Asimov’s, February 2006

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"Change of Life" by Kat Meltzer
"The Hastillan Weed" by Ian Creasey
"Kin" by Bruce McAllister
"Teen Angel" by R. Garcia y Robertson
"Unbending Eye" by Jim Grimsley
"Under the Graying Sea" by Jonathan Sherwood

"Are You There" by Jack Skillingstead
The February 2006 issue of Asimov’s supplies a blend of styles for every palate, from lighthearted fun to noir mystery and from hard science to pirates-in-space.

"Change of Life" by Kat Meltzer begins the issue with a fluffy transformation story.  Glinda processes the S-Z deadbeats who haven’t paid their hospital bills for Bay Medical Collections.  "At an over-ripe fifty-seven" she visits her doctor to discuss the latest development in her change of life.  The startling news converts this day-in-the-life story into a science fiction "what if"; Glinda is not what she seems, nor will she ever be again.  Meltzer reveals the clues one at a time, until the heroine’s secret is exposed.  The words flow gracefully and at a leisurely pace reminiscent of afternoon naps on cushions by the fire.  Though the story boasts a cast of quirky characters, the protagonist steals the limelight with a roaring conclusion.

Ian Creasey‘s short story "The Hastillan Weed" comments on social and environmental issues with grace and sensibility.  Ben organizes a weekly outing for Yorkshire Green Action, enticing volunteers to improve the countryside.  An alien, Olibrys from the Hastillan embassy, accompanies the group.  She works twice as hard as the humans, digging out the Hastillan blackweed that threatens to choke out native plants and poison wildlife.  The story breaks down the "tree hugger" stereotype, portraying a man who simply works hard—using his hands not his mouth—to bring about change.  When the assistants must all sign wavers proclaiming their knowledge of the "Safety points for the spade," Creasey’s signature wit adds another dimension to the plot.  This near-future science fiction achieves what the genre strives for: to analyze our wrongs through the human condition, rather than with a slew of manipulated statistics.  The positive ending grants hope.

Bruce McAllister paints a heartwarming moment for a troubled boy in "Kin."  In an overpopulated America, abortions are ordered by the government.  Kim longs for a sister, so he approaches an Antalou, an alien race known for their assassins, to take out the man responsible for his unborn sister’s approaching murder.  The meager two hundred dollars the boy offers as payment is not enough to secure the deed.  A complex relationship unfolds between alien and human; the two are so different, yet so alike.  The ending brings closure, though a different sort than expected.  The Antalou’s dialogue breathes like the steady pounding and receding of surf along a beach, giving the story a lyrical quality that softens the edges of the harsh message.

The novelette "Teen Angel" follows the adventures of slave-girl Deirdre from New Harmony. R. Garcia y Robertson creates a pirate-like atmosphere of slavers and the victims whose lives they ruin.  With clever technology like "remotes" which can produce responses from muting to sexual arousal, Konar leads his criminal crew of the Fafnir into a hopeless battle with the authorities.  Deirdre is thrust together with two child hostages, and the three steal the Fafnir’s only lifeboat before the ship is destroyed.  Pre-programmed, their pod whisks them from one danger to another.  Despite a predictable ending and clunky descriptions, the story entertains, finding hope in hopelessness.  For readers searching for sexy and lighthearted adventure, similar to a cable Science Fiction series, "Teen Angel" delivers.

The most surreal story in the issue is "Unbending Eye" by Jim Grimsley. Roger Dennis is brought back from death.  Of the twenty human subjects, he alone awakens from his morbid slumber.  What follows is years of study by many doctors including pathologists and neurologists.  Frustrated by his endless confinement, Roger escapes and meets an old friend and begs for discrete passage from the country.  The story is framed with Roger’s appearance in a bar at the start, his long confinement in the middle, and his plea with his friend in the bar once more at the end.  Each session in the medical complex is surreal, following a dead man’s confused and emotionless realizations.  Images of long rows of beds, each occupied by a dead person’s sheet-covered body, layer the story with dread and defenselessness.

The hard Science Fiction offering in the issue is Jonathan Sherwood‘s "Under the Graying Sea."  Right from the first sentence, Tessa is in danger, thrusting through massive gees in her Concussion Vehicle (CV) with her partner, Loránd, slingshotting around the moon to enter a man-made wormhole.  The two pilots’ bodies have been reinforced to withstand up to twenty-four gees, but the CV malfunctions and they pull thirty-two-point-eight, causing life-threatening injuries to Loránd.  Stuck over two light years from Earth and forced to wait over four hours for their return window, Tessa busies herself checking "Betty," the wormhole anchor, and discovers the multiple course adjustments that Betty has made since the last human inspection: a gravity well.  Sherwood intertwines flashbacks about Tessa’s relationship with her father, her first exposure to the wormhole project, and her fear of the gray sea of space.  As she fights to save her partner’s life and solve the problem of Betty’s decaying flight path, Sherwood packs the prose with scientific details.  Filled with suspense, passion, and cleverness, "Under the Graying Sea" stands above the other stories as the strongest contribution to the issue.

The final story, "Are You There" by Jack Skillingstead, is a dark story with morose characters tortured by loneliness and regret.  Brian Deatry is a parapolice detective, hired by constituents who choose to pay his salary and entrusted with bringing killers to justice.  While chasing "The Bastard," a man who butchers the homeless, Deatry finds the killer’s "Loved One," a device used to capture the essence of someone who is about to die.  The procedure kills the human, but the device provides comfort, "[responding] just like the original."  Relying heavily on dialogue, Skillingstead paints Deatry as a man who’s lost everything from his wife to his future.  Deatry blossoms with elegant despair; a walking corpse trailing the deceased like breadcrumbs.  Bordering on horror, "Are You There" paints a bleak future with a black brush, incorporating a noir tone reminiscent of masterpieces like Citizen Kane.

Overall, this issue exudes fun with a dash of atmospheric gloom.  My top three picks are Sherwood’s "Under the Graying Sea," followed by Skillingstead’s "Are You There," and finally McAllister’s "Kin."