Asimov’s, July 2005

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"The Children of Time" by Stephen Baxter
"Clipper’s Last Ride" by Richard Mueller
"Killing Time" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play" by Michael Swanwick
"RAW" by Daniel Grotta
"The Compass" by Edd Vick 
"The Real Deal" by Peter Friend
"Waking Chang-Er" by Samantha Ling

ImageThe July 2005 issue of Asimov’s has a consistent message of hope.  Each story offers a different version of the human need to survive, to overcome adversity and find happiness in rituals and relationships that matter most.

The short story, "The Children of Time" by Stephen Baxter illustrates the fundamental resiliency of human beings despite significant hardship.  Baxter takes the reader through the lives of five eleven-year-olds and their particular post-apocalyptic versions of Earth.  The quote that best sums up the story is, "It was easy to kill a lot of people.  It was very hard to kill them all."  At this length, each character is introduced, but little depth emerges before Baxter moves on to the next.  Each snippet competently portrays perseverance and the human ability to live and perpetuate the species.  The story could be marketed as "young adult," yet it opens the issue well, setting the tone for the stories to come.  The characters truly are "Children of Time" since hundreds of millions of years pass by the end of the tale.  The grandiose scope of time juxtaposed with the micro-focus on individuals forms a vision of optimism for our planet.

Richard Mueller‘s "Clipper’s Last Ride" starts off deceptively slowly, yet by the end, the plot speeds to an action-packed climax.  Toby, an ex-marine branded as unworthy, travels to Mendoza Four, a planet at "the end of the line."  He meets Clipper, the town barber; a woman with a harsh personality and secret past.  When the skulks an indigenous creature that turns from passive to aggressive, attack, Toby’s past military experience is called into service.  Clipper, who has secretly befriended another local species, insists her friends the "frogs" be taken to safety.  Clipper reveals that not only did she ride horses in her past, but she’s trained a frog—a camel-like beast she’s named "Gray"—to bear her.  She rides off into danger, the last hope of salvation for Riverton under siege, and heads for the next town.  Toby and the others struggle to maintain the fort at Riverton.  The climax is exciting and emotional.  The story is visually evocative; part Western and part Military Adventure. In a society where hangings and floggings are common, the characters have an inner strength and level of guarded privacy that adds a hint of mystery to the story.  Mueller’s flair for characterization and less-is-more dialogue makes Clipper and Toby’s story comfortable and captivating.

"Killing Time" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch plays with time and reality in a way that’s been done before but with a science fiction twist.  When Paula Farris relives her past, she isn’t remembering her teenage years, she’s actually living them.  As one of the shorter pieces in the issue, "Killing Time" tackles a subject that many of our elders face today: quality of life.  Paula signs up for a free trial of a new procedure which allows her to feel young despite her irreversible aging.  But she must decide whether the past or the present is more important, more relevant, to what it means to be alive.  Her decision concludes the piece with optimism for the power of individual freedom.

Michael Swanwick‘s "Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play" is a wondrous tale of ancient gods, genetic engineering, and treasure hunting. Two "government men," Darger and Surplus (who is a genetically engineered half-man, half-dog), travel to Arcadia, the legendary land of satyrs, nymphs, and ancients gods, looking for lost bronze statues. They discover a group of African scientists who are busily making gods—that is, they start with Dionysus, the Great Pan, who appears to the populace, whipping them into fernzy of lustful merriment. Next Eris, the goddess of discord, makes a much less cheerful appearance. And finally, the heroes encounter Thanatos, the god of death.

I very much enjoyed the way Swanwick has integrated elements of ancient religions and modern science, as well as the fascinating history of the world he creates. Oh, and did I mention the giant sword-fighting squid? This story is great fun. At the same time, there is a much deeper, darker theme of loss, and of impossibility of return to the places one loves best. Wild and bittersweet, this story is sure to linger in the reader’s mind.

Daniel Grotta combines his expertise as a digital camera reviewer and a genre writer in the novelette "RAW" with thorough and insightful talent.  Dave Nelson tests digital cameras.  He takes on an assignment to study "the Brady" and is struck by lightning during a photo shoot.  The camera is undamaged, or so it seems, until Dave downloads the RAW images (unprocessed and uncompressed photo images that require proprietary software to post-process) into his computer.  He sees his own house, but with a different front porch and the tree from his front yard missing.  An image of an older woman startles him, bringing up memories he’s avoided for a lifetime.  His sister, dead for thirty years, lives in another place, another version of the world, and she notices the camera’s presence.

Dave rigs his camera to take a series of snapshots employing short and long shutter bursts of Morse Code.  He learned the dot-and-dash alphabet with the help of his sister back in his Boy Scout days.  She communicates using her computer and they are able to connect through this oddly unique camera.  The story takes a darker turn when the authorities discover this unauthorized cross-world communication.  Grotta frames the tale with anecdotes at the beginning and end to recount the events and consequences of Dave’s discovery. 

The technical camera details are accurate and the emotional connection between the two siblings is touching, although at times I found the reactions of secondary characters to be a bit overdone.  In the end, the story is a subtle reminder of not only our fragile existence in this world, but of the nature of life, death, and moments when choices that we make can ripple though reality. 

"The Compass" by Edd Vick takes a dark look at the preciousness of pregnancy and the magic of a growing fetus.  Mara is the doctor on board the Hope, an aptly named spaceship that carries the last remaining humans.  Earth and all of its inhabitants have been compromised by trillions of "pebbles" forcing the survivors to search the universe for a habitable planet.  The ship navigates through skipspace via the closed eyes of an unborn child, who is kept alive in a tank. When the child dies, Mara must break her doctor-patient confidence to inform the captain of the eligible pregnancies on board that carry their next navigational instrument.  Vick poses some difficult questions in this offering.  Should we as a society condone the use of unborn children?  Is it ethical if to do so if it perpetuates the entire species?  Should a woman be forced to give up her child?  The parallels to our current stem cell research dilemmas make this tale particularly poignant and timely.

Peter Friend‘s "The Real Deal" follows a human-alien pair of science fiction grave robbers on their quest for the big Artifact that will make them rich.  Jayk is contracted to a Picasso named Flegg.  When one of Flegg’s "fiancés" discovers a large Artifact, four Picassos converge on the rock.  Jayk socializes with the humans brought to assist the collection while the Picassos dance in circles, celebrating the mother of all finds.  But when they all begin the collection of ancient treasures, the true role of the humans becomes clear.  Just like canaries in coal mines, when the humans exhibit fevers and headaches, the Picassos head for their home planet of Vlarniun, the sacred ground where all Picassos go to die an honorable death.  The part-slave, part-friend relationship between the "monkey boy" Jayk and his pilot/master Flegg forms the core of the story.  Though Jayk’s contract has enslaved him, it also freed him from a destitute life back on Earth.  The customs of the Picassos are complex, making them not only believable aliens, but sympathetic ones.  Though the subject matter has dark undertones, the piece employs positive messages of faith and family.

The last story, "Waking up Chang-Er" by Samantha Ling is the pleasantly fanciful story of a Jade Rabbit trapped in the Moon Palace with its master Chang-Er, who has been asleep for thousands of years.  The Palace has been abandoned by the sages and fairies.  The Rabbit dreams of an ill girl, Yueh-Hua, and overhears her father telling the story of Chang-Er’s ascension to the moon.  At the Rabbit’s insistence, his master re-opens the Moon Palace to the Monkey God in exchange for helping the girl.  The Monkey God won’t agree to the trade, but he leaves the Moon Lady a riddle enticing her to save the girl with her own magic.  At times the story felt detached from its own mythology and although the characters seemed to lack credible motivation, the emotions of the piece drove the narrative forward.  The tight focus of the Rabbit and the ill child ground this fairy tale in a sympathetic reality.  The late appearance of the surfer fairy gives the ending a sense of hope that is often lacking in this sub-genre.

Overall, the issue has many notable stories.  "Clipper’s Last Ride" and "The Real Deal" are both plot driven, entertaining stories with pulply flavors and Daniel Grotta’s "RAW" generates a believable alternate reality.
(Reviewed by Suzanne Church except for "Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play" by Michael Swanwick which was reviewed by E. Sedia.)