Asimov’s, June 2005

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"Bad Machine" by Kage Baker
"The Edge of Nowhere" by James Patrick Kelly
"The Ice-Cream Man" by James Van Pelt
"The Little Goddess" by Ian McDonald
"Martyrs’ Carnival" by Jay Lake
"Rainmakers" by Ruth Nestvold

ImageThis issue of Asimov’s has several very good science fiction stories, taking place in different amounts of time in the future.

"Bad Machine" by Kage Baker is an enjoyable story set in the near future featuring young Alec Checkerfield and his computer helper, Captain Morgan.  The story details Alec’s forays into sexual exploration with several different girls in search of love, which has brought him to the attention of several bureaucrats.  Captain Morgan, of course, "overhears" the inquiries into his charge’s actions, prophylactics being proscribed for those underage, and takes the matter into his own holographic hands. This story balances the viewpoints of both young, mostly human Alec, and the mostly mechanical captain.  Neither of the two bosom buddies really know what the other is going through, and the end leaves some questions for this reader. However, that is due in part to Baker showcasing characters from her "Company" novels is this self-contained short story.  Readers can enjoy "Bad Machine" for the strong world building, fully-realized characters, and interesting ethical plot without having read any of the "Company" novels, but this reader suspects the enjoyment of this story would be greatly enhanced with familiarity.  As an introduction to Baker’s world, this story serves as a lovely gateway drug.

Moving from a recognizable world to an unrecognizable one, James Patrick Kelly offers "The Edge of Nowhere."  This story is a surreal portrayal of a small town surrounded by fog, thought to be the "cognisphere" of humanity.  In this possible post-apocalyptic story, Rain, proprietress of the Very Memorial Library, is asked to locate a book. While this is a common occurrence and one easily solved by pulling the book out of the cognisphere, Rain has some problems with this request. First it is made by three dogs who have appeared out of the cognisphere rather than being revived to join the town.  Second, the book is special in that it hasn’t been written yet.  Her boyfriend Will is currently writing the book, which is unique in that everything should be contained within the cognisphere and his book is not.  The arrival of the dogs forces Rain to deal with what it really means to live on the Edge of Nowhere and to figure out what matters to her.

Keegan, on the other hand, knows what matters to him: serving ice cream to the last vestiges of humanity following a mutation disaster in "The Ice-Cream Man."  James Van Pelt takes the readers along for a ride on Keegan’s route, where he trades homemade ice cream for various items and hears the latest gossip.  There is a quiet war going on between the humans and the mutants.  Keegan is very much an observer and a pacifist. He wants to bring a little joy into each person’s life and works himself tirelessly to provide that joy.  It is clear early on that Keegan knows more than it seems, which is played out later.  Keegan has to make a choice about where his loyalties lie in regards to the war, and it is a heartbreaking story of one man’s fight to keep hope alive.

Hope does not play a large role in Kumari Devi’s life in “Little Goddess.”  Ian McDonald transports us to a familiar but different near future India.  Split into several nations and some adhering to the old ways, a little girl who laughs at pain, blood, and death is made into a goddess.  At least until she bleeds for the first time.  The world of a child goddess is strange, especially being attended by two servants who serve as mothers.  One mother gives the main character an ear bug that lets her explore the world outside the temple.  The other mother gives her drugs to keep her young and away from puberty.  But every Kumari must leave the temple at some point, and Devi must also.  We follow her through her life to a bridal parlor and marriage, and her turn to a life of crime, smuggling AIs.  McDonald portrays a first person narration from crazy child to young woman very well.  The scenery is strange and evocative, and the world is a dark foretelling of our future.

“Martyrs’ Carnival” by Jay Lake is a disturbing tale of runaway religion.  In a desolate region of an extraterrestrial colony, a Christian congregation begins its usual Easter observations by crucifying three willing “martyrs.”  Clarice Adkins, the sole law-enforcement officer in the settlement, comes up with a plan to thwart them: none of the congregation may seek relief from the blistering heat until the sacrifices are taken down and the crosses dismantled.  The idea backfires when all of the Christians vow to remain outside until Easter, even if the re-entry ban is lifted.  Adkins soon finds herself a target of a population sympathetic to religious zealotry.  The story culminates in a vivid climax, leaving in its wake a lesson about how religious and skeptical humans alike filter their perceptions through their world-views.

Lake creates a protagonist who is easy to root for, but for that very reason some readers may find the ending unsatisfying.  On a technical level, the writing sometimes gets bogged down in overdone or repetitive description, and some expository dialogue appears early on.  While the story is otherwise strongly written, it is too grim and humorless to entertain.
Finishing the issue is a colonization gone wrong story by Ruth Nestvold.  Chepanek is inhabited by a native population, which are led by “Rainmakers.”  The planet is unique in that it has an extreme axial tilt necessitating a natural migration from one hemisphere to the other at given seasons.  The Rainmakers let the people know when to move, but the colonization force has been “stealing” the natives and implementing technology to allow permanent settlements.  When an ultimatum is given to the colonists, Foreign Worlds Service agent, Rekaya, is sent to settle the disagreement.  What she didn’t count on was the natives’ negative view of her sexuality (lesbian) or in being trapped in the desert following an attack on the colonists settlements.  There is some great language in this piece and it explores themes of sexuality, discrimination, and assumption very well.  However, it seemed to end rather suddenly to this reader, leaving me feeling like I only had half the story.  Which was much the way Rekaya felt throughout, so perhaps that was intentional.

(Reviewed by Dawn Burnell except for ""Martyrs’ Carnival" by Jay Lake which was reviewed by Brit Marschalk.)