Asimov’s, January 2004

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"Nectar" by Brian Stableford
"Embracing-the-New" by Benjamin Rosenbaum
"Songs the Sirens Sing" by Mary Rosenblum
"The Garcia Narrows Bridge" by Allen M. Steele
"Coal Ash and Sparrows" by Michael J. Jasper
"This Old Man" by Steven Popkes

ImageBrian Stableford's "Nectar" is, I believe, set in the future history of recent novels such as Architects of Emortality and The Cassandra Complex. Sara is an adolescent girl in a world where children are extremely rare. Raised by eight co-parents, she is one of only a handful of young people within a hundred miles of her home. When she fits a bio-engineered rose to her smartsuit, she hopes to attract hummingbirds, but one night she is unexpectedly visited by shadowbats, artificial "shaped sublimates" only tenuously real. To discover where they came from, she visits the Dragon Man, an immensely old creator of such entities, and takes her first steps towards a mature understanding of the society she lives in.

Science fiction writers have been skillfully building up coherent future societies through the accumulation of seemingly throwaway details since Heinlein, of course, but it's always a pleasure to read such a tale from a highly skilled practitioner of the art as Stableford. How comprehensible such stories are to anyone not already fluent in science fiction is another question, but as someone who has been drenched in the stuff since childhood, I found this story immensely enjoyable.

"Embracing-the-New" is an admirable, though perhaps not entirely successful, attempt to portray an entirely alien culture. The task Benjamin Rosenbaum has set himself is, of course, impossible, since a truly alien culture would likely share no reference points with ours, and hence be incomprehensible. This has never stopped sf writers from trying, though. Vru is an apprentice godcarver, and a member of a species whose memories are contained in symbiotic creatures known as Ghennungs, which are passed down from one's ancestors. The more Ghennungs one carries, the higher one's status. Vru carries only five, while his master Khancriterquee carries sixteen.

The Festival of Hrsh requires a new god, and Khancriterquee commands Vru to carve it, as a test of his talent. Vru carves a god named "Embracing-the-New," into which he pours all of his heart and talent, but when the god is unveiled, his master has altered it terribly. Vru is driven by this travesty to an act of rebellion against not only his master but his species' entire social structure.

The story is compellingly told, and the structure of Vru's society is well worked out, but I was left a bit unconvinced by the ending. Given what we are told and shown of Vru's society, I felt that Vru's psychology at the end of the story was still a bit too human. Perhaps such a feeling is inevitable in any story that tries to show the truly alien. On the whole, however, this was a fine story.

Mary Rosenblum has made a return to science fiction, after a detour of several years into mysteries. "Songs the Sirens Sing" is an intriguing story of brotherly love, though some of the background is frustratingly vague. Abrim and Shimon are brothers, both asteroid miners who make a living by mining ice from asteroids. Abrim's ship is old but reliable, piloted by an AI clone of his consciousness named Miriam. When Shimon shows up, Abrim is surprised to find his brother in a brand-new ship, piloted by a molecular "schiz-core" that is a precise mirror of Shimon's own mind. Abrim is happy to help out his brother, despite Miriam's protests, but is disturbed by Shimon's peculiar tone. When Shimon mysteriously falls silent, Abrim follows his brother, only to discover a mysterious entity that seems, like the sirens of the title, to have entrapped Shimon.

Abrim (and the reader) never solve the mystery of Shimon's sirens, Abrim being more concerned with escaping alive, but what is more frustrating is the vagueness of the story's settings. There are intriguing elements presented, such as the vision of a space-going culture based on steam-driven ships, and recurring references to Abrim and Shimon's time in a refugee camp, but these never gel into a coherent future. The story succeeds on the strong depiction of the complex relationships between the characters, with Abrim being torn between his brother and his AI. Had the setting been better drawn, the story would have been even more successful; as it is, it is still enjoyable, and I hope Rosenblum returns to the field on a regular basis.

Over the last few years Allen M. Steele has been publishing a series of stories set on the planet Coyote. Briefly, the series tells of the theft of the starship Alabama by a group of dissidents, their flight from Earth to Coyote, and their struggle to survive. At the end of the first sequence of stories, a second starship arrived from Earth, and the settlers had to flee their homes. "The Garcia Narrows Bridge" is an homage to the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai and tells of the efforts of Matriarch Luisa Hernandez, leader of the Western Hemisphere Union forces on Coyote, to build a bridge across the Eastern Divide to the continent of Midland. With the bridge complete, the Union will be able to send troops and colonists to Midland, where the original settlers have fled.

The bridge is designed by James Alonzo Garcia, the most famous architect on Earth, whose services and person were summarily shipped to Coyote. "The Garcia Narrows Bridge" narrates the construction of the bridge and Garcia's growing dissatisfaction with the Union, to the point where he makes the fateful decision to defect. The climax of the story will prove no surprise to anyone who has seen the movie that inspired it. I like the "Coyote" stories, though I still have not read all of them, but I found this less satisfactory than its predecessors. Steele uses a flatter, more condensed style in this story, and the impersonal tone created too much distance between the characters and me for me to ever feel terribly involved in the events. When it is published in book form, it may be more effective as a transitional chapter, but on its own it is not entirely successful.

"Coal Ash and Sparrows" by Michael J. Jasper reads more like a sketch than an entirely worked out story. After Lina Seymour's father Joseph dies in a fall from a ladder, she finds a mysterious book of magic, and stays in the barn to read. "Determined to learn more, Lina Seymour remained in the barn for the next one hundred and thirty-one years," we are told, and so she does. In flashbacks intercut with Lina's story, we see how her father was given the book by his mysterious great-uncle Mo, and learned a few words of magic. Along the way we are given a few glimpses of the complicated back story, which seems to involve a war between two factions of wizards.

Frustratingly, no one in the story does much of anything. Lina sits in the barn, reads her magic book, and goes crazy. Her father reads the magic book, gets married, and dies. Great-uncle Mo is involved in all sorts of machinations, but these are narrated quickly. As a prologue to a longer story or a novel, this might work, but I found myself primarily frustrated and bewildered, rather than intrigued.

The issue ends strongly with Steven Popkes' "This Old Man," a pensive consideration of immortality. After a plague devastated humanity and left the survivors crippled by an inability to read or write, pockets of civilization have sprung back up. One of these is Old Man Hibbert's Farm. Old Man Hibbert is old, very old, but no one is quite sure how old. He is one of the few remaining people who can read, however, and this gives him an immense advantage. Lem is Hibbert's izquierda, his bodyguard and aide, and as the story progresses he learns a great deal, such as the fact that Hibbert is in fact four thousand, three hundred and sixty years old, as well as some other equally disturbing facts about those to whom he is closest.

There's a Heinleinesque quality to this story, with its pragmatic tone and wise, immortal guru, but Popkes' is less didactic than Heinlein, more interested in character than ideas. The characters–Lem, Old Man Hibbert, Lem's brother Raib, and others–are all finely sketched, and the setting is strong and realistic. I was moved by the ending, and found myself hoping that there would be further stories about this old man, who has watched so many things come and go over the centuries.