Asimov’s, July 2003

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"Under the Lunchbox Tree" by John Kessel
"Hexagons" by Robert Reed
"Robots Don't Cry" by Mike Resnick
"Curing Agent" by Don D'Ammassa
"Our Günther Likes to Dig" by Lee Allred
"The Empress of Mars" by Kage Baker

"Under the Lunchbox Tree" is a short story set in John Kessel's "Society of Cousins" series, whose previous entry was the very fine "Stories for Men." The series is set on a matriarchal lunar colony, and while "Stories for Men" was one of the best sf stories of 2002, "Under the Lunchbox Tree" feels more like a fragment, perhaps an excerpt from a longer work in progress. It's the sort of story that would likely gain in effect when read in a greater context; here, cut free and published by itself in a magazine, it feels a bit incomplete. Mira is twelve, and to escape from the sisterhood retreat she hates, she tricks Teddy, a male worker, into taking her away by telling him that her mother is dying. It is only when she is nearly home that Mira realizes what the consequences for Teddy could be. As a moment on the road through adolescence to maturity it is effective, and the interplay, brief as it is, between Mira and Teddy is both realistic and evocative of the larger culture, but the story seems to be aiming somewhere that lies outside its compass.

According to James Patrick Kelly's most recent "On the Net" column, Robert Reed is the second most prolific contributor in the history of Asimov's. His novelette "Hexagons" works well on a first reading, but I have reservations about the implications of the premise. Reed may have set himself an impossible task here, but he confronts it head-on. The story is an alternate history, set in a world where China is the dominant power, the Roman Empire never fell, and North America is a vast Roman province. Samuel Dunlop is a teenager whose father Leonard, a restless salesman, decides to run for the provincial senate. Among his rivals for the senate seat is a blue-eyed, small-mustached, table-pounding ultra-nationalist who blames his country's problems on the Jews. With the aid of Samuel's friend, Nathan's grandfather, Leonard outmaneuvers this unpleasant rival and gains a spot in the senatorial primary. On the surface this is a well-told but fairly conventional alternate history. What makes it interesting is Reed's attempt to explicitly link the two ideas of simulation and alternate history together. Nathan's grandfather has a contraband computer game, akin to games like Civilization, that allows a player to simulate the course of history. Is it inevitable that the Chinese will rule the world? Will the Roman Empire ever fall? By introducing this game, Reed invites us to view his story as such an exceptionally detailed simulation run by the game, which is an ingenious attempt to overcome some of the innate difficulties of the alternate history genre. Often the view of history peddled by alternate history stories is one of history as such a computer game under our control, where variables can be tweaked and parameters adjusted, rather than one of history as contingent and indeterminate, though Kim Stanley Robinson's recent novel The Years of Rice and Salt does take a more sophisticated view of history. The evident connection between the game within the story and the story itself leads us to question the veracity of this simulation-game model of alternate history, but by making this simulated foundation so evident, Reed has little choice but to undercut the fictional level of his story. A convincing fiction has to assert its own reality, even though we know it is all a creation. Meta-fictional games may allow an author to escape such assertions, but Reed plays none of those here. By including a villain who is so obviously an analogue of a historical figure, Reed emphasizes the artificial, game-like nature of his scenario, and it becomes difficult to view any of the characters with the necessary suspension of disbelief. Read simply for the narrative, however, it is compelling, but doing so may be difficult. There is a lot to think about here, at least, as is evident from the fact that I have spent twice as long on this story as on any other in the issue. Measured that way, it is successful.

Mike Resnick is a consummately professional writer. Reading a Resnick story is refreshing, because one always knows that there is a firm minimum of quality beneath which his fiction will never fall. Here we have an entertaining tale of an appealingly cynical salvage man and his alien partner who find a robot on an abandoned world. Our hero hopes to repair the robot and sell it as a valuable antique, but the story of the robot's life reveals a tiny spark of human decency still flickering beneath our hero's callous exterior. There's not a lot more to the story than this, but it is a well-crafted entertainment.

I've never read any of Don D'Ammassa's fiction, knowing him only as a long-time reviewer for Science Fiction Chronicle (now titled simply Chronicle). He makes an appearance in Asimov's with "Curing Agent," a tale that begins as a mystery but shifts gears several times before the end. Carl Masterson is dying of Glastonbury's Disease, a rare form of cancer. Both immensely wealthy and desperate to survive, Masterson spends his fortune to discover that the six known survivors of Glastonbury's all visited the same remote Moroccan village. On his arrival in Tuvaresh, the locals are suspicious, and become more so when they learn why he is there. Masterson becomes increasingly desperate, resorting to kidnapping and violence to learn the town's secret. At last he does, but his reckless behavior backfires. D'Ammassa modulates the story's tone, from mystery to science fiction to horror, in step with our sympathy towards Masterson, so that our natural identification with his plight serves to heighten the impact of the ending.

Lee Allred's short story "Our Günther Likes to Dig" is compact and forceful, but suffers from being too obviously a story with a Point. Nueva Germania is a small village in Paraguay, founded as an "Aryan race colony" in the early 20th century, and serves now as a refuge for Nazis who fled the fall of the Third Reich. Konrad is a Nazi sympathizer, hoping to find former Nazis to rebuild the fallen Reich. Günther is an imbecilic peasant who loves to dig, as both the title and the opening of the story emphasize. It is only at the end of the story that we discover why Günther likes to dig, and this revelation will not be particularly surprising. There is not an immediately evident element of the fantastic here, and while the story is well written and evocative, the ending is too readily apparent to bear the intended weight of meaning.

The issue ends with Kage Baker's "The Empress of Mars," whose Burroughsian title (Edgar Rice, not William) is not quite representative of the story's tone. The "Empress of Mars" is in fact a tavern, not an egg-laying alien monarch, and the story tells of its owner's attempts to preserve the small bit of freedom she has carved out from the British Arean Company's heavy-handed attempts to reign her in. Yes, the British have in fact proved surprisingly successful at settling space, due to their skill with both metric figures and private companies. Mona and her three daughters run the Empress of Mars, and they must deal with any number of hazards, from minor equipment difficulties to the efforts of the BAC to force Mona off her land. Mona, however, is not a woman to be easily forced into anything, and with a combination of grit and good fortune she emerges at the end of the story in better shape than any of her rivals. This is a long novella, but Baker never lets the pace flag, and the large cast is lifelike and believable. The setting is well worked out, and while this story is self-contained, perhaps Baker will return to it in the future.