Asimov’s, January 2005

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"City of Reason" by Matthew Jarpe 
"Invasion of the Axbeaks" by Phillip C. Jennings
"Water Angel" by Bruce McAllister
"Rhinemaidens" by Larry Niven
"The Fate of Mice" by Susan Palwick
"Inside Job" by Connie Willis

In the golden age of science fiction, the region beyond Neptune was a haven for pirates and saviors.  While those free-wheeling days of space opera may be gone, Matthew Jarpe has resurrected them in "City of Reason."  His story is told by a Damager, a former pirate now patrolling the outer reaches of the solar system for information which can be sold to the highest bidder.  In his journeys, he comes across a strange ship with a crew bent on destroying one of the independent colonies in orbit among the Kuiper Belt.  While much of Jarpe‘s story could have been written decades ago, the science he incorporates into his story is of a more recent vintage and presents a strange marriage of human and technology. 

The explorations of Ted Mullins in Phillip C. Jennings's "Invasion of the Axbeaks" is reminiscent of the system exploited by Robinette Broadhead in Gateway.  However rather than look at what Ted does with his find, Jennings focuses his attention on the second generation of wealth and is narrated by Petronius Mullins, Ted's son.  While it would have been easy for Jennings to write a story of rebellion by a son against his father, he decides to take a slightly different approach.  While Petronius does rebel against Ted's wishes, it is clear that Ted knows more about the situation than Petronius realizes, even when told from the son's point of view.  That his father's hidden knowledge isn't the obvious is where Jennings makes the story stand out.  Unfortunately, at the same time as Petronius is realizing this, the voice of the story changes to become more distant in its narrative.  Just as Jennings should be providing more detail, he begins to gloss over event, distancing the reader from Petronius's eventual fate.

Bruce McAllister explores casual cruelty in "Water Angel." His story about a lone boy who spends his days spearing and releasing the aquatic life in the bay on which he lives, looks at the day the boy speared something out of the ordinary.  And yet, while the boy professes that day profoundly changed him, McAllister shows him continuing with his casual hunting, although now with the potential that he will once again find the extraordinary creature he speared on that one occasion. 

"Rhinemaidens" is another one of Larry Niven's stories looking at the transition from a world of magic to a world in which magic no longer works.  In this story of mermaids and a traveling bard, Niven looks at a period in transition when history is fading to rumor and traditional ways no longer have the force they once had.

There is something enchanting about a story in which the protagonist is a mouse with memories of being a horse.  In Susan Palwick's "The Fate of Mice," Rodney, the rodent of the title, is an IQ enhanced mouse who seems to somehow be tapping into the Jungian collective unconscious to have memories of various stories about mice, beginning with "Cinderella" and continuing through Stuart Little until he reaches "Flowers for Algernon."  Unfortunately, Palwick doesn't explore this strange ability to tap into literature, instead using Rodney and Pippa, the scientist's daughter who befriends him, to look at the question of freedom in juxtaposition to authority.  While Palwick raises several complex issues, she does not fully explore them, although doing so would have greatly extended the length of this story.  Such an expansion could easily have put the story on track for a Nebula or Hugo.

Connie Willis presents an interesting conundrum in "Inside Job," a story of skeptics and debunkers and channelers.  In a science fiction story, the obvious route would be to completely debunk the channelers, but Willis creates a situation in which there is the possibility that the story is actually a fantasy, which would allow her to have the channeler actually being able to contact the spirit world.  This sets up a situation of difficulty for her investigator who wants to show clear proof that Ariaura Keller is a fraud, but to do so, he needs to prove that she is actually channeling the spirit of H.L. Mencken.  To add layers to the story, the investigator, Rob, has a former movie star assistant, Kildy, who is either in love with him or in league with Ariaura.  While the story has the feel of so many of Willis's stories, it lacks the screwball comedy aspect which suffuses so much of her writing.  This lack, while it may disappoint some of Willis's fans, improve the story and allows the reader to take the story, its characters, and its debunking attitude more seriously.