Asimov’s, January 2010

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Marya and the Pirate” by Geoffrey A. Landis

Conditional Love” by Felicity Shoulders

A Letter from the Emperor” by Steve Rasnic Tem

Wonder House” by Chris Roberson

The Good Hand” by Robert Reed

Wilds” by Carol Emshwiller

The Jekyll Island Horror” by Allen M. Steele

Reviewed by Robert E. Waters

The January 2010 issue of Asimov’s gives us three novelettes and four short stories. We begin with “Marya and the Pirate” by Geoffrey A. Landis. This is by far the hardest science fiction story in the issue. Domingo Bonaventura is a pirate out to steal a large cache of water for his outlying colony. The ship he attacks and secures is piloted by a young girl, whom he takes as his prisoner. From here, the story drags a bit until they reach Earth, at which point an unforeseen calamity forces them to work together for their mutual survival, and the pace picks up nicely and ends with a small twist. The relationship between Bonaventura and the girl is where the real story lies, and their journey from being enemies to lovers is pretty good, but there’s nothing spectacular about it.

Conditional Love” by Felicity Shoulders gives us a harrowing look into the future, where the “illegal” genetic engineering of children is common practice. Parents can get whatever kind of baby they desire: smart, fast, obedient, beautiful, witty, etc. Grace is a doctor in an institution that handles those “opted” children whose parents have, for one reason or another, grown tired of their creations and have given them back to the state, or have had them taken away in official sting operations. One such patient is a boy named Daniel, whose genetic modification (or error, if you will) allows him to “imprint” on any adult he sees. But this creates a problem where he loses all memories he’s collected from previous adult relationships. How can such a child live normally when everything changes all the time? This, coupled with other professional and personal pressures, prompts Grace to look critically at her own life, and ultimately forces her to make tough choices about her future. Genetic engineering in children is nothing new in science fiction, but I liked the way the author handled the relationships between the doctor and her patients. The ending was also quite effective.

Steve Rasnic Tem’s “A Letter from the Emperor” is perhaps the best story in the issue. Crewman reporter Jacob Westman arrives on Joy, one of the fringe planets in the Empire. Shortly before landfall, Jacob’s sole crewman commits suicide. Not only does he have to deal emotionally with such a terrible event, but he must also handle a colonel planet-side who has been waiting patiently for his letter from the emperor. All dutiful servants to the throne get a personal letter from the emperor when they retire, and this colonel is special: he actually knows the emperor. They fought together in their early days. Or so the old man claims, though his memories have been wiped clean for security reasons. Is the old man lying? Is there a letter waiting in Westman’s full databank of unanswered e-mail? The Empire is vast and no one really knows if the emperor is still alive. What’s a reporter to do? I’ll say no more for fear of giving away the ending. Suffice it to say that Westman, in the end, does the old man proud.

Wonder House” by Chris Roberson is set in the author’s alternate world of Aztec and Chinese supremacy. Two aging owners of a third-rate pulp fiction house are trying to come up with ideas to quicken their business. In walk two upstart independents, a writer and an illustrator, with an idea that’s, shall we say, “super.” This story provides an interesting take on the birth of the comic book industry, with enough differences from our own world to keep the premise fresh. My main complaint is that the pace is rather slow, with the author spending most of his time in backstory explaining how the pulps evolved in this alternate state. It’s interesting information, but it brings the narrative to a crawl.

In Robert Reed’s “The Good Hand,” we have an alternate history wherein the US savagely protects its nuclear secrets. So much so, that its relationship with allies (namely France) reaches a boiling point. France has been dabbling in the Uranium trade, and America has warned them to stop or else. Businessman Kyle Betters finds himself in the midst of this political struggle just as the bombs begin to fall on French nuclear facilities. Reed is clearly drawing parallels between his overly-aggressive America and elements in our own world, where so-called Neo-Conservatives are ready to bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran at a moment’s notice. When and if we bomb a hostile country, exactly how long might it be before we turn our bellicosity toward a “friend”? That seems to be the question being asked, and frankly, I have no answer. Certainly, there are those who will read this story and accuse the author of stoking Liberal Anti-Americanism. But Reed is far too talented an author to be tagged with such silly labels. He never states what political party is in charge in his America, nor is his protagonist political. Kyle Betters is an innocent bystander, a simple guy trying to make a living. He’s as bewildered with the state of his world as the French characters around him. He makes no political pronouncements nor does he overtly defend or condemn the American policy, and thus we are left to make up our own minds about what we think is right or wrong.

Carol Emshwiller’s “Wilds” is neither science fiction nor fantasy. It doesn’t even possess any elements of horror as far as I can tell, and if it’s based upon any popular myth or legend, it’s not obvious. Simply put: a man decides to go out into the woods and live like a wild animal. Then a woman running from the law comes along and they live together for a time. Then she exits the stage and he lives some more by himself. The end. On its own, it’s not a bad story. It’s well-written and the pace is good, but what kind of story is this? Asimov’s has always had a reputation for blurring boundaries between the genres, but even die-hard fans might wonder why such a tale was included in its pages.

We end on a high note with “The Jekyll Island Horror” by Allen M. Steele. This is a very clever tale, where the author puts himself into the narrative to start, and then takes us back to the 1930’s. The author begins by describing a vacation he and his wife took on Jekyll Island, Georgia in 2008. While there he meets a bookstore owner and they debate the possibility of extra-terrestrial life having visited Earth. Steele states kindly that he does not believe that little green men have ever set three-toed foot on our planet; the merchant is not so sure. Later on, Steele receives an envelope from the old man containing a manuscript written by his father, Solomon Hess. The rest of the story is the manuscript verbatim, and it recounts the time when Solomon was a personal servant to William A Russell, wealthy socialite and publisher who owned a house on the island. The “horror” of the title is something that falls from the sky, and as you might expect, the investigation of it turns terrifying, as Hess, Russell, and other wealthy islanders poke and prod the visitor to divine its composition and value. The story’s tone, style, and setting reminded me of HP Lovecraft, and Steele does a marvelous job of giving us a look into the lives of the filthy rich of the time. I’d even go so far as to suggest that it is an indictment of those wealthy men, for as America suffered under the Great Depression, here are these captains of industry who are concerned only with preserving their island paradise and filling their coffers even further. But regardless of the author’s motives, it’s a fine story and a good wrap-up to an otherwise average issue.