Asimov’s — February & March 2012

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Asimov’s, February 2012

“Hive Mind Man” by Rudy Rucker and Eileen Gunn
“The Voodoo Project” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Observations on a Clock” by D. Thomas Minton
“The People of Pele” by Ken Liu
“Going Home” by Bruce McAllister & Barry Malzberg
“Murder Born” by Robert Reed

Reviewed by Dario Ciriello

This issue kicks off with a bit of gonzo fun. “Hive Mind Man” by Rudy Rucker and Eileen Gunn is a fast, light-hearted romp into a wildly hyperconnected future.

When Diane, a down-to-earth insurance agent who’s just dumped her boyfriend meets Jeff, mystical Geek dreamer and wannabe net entrepreneur, she’s so captivated by his tender nature, good cooking, and the great sex that she’s prepared to overlook his TV talk show obsession and the small fact that he’s incapable of earning any kind of a living. Enter somatic consciousness facilitator Rawna Roller and her strange sidekick Sid. Faster than you can say ‘synaptic overclocking,’ they’ve got Jeff wired on weird neurotoxins and surfing the hive mind of humanity, aided by legions of simmie-bots, with the immediate objective of making a worldwide killing with Goofers, the Next Big Thing beyond the Smartphone. But Hive Mind Man has bigger ideas.

“The Voodoo Project” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch tells the story of a career Psy-Ops agent, Rebekah Zahedi. At 45, Rebekah’s pushing her longevity as a Company agent. When she goes to meet with and feel out the five other members of a potential Elite Psy-Ops Squad which may—or may not—be selected for a field operation in a shadowy and unknowable war, her normally reliable Sight encounters something new and frightening.

Although I’m generally a fan of Ms. Rusch’s, the very slow narrative intro intended to establish world and backstory and tension tried my patience despite the author’s superb craft; nor did the mangling of two of the three French words at the very outset help my immersion. The climax, when it comes, is clever and satisfying, but the whole seems to me top-heavy or incomplete, with so much worldbuilding and setup for so minor a story. As a result, this paranoid, edgy piece which dances into Orwell territory feels almost like a pilot, a frame for a future cycle of flashback stories about this character and her world.

 Next up is “Observations on a Clock” by D. Thomas Minton. In an unspecified future, The Testament of Celestial Unity with its promise of Revelation appears to be the only thing sustaining humanity and saving it from self-annihilation.

Chevalier, a believer, has been sent to a planet 15 light-years from Earth to witness the Revelation, which he will ‘light-beam’ to Earth as soon as The Clock—powered by micro black holes, we are told—reaches the end of its countdown.

Chevalier is accompanied by two ‘MEMS’, Maria Tessauda and Don Cristobal, neither of whom is a physical presence; these two MEMS play the roles, respectively, of questioning and affirming Chevalier’s faith.

What more is there to know? The Testament has proven itself by saving humanity from self-annihilation. It has prepared them for the coming Revelation, which will arrive when the Clock runs its course. Chevalier cannot doubt. As Don Cristobal has counseled, without doubt, there is no fear.

This story appears to be a meditation on faith and salvation, and the redemptive power of even empty faith. These are not new ideas; add in the story’s very considerable lack of specifics and an overdose of fantasy science (fusion and micro black holes used for rather mundane purposes) and it works best for me as an existential mood piece.

Ken Liu’s “The People of Pele” is core Science Fiction.

The story takes place on Pele, an Earthlike planet 27.8 light years from Earth. Commander Kerry Sherman and his crew of 150 have come on a one-way trip to colonize the world as part of an American-led Internationalist mission. Although their ship came within a hair of c in the course of the journey, there is no FTL in this future, and no realtime communication with Earth.

As the crew begins to settle in, two things occur. The first is the discovery of curiously-formed crystals whose structure appears to be artificial rather than natural. The second is the arrival of a transmission, sent just two years after the ship’s departure, informing the Commander that America has withdrawn from the Outer Space Treaty; as a consequence, Commander Sherman is ordered to return the single Chinese crewmember,  Junior Biology Researcher Jenny Ouyang, to suspended animation, and to claim the world and all future territories discovered as property of the United States.

This multilayered story not only examines the notion and relevance of government rule and dominion over relativisitic distances but also forces Sherman and his crew to confront and re-evaluate the definition of what constitutes a living being. While the territory isn’t new and the story lacks real tension, Liu nonetheless offers an absorbing and interesting tale.

“Going Home” by Bruce McAllister & Barry Malzberg

A mildly amusing and occasionally wistful exchange of email between the Last Science Fiction Writer and The Last Editor on the eve of the Singularity, the chief virtue of this one—apart from a couple of nice flights of prose—is its brevity.

I show you that heart, one not yet dead whatever you may imagine, Bob, by showing you the Golden Age, when it was indeed alive. I show you uncharted regions of space limned as never before by fire and light, and you tell me, “All been done.” I sing to you of children in the cannon of spaceships, their wide eyes on the hope of other worlds. These are not just their dreams, mine, but yours, too, if you will only remember. I sing to you of vast docking maneuvers worthy of Gorecki or Tschaikowsky and the surge of humanity between the stars; and you respond with an inflexible logic born of a decayed passion, a forgotten innocence, and in that forgetting, forgotten love and life as well. You speak not for what makes us human, Bob, but for the darkness that the human heart could save us from, were we to let it—by its very dreams.

The last and longest piece in this issue, “Murder Born,” is a real gut-punch of a novella from Robert Reed.

Shawn and Lauren’s teenage daughter Kaylee has been brutally murdered, her body dumped in a van and driven into a lake. Kaylee’s boyfriend, Elijah, is the prime suspect; during the course of his trial, which will result in Elijah’s conviction on a charge of first-degree murder, a world-changing discovery makes the headlines: the Elysium Chamber.

Originally intended as a power generation device, the Elysium Chamber shatters molecules and rips particles apart in the fastest, most efficient way possible, taking less than a picosecond to obliterate anything placed inside it. Although it fails as a power generator, another, darker application is rapidly found: an instant, painless means of delivering the death penalty. To everyone’s further astonishment, when the device is first used to dispose of a heinous, known terrorist, his twenty-four victims are reborn at the precise instant of his execution, materializing naked and hairless, but otherwise whole, at the exact places of their deaths.

In the months that follow, society quickly embraces the Elysium Chamber as the ultimate in just punishment: a humane end to the perpetrator and the de facto reversal of the crime itself in the restoration of the victims to life and family. With several Elysium Chambers built and flown to execution sites around the world, Shawn and the increasingly vengeful Lauren can look forward to Kaylee’s return.

But there are a lot of caveats: the line for the Elysium is long, and priority is given to serial and multiple killers; the killer must be kept alive and secure from suicide long enough to come to execution; the person executed has to be the right one; and so on.

In this searing meditation on justice, society, ethics, revenge, and rebirth, Robert Reed delivers a riveting story driven by complex, fully-realized characters. The science is handwaved to just the right degree, and although the ending (for a Reed story) may seem atypically predictable, it’s charged with enough complexity and nuance to fully satisfy.

Mr. Reed’s ability to deliver a breathtaking volume of high-quality, wholly original work year after year after year confirms him as one of the giants of our genre today. This story ranks with his finest work, and I fully expect it to win awards and make at least one YBSF volume.

Asimov’s, March 2012

“Golva’s Ascent” by Tom Purdom
“Mrs. Hatcher’s Evaluation” by James Van Pelt
“Nanny’s Day” by Leah Cypess
“The way of the Needle” byDerek Künsken
“Patagonia” by Joel Richards
“The Pass” by Benjamin Crowell

Reviewed by Dario Ciriello

Tom Purdom’s “Golva’s Ascent” is the story of Golva the itiji. The itiji are intelligent hunters who have developed sophisticated language skills as well as advanced mathematics and logic thought. One of two sapient species on their world, the itiji compete with the tree-people, a species less intellectually advanced but able to use tools and given to making slaves of their itiji captives.

An uncommonly curious and adventuresome member of his ground-dwelling species, Golva’s been captured by humans after climbing a hitherto-unconquered cliff face to the high plateau where humans have set up an outpost. Golva, who’s learned English from two renegade humans who fled the quarrelsome base, wants to learn more about the visitors.

Alternately threatened and wooed by his two very different interrogators—the sadistic Amel and the gentle Doctor Leza, Golva tries to simply observe his captors. Before long, however, Amel’s cruelty elicits a reaction from Golva, and he reveals himself as a sapient. When Amel and Leza’s divergent plans for their captive erupt into open conflict, Leza escapes on a power sled, taking the wounded Golva with her to prevent his being killed. As the pair flee across the plateau towards the forest, Amel and one of his goons follow in hot pursuit, shooting as they come. Leza, who isn’t ready for a life away from humanity, only wants to get Golva to safety—but Golva isn’t going to leave her to Amel’s sadistic treatment.  

In “Golva’s Ascent,” Mr. Purdom gives us an enjoyable novelette that combines some solid worldbuilding and an intriguing alien society with a fast, exciting chase. Ultimately, however, I was left with the feeling the story never quite spread its wings, and I found myself wishing there’d been more: more of the culture, more understanding of the human mission, and a much more rounded antagonist.

In “Mrs. Hatcher’s Evaluation,” James Van Pelt offers the sly tale of a history teacher whose methods are far from conventional.

With tenure protection revoked, High School Principle Wahr needs to cut a teaching position to meet budgetary constraints, and he knows exactly whom he wants fired: History teacher Mrs. Hatcher. He hands off the task to Salas, one of his vice-principals. When Salas goes to observe Mrs. Hatcher, her  lack of compliance with the system’s ironclad protocols, all of which are geared to passing state tests, seems solid grounds for a negative recommendation; but as Mrs. Hatcher delivers her ‘old-fashioned’ lecture, Salas finds the situation is not what it seems, and that there may be more to teaching than clearly stated lesson goals and benchmark test scores.

With its minimal science-fictional content—it’s there, but mostly by association—this story can most properly be termed Magic Realism. Whatever we call it, I found this to be a thoughtful, well-crafted story with a very human core and a few good, wry smiles to be had along the way.

In “Nanny’s Day,” Leah Cypess gives us Margaret, a divorced lawyer whose job demands conflict with her job as a mother to a three year-old. In a near-future world when ‘bioist privilege’—the assumption that a biological parent is the best suited for raising her children—is under question, nannies play an increasingly important role in child-raising. In fact, nobody keeps their nanny longer than three months, because the now-standard contract clause that a nanny won’t sue for custody hasn’t yet been tested in court .

Margaret’s already struggling to come to terms with the fact that Sammy, her three year-old son, is more attached to his nanny, Steph, than he is to his mother. But when she finds out that the nanny of seven  months’ standing whom she’s forgotten to fire has told Sammy that she’ll “take care of him all the time if that’s what you (Sammy) want,” Margaret is plunged into a sea of anxiety.

Although this story, just arguably science fiction, is well-written and plotted, with a nicely-crafted ending, the moral and legal questions raised in “Nanny’s Day” didn’t resonate much with me. Possibly the story’s brevity didn’t allow for sufficient character work for me to feel truly invested in Margaret and her dilemma.

And now for something completely different.

Derek Künsken’s novelette, “The Way of the Needle,” is solid science fiction set on a caste-ridden, metal-rich world (the long-ago supernova stripped away the lighter elements) orbiting a pulsar.

Eight-legged, metallic Mok is a Follower of the Needle, an order of martial priests. A noble posing as a humble swarmer (worker drones and followers), Mok’s been sent by Master Hac to assassinate formidable old Way Master Cis, of the Ban estate. But Mok’s proud, highborn attitude is a problem from the beginning.

When Mok encounters Rag, a particularly lowly swarmer who can help him gain access to Master Cis, his clumsy attempts at securing Rag’s help flounder. Rag, who recognizes Mok for a noble, refuses Mok’s clumsy attempts at persuasion, forcing the arrogant Mok to learn the true meaning of friendship.

An imaginative tale set on an austere, steelpunk world with its own strange rules, “The Way of the Needle” is studded with delicious lines like, “Scuttle with me, Moc,” Master Hac said, and evocative descriptive passages which lend credibility to Mr. Künsken’s unusual world. This is an entertaining, tightly-focused story that martial arts devotees will especially delight in.

Joel Richards’ “Patagonia” is an odd tale of travel and memories of past lives.

The story begins with our protagonist, the narrator (we never learn his name), meeting a woman, Bente, at a fish auction in Denmark. Over a few years, the pair’s long-distance courtship gels and they decide to go on a trip together, to Patagonia, which, for different reasons, holds some meaning for both of them.

Once there, they hike mountains and glaciers, eventually fetching up in Tierra del Fuego. On their penultimate day, the narrator takes a final hike with a guide, while Bente explores the town. Stopping in a remote bar/general store, the narrator is invited to sit with a local, an Indian who appears to be a Yamana, a tribe thought extinct. The Indian tells the narrator that he (the narrator) has visited this place before, before launching into a long, spellbinding tale which the narrator can later remember nothing of.

When the narrator returns to his hotel, he discovers a new file on his smartphone, a video labeled Yamana, in which the narrator himself relates, firsthand, an unusual account—in archaic Danish, a language he doesn’t speak even in its modern form.

Although the story lacks any real tension and the ending is a bit flat, Mr. Richards writes well, serving up an interesting mystery slightly reminiscent of Lucius Shepard’s work.

“The Pass,” by Benjamin Crowell, is set in California in the last days of man, a time after the ‘Big Wig-Out’, an event in which society appears to have undergone a spontaneous collapse, with people just giving up, rather than the usual Apocalyptic Event. It’s a fresh and interesting world which contains residual high tech but in which people live out simple lives in the flesh prior to uploading themselves to The Cloud when they’ve had enough. And although The Cloud in this story is an enormous biological presence, not just a metaphor for vast, off-site computing resources, it’s also the latter, a de facto living, moving afterlife where everyone (except those whose brains are destroyed, by accident or design, before upload) lives on forever.

Chinchy is a hunter. Wise in all the ways of plants and animals, her job is to keep the village fed, a responsibility she takes very seriously. One day, hauling a kill back to her village, a stranger shows up in her path. The stranger is Mark Herrera, her father, exiled for hoarding sheep when Cinchy was a small child. He’s left his flock of sheep at a ‘heart-shaped lake’ in the mountains and has come to make his peace with her before uploading himself, ending his corporeal life in the process. Chinchy agrees to go with him to the transfer point and to take his abandoned body to the incineration pits afterward. But seeing her father move on gets Chinchy wondering what meaning her own existence will have when she uploads; as a hunter, she’s a respected and vital asset to her community, but in The Cloud she’ll be a nobody.

When Sophie, Chinchy’s lover, argues that Cinchy’s dad was wrong to leave the flock when he could have brought at least one sheep with him to the village, Chinchy decides to go looking for the heart-shaped lake; but since The Cloud feeds off water, altering landscapes in the process, maps are no use, and the only way to find the place is by exploration.

Sophie eventually finds the flock but is only able to return with half of it to the village. When, together with Sophie and Gus, the male in their triangular relationship, Cinchy sets off to retrieve the rest of the sheep in the High Sierra their journey turns into a high-stakes battle for survival in which making the right decision hinges on understanding the true nature of The Cloud itself.

A fine novelette cut from whole cloth which keeps the reader guessing to the end, I thought this to be the strongest work in this issue of Asimov’s. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mr. Crowell set a novel in this world.