"The Bellman" by John Varley
"Dead Worlds" by Jack Skillingstead
"Nimby and the Dimension Hoppers" by Cory Doctorow
"Bernardo's House" by James Patrick Kelly
"Morlock Chili" by Lawrence Person
"The Bird of Paradise" by Daniel Abraham & Susan Fry
"Listen to Me" by David Marusek
"The Path of the Transgressor" by Tom Purdom
Returning to a familiar milieu, John Varley kicks off the June Asimov's with "The Bellman," a grim and graphic police procedural set on a future moon colony. Lieutenant Anna-Louise Bach is a detective on Luna, who happens to be deep into pregnancy as the story opens. Her condition makes her the perfect bait in an investigation to track down "the Bellman," a serial murderer who has been targeting pregnant women. As a tale of police work, "The Bellman" seems a bit by-the-numbers, as Bach's investigation leads her to uncover a particularly gruesome new crime. More interesting than the plot mechanics are the distinct cultural differences of this future, which may be nothing new to Varley fans but still seem unique when held up against other contemporary speculative scenarios. On another note: this one's definitely not for the squeamish, pushing the envelope–which almost seems part of the point–on vivid, graphic descriptions of some truly sick and twisted business. A bit familiar, but overall a respectable SF thriller.
The thoughtful "Dead Worlds" by Jack Skillingstead follows. The story centers on a man named Robert, an "Eye" whose job it is to explore other planets by "perceptually inhabiting" exploratory machines over interstellar distances. A side effect of having perceptions transmitted over such vast distances is a resulting emotional deadness, normally regulated by medication. But Robert goes off his meds, seeking hope with another lonely soul. It's a dark vision, perhaps stronger in metaphor than in its SF details, tying together the protagonist's stricken condition with the growing sense of humanity's isolation in the universe–"dead worlds" both internal and external. An effectively written, promising debut.
The tone of the issue takes another left turn with "Nimby and the Dimension Hoppers" by Cory Doctorow. The story begins in a loopy, anti-tech future Ontario where all human invention is biological: homes are alive, harvested bicycles are currency, cigarettes grow on trees. But old flames Barry and Sally are forced to confront the threat of technology when dimension-travelers from parallel, technocratic universes start invading their territory. This one's breezy, inventive, and full of chaotic action, and while the zany tone often makes it feel inconsequential, it's not without a nicely downplayed message about the need to find a happy medium in the conflict between nature and technology. Enjoyable stuff.
One thing you can always count on from the June Asimov's is an offering from James Patrick Kelly, and his latest is a real keeper. "Bernardo's House" is both the story's title and its protagonist: an AI who inhabits both the system of a high-tech, automated residence and the specially tailored artificial human that lives inside it. The house is programmed to serve as both domestic servant and concubine to a wealthy doctor, Bernardo. But Bernardo has been missing for two years, and the house is desperately lonely–until a young orphaned girl named Fly arrives, hidden truths are revealed, and things begin to change. This is the first of a few stories in this issue to examine the ethics of creating artificial human companionship, and as a work of contemplative, forward-looking SF it is very much a success. But it also succeeds strictly as entertainment, for this story pretty much has it all: finely realized characters, intriguing secrets slowly exposed, a realistic and subtly implied future backdrop, and a satisfying story arc. Kelly has a reputation for fiction that is both thought-provoking and highly entertaining, and "Bernardo's House" should only strengthen it.
In "Morlock Chili," Lawrence Person tries to spice up a Texas chili-making contest with aliens and light comedy. Things get weird at the annual Armadillo Hill Country Chili Cookoff when a pair of aliens, commonly known as "morlocks," arrive to serve their own recipes. There's not much to this one, a rather bland comic concoction; the jokes fell flat, for me.
"The Bird of Paradise" by Daniel Abraham and Susan Fry takes us to Mexico, where a deadly new virus is threatening to decimate the white and mestizo population. A team of scientists from Mexico City arrives in the small Mayan village where Arturo Celorio, an agricultural engineer, lives. Arturo, like the rest of the community, is genetically immune to the new virus. As the visiting Dr. McCloud and her team scramble to contain the outbreak, Arturo gets to the heart of the matter and makes some unexpected discoveries. This is a well crafted tale of societal conflict, distilled down to its two central characters: Arturo representing the concerns of traditional cultures, Dr. McCloud representing the encroachment of modern western civilization on them. But, as the story reveals, the old and the new are intertwined, and must work together for new solutions. The only thing I disliked about the story was that for most its length it reads like science fiction, or perhaps even a contemporary thriller, but ultimately springs a fantasy element into the mix, which forces a quick change of gears. It feels like a calculated injection of genre pizzazz into a story that could well have succeeded without it.
The good news is that David Marusek is working on a novel. The bad news is that, while he does so, we don't get to see enough of his short fiction. "Listen to Me" provides just a brief glimpse of the author's unique futuristic vision, taking us on an interstellar journey with a man whose isolation has resulted in a disturbing bout with mental illness, which centers on his artificial companion. This tale is tense and grim, a tight little mood-twisting composition that, considering its very short length, accomplishes quite a bit. Still, it seems to lack some of the depth and vivid immediacy of some of the author's more substantial short works, leaving me hungry for his next major story.
Ethical complications stemming from the creation of artificial humans, a concept central to the Kelly and Marusek stories, appear once again in the issue's final tale. "The Path of the Transgressor" by Tom Purdom opens as a tale of a scientist and his wife on a distant world, facing an unexpected, deadly threat from indigenous life forms. Ultimately, however, its most interesting angle is the one that groups it with those earlier stories. Davin Sam is an ethologist on the planet Itoko, who lives apart from the community with his wife in order to study a species called the lakenesters. When his wife is jeopardized by an unexpected attack of "packhunters," he races out to save her, and when that doesn't work, he calls for help. But his simple request is complicated by the fact that his wife is a geisha–an artificial human designed as an ideal companion for men, and a subject of controversy in the society of Itoko. The story starts a bit quietly and conventionally, but gradually it builds momentum and gains layers of complexity. Ultimately there's plenty to recommend it: the survival adventure core of the action, the scientific puzzle of the packhunter behavior, the well drawn colony scenario with all its prejudices, and the detailed depiction of this future's dramatically altered humankind, tricked out with systems and enhancements for optimal performance. Overall, a successful science fiction adventure strengthened by its nuanced future backdrop and its thoughtful examination of scientific and sociological issues. It rounds off a solid, ambitious issue of Asimov's.
Christopher East is a regular contributor to Tangent Online. His stories have appeared in a number of genre publications, including The Third Alternative, Talebones, Challenging Destiny, and Tales of the Unanticipated. His latest story is slated to appear in Say…, and he recently started contributing to a group blog at www.futurismic.com. He lives in Iowa City.