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"World Without End, Amen" by Allen M. Steele
"World of No Return" by Carol Emshwiller
"Storm Poet" by Kim Antieau
"The Last McDougal’s" by David D. Levine
"In the Space of Nine Lives" by R.R. Angell
"Ghost Wars" by Stephen Baxter
"An Episode of Stardust" by Michael Swanwick
The January 2006 issue of Asimov’s is filled with stories about outsiders. Each is thrust into an unplanned and sometimes unbearable situation and so they struggle to find their way.
The issue starts with the easy read, "World Without End, Amen" by Allen M. Steele. Dr. Lawrence Kaufmann attempts suicide to avoid the AI Alfred, a constant and uninhibited presence on every television, refrigerator, and computer in the world. Kaufmann is a man who has been passed by. He predicted that releasing an AI into the world infrastructure would wreak havoc and cause the extinction of humans from Earth. The premise is familiar, but what sets this story apart is that Kaufmann is so wrong. Alfred brings peace, prosperity, and order to the world and turns Kaufmann into a curiosity, or worse, a loon. Steele weaves details about the AI and Kaufmann’s history through the tale, dropping morsels of insight like cookies onto a sheet. Though this reader kept picturing an old butler playing Alfred, the tale is rational and telling. One of my favorites, "World Without end, Amen" leads the charge of a strong issue.
Carol Emshwiller‘s short story "World of No Return" is told from the choppy first-person point of view of Lorpas, an alien living on Earth. He wears a metal implant, placed under his arm by his mother to identify him amongst his kind. His parents were stranded on Earth long ago and raised him to ignore the humans, avoid their culture, and wander aimlessly until rescue. Lorpas is captured by the police because an old woman, Ruth Hill, finds him sleeping in her yard. He escapes from prison and returns to her house for his things, but he takes pity on her and ends up living in her home and helping her to care for herself. When his kind find him and offer a trip back to his home planet, Lorpas must decide whether Earth is his home or merely the place where he’s lived his life. The story starts off disjointed as Lorpas is beaten and thrown in jail. As it progresses, his personality emerges, including his love and compassion for the old woman who has been forgotten by the world. The relationship that emerges is comfortable, like an old pair of slippers sculpted to perfection, resulting in a cozy style reminiscent of the golden age of Science Fiction.
"Storm Poet" by Kim Antieau is set in the drought of 1932. Twelve-year-old Billy’s Grandpa Dan drinks too much and wastes the meager family resources on his bail money. The old man introduces Billy to Andy, a local drunk who Dan fathered with another woman in his first family. Andy is a storm raiser, a man who purports to bring rain wherever he goes. Although his weakness for alcohol has ruined his abilities, he joins Billy on the farm to assist however he can. Billy learns to feel for water—for the life all around him—a skill taught to Andy by an old teacher named Momma Toulette in Louisiana. "After a time, I could talk to the clouds and the wind," says Andy, "if the chant or song was good enough." The oppressive drought lingers in every conversation of the story, as Billy tries to make sense of the storm raiser in his house and the magic of the world around him. The climax is one of love and hope, as Billy and his parents reconnect for the first time in years. The story exudes atmosphere—the frustration and poverty of the times inherent in every scene. The wholesome family moments add a layer of realism and love to this period tale. Though the writing style differs, the theme is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Nostalgia is the central premise in David D. Levine‘s short story, "The Last McDougal’s." Garth runs a McDougal’s, using the trademark his dad purchased in ’36. The store is an anomaly, in a world overcome with fears of BSE and BIS and struggling under the pressure of ten-dollar gasoline. The new omnilink makes travel an unnecessary luxury since "employment, entertainment, and community [are available] without ever leaving home." When an older gentleman named Dan arrives with his late husband’s granddaughter, Petrel, the full trip down reminiscent lane ensues. From the wrapper to the grill, and from the plastic trays to the seating, McDougal’s fulfills a long lost desire on Dan’s part. When Petrel learns that the burgers are made from real beef, conflict escalates between the teen and Dan. Levine paints the future with a clever brush, slipping in tidbits of futurisma, such as the decorative horns that Petrel wears, and the ominous societal implications of omnilink. His down-to-earth and realistic portrayal of family and the dynamic between two distant generations is refreshing and timely. The crisis builds smoothly to an inevitable resolution, though this reader found it a bit too cheery.
R.R. Angell uses feline symbolism in "In the Space of Nine Lives" to tell the story of one human worker on a generational flight through space. At the start, Tom is a young boy guided by his only human companion, Pilot. He learns about life through the assistance of his artificial friends in stim. When a new boy, Mark, moves in next door, the two become fast friends, then lovers, all under the scrutiny of Pilot. The ship’s cat, Widget, provides not only comic relief in the opening scene, but a sense of mortality in a world of never-ending lives. Tom is the next pilot, in a line of nine, each bringing the ship closer to its final destination. The number is not chosen at random, for the lives of the cats and Pilots are linked. Pilot retires to hibernation, leaving Tom alone to "choose" another egg to grow into his successor, the next Tom. Abandoning his name to the simple title of Pilot is too taxing. Instead he busies himself with chores until the ship’s computer intervenes to remind Tom of his mission. The story has an easy flow, written mostly from a child’s perspective. Angell pens a coming-of-age story in an environment of one, but with the assistance of artificial intelligence, weaving a tapestry of complex characters who guide Tom on his journey to wisdom. The vague ending leaves too many loose ends for this reader’s taste.
"Ghost Wars" by Stephen Baxter is a classic space opera filled with enemy aliens, secret missions, and world-destroying weapons. The needleship Spear of Orion is a member of the Aleph Force, the elite rapid-response units in Free Earth’s Navy. Pilot Hex, gunner Borno, engineer Jul and navigator Hella work as a team to attack and kill the aliens known as Silver Ghosts—"symbiotic creatures, each one a huddled cooperative collective" with a "spherical shape and silvered hide [that] minimizes heat loss." When surrounded by a Ghost armada, Hex begins the self-destruct sequence, only to abort when provided an alternative by a Ghost Integumentary. The alien offers to destroy its gravity wave manipulator, a weapon so powerful it can destroy a world by collapsing its magnetic field or disrupting orbital dynamics. In exchange, the Spear of Orion must assassinate a leader known as the Black Ghost, a strategist more powerful than any other Ghost because he thinks and reacts like a human. The descriptions of worlds, suns, creatures, and ships bring this story to life with breathtaking realism. The humans are able to see their enemy in a new light, from a perspective close to their own creation, and with a new found sense of purpose.
Michael Swanwick‘s "An Episode of Stardust" begins on a train in the land of Fäerie. Gabbro Hornfelsson is a dwarf with a healthy sense of curiosity who sees Nat Whilk, a "donkey-eared fey" escorted aboard by two fey marshals. Naturally, he must investigate the unusual set of circumstances that led to this tableau, and so, over drinks, hears Nat’s tale. What follows is a lighthearted ramble with a talking fox and a supporting cast of Fäerie characters from the wrong side of the Unseelie tracks. The writing is undemanding and inviting, a good match for the subject matter. There’s nothing deep or insightful to "An Episode of Stardust," but there doesn’t need to be; the characters are appealing and the story amusing. While it is apparent that this is a piece from a larger work—a modified chapter from Swanwick’s current novel-in-progress as it happens—it manages to stand solidly on its own as an entertaining fairy story.
Overall, the issue contains a pleasant variety of styles that are tied together to a central theme. Characters from space cats to AIs, and aliens who range from cautious to relentless, catapult the plots into a milieu of multifarious and fascinating environments.