Asimov’s, February 2004

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"Travels With My Cats" by Mike Resnick
"Romance for Augmented Trio" by Tom Purdom
"At Ten Wolf Lake" by William Sanders
"Language Barrier" by Matthew Jarpe
"Rewind" by Jack Skillingstead
"Long Voyage Home" by R. Garcia y Robertson

Asimov's, February 2004Mike Resnick, in the headnote to his short story "Travels With My Cats," tells us that he considers this to be one of his three best stories. A bold claim, considering the hundreds of stories he has published and the numerous awards he has won throughout his long career. I haven’t read every story Mike Resnick has written, but I was very impressed with this one. This is the story of Ethan Owens, a lifelong bachelor who has, at forty, been forced to admit to himself that his youthful dreams have given way to a vague tranquility. One evening he comes across a treasured book from his past: Travels With My Cats, the only book by a forgotten woman named Priscilla Wallace. After reading and rereading the book, one night he is joined by an unexpected visitor: Priscilla Wallace herself, and her titular cats.

Resnick skillfully uses shifts in the tone of Ethan’s narration, from middle-aged resignation through disbelieving wonder and on to driven obsession, to move the story forward. Anyone who is a lifelong reader has a few of those magical books of childhood, the ones that you dread rereading out of a certainty that they will never live up to your memory of them. Secretly, of course, you hope that it would be as wonderful as you remember, and when Ethan opens Travels With My Cats and finds himself as captivated as he was at eleven years old, it gives you hope that your own treasured memories were the result of something more than youthful ignorance and naivete.

"Romance for Augmented Trio" is the fourth in a series by Tom Purdom about the adventures of a far-future Don Juan. Our hero is currently the companion of Ganmei, a brilliant, beautiful, genetically augmented woman who chose him to provide company on her years-long expedition to the Kuiper Belt. Out there, they run into trouble, as a mysterious ship attacks their ship, sending swarms of robot invaders on board. Captured by the crazed captain of the other ship, the pair must play a dangerous psychological game in order to gain the time needed to escape.

I’ve not read the previous stories in this series, but knowledge of them wasn’t necessary to enjoy this one. The plot moves quickly, and the interplay between the various levels of intelligence–the narrator’s relatively unaugmented mind, Genmei’s augmented, multitasking brain, and their opponent’s interface with his ship’s AI–serves to keep things interesting.

I’ve always found it somewhat odd that matters cryptozoological, such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, do not feature more prominently in science fiction than they do. I remember a series by Harry Turtledove featuring intelligent Bigfoot, but for the most part the prospect of a native North American bipedal ape does not seem to have stirred the imagination of many sf writers. William Sanders takes us this neglected theme in his novelette "At Ten Wolf Lake," an amusing story of the trials and tribulations faced by a "Hominid American." "Homs," as they are popularly called, are the source of the various Bigfoot and wildman legends from around the world, and have become increasingly involved in the world of Homo sapiens. Jack Moss is a bush pilot in Alaska, hired to ferry a group of tourists to a cabin at Ten Wolf Lake. Over the next few weeks, he encounters angry bigots, radical hominid rights activists, and discovers something rather peculiar about the tourists he has been shuttling around. On the whole Sanders keeps a lighthearted tone, though he touches here and there on serious issues of racism and cultural integration. Jack is appealingly gruff, and the scene where he encounters the "First Beings Power" activists is a nice piece of satire. Quite an entertaining story.

Matthew Jarpe’s "Language Barrier" is an interesting but not particularly gripping story of linguistic incomprehension. Dane Zaniff is the head of Solar Polar Observatory Two, keeping watch on the solar system, when an unknown ship from interstellar space, the first ever detected, appears. The ship is apparently heading towards a Trans-Neptunian Object, home to a nearly forgotten colony of people who deliberately removed a portion of their brains in order to give themselves Wernicke’s aphasia, a condition in which the ability to understand and use language is destroyed. When Dane and two of her crew arrive at the colony, they find the extrasolar beings apparently communing with the colonists. What no one can figure out, at least not immediately, is how they are communicating, since the colonists cannot use language and the extrasolars are mobile tanks of sloshing red liquid.

Of course, as in all linguistic sf stories, eventually Dane and her crew do figure out what is going on. However, the mystery was not particularly mysterious, and it seemed to me that the main reason it took so long to solve was that Dane was being unrealistically dense. This may be a more realistic portrayal of what an actual First Contact might be like–frustrating, dull, and only somewhat rewarding in the end–than stories that feature nail-biting endings or action-packed battles, but it wasn’t as much fun to read as those can be.

Jack Skillingstead does a nice job with a familiar idea in his short "Rewind." The narrator is enjoying a beer in a Seattle pub when a terrorist bomb explodes nearby, wounding him and killing the young woman sitting nearby. Haunted by her sudden death, the narrator finds himself playing "the game of WHAT IF, the game of IF ONLY," imagining what he could have done differently, and suddenly finds himself rewound back in time to the moment just before the explosion. This time, he saves the woman’s life, but afterwards finds himself slowly moving out of step with reality. He is faced with a terrible choice: let the woman die so he can live normally, or save her life and lose touch with reality.

In a scant six pages, Skillingstead does a nice job sketching the characters, with just enough detail to make them come alive. It’s a familiar scenario, of course, and not just to readers of sf and fantasy. Everyone has played the "IF ONLY" game, but Skillingstead gives it that slight twist that makes the narrator’s dilemma genuinely agonizing. Changing the past with only good consequences is a no-brainer, but what if the cost to yourself was much higher?

The issue ends with R. Garcia y Robertson’s long novella "Long Voyage Home," set in the same universe as his 2002 novella "Ring Rats." Rachel Cohen, a student cadet on the survey ship Amelia Earhart, is the only survivor of an surprise missile attack. Stranded in a slowly sinking wreck on the planet Orca, Rachel manages to free herself and escape the planet. That, however, is only the beginning of her odyssey, as she must discover a way to get to Amazon Eridani, where her mothership, the Nefertiti, awaits. Along the way, she encounters genetically engineered SuperCats, photosynthetic pacifists, and holographic slavers.

As in many such stories, the plot is a bit of an excuse for a travelogue, a chance for the writer to show off the exotic results of his fertile imagination. After decades of such travelogues, it grows increasingly more difficult to dazzle the jaded senses of a veteran sf reader. This story takes a good crack at doing so, and the plot moves quickly enough to sweep us past any moments when the novelty of sights such as a photosynthetic human flying through an artificial habitat, or a pride of SuperCats hunting amidst herds of dinosaur-sized Baluchitherium, might flag.