Asimov’s, July 2009

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The Last Apostle” by Michael Cassutt

“Camp Nowhere” by Kit Reed

“Sleepless in the House of Ye” by Ian McHugh

Shoes-To-Run” by Sara Genge

SinBad the Sand Sailor” by R. Garcia y Robertson

Earth II” by Stephen Baxter

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

The July 2009 issue of Asimov’s opens with veteran TV writer Michael Cassutt‘s story “The Last Apostle.” Like Richard Foss’s “To Leap the Highest Wall” in the January-February Analog (reviewed here), it offers a slightly tweaked alternative history of the space program. This one, however, presents a view of the events from much later on, roughly our own time, by which many of the dozen astronauts who set foot on the moon during the Apollo program (the titular “Apostles”) are dead, and the rest are old men, occasioned by the passing of yet another member of the little club; and rather than post-Cold War triumphalism, it is a reminiscence about the might-have-beens of that era, in this case the discovery of ice on the moon paving the way for the human colonization that never followed the storied program in our own timeline.

The assumption that the mere discovery of the presence of water on the moon would have sufficed to skew the timeline the way he imagines struck me as simplistic, but it is not strictly necessary for a piece of fiction to be convincing as counterfactual in order to succeed as “alternate history.” (Certainly many of them do not, as even a cursory survey of the genre’s anthologies by a half-informed reader demonstrates.) Rather this is a story about old “Joe Liquori” looking back at a storied past (and in particular, a Big Secret from that past), and the men who were part of it. It does not succeed in making the historic “apostles” come to life, but the concept is still strong enough to carry Cassutt’s story.

The next short story is Kit Reed‘s “Camp Nowhere,” the story of the disaffected son of two Hollywood agents who drag him to a “family resort” in the Midwest where it turns out that he is the only kid at the camp. There is, of course, a big twist in store, potentially a good one, but it is rather abruptly dropped on the reader, and not much is done with it either.

Additionally the first-person narration leaves something to be desired. While the author identifies the protagonist as “Chazz” in the very first few lines, I kept on falling into the habit of thinking the speaker was a teenage girl instead of a teenage boy for at least the first half of the story (and apparently, I am not the only one to have thought so). The result is an interesting (and I think, salvageable) misfire.

 Following Reed’s tale is Ian McHugh‘s very different “Sleepless in the House of Ye,” a drama about a clan of sentient, furry, tailed creatures struggling to survive the winter and carry their offspring to term. The premise is a simple one, but what the story lacks in breadth it has in depth, McHugh succeeding in developing a very alien form and putting an alien aspect of them at the center of that plot, and making it all not just comprehensible but engaging, by way of prose that is subtle, meticulous and effective.

The last of the issue’s four short stories, Sara Genge‘s “Shoes-To-Run” centers on young “Shai-Shai,” a member of a hunter-gatherer society in the poisoned wasteland surrounding a future domed Paris. The basic plot about a girl struggling for acceptance as a hunter struck me as over-familiar (this was a major plot point in, for instance, Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear almost three decades ago), but Genge’s particular twist on the theme of high technology blended with a return to pre-modern culture certainly has its interest, mainly due to the depth of her world-building.

The issue also contains two longer pieces, a novelette by R. Garcia y Robertson, and a novella by Stephen Baxter.

Robertson‘s novelette “SinBad the Sand Sailor,” as the title implies, offers an updated and highly allusive planetary romance, complete with beanstalks and solar-powered wings, centering on the swashbuckling figure of smuggler and all-around rogue “SinBad” of Barsoom. Briskly paced and action-packed, it offers not just the promised entertainment, but light nostalgia for the connoisseur, particularly those who miss an earlier, pulpier era in the history of magazine science fiction.

The longest piece in the issue, and the last to be discussed here, is Baxter‘s novella, “Earth II.” It is set on the titular planet, where the descendants of a small party of human scientists (apparently fleeing the “drowning” of Earth) have made their homes. The planet’s scarcity of key natural resources like fossil fuels and metals means it is now impossible for them to preserve the technological base (or the unity) of their star-spanning ancestors, so that they have reverted to a pre-industrial form of civilization in which they “sail in wooden ships and fire gunpowder weapons at each other.”

Against this backdrop Lady Xaia Windru of Zeeland–freshly triumphant over Zeeland’s principal rival, the Brythons–sets out on an expedition to the Belt spanning Earth II from pole to pole in a search for the legendary “City of the Living Dead” in a move one character compares to Isabella and Ferdinand’s dispatch of Columbus west after the completion of the Reconquista.

This is an interesting mix of elements, and Baxter’s handling of them has its strengths, like the detailing of bits of Windru’s adventure, particularly her party’s encounter with a “nest” of primitives; Baxter’s treatment of the physical and biological science side of his world-building; and some of the imaginative touches regarding life in the city Ararat. However, it did not quite gel as I hoped, the secret behind the planet’s mystery proving to be rather familiar (the key to it was obvious from the start). The combination of premodern culture with rationality in the civilization of the Zeelanders struck me as incongruous, in need of more working-out, and the conclusion struck me as more problematic than the tone suggests it was meant to be. Still, the story never drags, and the strengths are ample enough to make it well worth a look, if in quite a different way from Garcia y Robertson’s own planetary adventure.