Asimov’s, June 2004

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"My Mother, Dancing" by Nancy Kress
"The Gladiator's War: A Dialog" by Lois Tilton
"The Veteran" by Neal Asher
"Fallow Earth" by Paul Melko
"Turing Test" by Robert R. Chase
"The Buried Sword" by Ruth Berman
"Steep Silence" by Lena DeTar
"Men Are Trouble" by James Patrick Kelly

ImageThe June issue of Asimov's is all over the map, from straight-up fantasy to hard SF to alternate reality, from humor to tragedy (often in the same story). Over all a worthy collection of fiction, with some stories that stand out and a couple that could be skipped without great loss.

In "My Mother, Dancing," Nancy Kress' post-human starfarers inhabit a galaxy in which the only life anyone has been able to discover originated on Earth. A family band of genderless explorers has returned to a planet they last visited several hundred years earlier, when they seeded it with nanobots and artificial intelligence and let evolution progress. This is the Great Mission, bringing life to the sterile stars. Although the Great Mission rescued humanity from the doldrums of its own omnipotence, is it more than another form of entertainment for godlings?

That question becomes important when the family's creations report the presence of another life form, not planted there by humanity. Is it genuinely new? And if so, how will a humanity that has grown accustomed to being alone in the universe react?

Nancy Kress' stories always seem to me to be like costumed winter sculpture, the trappings of summer over a core of ice. That's meant as an observation, not a criticism. I like Kress' stories, but she writes for the intellect, not the heart. She does it well here.

Lois Tilton lets us listen in as Marcus Terentius Varro, a Roman historian, interviews Crixus the Gaul, a former gladiator and confidante of Spartacus, about that worthy's war against Rome in "The Gladiator's War: A Dialog." If the conversation sounds more like Dan Rather interviewing Al Gore than ancient history, Tilton can be forgiven for making a brilliant alternate history accessible and entertaining.

The veteran of Neal Asher's title is one of those characters you run into on occasion in speculative fiction of the far future, a near-omnipotent mystery man whose powers, motivations and intentions operate on a different plane than those of the characters that surround him.

In this case, the veteran rescues one Cheel, a girl running away from her former boyfriend Croven, the leader of a band of violent thugs. In doing so the veteran exposes his presence to mysterious others who want him dead. Those others enlist Croven in their war, raising him up out of his commonness and granting him powers to match his opponent's.

The ensuing battle is reminiscent of Godzilla and Mothra rampaging through Tokyo; the principals barely notice the destruction their violence works on the little people around them. At the end of the battle Croven's elevated condition provides him a new perspective on his life, one he tries to share with Cheel.

The story never quite gelled for me. The interaction between Cheel and Croven wanted to be the linchpin of the story, but instead it felt like a necessary afterthought. The writer was interested in the veteran, but his alien-ness made him too distant for me to appreciate.

I love good opening sentences, and Paul Melko's introduction to "Fallow Earth" is worth quoting at length.


"The spaceship crashed through the tree tops, splintering the boughs of a gangly locust, and landed in the Olentangy River on top of Mr. Joyce, which was okay with Nick and me, since Mr. Joyce was drunk most of the time and liked to flick matches at Nick when we waited for the bus."

The narrator is Priscilla, a middle school girl with attitude and enough background in science fiction to know what an alien's supposed to do. The alien has run a blockade, his purpose to redirect the efforts of Earth's scientists. Priscilla, with her preconceptions of alien technology, thinks he wants to help humanity. But the alien has his own motivations.

Nick, Priscilla's brother, is retarded. Priscilla's relationship with Nick is complicated: loving and frustrating, regretful and caring. While she accepts Nick as he is, Priscilla does not accept that conditions like Nick's need to exist, and she wants the alien's help in making Earth a more perfect place.

I loved Priscilla, and I loved this story. It's funny, and pragmatic, and touching, all at the same time.

Robert R. Chase imagines a dystopic future world, "…torn apart by plagues, wars, and… insanity." Marianne Salinas lived near the center of the insanity, as an assistant to Dr. William Craig, a man with a vision of the perfection of humanity and a ruthless will to achieve it.

But all that is history when the story begins, with Salinas awakening in what appears to be a hotel suite, her only means of communication an ancient keyboard and a thin screen display. She is the subject of the title's "Turing Test," an attempt by the Symbioty to determine whether she is human, or werewolf.

How she got there, whether she passes, and what it all means emerges slowly through an exchange with her examiner. I found myself running out of patience with the slow pace of the story's revelations, but I'm glad that I stuck with it. By the end Chase had laid out an intriguing, and hopeful, future history.

Ruth Berman's "The Buried Sword" is a mix of fantasy and history. The story's heroine is Bradamant, an officer of Charlemagne, alighting in Basque country long after a famous battle of Franks and Saracens. Bradamant rides a hippogriff, and has come to the town of Roncesvals to send the sword Durendal back to the lands of the faeries, where it belongs.

Standing in her way is a lamina, a kind of ghost, and the goat girl who loves it.

The story is a nice enough diversion, but the melding of history and myth didn't completely work for me. Berman's world felt made of arbitrary choices, even if (as I suspect is the case) she stuck strictly to history, and historically accurate mythology.

The female narrator in Lena DeTar's "Steep Silence" is a Ph.D. researcher studying the relationship between the Martian poet Shira Ghibli's stanzas and the geography of the Tharsis Plateau. At the start of the story she's gotten herself into a bind; what we're reading is a note she's left for any who may find her rover, explaining what happened.

The influences of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy are apparent in this story, which might bother some. For me, I appreciated the lyrical, evocative descriptions of the landscapes, and the final confrontation between romance and survival.

"Men Are Trouble" is a story with no men. They've all been removed by demonic, silent aliens the humans call "devils" who have taken up residence on Earth and who keep the planet running through robot intermediaries.

Fay is a private investigator in the tradition of Mike Hammer, without the self-assurance. Fay is hired by a devil named Sheeren to find the woman who conducted the wedding ceremonies for Rashmi Jones, a recent suicide victim, and Kate Vermeil. Fay had already been working on the Jones case, trying to find her for Jones' mother after Jones went missing.

Jones had recently become involved with the church of Jesus Christ the Man. Following this thread leads Fay down a labyrinthine path of plot twists and revelations that constantly keep you wondering what's really happening.

The world in which James Patrick Kelly sets this story is broken. The analogy that comes to mind is of an amputee: missing a limb, grieving for its loss, and trying to come to terms with a future without it.

This is a sad story, but ultimately hopeful. It's a meaty story, with lots to think about. Read it.

Jeremy Lyon is a freelance writer, tech industry cube farmer and the publisher of Futurismic, a site for people interested in the future and the effects of science and technology on the present, now featuring original fiction.