Asimov’s — January 2012

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Asimov’s, January 2012

“Bruce Springsteen” by Paul McAuley
“Recyclable Material” by Katherine Marzinsky
“Maiden Voyage” by Jack McDevitt
“The War is Over and Everyone Wins” by Zachary Jernigan
“The Burst” by C.W. Johnson
“Friendlessness” by Eric Del Carlo
“In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns” by Elizabeth Bear

Reviewed by Colleen Chen

Asimov’s first issue of 2012 starts off with “Bruce Springsteen,” by Paul McAuley, where a drunk alien named Useless Beauty is in an off-world bar, discussing philosophy with the narrator. It sets a surreal and somewhat lighthearted tone to a tragedy about failed dreams and personal rebellions, with Bruce Springsteen crooning in the background.

The narrator, who came to the world of First Foot on a wave of hopefulness but whose life now drifts without direction, feels his first spark of stimulation since he left Earth after meeting a woman named Rachel and spending the night with her. Their connection is more than just physical—she tells him, “We’re like two characters out of one of Springsteen’s songs. We both came here looking for new lives and found we couldn’t escape what we are.”

The narrator is swept up in the promise of adventure with Rachel, and she asks him to help her steal an alien artifact from a museum. Predictably, things go badly, and they end up on the run through a backdrop of desert on a mysterious world where many alien civilizations have come and gone. We don’t see the aliens of the past any longer, but their presence is no less prevalent, as we soon discover.

This story uses Springsteen lyrics and memories to explore themes of personal rebellion against the trends and stories of our own lives. As one of the aliens says, “You don’t understand your stories, and you search for their meaning, and sometimes that frees you to do something different. Something new. Something wonderful.”

The narrator and Rachel, and the !Cha aliens who tick-tock in and out of the piece, are all likable; even the aliens are “human.” There are so many philosophical layers to such an engaging story here that I feel it’s worth not only one read, but several.

“Recyclable Material,” by Katherine Marzinsky, is the shortest piece in this issue, but I think also the sweetest. Its message at the start is to “expect the unexpected,” and the unexpected is what happens to a dutiful street-cleaning robot named Ross. His job is to travel down streets picking up and separating trash from recyclables, and stickering objects that are too large for his plastic trash bags or recycling-canister-backpack.

I don’t want to ruin the sweet surprise of the story, but it has to do with how Ross deals with the unexpected, how he learns. The message isn’t very deep, and I did kind of wonder why a sanitation robot would have to deal with low-tech plastic garbage bags, but this is still an enjoyable piece—a lighthearted, feel-good oasis in this issue. The prose, too, has its poetic moments, such as this passage that I liked: “Ross watched his bag flail upward. Its opaque skin mirrored red light for a moment before getting lost in the darkness. A plastic wraith in a cluttered sky.”

The story definitely brought a smile to my face.

“Maiden Voyage” by Jack McDevitt shows the start of the career of Priscilla Hutchins, a central figure in McDevitt’s six Academy novels. In her training to pilot interstellars, Priscilla is undertaking her qualification flight, which will bring her to seven planetary systems and gain her her pilot’s license. What Priscilla finds the most exciting of her destinations is a moon on which a Great Monument built by lizardlike aliens has been discovered. Through flashbacks and present-time conversations, we get a real sense of Priscilla’s appreciation of space as a place to move into with reverence rather than possession.

Accompanied by Jake, normally the captain of the Copperhead but now just an observer on Priscilla’s flight, Priscilla brings passengers to Hibachi’s World, a jungle-like world that supports a small ground station and team. Through discoveries of more alien ruins and signs of past civilizations, we learn of Priscilla’s views about the dissections and destructions by her society of ancient artifacts—the tourism of space that erodes its beauty.

I am not familiar with McDevitt’s other work, although I can tell that Priscilla is a very capable, likable character with enough charisma to easily star in so many novels. The tension in this story is more philosophical than physical; because not much happens in the story beyond some moral questions posed and applied, I sort of feel like I was a tourist on a space voyage, a passenger on the Copperhead observing a day in the life of “Hutch,” as Priscilla is nicknamed. “Maiden Voyage” is classic SF, mature and atmospheric.

“The War is Over and Everyone Wins” by Zachary Jernigan offers a dystopian view of race relations in the future, exploring one possibility of what could happen if the increasing minority status of whites is taken to an extreme. It begins with the narrator, Mike, learning of his Grandpa’s death. We immediately see dysfunction within his family, rooted in an argument over race and policy, and then we learn the context: all the whites have been killed by a virus, and American cities are divided into neighborhoods of red, black, yellow, and brown, with emphasis on not mixing, sometimes supported by physical walls.

Mike’s main conflict is with the views of his father, who supported the release of the virus—even though Grandpa was half-white, and thus suffered from illness due to his partial whiteness—as the solution to violence seen as stemming from white culture. Even though post-virus racial conflicts are more violent than ever, Mike’s dad insists that the violence is the “last vestiges of white influence corrupting the system,” and that Mike’s choice of a Vietnamese wife who was “too white-looking” and her subsequent murder by an unknown suicide bomber only supports his view that the world is better off without whites.

Mike returns to his parents’ home for a brittle family reunion, where he has to deal once again with negotiating views as painful and divisive as the walls between the neighborhoods.

This story deals with an uneasy, un-politically correct subject—the genocide of a race—and it makes me wonder if it could have been published if the race that was obliterated wasn’t white. It brings up interesting issues, though, and now I’m thinking—what indeed would happen if one or another race ceased to exist? I would find the scenario of this story a real stretch, but the archetypical views it offers are thought-provoking and relevant, and rendered in excellent prose.

“The Burst” by C.W. Johnson is an intricate story, beautifully written, which will particularly please those who like their SF with science so convincing that if someone told me that everything in it was true, I’d believe it.

The story begins when Cayla, a UCSD grad student, discovers a lump on her boyfriend Rish’s testicles the same day she’s found an important piece in her research puzzle. What Cayla has discovered is a series of “bursts,” or random, intense energetic events occurring in past years; these bursts support her theory that “cosmological dark energy, the mysterious pressure that accelerates the flight of distant galaxies, is caused by the crowding of new universes as they split off into alternate realities.” The rate of these bursts matches the rate of new universes being created. 

Dealing with The Lump, as it becomes known, parallels the tension in Cayla’s interactions with Howel Maune, a strange, reclusive professor who appears to care for no one except his dog. She badly wants to gain respect from Maune for her work, knowing a word from him could guarantee her career. As far as I can interpret it, the part of the story about The Lump represents how far Cayla will go to sacrifice personal concerns to her career aspirations in science.

This is one of those rare stories that makes science seem exciting to me. Who knew that the prospect of poring through lists of data for 60-70 hours a week could ever sound so good? The story made me want to do what Cayla’s doing, if only for an hour. The characters in this story, also, are all sympathetic and multi-layered. Rish is funny and likable; his interactions with Cayla soften our impression of her bookish naivete.

Here’s a bit I loved: “Up among a watery swarm of stars they saw the comet, a pale thumbprint smudged across the night sky. Carla felt a pinch to her heart, as if a fishhook had lodged there, and ever after the cosmos tugged her upward.”

This is my favorite of the short stories—highly recommended.

“Friendlessness” by Eric Del Carlo tells the story of Daric Dandry, a fellow you probably wouldn’t like in real life, but here appears such a sympathetic character that I wanted him to succeed so much that it fired my imagination as to what might happen after the story ended.

Daric and most of the rest of society are all part of the socweb, an institution regulating how people interface with each other—at age sixteen, people get ‘planted to join the socweb, and each person is scored based on the number and duration of social interactions he has. Daric’s score is abysmal; he’s been almost friendless his whole life. Through hard work, he gets a good job and is able to afford a house, a car, and a bunch of professional Friends who give him the joys of companionship and approval he’s never had throughout his lonely life.

When Daric overspends and loses his last Friend, his job, his car, and soon to be his house, he hitchhikes towards the beach town where he grew up. Every moment is painful, and it seems he has nothing to live for, but as he’s drawn toward nonexistence he discovers that perhaps not all is lost.

I liked Daric’s character and found the story almost painfully touching; if you’ve ever felt like a loser or socially inadequate, you’ll probably identify with Daric. “Friendlessness” speaks to issues of isolation and social masks, of approbation based on false personas—which is relevant with the amount of interaction people have online. I found the end of the story appropriate and realistic, although I confess some disappointment, as I wanted the story to continue and to watch Daric’s seed of  realization of his self-worth grow.

“In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns” by Elizabeth Bear is an SF mystery and the lone novella of the issue. Although it’s long, I loved every word, from its gruesome yet clinical beginning to its satisfying finish.

Homicide cop Ferron, partnered by Sr. Constable Indrapramit, is investigating the murder of physicist Dexter Coffin. Coffin’s presumed body is found apparently turned inside out—resembling a giant pink sausage. The one possible witness is a talking parrot-cat who appears to have been wiped clean of her memories.

In Ferron’s world, everyone is wired in, with eye-controlled “skins” and “feeds” to filter and collate information and interface with everyone else. The features and vocabulary of this world are woven convincingly into the story; we learn of things like newsies and blogbots that collect news, household sunfarms that power apartment blocks, rightminding chemicals for health and maintenance, and the technology to re-up when you want to stay awake for two days straight. The world here isn’t presented as better or worse than now; it’s simply very different, yet showing a natural evolution of trends we see today.  “I like living in the future. So many interesting ways to die,” Ferron says, which pretty much sums it up.

As Ferron follows leads, interviewing Coffin’s colleagues and digging up his history, we learn of her own life—her Classicist background that reveals itself in odd insights on myth and religion, her relationship with her gaming mother who lives for her virtual reality and her archived virtual memories, and Ferron’s own personality—incisively observant, compassionate, perhaps a little melancholy. As the case draws out, we see it in contrast to the continuing news of a star in the Andromeda galaxy, Al-Rahman, which has been seen distributing a flickering pattern. Some say the flickering might be the precursor to a nova, but others theorize it might be signals from a civilization long-dead, whose message was delayed due to the enormous distance.

This novella is an entertaining mystery set in an amazingly painted future world, seen through the eyes of a character with enough dimension to pull her weight through at least a novel or two. It’s a story to savor and reread, even after you already know who did it. Highly recommended.