Special Double Review
Jerard Bretts & Nicky Magas
Asimov’s, February 2015
Reviewed by Jerard Bretts
The longest piece in this issue is “On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers,” a fast-paced quest story by Nick Wolven set in a dystopian vision of New York City. Addiction to “wake up pills” means that people are ceasing to sleep with dire consequences for the social and economic fabric. Wolven packs his darkly entertaining story with vividly realised incident, clever ideas, amusing dialogue and word play, engaging our sympathy for the hapless trader Gabriel as he seeks to track down the legendary and reclusive hustler Ribbeck.
In the future American south of “Rattlesnakes and Men” by Michael Bishop, Wylene, Reed and their daughter Celeste move to Nokuse County in Southern Georgia, where they find that the local society is dominated by Terden BioQuirked Creations, Inc. and its genetically modified rattlesnakes. I found the scenario highly unlikely and the satire rather heavy-handed.
“No Decent Patrimony” by Elizabeth Bear is a novelette about the father and son relationship of William and Edward Jacobin, centuries–old “geriocrats” in a future world in which a rich super-elite go through a life-extending “Maddox Process.” When William is killed in a car explosion, is it an accident or murder? Science fiction is the ideal genre to consider the political, social and economic implications of people living longer. Unfortunately, we get a lot of climate change clichés instead and the fact that much of the story is taken up by an extended interview with Edward by a journalist which makes for a rather slow and stodgy read.
Eneasz Brodski sets his cold war novelette “Red Legacy” in a secret Soviet research facility in the Ural Mountains. The Russians are pinning their hopes on genetics and cloning, in contrast to the capitalists, who pour their resources into computing. Unfortunately, the ensuing story of the infiltration of the facility is rather cartoonish and marred by lots of unnecessary violence and gore.
“Ghost Colors” by Derek Künsken is an uneasy mix of hard science fiction and ghost story. Brian’s aunt Nicole had been haunted by the ghost of a scientist, Pablo, who had been infatuated with her. When Nicole dies, Pablo starts to haunt Brian because “Ghosts haunted families. Informational patterns in DNA attracted them.” Brian’s new girlfriend Vanessa makes it clear that if he wants to be with her the ghost has to go, which means a complicated course of gene therapy so that Pablo will no longer recognise him. There is some poignancy in Brian’s dilemma but a world in which such hauntings seem common–place strains credulity.
In “Forgiveness” by Leah Cypess seventeen year old Anna is in love with fellow high school student Michael. Michael has been physically abusive to Anna but now has a chip implanted that will stop him. But can a relationship be sustained in such a situation and what about those rumours concerning the effectiveness of the chip? This is a thought-provoking short story and the first person narration nicely captures the confusions─and dangers─of teenage life.
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Asimov’s, February 2015
Leah Cypess’s “Forgiveness” takes place where love and pain intersect. Seventeen year-old Anna has been waiting for her boyfriend Michael to return to school after his implant treatment. Everyone around them has branded him a criminal and a monster, but Anna knows things between them will be different now that he’s physically incapable of hurting her anymore. Their lives should be perfect—so why does she keep pressing all his old buttons to see what happens? And just how much can his new chip take before he breaks free, back into his old, violent ways? Cypess tugs at the reader’s hopes and fears in “Forgiveness,” telling her story in a gut-twisting between-the-lines rise of tension right from the beginning. Strong characters and themes of emotional and physical abuse play with the reader’s sympathies, all culminating in an ending that is both satisfying and relieving.
Brian, a man stuck on the past, is haunted by the ghost of his dead aunt’s jilted lover in Derek Künsken’s “Ghost Colors.” When Brian’s girlfriend Vanessa, a woman who lives very much in the present, demands that Brian receive gene therapy to stop the irritating but harmless haunting, Brian experiences the awkward queasiness of letting go of something from the past that is fundamental to who he is. As the theme of the story is preserving evidence of the past, by necessity “Ghost Colors” spends most of its word count in backstory. Künsken does create a rich narrative between Brian and his deceased Aunt Nicole—however, the story doesn’t quite make it fully back to the present, amplifying Brian’s inability to let go completely. While the ending does stumble the reader a bit, it works well with the rest of the story.
Elizabeth Bear gives readers a future in which the rich can become biologically immortal in “No Decent Patrimony.” Edward is the sole inheritor of his father’s money, business and legacy after a fuel cell explosion in his father’s car ends his immortal life and puts Edward in the hospital. As if that weren’t hard enough, the community is hungry for more blood, social justice and a good story. When Edward and his lawyer Marna are confronted by a fresh-faced reporter upon their return to his luxuriously pedestrian estate, Edward ignores his council’s recommendations, and enters into an ideological battle of words and wills with the intruder. Who will win and what story eventually gets out depends largely on how Edward himself feels about the morality of the super-rich living forever. The narrative behaves much like a tour bus for the future throughout most of the story. Character development takes a backseat to world building, in which the problems of today are amplified in a future setting. The first person present point of view and Edward’s restless distraction by his own estate add to the robotic feeling that the characters function as tour guides pointing out the sights in this dystopian near-future narrative.
The future is a mad, rushed, sleep-deprived nightmare of twenty-four hour work cycles and rampant crime in Nick Wolven’s “On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers.” Gabriel is an investment banker like any other: popping wake-up pills to keep working around the clock and trading on the advice of the omnipotent AI speculators. No one knows what the predictions mean, but the AI can’t be wrong, can it? But when the AI suddenly starts predicting a huge spike that no one can decipher, Gabriel is sent to see the market savant Ribbek, possibly the only man alive who can untangle the AI’s predictions. What follows is a wild chase through the sleepless streets—a snake pit of Moon worshiping crackpots, vampires, corrupt cops and rave-loving necromancers. Whether or not the world-shaking wisdom Ribbek has to impart on Gabriel is worth it is as open to speculation as the markets themselves. Wolven shows a great strength of integrated world building in this novella length story. Gabriel moves—and subsequently pulls readers—through his world with a naturalness that not only gives readers a tangible idea of the surroundings, but keeps the plot going uninterrupted by bumpy scene setting. Characters and events are brought up and dropped, like water on a boil, complimenting the wild and chaotic atmosphere of the setting itself. Bobbing like a cork, Gabriel is swirled around on the current until he reaches his destination, where the predictable climax is negated by the final, unpredictable ending.
Michael Bishop has penned a parable on gun culture in “Rattlesnakes and Men.” When a tornado flattens their home, Wylene, her husband Reed and daughter Celeste have no choice but to move to Wriggly, GA on the hospitality of one of Reed’s old army buddies. Before they even have their boxes unpacked, the welcoming committee arrives with some of the town’s strange customs: a personal guard rattlesnake and the ordinance that its inclusion in the home is mandatory, even around their seven year-old daughter. Of course they’re given every assurance that the Terden BioQuirked snakes are harmless to the folks they’ve imprinted on, and only deadly to intruders with evil in their hearts. Wylene isn’t convinced, but Reed insists on adopting the local custom so she has no choice but to capitulate. Will Reed change his mind when their daughter starts exhibiting symptoms of severe anxiety? How about when the local doctor exposes the multiple snake-related deaths of children and adults both in recent weeks? Things are bound to get worse before they get better, when even the snake fanatics call out some of their own as extremists. Bishop’s story is obviously a tongue-in-cheek commentary on gun apologists and their politics. The premise of a county where bioengineered snakes have become personal arms is interesting if not downright laughable in its ridiculousness, and thankfully Bishop doesn’t spend a lot of time in set up before getting to the good parts. While it plods down paths the reader and citizen of contemporary culture expects it to, “Rattlesnakes and Men” is a fun piece of social ribbing that will likely stay relevant for a long time to come.
Set in Cold War era Russia, Eneasz Brodski’s “Red Legacy” is a visceral, violent, emotional story about a mother’s love for her daughter and what she will do to keep her alive—and avenge her. Marya Kovanich is a research director at a secret, underground facility under the Ural Mountains. Her daughter, Alexia, dies and is reborn again in an endless 394-hour cycle under Marya’s careful medical attention. Ever since her partner and Alexia’s biological mother, Natasha left them, Marya has had to shoulder both the responsibilities of the research center and the off-book modifications to Alexia’s genes that might one day allow her to live for more than a few days at a time. The work is exhausting and compounded by the intrusion of MI6 agents, nosey auditors and apocalyptic American invaders. Sleep is a luxury and secrecy is everything, but there’s nothing Marya won’t do to keep her daughter alive. Nothing. Between the first person present to third person past shifts, “Red Legacy” is a bit difficult to follow chronologically. By around the middle of the story, the reader gets a feel for the pattern, but the switch still feels like a large pothole in the flow of the story. The theme itself is a socio-economic treatment of Darwinian and Lamarckian evolutionary theory, and how it relates to the historical advancement of select nation states. The combination of gene manipulation, social evolution and a mother’s obsessive love makes for an interesting, if at times disturbing story.