Asimov’s, August 2006

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"Dead Man" by Alexander Jablokov
"The Plurality of Worlds" by Brian Stableford
"Crunchers, Inc." by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Feather and Ring" by Ruth Nestvold
"In the Abyss of Time" by Stephen Baxter
"Tin Marsh" by Michael Swanwick
Alexander Jablokov’s “Dead Man” is reminiscent of the themes presented in the movie Final Cut, but with a far grittier element.  A memory-upload specialist is given an assignment: finish a botched upload, and in doing so kill the living man to preserve a perfect memory.  His client?  The botched upload, a virtual personality who has commissioned his services.

When the protagonist finds that his mentor was behind the botched operation, questions need answering.  What is the link with the botched operation, and what does his mother have to do with it all?  Can he go through with the job, knowing what he does?

“Dead Man” is no “River of Dust” but is a decent tale from this often underrated author.  The backstory is concise and the whole thing is a pleasant read, entertaining without having to be challenging.  There is a deliciously disturbing scene to be found, but not wanting to risk spoiling the story, it is recommended that you simply read it and enjoy!

In “The Plurality of Worlds,” Brian Stableford entertains a subtle alternate history for 16th century England, one that is blended heavily with slipstream and the joyously improbable.  In a world where Lady Jane Grey was not executed, and indeed remained queen, several historical figures such as Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh band together and launch an ethership into the great beyond.
Captured and manhandled by space-faring crustaceans, the intrepid ether-nauts must defend humanity before an alien intelligence, to justify its continued existence.  Given the highly charged political differences of the Elizabethan crew (particularly the clashes between Walter Raleigh and the rabid Puritan, John Field), the discovery that the Image of God is not alone in this universe raises a series of interesting conflicts and conundrums, and Stableford paints this beautifully.
This tale has a definite Vernian flavour to it, but is ultimately disappointing.  It is inconclusive and anticlimactic, a true shame given the lengthy buildup to the final denouement and the heroes’ dramatic return from the firmament.  In short, this promising yet prolonged epic is ruined by “I woke up and it was all a dream” syndrome.
“Crunchers, Inc.” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is the tale of an executive on the edge in a 1984-style setting.  Everything a person does is scored, and all actions are monitored and tabulated.  Eating too much junk food, bad personal habits, shoddy work history, they can all count against you when it comes to preferred medical services and other privileges.

The protagonist is at her wits end; all of her Actuarial Engineers (statisticians with the power to assign levels of citizenship) are being driven to the breaking point by a secret society devoted to undermining this totalitarian system.  When she decides to hire the perfect Actuarial Engineer, a soulless man capable of no empathy, she wonders if this was a bad decision.  What about when he comes to review her score? 
What if certain habits of hers come to light?

Rusch gives the reader a perfectly good story, but it needs an extra something to push it over the cliff.  It reads a little like Brave New World or 1984, only with a gimmicky system for controlling the proletariat.  “Crunchers, Inc.” is nevertheless well structured and competently written.
“Feather and Ring” by Ruth Nestvold is a good read, one of those genuinely nice stories.  A games designer is on business in Japan, burning the midnight oil as she attempts to pull off the commercial deal of her lifetime.  Her husband is leaving her, financial woes are building on all fronts, and it looks as though a hostile takeover may ruin her company as scheming businessmen plan to steal her famous video game character.
Wandering the streets of Taipei, the protagonist finds herself in an old temple.  A mysterious yet kindly woman tells her of Kwan Yin, a goddess of compassion and grace.  She prods her towards a seemingly chance encounter, one that could potentially save her business and salvage her love life.
The speculative element to this tale is subtle despite its deus ex machina approach.  Nestvold has avoided extensive info-dumping, neatly explaining the background of the Asian deities in a concise manner.  This is a crisp piece, conclusive without needing to be overly dramatic. 
August’s issue of Asimov’s includes a tale by the marvellous Stephen Baxter, “In the Abyss of Time.”  It is a well-considered piece on time-travel, physics, and the destiny of our universe.  A wealthy magnate sinks a fortune into developing a workable time machine and takes a reporter to the end of all things, to the decay of the universe and endless vacuum.  But something is there, waiting…
While this sub-genre has been mined to exhaustion, Baxter brings in some plausible ideas and workable science.  While there is extensive info-dumping and exposition in this tale, it is presented in a fluid manner and works.  What could have been a boring physics lesson, Baxter turns into an entertaining tale, which succeeds despite the stereotypical nature of his characters.  Thankfully, these somewhat flimsy folks are only a vehicle for what is an otherwise decent plot.
“Tin Marsh” by Michael Swanwick is a tale of two prospectors on Venus, down on their luck and stir-crazy from isolation.  When a seismic event loosens a protective chip in the villain’s skull (think of an implant that works along the lines of Asimov’s Three Laws) he sets his partner and long-term antagonist on a forced march across the desolate surface, in a tense game of cat-and-mouse.

Swanwick keeps the pressure on throughout “Tin Marsh,” and this is a brilliant example of how to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.  Despite the thrill factor of this tale, there are numerous light-hearted moments throughout. This is definitely worth reading.