Asimov’s, February 2010

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“The Ice Line” by Stephen Baxter
“Stone Wall Truth” by Caroline M. Yoachim
“The Woman Who Waited Forever” by Bruce McAllister
“The Wind-Blown Man” by Aliette de Bodard
“Dead Air” by Damien Broderick
“The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond” by David Erik Nelson

Reviewed by Carl Slaughter

“The Ice Line,” by Stephen Baxter, is a Verne-type tale written in hard to follow Verne-type prose.  It’s about an early eighteenth century naval expedition that involves Phoebean invaders from Mars and trips to Mars in a vessel powered by cannon ball thrusts.  It’s sprinkled with names like Nautilus, Newton, and Napoleon.  Genuine science fiction, but strictly for fans of Verne and alternate history.

“Stone Wall Truth,” by Caroline M. Yoachim, is about a hideous ritual.  Offenders are cut open, hung on a wall, then sewn up.  The wall has the power to reveal their darkness to themselves.  Therefore, the ritual is supposed to be redemptive.  Much controversy arises about the ritual.  The source of the controversy is the surgeon’s friend.  Her friend undergoes the ritual, then condemns the ritual and the surgeon.  The surgeon has never questioned the ritual before, but now she must uncover its mysteries by undergoing it herself at the hands of her apprentice.  It becomes a journey of many colors and deep, sad enlightenment.

What is the source of the wall’s power?  The author doesn’t say.  We don’t discover the origin and nature of the wall.  Nor the identity of the Ancients who built it, nor the time and place of the story.  Thus the story is a masterpiece, but a masterpiece of fantasy rather than science fiction.

“The Woman Who Waited Forever,” by Bruce McAllister, is set in Italy in the 1960s.  Four thousand words into this story and we’ve read about:  1) American military brats;  2) two scrappy brothers who shoot cigarettes out of each others mouths and play doorbell pranks, their slutty sister, and their forty-five year old pregnant mother;  3) a quiet, Italian boy;  4) a kind, hunchbacked teacher;  4) boys fishing;  5) boys playing with bows and arrows, and 6) absolutely nothing even remotely resembling science fiction. 

This sort of story might work fine in a dark fantasy, horror, or literary magazine, but this is a science fiction magazine, and the above have different agendas, standards, and guidelines. A story of the supernatural–a pure quill ghost story–does not belong in a science fiction magazine, regardless of its worth as a story.

“The Wind-Blown Man,” by Aliette de Bodard, has a strong Eastern flavor:

“There were at least one or two students who might have achieved the perfect balance: fire and wood, earth and water and metal in perfect harmony within,”  “One transcended, became one with the universe, knowing, for a brief moment, how to be everywhere at once before dematerializing on Penlai Station, in the company of peers,”  ” To transcend was to detach oneself from the real world, measure by measure, until no other destination remained but Penlai, where all desires, all emotions had lost meaning,”  “All she could feel was the maelstrom of humors within him: fire and earth and water and metal and wood, generating each other, extinguishing each other in an endless dance, everything in perfect balance, no one humor dominating the others, no one feeling distinguishing itself from the endless cycle.”  “He cared for nothing; loved nothing and no one.”  Throw in titles like Transcendents,  Celestials, Hall of Cultivating the Body and Mind, Pavilion of the Nesting Phoenix.

Yue Shinxie, Abbess of China’s White Horse Monastery, prepares students to transcend.  They aren’t supposed to be able to descend, but one of them does.  She wants to know how her former student performed this impossible feat and why he returned to the monastery, but he’s not talking.  This mysterious, disturbing, unprecedented event warrants a visit from the Prince.  Students at White Horse Monastery are “Dreamers. Troublemakers. Rebels who flee Earth, finding no other choice but to leave the world behind.”  Therefore, the Prince must determine if the Descendent has returned to threaten the Emperor.  To complicate matters more, the Abbess is an old, forbidden flame of the Prince.  Her punishment was exile to the monastery.  It’s been 10 years, but they both still have feelings for each other.  

The author makes us feel deeply the multiple anguish of the protagonist.  She also keeps the three main characters, each of them well developed, in a dance of verbal banter.  There’s much soul searching as they take turns testing each other.  On the surface, the banter seems like one hand clapping, but there’s serious philosophical, political, and personal maneuvering at work.  The most vivid scene is of a savage, haunting beating.  To test the inner harmony of the Descendent, the Prince has the Abbess read his aura while his wife and son are mercilessly beaten bloody and broken in front of him.

The main character has an implant that allows her to read auras.  The bodies of the Descendent’s wife and son are quickly and completely restored with robotic parts.  The Descendent comes and goes through singularities.  But this story feels closer to the fantasy genre than science fiction.  Still, it’s a memorable story and well worth the read. Look past the mystical references and vague answers.  You’ll find a universal theme and a satisfying conclusion.

Damien Broderick, author of “Dead Air,” has chosen to use a slew of uncommon/unfamiliar words in his story, words such as zeugma, cit, ratische Augen,  petacomp, danegelt, munged, emetic, cheongsam, and perfervid.  He also subjects the reader to such difficult to follow sentences as this 44 word example:  “The sort of uncanny buffeting rush of air, it seemed to him in a vivid recollection from childhood, that a falling ten-ton safe creates in a toon as it tumbles from a high window to flatten a furious two-dimensional and villainous puddycat.”

After half a dozen paragraphs, this reviewer was desperately tempted to abandon the story out of logistical considerations.  You’ll be tempted too.  Do yourself a favor.  I persevered, but understood very little.

The plot is Twilight Zone-ish and has something to do with allegedly dead people trying to send messages to relatives through old TV sets.  It also has something to do with global warming.  And, apparently, it has something to do with the Chinese.   If you can make contact with Rod Serling through an old TV set, maybe he can explain this story for you.

Not all is necessarily lost.  The main character is divorced and unhappy.  He is trying to lure two women.  One of these women is a talented siren who tries to cheer him by singing some of his favorite songs.  One of the songs is about death and therefore foils his sexual intentions.  The themes in the songs seem to correspond with the themes in the story, which means the story might benefit from strong symbolism.  It certainly has a solid science element. From what I could decipher, with a major rewrite, maybe a collaboration, it would probably be a powerful story.  

“The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond” by David Erik Nelson, reads like a sick joke.

A drunk talking to his bottle on the steps of a church tells a story about a squid.  A scarred boy hiding in the bushes listens to the story.  The boy has gone downtown intending to peek at some dirty dancing girls.  The drunk’s behavior interrupts this plan.  Midway through the story, the drunk kicks some turds around, including one into the bushes near the boy.  Near the end of the story, his bladder full of booze, he relieves himself on the spot.  Finally, robot police come by.  As the robots haul the drunk away, he reveals to the boy that he knew about the boy’s presence all along, as well as why the boy came downtown, then tells the boy to go ahead and visit the dance hall.

As for the squid, he goes exploring on land.  He plans to parlay this adventure into becoming a hero among his fellow squids, but gets more than he bargained for.  Wounded, he appeals to the forest critters for help.  They don’t understand a word he says, but they discern he’s a water creature.  So they haul him to the nearest back yard and deposit him into a well.

This qualifies as science fiction only by the most imaginative definition.  Given the identity and condition of the storyteller, the story is hard to follow.  Perhaps if you read it while you were drunk….  It’s a dark day in the history of science fiction when such an offensive and ridiculous story appears in one of the pillars of the genre.