Asimov’s, March 2002

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“The Wild Girls” by Ursula K. Le Guin
“Captains of Industry” by Matthew Jarpe
“The Passenger” by Paul McAuley
“Life in the Sardine Lane” by R. Neube
“Getting the News” by Jim Grimsley
“A Speaker for the Wooden Sea” by Ian Watson
At times Ursula K. Le Guin‘s novelette "The Wild Girls" teeters on the edge of didacticism, its setting tending toward the diagrammatic, but the story is saved by Le Guin’s ability to evoke a feeling of tragic necessity, a sense that the story happens not because of plotting or technique, but because it must. Her ability to make her craft seem inevitable and artless is remarkable. There is a City, divided into three castes, Crowns, Dirts, and Roots, that are linked together through intricate economic and kinship relationships. Crown men may only marry Dirt women, and hence raid the Dirt villages outside the city for women. On one of these raids, Modh and Mal, Dirt sisters, are captured by Bela ten Belen, a Crown, and brought back to the city to be raised as future wives. During the raid, however, a Dirt baby dies and is left unburied. According to the beliefs of the villagers, this means the child’s ghost will haunt the earth. Modh, the elder sister, grows up, marries Bela, and tries to save her sister from a marriage to another Crown man, Ralo ten Bal. As the story progresses, the sense of doom grows, and the tragic climax occurs with the inevitability of legend.

After the defeat of the Outer System colonies by the Three Powers Alliance in the "Quiet War," a few fortunate "outers" have escaped living on the charity of the victors and found work salvaging the ships wrecked by the war. On one of these ships, a wrecking gang of outers discover a survivor, Alice, a girl of eight or nine years whose very survival makes it evident that she is no ordinary child. The outers must decide whether to help her escape back to the colonies, or turn her over to their employers. Such is the situation in Paul McAuley‘s novelette "The Passenger," a swift-moving and impressive evocation of a post-war Solar System. Conflicts between Earth and its colonies have formed the backdrop for many a science fiction story, but the story avoids the standard plots of brave freedom-fighters, intrigue and derring-do, and instead focuses on the aftermath of the war and the survivors’ struggles to get by from day to day. Working-class sf at times seems unusually rare, and "The Passenger" does an effective job of depicting the tedium and strain of hard labor, and the psychology needed to survive such work. The story remains grounded in the details of life, despite the futuristic wonders of the setting, and all of the characters live and breathe: even Alice, the mute and mysterious passenger.

"Captains of Industry" by Matthew Jarpe doesn’t entirely move beyond its initial gimmick, but is still entertaining. To deal with the lengthy time scale of interstellar trade, business tycoons of the future have set up headquarters on ships orbiting black holes at high velocities. The relativistic effects allow business leaders to enact long-term strategies, as years in the rest of the universe can pass during a single meeting in the ship’s boardroom. However, there are certain side-effects as well, since management on anything less than a scale of years is nearly impossible. Sloan Lerner, a young CEO, and Seth Leibowitz, an older rival, both have colonist ships headed towards the same planet, HE-47/J. Neither will back down, and both are prepared to fight for the planet, but in the few hours they spend dealing with the situation, decades pass on HE-47/J, and their two teams resolve the situation on their own initiative. The use of the relativistic effects as a narrative hook backfires a bit, I think, as Sloan is a bit too passive, but it’s an interesting use of the idea of time-dilation.

Survivors of a nuclear World War III, saved by the alien Dyb’, ply the Solar System in "grainships" in R. Neube‘s short story "Life in the Sardine Lane." The lucky and talented survivors made it to orbital habitats, or to Mars, but the rest of humanity endlessly roams the Solar System on the grainships, living off the charity of orbital cities and colonies. Alicia Talce, the captain of one grainship, is luckier than most grainers: when her lover died in a docking accident, his insurance made her wealthy. She leaves her money untouched, however, and feels guilt over having it at all, until she finds an opportunity to put it to use by helping a young grainer afford an education at a Martian university. The setting is fascinating, with enough originality to distinguish it from other post-disaster tales, and I’d like to see more done with it in future stories.

Jim Grimsley‘s "Getting the News," set in his "Hormling" universe, takes place during an inexplicable war between the human Hormling and the Seldene, an insect-like race that live and think at much greater speed than humans. The narrator, Ana, is a synthetic personality that runs a watch station orbiting a Seldene colony, keeping tabs on Seldene activity. The war between the two civilizations has lasted for centuries, spread across many light-years, but the Seldene and their motives remain a mystery. At the end of the story, the war seems to have ended as inexplicably as it began, at least in Ana’s system. Not much is explained, but that seems appropriate, since running through the story are Ana’s meditations on what it means to know anything in an interstellar setting, where you can only learn of events years after they occurred. This is a quiet and evocative piece, more of a vignette than a story, and thought-provoking in its implications.

Wormwood is a planet almost entirely covered by a "sea" of wood: not a forest of individual trees, but a single organism. The setting of Ian Watson‘s novella "A Speaker for the Wooden Sea" is part of a venerable sf tradition of exotically homogenous planets: Frank Herbert’s Arrakis being the most evident precursor of Wormwood, right down to the giant worms and addictive mind-altering substances. Along with Wormwood, Watson gives us godlike AIs, faceless corporations, and a roguish hero who gets in over his head. In lesser hands this might be a mishmash of cliches, but Watson puts his quirkily intellectual stamp on the story. Lustig Firefox has come to Wormwood, backed financially by the enigmatic Combine, to set in motion a money-making scheme involving a potent form of absinthe brewed from the leaves of Wormwood. Along with money, the Combine has given him Lill, a "Companion" AI implanted in his mind, to help Lustig, as well as keep tabs on him. Lill and Lustig soon discover there is more to Wormwood’s wooden sea than wood and leaves, and Lustig has to deal with the consequences. The story moves along at a nice pace, and Lustig is an appealing character, with too much imagination to be an effective schemer, but enough sense to extricate himself from a rather messy situation.