Asimov’s, January 2003

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"Junk DNA" by Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker
"Pick My Bones with Whispers" by Sally McBride
"Rejection" by Robert Reed
"The War on Treemon" by Nancy Kress
"Golden Bird" by Mary Rosenblum
"The Ice" by Steven Popkes

It’s entertaining to guess which parts of "Junk DNA" come from which author. Rudy Rucker is most likely responsible for the flying saucers, higher mathematics, and product names like "Goob Yoob" and "Pumpti," while Bruce Sterling probably contributed the Russian black-market biotech industry, the pair of high-tech entrepreneurs, and something else. Of course, I may be completely wrong in these guesses, but fortunately there is more to the story than just trying to figure out who wrote what. A Russian expatriate comes to Silicon Valley, teams up with a biotech wannabe, and, in the process of trying to make their fortune, the partners inadvertently help a pair of wealthy venture capitalists ascend to the next evolutionary level. The plot is perhaps slightly implausible. At times Rucker’s gonzo sensibility clashes with Sterling’s more detailed extrapolations of the future, but for most of the story the two authors merge imperceptibly into a single, rather odd, but fascinating Ruckerling.

Sally McBride‘s "Pick My Bones with Whispers," set in a future where much of humanity has rejected the physical world for an uploaded life, focuses on a young girl still not ready to leave the physical world. When Lizzie is faced with her imminent physical death, she must come to terms with a more rapid ascent to a virtual life than she ever expected. The tension between the physical and the transcendent is a familiar one in science fiction (and literature in general) but McBride’s careful attention to the details of Lizzie’s world and her obvious sympathy with her character’s predicament holds the reader’s interest.

I’ve read a lot of First Contact stories over the years, but Robert Reed‘s "Rejection" is one of the few I can think of that explicitly uses courtship as a model for First Contact. Sex, yes, plenty of writers have seen First Contact as sex, but courtship seems to have been overlooked. Beginning in 2011, when Michael is a young boy killing ants in the driveway, aliens visit Earth at irregular intervals, interview every human being alive, and then leave without inviting humanity to join their galactic union. Over the years, with increasing desperation, Michael and humanity try to figure out what they did wrong, why they were rejected, how they can improve themselves to be worthy. In its depiction of the crippling impact that the mere knowledge of alien life might have on the human psyche, the story belongs to the same pessimistic tradition as Damon Knight’s "Stranger Station" and James Tiptree Jr.’s "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side," and the way out that Michael chooses, while realistic, is not likely to appeal to more optimistic readers. Whether you share the story’s point of view or not, though, this is still a fine story, up to Reed’s usual standard.

In Nancy Kress‘s "The War on Treemon," two young people from radically different cultures come to opposite conclusions about the morality of the Servants of Peace, a vaguely Zen-like group that meddles with cultures to, as a Servant puts it, "prevent ideologies from becoming too rigid, and the right from becoming too righteous." Claree, a young Postulant in training to become a Servant, finds her own ideology tested when she is assigned to Treemon, a culture at war with its neighbor Ignatus. At the same time, Brak, a young man of Treemon, who regrettably shares his name with John Jakes’ Conan spoof, is captured by the Servants as part of their plan to end the war. The two young people react rather differently when they discover the plan, and Brak surprisingly shows greater mental flexibility than Claree. The story refuses to answer the moral dilemmas it raises, and the reader is left free to side with whomever they please, though this ambiguity may provide a hint as to the author’s preferences. Kress seems to delight in setting disparate world views on collision courses, as in her Beggars series or her Hugo-winning "The Flowers of Aulit Prison," and this story is no exception.

After a torrent of generally excellent stories in Asimov’s in the 1990s (twenty-five, according to the introductory note), Mary Rosenblum left science fiction to write mysteries under another name. She returns to Asimov’s with the novelette "Golden Bird," a topical story examining one means a society might use to inoculate itself against terrorism. Estevan Baranca, a young man raised on the Great Plains Preserve, comes to Portland to attend the university and study bio-engineering. At the train station he meets Amie, a young woman who quickly takes Estevan in tow and shepherds him around the city. After spending the night together Amie vanishes, and when Estevan finds her the next day he realizes the truth about her purpose in the city. The relationship between Estevan and Amie is finely sketched, but at times I felt the story’s setting was not drawn strongly enough, and so the sadness of their relationship, which depends entirely on that setting, was attenuated. Amie’s function in the city is an intriguing notion, but I wish the story had explored her symbiotic relationship with the city a bit more. It might have benefited from more length, but on the whole this story is a solid return to the field by Rosenblum.

We’ve all wondered, of course, what would happen if someone cloned the great Gordie Howe, but no one has written that story until now. In Steven Popkes‘ "The Ice," Phil Berger is a promising high school hockey player in Massachusetts when an enterprising reporter breaks the news that he is an illegal clone of Gordie Howe. The revelation begins the inexorable disintegration of the calm pattern of Phil’s life. Rather than ending up in the NHL as he hoped, he quits hockey and ends up fixing cars in New Mexico. Who cloned Howe and why is only hinted at towards the end of the story, and Phil is forced to spend his life grappling with questions many of us would rather ignore. Why is he here? How much of him is Gordie Howe and how much is Phil Berger? How much choice did he have in his destiny? Popkes does a wonderful job of dramatizing these questions so that the events of the plot never seem forced or didactic. At times the story begins to feel like a piece of mainstream fiction, and then the essential science fictional premise once again comes to the fore. This is an excellent story, intensely human in its interests, and appealingly level-headed in its extrapolation.