Asimov’s, January 2007

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"Battlefield Games" by R. Neube
"Café Culture" by Jack Dann
"Gunfight at the Sugarloaf Pet Food & Taxidermy" by Jeff Carlson
"The Hikikomori’s Cartoon Kimono" by A.R. Morlan     
"Poison" by Bruce McAllister
"Safeguard" by Nancy Kress
"Trunk and Disorderly" by Charles Stross
Taking the phrase “smart bomb” to new, amusing directions, author R. Neube matches his protagonist’s wits with a bored, chess-playing cruise missile in “Battlefield Games.” Feeling like a pawn in a largely meaningless war, the narrator, a foot soldier, finds in these board games a sense of camaraderie and respect that he doesn’t get elsewhere on the battlefield. Even though the cruise missile is nominally an enemy, Neube characterizes the missile’s relationship with the narrator as more humane than the other interactions surrounding the narrator. In “Battlefield Games,” Neube criticizes the increased mechanization of warfare which removes from fighters’ consciousnesses the fact that real people are dying real deaths. Nevertheless, Neube also points out that some hope for humanity may come from the least expected sources.

Less humorous and more serious—indeed self-important—Jack Dann’s “Cafe Culture” looks at the convergence of home front and warfront. In current or near future New York city, a rich, bourgeois American, Leo, runs into a young Muslim suicide bomber and the bomber’s mother, Dafna, whose life happens to be bound to Leo’s. With the appropriately twisted twist at the end, Dann attempts to implicate everyone, Leo and Dafna and passersby, in the scary fanaticism that motivates self-immolation. However, Dann’s fetishization of the Muslim characters—their clothes and hair constantly referred to as “coarse” and “black”—brings a taint of xenophobic hysteria to the proceedings, disempowering an otherwise thought-provoking short.
"Gunfight at the Sugarloaf Pet Food & Taxidermy" by Jeff Carlson features a most unusual heroine: Julie, a Montanan ranger who roboticizes hunting decoys. Besides helping her catch out-of-season riflemen, Julie’s customized animals may also be useful in taking down a drug smuggling ring and snagging a boyfriend for their inventor. The setup has a sitcom’s simplicity, but Carlson’s dead straight delivery and attention to the fine points of character make "Gunfight" even more memorable and amusing.

"The Hikikomori’s Cartoon Kimono" by A.R. Morlan pits Masafumi, kimono painter turned tattooist, and Harumi, well-inked food artist, against a gaijin rent-a-cop stalking Harumi. The author embellishes her stories with layers of small details about the characters’ work and desires, fueled by a masterful knowledge of Japanese culture. Morlan’s descriptions fetishize antique Japanese artistry:"He hadn’t thought of kinugoshi in years, but the mere utterance of the word brought back that creamy, custard-like texture of the silken tofu’s interior, after one bit through the deep-fried exterior, which rested unseen but curiously felt on the tip of his tongue, like a lingering aftertaste combined with the phantom sensation of silken smoothness", but the detail seems loving and wistful, evocative of the protagonists’ longing rather than any exoticization. Morlan’s Asian fascination and her preoccupation with bodies and pain reminds me of William Gibson, but, while Gibson’s cyberpunk always struck me as sad and distant, objectifying, Morlan gets under her characters’ skins with sympathy

With "Poison," Bruce McAllister drops a young boy, unhappy over the death of his cat, into a threatening Italian landscape of superstition, weird lizards, and (possibly) soul-stealing witches. It’s actually a very simple story: John blames one of the local crones for killing his cat, then learns that she’s not really an evil witch as alleged. The story, though only ten pages, sags a bit, especially because its emotionally punchy moments, those of John’s cat and the witch’s husband, are skimmed over to the extent that John’s and the witch’s grief didn’t seem grounded in history or specificity. Though not as strong as its deadly title would suggest, "Poison" does have a bittersweet ending that lingers.

Terrorism appears again in this issue of Asimov’s in Nancy Kresss “Safeguard.” Ever since reading her Beggars in Spain trilogy, I always look forward to any new work by this author, for it’s sure to combine frightening and scientifically sound extrapolation, and “Safeguard” is no exception. It focuses on four children, quarantined because they are vectors for a virus that could obliterate the human race, and what happens when the children escape their compound. The children enjoy their first samples of unmechanized human love while their guardian scientists race to catch them. Even though I found the four kids difficult to differentiate, Kress’s story still effectively explores the tension between humanization and depersonalization.

Asimov’s ends the first issue of the new year with a humorous diversion: “Trunk and Disorderly” by Charles Stross. The avuncular hero, Ralph, a neo-Edwardian lush who enjoys extreme Martian sky-diving, has to deal with a host of problems: his ex-robotic girlfriend, his new butler, his half-sister’s smelly and ornery pet mammoth, and, oh yes, being held hostage by an insane evil Vizier. With tongue-in-cheek rococo styling, Stross writes with the descriptiveness of Sir Richard Burton crossed with the comedy of manners exemplified by Saki…all invigorated by a snort of some modern narrative crack. Bottoms up, old man!