Asimov’s — August 2010

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“Superluminosity” by Alan Wall
“The Lovely Ugly” by Carol Emshwiller
“Crimes, Follies, Misfortunes, and Love” by Ian Creasey
“The Battle of Little Big Science” by Pamela Rentz
“Warning Label” by Alexander Jablokov
“The Witch, The Tinman, The Flies” by J.M. Sidorova
“On The Horizon” by Nick Wolven
“Slow Boat” by Gregory Norman Bossert

Reviewed by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

The magazine opens with my favorite story in the issue: Alan Wall’s Asimov’s debut story, “Superluminosity,” which kicks things off with a bang.  Jack has betrayed his wife and she wants penance; a specific leather accessory from a store on Picadilly Lane in London of 1900 she’s discovered in an illegally kept archaic catalogue.   The catch:  time travel, handmade leather items, and the time travel machine are all illegal.  

A historical phenomenologist at Uniplex, Jack kept the Tachyon Converter secretly when time travel experiments he’d assisted with as a researcher ended.  With the university’s lousy bookkeeping, no one has noticed, so he reluctantly pulls out the parts, reassembles it, and sets the three required target dates, the first being for London of 1900 so he can retrieve Jenny’s desired prize.   After explaining to her the principles of the Converter, he steps inside and travels back to retrieve the bag.  That part goes without a hitch, but when he pushes the button to return, Jenny fails to push the button on the machine that would bring him back.

As Jenny debates whether or not to bring him back with the holographic copy of him left behind to connect him to the world from which he departed, Jack goes to his second target date and finds himself enjoying the time travel.  As a researcher, he’d never actually done any actual travelling and the whole thing has turned out better than he’d expected.  

A time travel morality tale with a mix of humor and steampunk thrown in, “Superluminosity” poses interesting questions.  Wall’s skills and experience as a writer serve him well as he skillfully explains the time travel science while creating vivid characters and building their world in very few words.  A highly enjoyable debut, I look forward to reading more from him in the near future.

Carol Emshwiller’s “The Lovely Ugly” is a fascinating tale told from the point of view of gliding animal-like aliens as they interact with and analyze dog-loving human visitors who arrive on their planet.   While the humans typically assume their superiority and higher intelligence over their hosts, the hosts themselves have the upper hand, teaching the humans a pidgin dialect, disabling their spacecraft and machines, and pretending not to be as intelligent as they really are.  In the course of the two species studying each other, the aliens are overcome with curiosity about particular human habits with tragic results.

Told with humor and a solid recognition that other intelligent life may exist out there, “The Lovely Ugly” ends differently than one might expect and is a nice examination of cross-species encounters from a unique point of view from an experienced storyteller.

Perhaps it’s because it touches on a common theme, but Ian Creasey’s novelette “Crimes, Follies, Misfortunes, and Love” didn’t capture me as quickly as the previous two stories.  Sonia is a survivor, a citizen of the post-Oil Age, post-Transition Earth,  and one of many trying to put the pieces together of their lost past.  In Sonia’s case, her particular obsession is to discover something, anything about her mother.  She has memories of her father, but her mother is long lost to her.

Creasey asks the question how far would you go to recover the past?  How far would you go to dig into the memories of the prior age if it were possible?  What if yor ancestors had cameras in their minds?  Would you really want to know all those cameras might reveal?

It’s an interesting question and the discovery of it finally captured me and propelled me to the end of the story, which takes an unexpected but satisfying twist.  Given that Creasey’s previous story found its way into two best of anthologies, I had expected more when I began reading it.  In the end, he didn’t disappoint, but the story did take its time getting there.

A similar question is the focus of Pamela Rentz’s first pro sale “The Battle of Little Big Science,” wherein American Indian scientists seek continued funding to finalize their time machine and allow the tribes to go back and observe their ancestors’ lives as they really were.  Written by a Native American and specialist in Indian affairs, the story drips with authentic cultural insight, especially on life on Indian Reservations.  

When the funding is threatened, the lead scientist, Agnes, pushes ahead and takes a group of tribal elders to revisit the past.  Rentz deftly handles the exposition on the science of time travel, but I thought the characterization could have been more developed.  The set up felt a little long and the rest of the story a little rushed to me.   The ending also seemed a little wishy washy.  We don’t get a sense of Agnes making a decision.  It’s more as if she’s been pushed into something and is along for the ride.

In his novelette “Warning Label,” Alexander Jablokov presents two future Bostonians trying to remove the warning label off the statue of a controversial public figure only to find that the statue itself has disappeared.  In a future where everything is tracked and monitored by ogs, Wedge and Groom determine to find out what happened to it, bringing them into the midst of a conspiracy to keep it concealed and ruining their access to food vendors all over the nation in the process.

Personally, I found the story a jumble of data and detail which left me feeling frequently confused and ultimately unsatisfied.  The story didn’t seem to have a point or moral to it, and I didn’t find any character I could particularly care about.  

“The Witch, The Tinman, The Flies” by J.M. Sidorova is the Russian native’s first pro sale in her adopted tongue, and it’s an auspicious debut.  It’s the tale of Nina, a young Russian girl who dreams of becoming the Tinman because the character from the childhood story about munchkins freed from wicked capitalist oppression survives a heart defect like her own.  Fascinated by the mysterious flatmate her mother has dubbed ‘the Wicked Witch of the West,’ Nina’s curiosity pushes her to find out more about this mysterious woman who turns out to be a scientist whose research on fruit flies has put her on the wrong side of the communist government.

Though the tragic consequences of the story and its ending escape Nina herself, we are taken on a rich journey inside the life of common Soviets with glimpses of their culture and worldview that make the story and world come alive for us.  My second favorite story in the issue, Sidorova is another I’ll look forward to reading more from in the future.

“On The Horizon” by Nick Wolven begins with a deft opening scene that establishes the main character and his world, while leaving us hanging to know more about him and why his circumstances have come to be as they are.  We discover he’s a criminal used by the government as a sort of fortune teller to help solve crimes by visiting the scene, viewing the corps, filling his senses with the scents, sights, sounds, etc. of the crime.  The idea is that emotional dysfunction is the commonality between all criminals, so by stimulating one criminal’s emotional responses, you can learn about another.    

I decided this was my third favorite story in the issue after five paragraphs and never changed my mind until the last paragraph, when I felt the ending cheated me of a satisfying closure.  It somehow cheapened the thing for me, as if making me sympathize with and care about a criminal were a manipulation with no purpose.  But if you like surprise endings, the writer certainly nailed that.

In the novelette which closes the issue, Gregory Norman Bossert’s “Slow Boat,” NaN, Our Lady of Omissions, finds herself alone on a cargo ship moving slowly toward Mars.  After stirring up mischief in cyberspace herself, she is now the victim of her enemies’ mischief.   Unable to escape the slow boat, she begins to explore, discovering not only the pace and plot of the boat’s course, but plentiful supplies of water, wine, reading materials, and other useful items.  When her enemies come to check on her, she uses it all to her advantage and turns the tables.

A talent who’s exploded onto the scene in the past few years with several stories in major markets, Bossert’s piece is cleverly written and engaging, providing a fitting end to the issue.