Asimov’s, July 2010

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“A History of Terraforming” by Robert Reed
“Haggle Chips” by Tom Purdom
“The Jaguar House, in Shadow” by Aliette de Bodard
“The Other Graces” by Sola Kim
“Eddie’s Ants” by D.T. Mitenko
“Amelia Pillar’s Etiquette for the Space Traveler” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk

“A History of Terraforming” by Robert Reed is the major novella for this issue, and it’s basically the history of Simon, who was born on Mars during the early years of Terraforming that planet. As the story opens, we find that four-year-old Simon (Earth years) has a father who’s part of the terraforming project—he has “walnut” seeds that will accelerate the change in planetary ecology—but who is conflicted due to his friendship with Lilly, who’s part of the “Save The Whales”… oops, I mean native bacteria, etc., movement, called the Zoo.

Lilly blackmails Simon’s father (they have a past together that may not be all that past) into helping her save some of the native Martian ecology; all this is over Simon’s head, but is prelude to the rest of Simon’s life.

Later, Simon heads up a farm on an asteroid named 624 Hektor, which was produced by joining two asteroids together. Simon is assisted by an African Grey parrot named Jackie, whose IQ has been boosted by both genetic engineering and biological circuitry. (Actually, reading between the lines, maybe Jackie’s the smart one of the pair…)

From there the story follows Simon, the “atum” (borrowed from the Egyptian word for a maker of worlds) over many centuries as the whole solar system is transformed, along with the humans themselves—by the end of the story, humans are only a few inches tall (why waste all that space on an inefficient non-engineered body?) and exist in their trillions in and on all the habitable worlds of this system.

A very Odd John-like sweep, although Simon is no Odd John. And philosophically, I’m not sure I agree with allowing human beings to continue to breed uncontrollably and re-engineer not only their bodies but every piece of rock in the solar system to do so… I suspect that probably long before that happens we will be knocked back either by nature or by our own natures. But I’m possibly too cynical by half, and Reed’s vision is as likely as any apocalyptic future I could come up with. A well-written story with an amazing arc in time, but I, personally, don’t buy it.

“Haggle Chips” by Tom Purdom concerns one Janip, who is visiting the planet Conalia in order to install a pair of new eyes for Elisette, a wealthy customer who is going blind. She will pay a premium, because it will be a few years before these eyes Janip has designed will be knocked off for the common market—but Elisette can afford them; she and some friends have a near-monopoly on hydroelectric power on Conalia.

But Janip is kidnapped by a sect called the Taranazzu Cultivators, who are trying to break Elisette’s monopoly—and Sivmati, the head of the sect, intends to see that Elisette gives up her monopoly in exchange for the eyes she desperately needs. It’s a curiously civilized kidnapping—Janip is given full access to his bank and other communications via his implants—so long as he doesn’t use those same implants to access any escape protocols. (I don’t know about Janip—but I’d sure as hell switch banks if mine was cooperating with my kidnapping!)

Tom Purdom has been writing and publishing science fiction since the late ‘50s—and this story shows he’s lost none of his skill or talent for the stuff. I thought maybe the ending was a little flat, but really—it’s kind of a real-world ending, and entirely consistent within the framework of the story. Maybe I’ve been reading too much action SF lately.

“The Jaguar House, in Shadow” by Aliette de Bodard is my absolute favorite work in this issue. De Bodard has clearly done her research—it shines through every word of this novelette. The story is set in the recurring universe of Xuya, where the Chinese discovered America before Columbus and radically changed the history of the continent, and she has a novel out, Servant of the Underworld, which is set in the same universe, and will be released in North America in September.

Where most Aztec-related works of fiction are written from the viewpoint of outsiders (us), this story comes from the viewpoint of Onalli, who is a Knight of the Jaguars, and it infuses this tale with a richness that few stories have. You and I have been raised from the cradle to believe that inflicting pain on ourselves or others is wrong, that life is precious, and that human sacrifice is at best futile, and at worst an abomination. This is not how Onalli or her fellow Jaguars feel; she has her own Worship Thorns with which to pierce herself; she offers personal pain to the gods as both penance and worship; and she knows in her bones that without human sacrifice the world would end—the sun would no longer shine.

But this is not the Mesoamerica we know, where the Aztecs never discovered the wheel, full of stone pyramids almost too steep to climb; this is a world where Aztecs have nanotechnology, Asian tourists, maglev transportation—but all served by the Houses of Jaguar, Eagle, Skull and Otter, who serve the Imperial House in turn. This novelette is full of personal sacrifice, love and betrayal—Onalli’s love for her friend Xochitl and their betrayal by friend and fellow Jaguar Tecipiani—who is acting out of higher motives. I can’t wait to read the book!

“The Other Graces” by Sola Kim is a story about a Korean-descent high-school student who is waiting for a certain letter to arrive telling her whether she has been accepted into the Ivy-League school of her choice. Grace Cho is an unhappy teenager from a split lower-class family, and she worries about everything. Her father lives in a home, victim of the antipsychotic drugs he’s taking; her mother has cut down from three jobs to one; her brother lazes around the house, displaying possible psychotic tendencies of his own.

She’s the victim of a racist society, a dysfunctional family and too much time in her own head. She’s afraid she’s too fat, too breastless, too yellow; but there is hope—she’s been contacted by a whole society of Grace Chos in other dimensions, who help her get a perfect 2400 on her SATs, and if that will help her get into the right college, she may become a more perfect Grace. But there are drawbacks to having other Graces in her head. And it becomes clear to the reader that it’s not Grace who is telling her story. This is my second-favorite story in this issue.

“Eddie’s Ants” by D.T. Mitenko concerns one Matt, who has been thrown over by his girlfriend for an alien who’s sort of a colony of insect-like “Specs”… incredibly evolved “ants” that take a semblance of human form in order to interact on this planet with us lesser beings. (Matt has a Ph.D in Theoretical Minkowski Spacetime [hyperspace to the layman], but he feels like a Neanderthal in comparison to Edward [the titular “Eddie”].)

But Matt has a plan, which involves trying to kill Eddie. Oddly enough, it’s okay with Eddie, as his species has a tradition of warfare, and Matt’s futile attempts make him feel homesick. You’ll have a good time with this story, I predict—and wait till you find out how Matt finally achieves his revenge!

“Amelia Pillar’s Etiquette for the Space Traveler” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is written in the form of a leaflet handed out to people traveling on spaceliners from Earth to the outer reaches. Although it is well written, and mildly humorous, it never really hit me as well as most of her other writing. I’ve read a fair amount of Kris’s fiction, and this one just didn’t do it for me. Maybe my expectations were too high—after all, my sense of humor is fulfilled by the likes of Dave Barry and Monty Python—but this story felt a little flat to me. But then again, humor is such a subjective thing that maybe you’ll like it better than I did.