Asimov’s, June 2016
“What We Hold Onto” by Jay O’Connell
Reviewed by Colleen Chen
This issue of Asimov’s has a little bit of a different feel from the usual, probably because of the presence of a long novella, “What We Hold Onto,” which reduces the total story count to six. The tone ranges from light-hearted to heavy; there’s no laugh out loud stories here, but a good dose of cleverness and subtly humorous references. As usual, it’s for the intelligent reader (which I don’t always claim to be).
“What We Hold Onto” by Jay O’Connell is a longish novella that explores the spectrum of holding onto things physical, mental, and emotional. We can let go of home and possessions and become a nomad, or we can hoard; in between these extremes, we can sometimes find things that are consciously worth holding onto.
In a near future, rising sea levels have displaced large populations, supporting the rise of the Nomads, whose development is rooted in liberal intentional communities. With a culture of simplification and letting go, they move about with few possessions and many skills, trading relief assistance for their subsistence needs. The rest of the world looks much like it does today, with the addition of technology that has continued to evolve—for instance, it’s standard for everyone to wear Google-glass-like “overlays.”
The story is narrated by Sophia, who is torn between pulling her mother’s life support and spending the money to put her mother in suspension in the hope that a cure can be found for her disease within the time she can afford to purchase. She hires a Nomad named Con to help her “simplify,” and her attraction to him goes beyond his amazing appearance—she is drawn to his culture as well. In between getting Con to digitally record all the contents of her mother’s storage spaces, dealing with a dying cat, her grown sons who still need support, her soon-to-be-ex-husband, and menopause, she researches the Nomads’ history and culture and explores her more personal interest in Con by asking him out on a date. She finds out that he’s not quite a typical Nomad, just as she’s not quite a typical non-Nomad, and he becomes a catalyst for her finding simplicity both within herself, and without.
This is an engrossing, thoughtful story of an extremely plausible future. The technology is better, the environment is worse, but human problems are still the same. Catastrophe always exists in some part of the world, but life goes on according to our own personal states of evolution. Love still makes things better. This is a story that explores nuances, using polarities only to expose more subtle shades of gray. I particularly appreciated the main character and how she negotiates her internal crisis to find herself anew; I actually had to look up the author to make sure that he was indeed a man, because he did Sophia’s point of view so well.
“Project Symmetry” by Dominica Phetteplace is the third of a continuing series of stories the author has featured in Asimov’s. This one is written as diary entries from the 17-year-old Bel. She’s discovered that her employer implanted an AI in her head, a “Watcher chip.” The story shows the development of Bel’s relationship with the Watcher, the development of the Watcher itself, and Bel’s interactions with a future in which technology and the blurring between entertainment and real life are the only things that have evolved; those who have achieved glamorous lives are just as trapped as anyone else, and Bel’s own successes as a mini-celebrity don’t obscure her teenage angst. Still, she successfully uses her new relationship with her Watcher to take some steps toward maturity and emotional independence.
This is an odd story with a lot going on in it. It’s a mixture of bleakness and coming-of-age glimmers of hope. At times it’s surreal, when projections of past events suddenly appear out of nowhere, or when computer-generated scripts for Bel’s acting parts reflect things going on in her life that no one could know. She is a Mary Sue in her acting roles, so I suspect the author is hinting that she’s a Mary Sue in the story as well. I can’t say I understand any of the deeper messages of the story, actually, but I enjoyed reading it probably for its Mary Sue-like allowance of the reader to identify with a beautiful, successful, young, angsty protagonist. I’m not sure the diary entry format worked for me, as I kept thinking that no one would write diary entries that sounded just like a well-written story, but maybe Bel’s Watcher helped edit it.
“Clearance” by Sarah Pinsker is a story in two parts, listing the clearance items found in two tourist destinations. The narrator, who sells toothpaste at trade shows, is looking through the clearance shelf because she likes to get ideas for cheap products to brand and use for marketing, and she has a teenaged daughter for whom she wants to find a quick gift. The lists of items are contrasted with each other; when she makes the first list, she’s alone and missing her daughter, thinking of how she can make it up to her that she didn’t take her. With the second list, she’s at a new tourist destination with her daughter, and although all the objects are similar to those at the first, there are subtle differences. The tone between mother and daughter is of warmth and acceptance of each others’ quirks, no longer of longing and unwanted items that belong nowhere else. The part describing the second list is also where the story takes a turn into the magical. We’re all like items on the clearance shelf, it seems to be saying, and look hard enough and everything will be worth buying.
The piece is unique, as quirky as its characters, and effectively written. It paints a picture of a mother-daughter relationship in a few bits of dialogue, a few memories, images. I also find clearance shelves a guilty pleasure and this story takes them and makes them a metaphor for so much more.
In “Unreeled,” by Mercurio D. Rivera, Jonathan’s wife Viv has just returned with a small group of other astronauts who have been exploring a singularity at the center of the galaxy. From the moment of Jonathan and Viv’s public reunion, she’s different. Until she’s reminded by him, she doesn’t remember any of their marital difficulties, and the habits, the small likes and dislikes that formed her personality, have all changed. Before she’d left, she’d grown distant from their small son Stevie whose car-accident-caused brain trauma had left him with acquired savant’s disorder. Now she’s interacting with Stevie, and he’s starting to talk again. The changes are all what Jonathan has wanted from Viv, but a suspicion grows in him that her unreeling into the black hole may have brought back a different person entirely—and that what came back might have insidious plans to spread.
This is an intriguing premise in a powerfully written story, although I do wonder why the new Viv was so unpleasant to Jonathan after he reminded her that she used to be that way. Some might reasonably view this story to be an homage or riff on the 1955 original Invasion of the Body Snatchers film, as it successfully captured the mood of paranoia prevalent in the country at the time. My interpretation was that it provided a crazy backdrop to posing questions about the nature of identity itself. If our personality changes, have we become different people? What is the ineffable thing inside us that makes us us? The paranoia and cluelessness of the somewhat unlikable protagonist create an effective setting for exploring these issues. A tense, grim, mysterious, and entertaining piece all at once.
In “Rambunctious,” by Rick Wilber, Emma is a nine-year-old girl living in Florida with her grandparents, Grandma Edna and Grandpa Posey. It’s sometime in the next century, after Yellowstone has erupted and other planetary changes have taken place, but everything is seen through Emma’s eyes and so any society tragedy that’s gone on is through a nine-year-old’s perceptions. Her major concern is that she thinks her grandma is losing her marbles because she keeps talking about an alien ship coming soon to come get her and Grandpa Posey. Emma gets into fights at school over her grandma’s alleged craziness. Then Emma starts to see that there is something extraordinary about her grandparents, and that she herself is different too, and that maybe there is something to Grandma Edna’s story after all. Emma, being a rambunctious type, learns how she’s equipped to handle the revelation.
I admit that I first thought this just a cute story about aliens coming to do good work on Earth, and of a girl learning that she’s one of them. There is, however, a tiny reference toward the end about “Barney Hill Elementary,” which links the story to the most famous UFO abduction case in history, that of Betty and Barney Hill in 1961. It turns this simple and light-hearted piece into a clever “what happened long after” story, postulating that Betty was impregnated by the aliens during abduction and Edna, Posey, and now Emma are all descendants. In that light the story takes on new dimensions, and we can look at the characters as warm and familiar parts of a mystery whimsically solved.
“Rats Dream of the Future” by Paul McAuley could be considered a tongue-in-cheek nod to the SF pulp magazines of the 1930s, in which an impossible idea is made to sound as rational as possible and then we get to see what the end result of it might be. A neurobiologist considers whether collective rat dreams in a laboratory, rewarded for their predictive accuracy with jolts of pleasure, can become predictors of the stock market. Sarah is the science journalist who stumbles upon the neurobiologist’s hints of what he’s doing; she knows of his work researching what triggers long-term memory recall, that he’s developed an interface that enables the wireless transmission of memories between rats, and that now he’s involved in “time travel of the mind,” as he calls it. Even though it’s obvious he’s doing something very weird, Sarah is annoyed at his arrogance and writes an article that includes none of the hints that would boost his career. When disaster strikes and Tom’s work implodes, Sarah regrets losing the biggest scoop of her life.
Impossible though the events of this story might be, I found its premises intriguing and thought-provoking, with permutations of the ideas presented here as possibly not so impossible after all. That’s good storytelling at work.