Asimov’s, December 2005

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"Amba" by William Sanders
"Diving into the Wreck" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Earthtime" by Damian Kilby
"Ikiryoh" by Liz Williams
"The Perimeter" by Chris Beckett
"To the East, a Bright Star" by James Maxey

In “Amba,” William Sanders imagines the Siberian steppes transformed into an environment like the African savannah, thanks to global warming. Sanders’ protagonist, Logan, is a cash-strapped American expatriate who, with his tracker Yura and helicopter pilot Misha, schleps the rich and sleazy into wilderness for camera safaris. Their most desirable prey is Amba—tiger.

When their latest client skips out without paying, Logan and his team find their backs up against the wall. They have bills to pay, inspectors to bribe. Against his better judgment, Logan accepts a dicey rescue job from the mafia-connected Yevgeny.

What follows is a well crafted, action-filled story, complete with a dark revelation or two and a bitter (vengeful, even) condemnation of prejudice. Sanders has nailed every aspect of this story: the characters, dialog, and setting are all richly conveyed. Some science fiction diehards might long for more science, less gunplay, but the global warming backdrop, conveyed by numerous bits of information worked in with minimal effort and no trace of infodump, was enough to satisfy me.

This issue’s second novella, Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Diving into the Wreck,” is more ambitious than “Amba,” yet more disappointing, too. Aboard the FTL ship “Nobody’s Business,” a team of six wreck divers prepares to explore an Old Earth military ship located much farther from home than should be possible. They are led by the unnamed protagonist, the ship’s captain (she prefers “boss”), a gritty veteran of many successful exploratory dives. This dive, however, is different.  The boss has good reason to think this ship harbors forgotten technology, the discovery of which would make them all wealthy.

Greed versus fear is the theme here, and both emotions are intense, thanks to Rusch’s deft characterization. The exploration of the wreck is a true page-turning nailbiter. Further tension comes in the mounting conflict between the boss and Squishy, a crew member who has had firsthand, tragic experience with the hazards of this dangerous technology.

Overall, “Diving into the Wreck” provides a detailed, believable account of what a deep space salvage mission might be like. Ultimately, the story is a mystery: what is the nature of this forgotten technology? How did the military ship end up so far from Earth? What happened to its crew? Unfortunately, Rusch raises many questions but does not answer all of them. Thus, as a mystery, “Diving into the Wreck” is not wholly satisfying. As an action-adventure tale, it is far more successful.

A few other problems detracted from my enjoyment of this otherwise fine story. The author’s heavy use of semicolons, em dashes, and colons bothered me. I also found myself wondering repeatedly about a technological question. In a future where FTL travel is commonplace, why is it so danged difficult for the “Nobody’s Business” crew to stay in communication with their exploratory teams, and why is the audiovisual feed from those teams of such poor quality?

Damian Kilby’s “Earthtime” is one of the finest stories in this issue. Thirty-four year old Marie Lang, loving wife and mother, returns to her body after spending an unknown (and unknowable) period of time working as “a kind of secret agent and an angel.” She has kept company with the numinous entity Aleph Prime, a deity of sorts struggling with The Opponent.

How do you describe the indescribable? As Marie readjusts to her human form, she tries to do just that. In some ways, the story threatens to bog down in sentences such as, “She had ‘stood’ before manifestations of Aleph. Even while she understood that it had to channel itself through a myriad of cut and pasted borrowings of personas and ideas, she was dazzled, in awe beyond words, left with a desperate ache to have the glory she had glimpsed come fully into being.” Yet it is critical for the reader to appreciate (if not understand) the sheer complexity of what Marie has left behind. It’s nothing less than a form of existence unimaginable by the human mind.

Kilby has set out to give us a taste of that unimaginable existence and to show us a character struggling to regain her humanity. “Earthtime” succeeds on both scores. The story has fresh things to say about one of the most compelling science fiction themes: What does it mean to be human?

For me, “Earthtime” initially stirred memories of two of Kurt Vonnegut’s best characters: Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, and Winston Niles Rumford, caught in a chrono-synclastic infundibulum. As I came to a better understanding of Marie’s plight, she emerged as a distinctive and memorable character on a par with those two. Once I’d finished, I had only one word in mind to describe this story. Beautiful.

Liz Williams’ “Ikiryoh” is an interesting short story, both in style and content. Williams has imagined an Asian future transformed through genetic technology into a world resembling the mythological Orient of the past. Turtle-like kappas are nursemaids and menial laborers, while at a firecracker-strewn parade, the kylin (a bug-eyed lion-dog) is a living, breathing creature. Tiger-women serve as bodyguards; the local royalty consists of a bloody succession of self-styled goddesses.

The ikiryoh is a troubled child left in the care of a kappa who used to work for the deposed goddess Than Geng. Than Geng’s daughter I-Nami rules now, and she has decided that the ikiryoh will stay with the kappa. As far as the kappa knows, the ikiryoh is I-Nami’s child, but the tiger-woman who leaves the child is none too clear on that point.

“Ikiryoh” offers a well imagined world, richly described. My only complaint is that it is too short. The kappa learns the truth of the ikiryoh’s existence far too easily, and her subsequent dilemma could have been explored to a much greater degree. I’d have liked to spend more time in this unique world.

In Chris Beckett’s “The Perimeter,” Lemmy Leonard would rather follow a white deer to the outskirts of London than go to school. He’ll pay for his ignorance.

We soon learn that Lemmy is a Dotlander, a low-res construct living in a virtual reality world. One of the neat things about this story is Beckett’s version of a Matrix-style in computero universe. Think of it as The Matrix on a budget. Middle class folks save for resolution upgrades, and the underclass lives in Grey Town, where greyscale hustlers have “faces with ticks for noses and single lines for mouths.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough material like this to float the whole story. Lemmy soon falls in with a real-world woman and her husband, who proceed to explain everything about the world to the hooky-playing protagonist. I found this explanation about as satisfying as The Matrix’s ridiculous “humans-are-batteries-for-machines” premise. (Oops. Matrix spoiler. Sorry.)

Along with Grey Town, the curious motivations of the real-world pair (Clarissa and Terence) do provide some interest, but not enough. I’m afraid I saw the denouement and the ending coming, even before I had reached the halfway point.

James Maxey’s “To the East, a Bright Star” is a gem, another high point for this issue. It takes the prize for best opening line: “There was a shark in the kitchen.” If that’s not enough of a hook, the paragraph concludes, “He had known the exact time and date of his death for most of his adult life. With only hours to go, he wasn’t going to let the shark do something ironic.”

Okay, tell me more!

A doomsday-level disaster looms. Tony is an outsider who has chosen to avoid the forced evacuation. He has decided to meet the end on his own terms. As the final hours tick away, he is suddenly faced with an unexpected problem: another survivor, one far needier than himself.

I first read this story before the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Rereading it now, I’m finding additional poignancy. Read this, and think of all the things being said about the folks who chose to stay behind. Yes, the situations aren’t entirely comparable, but “To the East, a Bright Star” still made me think along these lines. There’s also an echo of Larry Niven’s classic “Inconstant Moon,” but Maxey has carved out his own unique turf.

How should we live our lives? How will we face death? These are universal questions, certainly not restricted to science fiction. Maxey’s fine story approaches these questions from the point of view of one well drawn and wholly believable character. The story’s power derives from the clarity of Tony’s voice and his depth of understanding of his situation. The ending has stayed with me for weeks.