Asimov’s — December 2010

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“Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly
“Warfriends” by Tom Purdom
“Libertarian Russia” by Michael Swanwick
“Sins of the Father” by Sara Genge
“Freia in the Sunlight” by Gregory Norman Bossert
“Variations” by Ian Werkheiser
“Excellence” by Robert Reed
“The Prize Beyond Gold” by Ian Creasey

Uncle E” by Carol Emshwiller

Reviewed by Jo-Anne Odell

In “Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly, Mariska, junior crew member, spends her time cleaning up the messes made by others and fending off her boss.  She has a poor relationship with her mother, also her clone, the result of her not fulfilling her mother’s plans.  Beep, her boss, wants her to sleep with Richard, another member of the crew, who’s having a meltdown.  What she wants, apparently, doesn’t matter to anyone.  Beep thinks she can help Richard, who Beep claims has been occupying his time making fakes, R-rated stories about Mariska, using their primary entertainment medium, shared sensory dream narratives.  

Though they’re supposed to back each other up, drugging themselves stupid is their other favorite way to pass the hours.  When a crew member creates problems, they belatedly understand the value in the protocol.  

The story bounces back and forth between long explanations of the technology, and sordid little vignettes, devoid of emotion.  It seems to go on forever.

When the crisis comes, it’s more a relief than a buildup.  Finally, there’s something happening.  Beep implicates himself as the villain, revealing that he was the one behind the fakes.  Richard is innocent.  Though Beep plays the hero, sacrificing himself for the crew, it’s not enough.  Mariska is forced to use her own special gift in a bid to help herself and the others survive.  

The most interesting aspect of this story revolves around Beep, the leader who fostered division in an environment where cooperation is essential to survival.  Unfortunately, it’s an aspect of the story that goes largely un-probed.  He remains a clown, almost as ridiculous as his name.  

“Warfriends” by Tom Purdom is the story of Vigdal, an itiji, one of a race that both eats and has been enslaved to the other intelligent species of their world, the Imeten.  The itiji are highly communal and communicative.  They believe in themselves, in the value of debate, and in the power of their community.  

The Imeten are individualistic, militaristic and hierarchical.  They believe that they’re bound to obey the instructions of their Goddess.  Or they did, until Harold the human arrived.  Now, they’re adrift.  In one clan, at least, Harold has decreed that they must respect the itiji as equals, free citizens.  In return, the itiji become soldiers, helping the Imeten defeat the Drovil.  

Vigdal and his Imeten counterpart, Jila-Jen, make a deal, one that allows Jila-Jen to save face with his commander, while it gives Vigdal the opportunity to save his comrades.  When things go awry, Vigdal finds himself making unilateral decisions, as an Imeten would, while Jila-Jen makes his choices based on instinct, like an itiji.  The result is one that makes both of them question their alliance.

Confused yet?  

I think, at its heart, this is a good story.  It poses an interesting, complex question in a unique way.  However, I believe the only antidote to complexity is clarity, and this tale often lacks that.  Even in minor ways, it’s confounding – Imeten is capitalized, itiji isn’t.  Its core is clouded in needless layers, its plot clearer in the info-dumps than in the action.  I was about halfway through the story before I knew whether the Drovil were an Imeten clan or a third species.  

“Libertarian Russia” by Michael Swanwick tells of a man and a motorcycle.  Victor Pelevin lives a simple life, traveling across a Russia largely forgotten by a collapsed government.  It’s a land and a people left to their own devices, and that’s exactly the way he wants it.  He picks up Svetlana, a whore, going east.  She learns a lot about him.  All he learns about her is how much she charges.  

When they stray into enemy territory, encountering those who dream of a return to totalitarianism, he finds his weapons are useless.  But they’ll let him go, as long as he’s willing to leave her to die.  He is.  She’s the one who turns the tables, but not in a very credible way.  

I liked the beginning of this story, but it soon felt like an opportunity squandered.  I expected Svetlana to be a real character, with a purpose, perhaps to allow Victor to explore the true limits of his philosophical commitment.  But the story remained banal.  The villains could be cut from cardboard, and there’s nothing about it that requires the presence of Russia.  With only minor changes, it could just as easily be set with gang-members in south-central L.A., or with militants in Northern Ireland.

“Sins of the Father” by Sara Genge creates a world in which a cataclysm has occurred, submerging most of the land.  Merfolk were engineered by their forebears to provide humanity with a way to survive, but they’d become the dominant species.  

It’s the story of a merman denied the sea because of some unspecified incident.  Despite the fact that his estrangement seems complete and his sentence beyond dispute, his mother sends him chiding messages.  He’s approached by a human woman, Rosita, who invites his interest, at least in the stilted way available to her.  Why would she select the only merman on the island?  Was she curious, lustful, calculating, desperately in love, or merely desperate?  Beats me.  She didn’t even know why he was there.  Nor did she ask.  The humans of this world appear not just to live simple lives; they’re also simple-minded.   Anyway, he and Rosita marry, and she becomes pregnant.  When famine strikes, her family can’t help them.  But she’s sure his can.  So, despite being certain of his own impending death, he takes her into the water with him, sending her on with messages for his mother on behalf of his unborn child.  

I think Genge might agree with me, that the essence of good SF isn’t to explain make-believe technology, but to explore the implications of technological change and how it shapes character and situation.  It seems to me, that’s what she attempted.  Unfortunately, the story misses.  There’s no background or motive for the merman’s situation, and little that’s interesting about Rosita.  Though it should be emotionally-charged, it’s detached, clinical.

“Freia in the Sunlight” by Gregory Norman Bossert is a rambling dissertation about the demonstration flight of an automated stealth fighter.  Possessed of some intelligence, as she’s put through her paces, identifying enemies and taking evasive action, she deciphers the meaning of the sentence, “She’s one beautiful bird.”  By extension, she also tries to understand her marketing director, Richard Wooten, who uttered those words, and who provides the voice-overs for her demonstration flights.  

Much of the story reads like a manual, likely to entrance anyone who’s prone to geeking out on acronyms and tech-speak.  

In “Variations” by Ian Werkheiser, Joe Novak has been offered a job.  The company that bought the estate of his father, a virtuoso pianist, is creating a new technology, one designed to capture not just recorded music, but the essential data required to adapt any piece of music to being played as if the maestro performed it himself.  

Though Joe’s happy enough for a while, reconnecting with the music and his memories, when he’s confronted with new music that sounds as if his late father played it, he falls apart.  

With little action and only internal conflict, this story relies heavily on the imagery of the music to evoke a response in the reader.  It would have been more effective, for me at least, if I hadn’t lost the mood while trying to decipher sentences like this one:  

“He kicked over a chair as he walked in by accident, but that act led to a thrown coffee cup, a tipped cabinet full of music scores, and built into a storm of shattered and broken objects purchased from his childhood at a sale after his mother’s death.”  

He walked in by accident?  And objects were purchased from his childhood?  This was one of the more amusing mangled sentences, but it had company.

“Excellence” by Robert Reed is the story of Larry Voss.  Larry enjoys a comfortable life, at least by the standards of his post-Great Repression era.  He owns his house, he knows his neighbors, he has old friends, and he’s inherited enough money to be comfortable without having to work.  His leisure time is spent enjoying his virtual reality successes.  It’s his real life he finds drab and uninviting.  When the mysterious Gilchrist uses the virtual medium to approach Larry with an enticing offer, Larry’s too canny to fall for it.  But Gilchrist persists.  He knows a lot about Larry, enough to exploit Larry’s vanity and his competitiveness.  Larry does his homework, checking Gilchrist’s story from every angle he can imagine.  Eventually, Larry makes a fateful choice, one that will haunt him.

I liked this story.  Larry Voss is a product of his time and his environment, as he should be.  But he’s so much more than that.  He’s complex, intelligent, nuanced, with strengths he can draw on and weaknesses to be exploited.  Gilchrist is clever, too, mysterious enough to be enticing, clear enough to be comprehensible.  As Voss was drawn in, so was I.  His steps were believable, his moves plausible.

Like his cleverly-worded reference to Schrodinger’s cat, Reed is erudite, but not obscure.  My only quibble is that I didn’t gain a strong sense of motive for his villain.  I understood what he did, but was vague on what he hoped to gain.  

In “The Prize Beyond Gold” by Ian Creasey, Delroy is an athlete, a 100m runner, going for more than just winning his race.  He’s going to try to break the record.  In his world, it’s stood for more than seventy years.  

Every aspect of Delroy’s life is orchestrated, all in the name of performance excellence.  Delroy is virtually an automaton.  He longs to break free.  It’s made him successful, but it’s become a discipline, no longer a joy.  

He’s approached by an enhanced human and asked to make a choice about his life after the big race, should he retire.  Humanity has been divided in two; the ‘standard’ models, drug and enhancement-free, and the enhanced versions, with every possible variation.  Winning the race would be seen as a victory for the Natural Life movement, proof of the value left in the ‘standard’ human.  Accepting enhancements afterward would be seen as an endorsement of the other side.  He has a long conversation, internalizing something of a diatribe against drugs and enhancements in sport.  But as the race begins, none of it matters.  His debate is with himself.  Should he hold to the irksome discipline that will give him the best reward, or throw away the race in a grand gesture?

I’m neutral on this story, with no strong feelings one way or the other.  Certainly, it wasn’t a bad tale, but neither did it draw me in.

Uncle E” by Carol Emshwiller is the story of twelve-year-old Sarah and her three younger siblings. Sarah rallies them, trying to carry on with normal life while they cope with the death of their mother. They’ve told no one of her demise, and they live with her corpse. Sarah believes they’ll be sent off to foster homes if they reveal the truth of their situation.

Ms. Emshwiller does a good job of capturing the tone and, quite possibly, the quality of decision-making of a group of young children left to their own devices. It’s a fantasy, and all fantasies require some suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. This one, however, pushes that well beyond my limits. We’re not talking about a single day, here, but a period of months. It has the poorly-considered feel of a story a child might tell at a slumber party in order to scare her friends.

The twist that forms its conclusion is obvious before the reveal, but it’s also unsatisfying, unexplained and even more implausible than the rest of the tale.

Though I’ve no long experience to draw on with this periodical, I expected to enjoy it more than I did.  What I truly expected, I suppose, it that the quality would be higher than it was.  Perhaps I merely hit a weak issue.  Time will tell.