Asimov’s, January/February 2018
“The Seeds of Consciousness: 4107’s Story” by James Gunn
Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
Half of the tales in this issue are adventure stories set in exotic and dangerous environments. The others vary from intimate character studies of the near future to wide-ranging histories of distant planets.
A writer who has been publishing science fiction for nearly seven decades starts off the magazine with two linked stories. Both “The Seeds of Consciousness: 4107’s Story” and “The Final Commandment: Trey’s Story” by James Gunn serve as prologues to the Transcendental trilogy. Each relates the evolution of an alien sentience on a world far from Earth. The first deals with intelligent plants, the second with conscious machines. The author provides a great deal of imaginative detail in these offerings, which can be enjoyed as intellectual exercises, if not as fiction.
Set in the 1930s, “In the Lost City of Leng” by Paul Di Filippo and Rudy Rucker is a direct sequel to “At the Mountains of Madness” by H. P. Lovecraft. A newspaper reporter, a scholar, an aviatrix, and an alien creature mount an expedition to the incredibly ancient metropolis discovered in Antarctica in Lovecraft’s story. Wild escapades follow, with enemies human and inhuman. This story is likely to appeal to fans of Lovecraft, while others may not care for it.
“The Equalizers” by Ian Creasey takes place in the near future. Special goggles allow the wearer to see others as blobs, without distinguishing characteristics. The intent is to eliminate discrimination during job interviews. The protagonist, a divorced woman who has a series of short-lived love affairs based on physical attraction, uses them during a blind date, in an attempt to have a more meaningful relationship. The outcome is ironic, and the story as a whole is very slight.
Translated by John Chu, “Sea of Dreams” by Cixin Liu features an ice sculptor and an alien who practices the same art form on an immense scale. Soon after it arrives on Earth, it freezes gigantic portions of the ocean and sends them into orbit. Eventually all the planet’s seas are gone, threatening humanity with extinction. The author creates a genuine sense of wonder in the descriptions of this apocalyptic event. The story goes beyond mere destruction, to relate the indomitable spirit of humanity to survive.
“Solicited Discordance” by Matthew Hughes takes the form of a detective story. The protagonist is hired to find the adult son of an extremely wealthy woman. He has gone off with a woman into a dangerous wilderness area. Complicating matters is the man who is following the pair. The motives of the woman and the man are not what they seem. Although this story takes place on a faraway planet in the distant future, this brief summary indicates that its science fiction elements are not integral to the plot.
Another private investigator appears in “Assassin in the Clouds” by Robert R. Chase. His assignment is to protect a brilliant neuroscientist, and to discover why someone wants to harm him. The most interesting thing about this story is its setting. It takes place on a high-tech airship, which is described in colorful and convincing detail.
“Barren Isle” by Allen M. Steele has a premise very similar to the story by Hughes. Two children who have escaped from a repressive religious cult are trapped in a deadly wilderness area on an alien world. The narrator is the leader of a military unit assigned to rescue them. This is a moderately effective tale of action and suspense.
In the future world of “Mother Tongues” by S. Qiouyi Lu, it is possible to transfer the knowledge of a language from one person’s brain to another. The donor loses the ability to understand the language, but the financial reward can be great. A woman ponders whether to make this sacrifice in order to pay for her daughter’s college education. This is a quiet story of families and traditions.
“The Rescue of the Renegat” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch returns to deep space in the far future. A severely damaged space vessel from a century ago appears out of subspace near another spaceship. The crew of the modern ship fights to rescue those aboard the ancient ship. Multiple points of view are used to depict the struggle to save their lives, and to reveal their secrets. Fans of space opera may enjoy this tale of survival, but others may find it overly long.
Victoria Silverwolf avoids dangerous environments.