Asimov’s, November/December 2018
“Water and Diamond” by Derek Künsken
Reviewed by Jeffrey Steven Abrams
“Water and Diamond” by Derek Künsken
In this futuristic tale, humanity has moved to the stars. 135 colonies, each a huge spherical pod, orbit an Earth-like sun. AIs perform every possible task, leaving people to pursue whatever they desire. Some decide to work, but the majority either gamble or play elaborate virtual reality games.
The heart of the story revolves around the crumbling marriage of Hui and her husband Duyi. Hui’s desires to work, move into a larger apartment, and have a child don’t match those of her husband, who feels things are fine as they are. Like many couples, they have grown apart as their interests changed, but a deeper issue is what motivates them in a world where absolutely nothing is required of them. What to do with one’s time when work is no longer a necessity is an issue the author touches on throughout the story. Ambition still exists in some, but Duyi, like the majority, sees no reason for it.
Amidst this backdrop of marital dissolution, a riveting mystery unfolds. Hui, a junior security officer, detects odd gaming behavior from an anonymous source. At first, she sees a huge influx of unrewarded betting. Then thousands of nonsensical paper poems show up. After extensive statistical and mathematical analyses, her AI assistants can make no sense of these events. Still, Hui is convinced something is happening. Her suspicions lead to the belief that the strange anomalies are signals from an advanced extra-terrestrial society. For the remainder of the story, she attempts to convince her superiors of her discovery.
The author believes that artificial intelligence will never fully replace human insight. Time and time again, Hui uncovers connections that the AIs fail to detect. It’s an optimistic view, counter to the doomsayers who believe machines will be humanity’s downfall.
Whether intentional or not, Künsken’s universe is anything but diverse. The story takes place in a decidedly Chinese habitat. Since the other sphere’s are never discussed, there’s no way to determine if they are similarly culturally segregated. Perhaps this is how civilization has evolved to lessen conflicts. Personally, I found these sections a touch too nationalistic.
The ending is ambiguous. I have nothing against ambiguity; in fact, some epic tales like 2001, Contact, and Gravity, end inconclusively. While “Water and Diamond” is beautifully written and strikingly poetic, I still felt that a few too many shoes were left untied.
“Stormdiver” by Nick Wolven
Set above the boiling atmosphere of Jupiter, “Stormdiver” is at its heart an adventure story. Siblings Ju and Pryia have achieved almost swashbuckling fame for their daring dives into planetary storms. After an anomaly in the Jovian atmosphere has destroyed several unmanned probes, they are the obvious choices to explore. Ju is the consummate scientist. His life is logical, structured, safe. Priya, on the other hand, lives for excitement. She’s wildly impetuous, often allowing her curiosity to lead her on uncharted, often dangerous, quests.
As the two prepare for their journey, the story launches into a description of the science behind storm-diving. While the mix of real and speculative meteorology will be interesting to many, some may find the discussion a bit lengthy and overly technical. Wolven must have realized this could be an issue because later, when an AI is droning off atmospheric facts, Ju tunes them out.
The story climaxes with brother and sister diving into Jupiter’s atmosphere, battling the unknown storm, and encountering completely unexpected objects. The way they escape is brilliantly thought out.
The author has a gift for evoking images from the oddest of statements. A great example is the description of Davies, the Jovian base project manager. “He was a squat, sturdy, dark-skinned man, with the curiously flattened appearance of a gingerbread cookie.”
In another way, single words are used to define the sibling’s relationship. Ju always calls his sister by her name, while Pryia only refers to Ju as “Brother.” The formal title is a metaphor for the arms-length feelings she shows toward him. Only after their dramatic survival does her façade break down.
The time period of “Stormdiver” is never revealed; however, a lightly glossed over detail gives a clue. The great red spot on Jupiter had disappeared a century earlier, indicating that the year must be at least 2118. Why harp on this? Well, there are statements like, “Roll with it, Brother” or “This will be epic,” that I hope don’t survive into the next century. It’s a picky little point in an otherwise brilliant story.
“The Gift” by Julie Novakova
Whether immortality is a blessing or curse is the theme of this thought-provoking novelette. After contacting Earth, an alien race has offered the “gift” of everlasting life to a million people, making travel to the stars viable for the selected individuals. Supposedly random, the selection process is often influenced by money or power. Jealousy quickly segregates the selected, making them the object of persecution and ultimately rebellion.
While immortality has made intergalactic travel possible, it has more than its share of downsides. Primary among them is boredom. A particularly powerful line summarizes the gifted’s plight: “Simply reaching our goals is the most unsatisfying thing that can happen to us immortals.”
Many take their own lives, the vastness of eternal life being too much for them. Human ingenuity finds a solution in rewiring, a procedure that erases memories and thereby allowing a fresh start.
In this unusual setting, heroine Erin Taiwo is enlisted by powerful ellugi to find and gain information about a shadowy arms dealer named Arienti.
She learns that he is living far from Earth, on a planet with a different sun. Thus, Erin begins her search.
The story abruptly shifts to January 2019; the date the first interstellar object of any kind is intercepted. Upon capture, the object known as Ramakhi offers its gift of immortality to one-million people. In August, while Dr. Aster Sebai watches news broadcasts of rioting over distribution of the gift, bombs destroy the hospital she’s working in. Terrorists behind the bombings justify their deeds in chilling fashion. “They said they’d rightfully return the land to its former law. That they had God on their side. That they would make the nation great again.”
After surviving the blast, Sebai dedicates the remainder of her life to killing those responsible for the senseless murders. The narrative switches between Erin’s encounters with Arienti, and Sebai’s quest for revenge. Ultimately, the two threads merge, leading to an unexpected ending.
I found Erin’s pursuit of Arientes similar to that of Marlow’s hunt for Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” In both stories, enigmatic protagonists of unknown motivations pursue villains who appear evil on the surface but are infinitely more complex underneath.
There’s a lot to ponder in Novakova’s story. How do societies deal with alien intervention? How do people occupy themselves when eventually nothing is new? How do people live with guilt that never dies? Finding some interesting answers makes reading “The Gift” more than worthwhile.
“Incident at San Juan Bautista” by Ray Nayler
I feel a sense of loss whenever I finish a truly memorable story. Why couldn’t it go on? Why do I have to leave this wonderful world? This is how I felt after reading “Incident.”
Perhaps it was the elegant writing, or maybe the attention to setting detail, but ultimately, I think it was the shear originality that grabbed me: a gunslinging western with romantic overtones, set in a universe where humans are not alone, and time is travelable.
Gun-for-hire August is in San Juan Bautista to kill a man. While gambling, he’s smitten by beautiful Madeline, an exotic Japanese prostitute. There’s something about the expressionless look on her face that attracts him and reminds him of a vision he had in New York, when he was a dentist, before becoming a killer. While riding a streetcar, he’d seen a girl with a similar expression, and that vision had changed the course of his life.
Madeline is much more than she seems. Her behavior morphs from seductive to manipulative, to nearly psychopathic. Believing August is due an explanation, she describes who she really is, and in doing so, introduces him to a world outside his imagination.
Authors often fill in character backstories with clumsy, overly-long exposition. Nayler does it seamlessly. The story begins quietly, becomes ever more mysterious, and eventually blows your head apart.
Within the story is an interesting political reflection from the perspective of the late 1800s. Initially a seventeen-year-old immigrant, August blames America for turning him, an innocent youth, into a gunman. In his own words, “This country had torn something from him.” How apt these words seem today.
“Joyride” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
As a child, Nadim Crowe was abused by his parents. Thankfully, his math, science, and technical scores were so off-the-charts that he was able to leave them by qualifying to attend the most prestigious schoolship in the star fleet.
The schoolship has an “Ender’s Game” feel to it. From the very young (called little-littles) to teenagers, the very best are pulled out and placed into the “gifted” program. Of those, only a select few move on to become officer candidates.
Now a teenager, Nadim and girlfriend Tessa are locked in a competition to test the limits of their abilities. Leading teams of younger students , they must steal, then pilot scout ships on a race to the Scrapheap, a mysterious four-hundred-year-old collection of mothballed starships.
Nadim is the consummate commander, plotting every move with intricate detail, creating contingency plans, understanding the psychology of his team so well that their moves are effortless. There were times I found it hard to accept that a teenager could be so advanced, but then again, there is a sense that he’s supposed to be the best, ever.
Nadim’s team executes his carefully orchestrated plan to perfection. However, when the two teams near the Scrapheap, something goes terribly wrong. Breathtaking is the only way to describe the scenes that follow. Force fields explode, debris pounds shielded ships, weapon systems activate. It’s intense and the highlight of the story.
After the chaos dies down, and the damage is assessed, the story closes with reflections on mistakes, bad choices, and punishment dilemmas. While appropriate, I thought the conclusion dragged on a bit too long.
I have to say, there’s an element of “Joyride” I found disturbing. Children attending the shipschool were there because they were extraordinarily talented. Nadim’s team was made up of ten of the best. Nadim initially showed wisdom by assigning a task that he wanted to do himself to a younger, faster crewmate. However, once things went wrong, he tuned out the other members of his crew, believing it would take too long to explain his orders. He took on all tasks himself, and only because he was superhuman did things work out.
As a story which seems oriented toward a young-adult audience, I think this is a terrible message to send. It discounts collaboration while advocating Ayn Rand type views of the superman’s duty to lead his lessers. This is but one person’s opinion, nothing more.
“Pregnancy as a Location in Space-time” by David Ebenbach
The unnamed main character (MC) in this short story is the first woman to become pregnant on Mars. Written analytically, the story reads like a scientist’s journal, packed full of observations, theories, and conclusions. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes much more like a diary with the MC reflecting on her family and tragically lost sister.
Interesting questions are posed throughout. How does one measure the length of a pregnancy when there are no months? How would a third trimester woman fit into a space suit. How will lower gravity affect an unborn child?
What I found most interesting was the way the MC’s writing reflected her progression toward delivery. Her emotions took center stage, and much like the hormone induced sensitivities one sees in Earthside pregnancies, I could feel her nerves becoming more and more frayed.
In the end, she is left pondering an unanswerable question that plagues every pioneer; when you are the first to attempt something in an uncharted environment, what will happen?
I’ve got to say I was mildly shocked that a man wrote this story. It shows a depth of understanding that either comes from personal observations or some amazing empathy.
“Theories of Flight” by Linda Nagata
Yaphet is obsessed with flight the first time he sees fire-burnt embers floating into the sky. At seven, the intelligent and mechanically inclined boy creates a tiny fire-balloon out of scraps from his father’s workshop. After launching the balloon, Yaphet and his annoying cousin Mishon watch in glee as it sails high into the sky.
Suddenly, the setting shifts from innocence to a darker world. Yaphet’s tiny balloon sets off a minor environmental disaster in his enclave, and his cousin almost dies. For this he is severely disciplined but given an explanation as well. In this way, Yaphet, and the reader, learn the nuances of the strange world Nagata has built.
Silver on this world seems like water on Earth. It forms into clouds, it fills basins, it floods. However, creatures touched by it instantly die. As a result, each enclave is a fortress with walls taller than the highest floods.
Oddly, inhabitants of the enclaves call themselves “players.” Never capitalized, it isn’t a reference to their country or ethnicity, it’s just who they are. Nagata later discloses that players live, die, and are then reborn, remembering all their previous lives. In this way, each character progresses just a little with each successive life.
The story is so well crafted that it’s never clear if Yaphet’s world is alien, a far-distant Earth, or a video game. The reader is left to decide.
Yaphet’s desire to fly only strengthens when he accidentally learns about flying machines. In the past, men have built and flown them but have never survived the experience. He decides he must be the first.
While Yaphet is the strongest character, for me, the most interesting is cousin Mishon. Initially bossy, condescending, and generally negative about all things, underneath she is much different. Like everyone else, she believes she has lived many past lives. However, memories of those lives never go beyond childhood. She fears that a coding bug has left her unable to live past her teens. Yaphet vows to fly her to a coastal enclave where coding scholars might fix her bug.
The ending is abrupt, enigmatic, and inconclusive. I thought it was perfect.
“Parallel Military Cultural Evolution in a Non-human Society” by Tom Purdom
Ulman Benrazzu is a scholar who has traveled to a distant planet to observe hostile behavior in a pre-civilized culture. On the planet Sagittarius, he and his cohorts study two indigenous tribes which they call the Urbanites and the highlanders. Using invisible probes, they witness real world events in a supposedly unobtrusive manner.
For the reader, watching prehistoric violence in such a clinical manner certainly feels strange, but in Ulman’s hyper-competitive academic world, it’s normal.
Purdom’s ideas are novel. For instance, Ulman uses different alter-ego AIs to help him make decisions. The culture he is studying is tri-sexual, meaning a female and two slightly different males are required for reproduction. The tri-sexuality is theorized to be the reason for the planet’s low incidence of violence.
The inhabitants do not bury their dead. Rather, the Deceased are added to clay bricks which are then used for wall construction, forever making them a valued part of the enclave.
While speculations on other-world cultural development is intriguing and poses some creative scenarios, I thought too much of the story was dedicated to the pitfalls of academic life, the constant need for funding, the fight over limited resources, and the pressures to publish. In my opinion, this approach resulted in a dry story, devoid of emotional content. The researchers show little reaction to events unless they see a potential publication. The harsh life of the Sagittarian’s is well recorded, but personal accounts are non-existent, leaving them neither sympathetic nor villainous.
In the end, the story contains a lot of interesting speculations about societal development but offers little in emotional satisfaction.
“What I Am” By William Ledbetter
A flash story about a sweater with feelings? Certainly a strange concept, but beautifully rendered by Ledbetter.
Twelve-year-old Oscar is inconsolable. He’s thrown his mother’s astronaut training ring into a lake after her death on a Europa expedition. When his intelligent sweater is unable to console him, it dives into the water to retrieve the precious item. As its power drains, it finally locates the object, but does it have enough energy in reserve to return to its master, to ease his pain?
Read this wonderful story and find out.
“Girl with a Curl” by R. Garcia y Robertson
This novella is the latest installment of Robertson’s rousing space opera. Because the last segment was published more than a year ago, the story begins with a short synopsis of the previous two offerings. Given the lengthy duration between segments, all of my comments are based on this being a stand-alone story.
In the space around Jupiter, an uprising has left seventeen-year-old Amanda James, a low-ranking officer, in charge of the star cruiser Valkyrie. Previously in the brig for discovering a connection between her superiors and slave-traders, she and her fellow prisoners now battle the alliance between Space Vikings and slavers who wish to capture a refugee colony orbiting Callisto.
Adding to the plot’s complexity is Mimir, a super-computer orbiting Europa. Mimir controls Jupiter systems, and for some reason is supplying false information to the crew. When Valkyrie is attacked, an exciting battle scene ensues. Full of technical twists, and unlikely heroes, the section is page-turning.
Even though Amanda is a hired killer and a pirate she has a heart of gold. Assigned by Princess Rylla to be her regent, she’s lonely, unsure of herself, and wishes she could live a normal teenage life. Fellow pirate Jenny is more callous and handles much of the dirty work, but it’s strange, blind, mute, Sleepy Booty who ultimately saves Valkyrie from the invasion.
Sleepy Booty is the bodyguard of Jazmine, Jenny’s eight-year-old daughter and interplanetary chess champion. Jazmine coordinates Valkyrie’s battle plans, aided by Kalina, a ten-year old who has access to dark forces.
Once Valkyrie is secured, Amanda and Booty set off to free the decks of the Callisto habitat controlled by Mimir. Each deck contains a different nationality; apparently diversity is not valued in this environment.
As the story reaches its conclusion, the hero returns for a “Star Wars” like confrontation between the forces of good and Mimir. The ending is never in doubt.
Robertson explores an interesting concept in how difficult diplomacy is when vast distances separate colonies from their home countries. There’s a wild-west mentality to the lawlessness and piracy that rules when no strong authority exists.
“Girl with a Curl” has its bawdy moments. As a pirate’s tale, this is to be expected, but there are lines that to some, it may cross. Especially hard for me was the scene where a British intelligence officer, in holographic form, pops into Amanda’s room as she exits her shower, naked. The much older man makes a few lewd remarks about how good the seventeen-year-old looks. Then there’s a line about a male officer being delighted to be assigned to a ship filled with blond women. Also, somewhat creepy is the fact that the age of consent on Callisto is thirteen. I’m by no means prudish, but I received a few too many uncomfortably chauvinistic vibes.
Early in the story, Amanda has a dream that feels out of time. She’s a toddler at a playground, gleefully trying to climb up a slide as older boys roll a cucumber car down on her. The scene is poignant but feels like the innocent play of children from the mid twentieth century, not what I expected from space travelling refugees.
If you love fast-paced, action-packed stories with vibrant characters, sit back and enjoy this ride.