This synopsis may seem fairly detailed, but in fact I have only touched the surface of a very sophisticated picture of a near future in which the divide between the haves and the have-nots has grown even wider. There are relationships with other homeless people, and an exciting scene of a natural disaster.

The most interesting part of a novelette with the richness of a complete novel may be the way in which the narrator interacts with three very different owners of the machines. There is an elderly man living a fantasy of his teenage years; a severely introverted fellow who cannot relate to real women; and an arrogant man with a harem of robots to cater to his whims. These antagonists are as intriguing, and sometimes as sympathetic, as the protagonist.

“Sailing to Merinam” by Marta Randall is the issue’s only fantasy story. A young woman disguised as a boy accompanies her master aboard a ship full of merchants from a country of religious fundamentalists. (There are hints that the protagonist is actually a hermaphrodite, but this is not relevant to the plot.) Because the fanatical passengers refuse to have any women on the vessel, exposure of her secret threatens her very life. Fortunately, she has a magical power that allows her to overcome the danger.

The description of life on the merchant ship is of more interest than the simple plot. Once the reader learns of the protagonist’s supernatural ability, it is obvious that the fundamentalists are no match for her. (One has to wonder why a person with such extraordinary power serves a master as an apprentice in the first place.) The antagonists are somewhat stereotyped religious fanatics, seemingly based to some extent on fundamentalist Muslims.

“Quake” by Peter Wood deals with mysterious earthquakes in a region of North Carolina. The narrator is a physics instructor at a university, accompanying her husband on a business conference. After the first tremor, she discovers a strange object. Further quakes reveal the interest her husband’s company has in the phenomenon, and leads to an encounter with visitors from an unexpected place with their own motives.

Although the story is not overtly comic, the rather outrageous explanation for what’s going on appears to be strictly tongue-in-cheek. Those willing to work hard to suspend their disbelief may enjoy it more than skeptical readers. If nothing else, the author clearly knows and loves the area where the story takes place.

“Aurora” by Michael Cassutt involves a secret Russian project to create a weapon that can project a destructive beam from Earth to space. Tested once, it created a new crater on the Moon. Many years later, the director of the project, now an alcoholic pensioner, is called back to the facility. An asteroid threatens a manned space vehicle, and the authorities need her expertise to reactivate the device, in order to deflect the deadly chunk of rock. The effort leads to an unexpected, and potentially dangerous, side effect.

The author has written for many television series, and it is no coincidence that this story is cinematic in many ways. The climax, in particular, would make for stunning visuals on film. Besides the main theme, there is the interesting premise that computer brain implants could allow for a limited form of telepathy.

The main character is compelling, although there is a little too much emphasis on her addiction to alcohol. The story creates a great deal of suspense, but one plot twist, involving an access code, strains credibility. Without giving away too much, it seems that the authorities would have figured it out long before the protagonist offers them the information they need.

In “The Gold Signal” by Jack McDevitt and Larry Wasserman, the invention of a faster-than-light form of transportation offers humanity the chance to reach other star systems. Despite the exciting findings of the first manned interstellar flight, a mundane problem threatens to prevent further exploration.

The two authors combine the talents of an experienced, award-winning science fiction writer and a noted scientist, so the story has both a readable style and scientific plausibility. On the other hand, perhaps because this is a collaborative work, the pieces of it don’t always fit together perfectly. An opening section, dealing with a slower-than-light, unmanned probe to Proxima Centauri, has little to do with the rest of the story. The ironic reason for the likely death of future interstellar expeditions is plausible, but undramatic.

The title of “Maryon’s Gift” by Paul McAuley is the name of a planet in another galaxy, reached via an isolated wormhole through space. The discoverer of the world arranges to have it protected from any attempt by human beings to set foot on it, in order to preserve its unspoiled nature. The plot relates failed attempts to overcome this barrier.

The entire story is narrated by an alien, who relates it as a tale told around a campfire. Given this structure, it is not surprising that it resembles a legend. (In this way, it reminds me of some of the works of Cordwainer Smith.) The author shows a great deal of imagination in creating a background full of many different species of aliens, and a universe full of worlds that people will never know. This mythic mood is more effective than the simple and predictable plot.

In “The Short Path to Light” by William Ledbetter, the narrator defied his corporate bosses and saved a pregnant woman’s child instead of killing her before she could give birth. (The corporation wanted to have total control over all births in space.) The woman died, but the child survived, at the cost of deserting the narrator’s spaceship and its artificial intelligence.

Now, in order to prevent a war between the corporation and settlers of the asteroid belt, the narrator accompanies a female Jesuit priest on a mission to recover the AI’s memory, in order to produce evidence of the corporation’s wrongdoing. The woman has her own motivation, as her church fears that a truly conscious AI would be a threat to their faith. In addition to fighting off the corporation’s battle drones, the two characters must resolve their own differences.

As this synopsis suggests, this is a fast-moving, complex, action-packed story dealing with religion and politics. The author maintains suspense throughout the narrative. The corporation plays the overly familiar role of an evil business organization, lessening the work’s originality.

In “Do You Remember?” by Steve Rasnic Tem, a man holds regular conversations with a simulated version of his dead wife. The simulation is able to project images of their shared memories on the video screen upon which it appears. Many years later, the man’s descendants have their own encounters with simulations of the deceased.

This is a quiet, gently melancholy tale, with a great deal of empathy for its characters. The speculative technology is highly plausible, given the world of constant recording in which we live. The story’s final section, set long after the main part of the narrative, offers an appropriate coda, and transforms the work from a mere anecdote into a more profound account of human relationships and memories.

“Offloaders” by Leah Cypess is a very short story that takes the form of a discussion among members of an online group that offers items to be given away for free. It soon becomes clear that some people are discarding their possessions in preparation for uploading their minds into computers. The discussion turns into a debate on the ethics of this process.

The author offers a wry example of the uncontrolled nature of online conversations, and how they frequently devolve from limited discussions of a specific topic into political arguments. A running joke about trying to give away sourdough starter shows that this isn’t the most serious story ever written. It can be enjoyed as a clever, if minor, little bagatelle.

The magazine ends with “Blimpies” by Rick Wilber, this issue’s sole novella. Aliens have come to Earth, claiming it as part of their empire. A man accompanies an alien to its home world, as a witness to negotiations with its sibling. (The two aliens are rivals for control of the planet.)

The alien’s sibling kidnaps the man’s sister and brings her to its home planet, as part of a scheme to take control of Earth. The woman manages to escape from captivity, with the help of a friendly alien. Brother and sister wind up trying to rescue each other. The floating whale-like beings that inhabit the planet’s atmosphere play a major role in the plot.

The alien world is intriguing, and the so-called blimpies are an interesting creation. The work alternates sections told from the points of view of the two humans. This structure causes some events to be narrated before others that happened at an earlier time, leading to a bit of confusion. Much of the story, written in simple, clear language, seems almost like young adult fiction, although there are a few mature themes. This tale is part of a series, and readers familiar with previous stories are likely to be the best audience for it.

Victoria Silverwolf is a triskaidekaphile.