Asimov’s, February, 2014
Reviewed by Louis West
“Schools of Clay,” by Derek Künsken, is a deliciously different class warfare story for two reasons. First, the POV is that of a hive creature struggling with individual desires that run counter to the demands of the hive. Second, this creature is a triangular, boron-silicate skate-like alien that lives on microgravity asteroids orbiting a radio pulsar black hole binary star system. These creatures thrive upon the radio energy broadcast by the pulsar and, according to class ranking, some even possess a hot radioactive “soul” bound in their gullets that serve as the voice of the hive.
Diviya is a doctor, raised above the status of soulless worker because of his ability to be trained when a previous doctor has died. But, he doesn’t care for the princesses and princes of the colony. Instead, he serves the workers. And he knows they will all be left behind to die when the colony flees the predatory shaghāl that inevitably find them. Diviya is a reluctant revolutionary, but finds himself driven to action after workers he knows are severely injured and killed by security drones hired by the landlords and tax farmers working for the princes and princesses.
Many revolutions are birthed out of the desperate need of the dispossessed, and this one is no different. The fact that the shaghāl find the colony before it is fully prepared to migrate adds to the tension, because anything Diviya does to disrupt the established order could threaten the colony’s existence. Survival drives his actions, while his hive-centric soul screams protest, until Diviya does the unthinkable and replaces his soul with that taken from a tax farmer brutally killed during the uprising. Now Diviya must chase the colony as it flees into space, pursuing a princess and the chance to rewrite the future colony’s very purpose.
I found this story to be a thoughtful exploration of the clash between self and society set within the fabric of a truly alien existence, somewhat like tales of the Borg (Star Trek) when individuals are wrenched from the domination of the collective. However, the alien nature of the creatures involved sometimes required a careful, studied reading to not miss important details about the creatures, their lives and their culture. Still, a definite read.
In Jason K. Chapman’s “The Long Happy Death of Oxford Brown,” Oxford has two choices as death approaches: accept whatever afterlife there may or may not be, or agree to be plugged into the AftrLyf system where his wife, Emily, has existed for the last three years. He misses his wife of 50 years a great deal. Although their “relationship had never been a passionate one, it hadn’t been unhappy either.” Except when he gets there, his wife is nowhere to be found. The story follows Oxford’s journey through his strange new existence, his encounters with the conformists and renegades that abound there and the quest he must undertake to find his Emily. Finding her, though, doesn’t bring him the happiness that he anticipated.
A sad tale of a man who spent his entire life, before and after death, trying to make Emily happy and only realizing at the very end what it was that she had really ever wanted. I liked Oxford’s curmudgeonly nature in the story’s beginning and would liked to have seen much more of that throughout. I guess for me there just wasn’t any real tension, nothing truly standing in Oxford’s way.
“Ball and Chain,” by Maggie Shen King, tells of a single man trying to find a wife in a Chinese society where the number of men are far greater than the number of women. Consequently, the Chinese state has encouraged the Advanced Family, where one woman takes two or even three husbands. This kind of family collective can then have children equal to the number of husbands as opposed to the strictly mandated one per family for typical couples. During the matchmaking meeting, Wei-guo is convinced Meiling likes him because of her furtive smiles. Then, as they hug after the meeting, Meiling slips Wei-guo her phone number. Now he’s convinced she wants him, even though she already has two husbands and a young son. Wei-guo calls her the next day and arranges for her to meet him at his studios. There he prepares for an elaborate date but is quite nonplussed when she shows up late and disheveled, carrying her one year-old child. Not long after, Meiling’s Husband One also shows. Then they start to dance and invite Wei-guo to join in.
While I greatly appreciated the unique cultural setting of this story and the clear frustrations felt by Wei-guo at his failed attempt at a furtive date, the story end just left me hanging. I just found it improbable that Wei-guo could change so much so quickly.
Reviewed by Michelle Ristuccia
“Steppin’ Razor” by Maurice Broaddus takes place in an alternate history Jamaica in the 1980s and follows spy and slave Desmond Coke as he infiltrates Colonel Malcom Juba’s research compound by accompanying his rich masters, who have been invited to participate in a dangerous political scheme. When Desmond learns of the Colonel’s plans, he must act quickly to fight for his true beliefs amidst the deadly factions of Kabbalists and Rastafarians and in the shadow of the ever-present Albion Empire (known as the American colony, or the United States) who open up the story with an aerial attack on Accompong Town.
Maurice Broaddus weaves an alternate Jamaica as mesmerizing as any epic fantasy world, with plenty of twisted references that will engage history and religion buffs without alienating other readers. This compelling narrative begins with a slice of life scene and includes rich back story, is peppered with action, and by the end delivers on character motivation and development.
“Last Day at the Ice Man Café” by M. Bennardo chronicles Janice’s contemplation of her future on the closing day of her workplace, the Ice Man Cafe, hitherto run by her friend Ulno. M. Bennardo provides the reader with a sense of listless indecision, of the characters being cut adrift, but also overloads the tale with exposition such as Janice’s inner thought processes while somehow not immediately revealing that Janice and Ulno are romantically involved. The description of Ulno as the iceman falls short of legitimizing the scientifically weak climax.
“The Transdimensional Horsemaster Rabbis of Mpumalanga Province” by Sarah Pinsker begins by describing the death of Yona’s husband, Oliver, a photographer who was killed in a war zone, in a unique eulogy-like format. The story then transitions to more traditional narrative and Yona, who is also a photographer, accepting a request to film a lost tribe as part of her struggle to overcome her grief and resume her career. What she finds is harder to believe, and better for her soul, than she could have expected. Sarah Pinsker gives us an intriguing science fiction twist on the archetype of lost knowledge and ancient riddles, layered with the sympathetic character story of Yona as a recent widow.
“Ask Citizen Etiquette” by Marissa Lingen is a flash piece formatted like an advice column, but set in the far future where, for instance, robot companions are commonplace. The tone makes for a decent parody, but a bit low-key.
Michelle Ristuccia enjoys slowing down time in the middle of the night to read and review speculative fiction, because sleeping offspring are the best inspiration and motivation. You can find out more about her other writing projects and geeky obsessions by visiting her blog.