"The Gods of a Lesser Creation" by William Barton
"Following Orders" by R. Neube
"Moon Wolf" by Tanith Lee
"A Hint of Jasmine" by Richard Parks
"Collateral Damage" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Transplant" by Jack Skillingstead
"The Guardian" by Meredith Simmons
"Yard Sale" by Kit Reed
"Chicken Soup for Mars and Venus" by Matthew Jarpe
"Heavy Weather" by Bruce Boston
"My Bicycle" by Mario Milosevic
"Advice on Dealing with Your New Alien Pet" by Bruce Boston
Other: "Reflections: Trilobytes" by Robert Silverberg
This was my first review of Asimov's Science Fiction, although I have been reading the magazine for over a year now. Asimov's is widely regarded as one of the better print sources for short science fiction and fantasy, and this month's issue is a good example of why the magazine has achieved such a good reputation. In my opinion, the August 2004 issue contains solid work. Some stories were written with a serious tone, and others were simply fun diversions, but the combination made for a balanced read.
The short fiction begins with William Barton's "The Gods of a Lesser Creation." I'd like to call this style of fiction post-human-mish-mash, but I probably don't know enough about all the latest sub-genre labels to do it justice. I usually don't like this kind of story, and by that I mean the kind of story that seems to slap together outlandish technological and societal situations and then seems to fail to stay in touch with what really matters in a story (to me anyway), the human element. But as it turns out, I don't think that "The Gods of a Lesser Creation" is that kind of story. Amid the crazy chaos of part-dog cyborgs, gyndroids, intelligence-enhanced animals, allomorphs, sex with machines, bisexuality, artificially intelligent slaves, etc., there actually seemed to be a lesson, a message, an honest-to-goodness examination of human nature. The message is best summed up in the words of the gyndroid character, She, who remarked to a dog/human/cyborg, "You know, of course you do, how much more of a man, how much more of a human being you are than they, poor old Lassie." After reading that line I felt that "The Gods of a Lesser Creation" changed dramatically for me, becoming less of a bandwagon-style post-human mess, and more of a cautionary tale. Or perhaps a flicker of hope; if humanity becomes as corrupt and soulless as Barton foresees, maybe our creations will, at least, be capable of empathy and love.
R. Neube's "Following Orders" seems to me to be informed by the current "real world" climate of war and paranoia. The situation of Prisoner Malovich seems timely considering the recent offenses at Abu Garaib. Neube's opening is particularly gripping, and in my opinion it is unlikely that a reader would put the story down after the first paragraph: "'I remember the day we declared independence. My brothers and I got drunk. Next morning, I got up early to break their legs before I went to enlist.' Her words haunted his dreams." Protagonist Doctor Warren's xenophobia, the war fever of Durstead colony, and the reprehensible crime of Malovich are all contrasted by the gentility of the alien Irlane. In fact, Warren states that, "Some might see the Irlane as more humane than people." I found a strong parallel between Barton's story in this issue, and Neube's, because I felt that both portrayed humans as horribly flawed and callous, while portraying cyborgs and aliens as much more noble and compassionate. Perhaps Neube's commentary is not, after all, based on recent events, but on the horror that we inflict on our own species on a regular basis. Anyway, I thought the story was well written and effective.
Tanith Lee writes some very pretty lines in her short story, "Moon Wolf." Lines like: "For awhile, they did not speak at all. Beyond the seethrough, liquid black, a shark's carapace, space rushed like a sea." Another great section is, "What had it been, that luminously slender apparition–almost like a floating stone, yet light and weightless–borne transparently along by legs of finest glass–and with embers-of-opal eyes?" It is that kind of imagery that lifts this slow story, for me at least, from a listless read to an enjoyable one. In my opinion Lee had to write this story so that it comes across quietly, ploddingly, for her to create the dreamlike effects that complement the fragile imagery. The notion of disconnection, of alienation, of not belonging to the human race is not new. The recent film Lost in Translation has a feel similar to this story. But I feel that Lee added some lovely touches to this story that set it apart from similarly themed attempts. Read it twice. It gets much better the second time, when you can slowly enjoy the images and appreciate the use of foreshadowing.
"A Hint of Jasmine" by Richard Parks offers a welcome respite from the more serious themes of the first three stories. While very well written, "Hint" is less heavy fare; a great sci/fantasy/mystery set on a plantation in the South. Parks' protagonist Eli is an admirable man, gentle, intelligent, and carrying a ghost of his own while he puzzles his way through the mysteries of a haunted plantation and the tangles of a troubled mother/daughter relationship. I felt Parks' setting added great atmosphere to the tale, and the characters felt unusually layered for a short story.
The breezy fare doesn't last long, as the next story, "Collateral Damage," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, unloads on the reader with the first line: "The Man Who Teaches War to Children sits in my office." In a future where war is prevented by exposing children to all the horrors of war at a young age in a twisted form of aversion therapy, The Man Who Teaches War to Children serves a vital role. Rusch takes us through a scenario where the Man has been charged with "inappropriate touching," and then explores the implications of the charges and the crime. I felt this story was very powerful, and it reminded me of some great sci-fi classics containing simple, strong, confident writing. I just hope it's not prophetic….
Jack Skillingstead's "Transplant" is a return to the messy-feeling post-human fiction that has become so popular these days. On a giant generation ship, a genetic freak struggles to gain his freedom from a megalomaniacal captain. Ellis, the constantly regenerating immortal, has tired of having his organs harvested to lengthen the life of the ship's ruler, Laird Ulin. During his duel of wits with Laird, Ellis rekindles a romance with a lost love, Delilah. Skillingstead's writing and concepts are strong enough to carry the story past the parts I didn't care for, like the superquantum computer environment that reads "unconscious symbolic language" to create analogs. The scenes in the computer's Matrix-like environs didn't do much for me. I felt Skillingstead's most powerful paragraphs dealt with Ellis' avoidance of the "web of human attachments," and the exploration of the pain an immortal feels while watching loved ones die. My favorite kind of writing explores the human condition, and by keeping "Transplant" anchored with Ellis' pursuit of happiness, Skillingstead kept me reading.
"The Guardian" by Meredith Simmons tries to do a lot in only a few pages. I read it first as a condemnation of religious leaders, who claim to commune with the metaphysical and then use their positions of power to control society. But there also seems to be some commentary about the senseless tragedy of war, and a moral about the dangers of lying. The primitive island setting helps bring the story a simplicity that lends itself well to a morality tale. Simmons seems to be channeling Flannery O'Connor a bit here, with a prideful protagonist bound for a fall, and a moment of epiphany to drive home the lesson.
The voice of the narrator in "Yard Sale" by Kit Reed made it difficult for me to put down the story. There is a frenzied feeling to this ghost story about materialism and resentment turned to hate. Besides communicating a horrid vibe of intense family dysfunction, I'm not sure what Reed was trying to accomplish with "Yard Sale," but I enjoyed the story anyway, primarily because of the effective use of voice.
I'll admit to being both amused and skeptical when I learned that Matthew Jarpe wrote "Chicken Soup for Mars and Venus" as a lark, presumably to play with the titles of the popular self-help books. I was happy to discover that Jarpe's story was a fun, action-packed space adventure with just the right amount of humor to justify the whimsical title. "Chicken," along with the earlier "Jasmine," helps to balance the more serious tone of the other tales in this issue.
Deserving of honorable mention is the poem "My Bicycle" by Mario Milosevic. I can't explain why, but it left me with a lingering feeling of happiness and sadness. The other poetry and features didn't hold my interest.
In my opinion, this issue of Asimov's was a solid and balanced read. While I did not feel that any of the stories had a lingering impact on me, and I do not anticipate any of them ending up in a Year's Best collection, I did feel that the stories were a pleasure to read; some thought-provoking, and some fun.