Asimov’s, June 2006

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"The Leila Torn Show" by James Patrick Kelly
"Chu and the Nants" by Rudy Rucker
"The Edge of the Map" by Ian Creasey
"Eight Episodes" by Robert Reed
"A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange" by Beth Bernobich
"Life on the Preservation" by Jack Skillingstead
"The Ninth Part of Desire" by Matthew Johnson 
"The Tiger in the Garden" by Scott William Carter                                              

This is a good issue, with a nice balance of rather technical and more lyrical stories. The somewhat loose theme of the issue appears to be the interplay between reality and its alternatives—TV, AI, dreamscapes, and other such contrivances.
"The Leila Torn Show" by James Patrick Kelly is a provocative tale, set in an unspecified future, where TV shows have personalities of their own, and the actors’ life is spent between dreams and reality that exists within the show only. The Show of the title is getting old, and she is devising ways to stay on the air for just a bit longer; she is not above resorting to cheap tricks, and the devil is not above bargaining with a TV show.

The world created in this story is rich and engaging, and deeply believable despite being a bit far-fetched. The only issue I had with this story is that some of the plot threads are not really resolved, and that some neat developments only hinted at (Queen of Hearts, I’m looking at you!) are not brought to fruition.

"Chu and the Nants" by Rudy Rucker is an engaging tale with a few interesting twists built on a familiar premise—giant computer taking over the world. The fact that the giant computer is made of tiny nano machines (nants) seems to make little difference in the large picture, but provides some incredible visual imagery—just for that alone, the story is worth reading. Throw in an autistic kid, his geeky father, and the commentary on modern day politics, and you get a fast, pleasant read with mind-blowing visuals.

"The Edge of the Map" by Ian Creasey has a neat premise, but ultimately disappoints. Susannah, an aging reporter, is becoming obsolete in the world constantly televised through a network of nanocams that blanket almost all of the world, feeding the information to the net, allowing everyone to collect and edit their own footage. She travels to the last place on earth that is still unspoiled by the nanocams, but Ivo, her guide, has an agenda of his own.

The story combines two neat ideas—nanocams and the mysterious things that flee from the cameras, and have nowhere to go in this new world. I was not convinced that this constant surveillance world would be possible. 24/7 filming of the entire world seems like an overwhelming wealth of data to sift through, but the improbability of the idea is a minor concern. For me, the shortcoming of the story came from lack of interesting and/or sympathetic characters. Susannah’s problems seemed shallow, and Ivo was never developed past his childhood reminiscences. This tale has all the right ideas and mechanics, but it didn’t engage me.

"Eight Episodes" by Robert Reed is a weird little story, told from no particular point of view, simply describing a weird little TV show that was cancelled but came back in a big way after scientists realized that the show dealt with things nobody could possibly know. Mr. Reed breaks almost every rule of conventional storytelling—no characters, no plot beyond what happens on the show, drab descriptions of drab little people going about their grey lives—and yet he creates an amazingly effective tale of other worlds, building insidious quiet tension from the beginning to the end. Poking fun at the conventions of TV shows while refusing to conform to them is a bonus. A great story and one of my favorites in this issue.
                                                                                                                   "A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange" by Beth Bernobich is the standout of the issue, and the magazine is worth buying for this novelette alone. It takes place in an imagined Victorian setting (with balloons!), although many parts of the known world are also present. Simon and Gwyn are mathematically gifted twins. Gwyn is driven insane by her research on primes, and Simon is torn between visiting his sister in the asylum and worrying about the murders of math graduate students taking place on campus.

The world of this story is deeply realized and has the same addicting quality as many Victorian novels; the reader feels immersed in the atmosphere, whimsical and surprising and dark and beautiful. The characters are deep too—not just because of what happens to them, but also because of what’s left unsaid, only hinted at, creating an impression of a complete world, only the sliver of which is shown in the story. A very worthy read, and one of the best stories I’ve read recently.

"Life on the Preservation" by Jack Skillingstead reminded me of Twelve Monkeys and The Matrix in a good way. The story combines the familiar elements of artificial reality and time travel (of sorts), but it doesn’t depend on them for its success. This story works because of the deep and angsty examination of real human conflicts and problems.

Kylie, one of the few survivors of the destroyed world, is sent on a mission to a city literally preserved in the past to destroy it. As she searches for her target in the unfamiliar but intoxicating overcrowded exhilaration of the lost world, she experiences ice cream and non-toxic rain and even love for the first time. Her dilemma is non-trivial—either carry on with her mission, or abandon it for several hours of happiness; in the process, she forces the reader to consider what happiness is—does it demand perfection?—and what it is worth. A nicely written, thought-provoking piece that steers away from easy answers.

"The Ninth Part of Desire" by Matthew Johnson is a good idea story, somewhat marred by a few problems. Raf, a scientist specializing in chemically recreating human emotions, singly and in combination, tries to find a cure for a disease that causes its victims to lose emotions. Raf’s stakes are high, since his wife, previously a tester for his concoctions, is one of the sufferers.

The conflict is interesting, as well as the idea of injecting chemicals to stimulate emotion. However, I was not convinced that the presented scenario was plausible. For one, the disease affects not only emotions but also basic drives, such as hunger—the sufferers will starve to death if not attended to. Something that affects both learned and instinctive traits seemed a bit far-fetched, and I was surprised that no comment was made on how a disease like that would affect parts of the brain, pathways between them, neurotransmitters etc. Moreover, Raf struck me as a bit of one-dimensional character, with a single obsession and no internal conflict. Not a bad story, but it could’ve been more enjoyable with a bit of character and idea development.

"The Tiger in the Garden" by Scott William Carter presents a classic duty versus honor conflict. Jose, a constable on a poor, out-of-the-way planet, is expecting a government Agent, an alien with unpleasant appearance and even worse personality. He is there to apprehend a terrorist—someone Jose knows well. The situation is complicated by the fact that the alleged terrorist is not the man he used to be, and his past crimes are irrelevant for anyone but the Agent, relentless in hunting down the members of the Resistance. Jose can either help the Agent and betray his friend, or help his friend and kiss his career good-bye.

While the conflict does not present any surprises in its resolution, the execution is skillful, and all the characters are fully realized in just a few words. An especially nice touch is provided by a surprisingly gentle relationship between Jose and his old friend, and the question of whether the body or the mind is responsible for past trespasses addressed with a light touch and sensitivity.