"Shepherded by Galatea" by Alex Irvine
"Only Partly Here" by Lucius Shepard
"The Great Game" by Stephen Baxter
"In the Icehouse" by Sally Gwylan
"Giza" by Joe Haldeman
"The Waste Land" by Charles Sheffield
The last few decades have seen a resurgence of interest among sf writers in the dramatic possibilities of the Solar System. After the romantic dreams of canals on Mars and humid jungles on Venus were demolished by more detailed observations of the planets, the Solar System seemed a dreary place to many writers. Starting in the 1970s, though, writers began seeing the real Solar System as itself exotic and dramatic, and the hard SF resurgence of the 1990s accelerated this trend. Alex Irvine, who made a splash in 2002 with his first novel A Scattering of Jades, gives us "Shepherded by Galatea," a novelette about diamond mining on Neptune that evokes the stories of John Varley and Roger Zelazny through its melding of hard SF techniques with ironic romanticism. Stig Davidsohn, with his ship Eightball and his AI Bunny, is a gas-mole, a freelance diamond miner who drops into Neptune’s atmosphere to retrieve the diamonds created in Neptune’s core. To renew his contract, as well as try to recover the woman who left him, Stig needs to make one more big haul. When Eightball‘s reactor is damaged Stig takes his ship out anyway, and things get out of hand. There is a long tradition in science fiction of competent, world-weary, romantic heroes who hide their discontent behind bravado and mordant sarcasm, and Stig fits right in. I was very impressed by this story with its technical mastery, fluency in genre conventions, and tightly constructed narrative.
Lucius Shepard deals with the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks in his beautifully written novelette "Only Partly Here." The arc of the story is immediately recognizable, but this does little to blunt the impact of this examination of the paradoxical fragility and resilience of human relationships under the weight of immense devastation. Bobby, a graduate student at Columbia, is working at Ground Zero, helping to clear away the rubble of the World Trade Centers. After work each day, he and Mazurek and Pineiro head to the Blue Lady bar to fail to unwind. There Bobby meets Alicia, and the two enter into an awkward and tentative pattern, each hoping to discover exactly what it is they need. One of Shepard’s strengths is his control of prose, and he uses that control to great effect in this story. It’s apparent early on who Alicia actually is, but this knowledge, rather than diminishing the story, is an essential part of its strength. The important revelation is not Alicia’s nature, but rather Bobby’s recognition of precisely what it is he, and all of us, have lost.
Stephen Baxter appears with "The Great Game," another short story in his long-running "Xeelee" future history. Set in the Galactic halo, this tells of the beginning of the war between the Third Expansion of humanity and the enigmatic Xeelee. A troop of Navy marines led by Lieutenant Neel are sent to the planet Shade to evacuate the human colonists and provide evidence that they have been attacked by the Xeelee, evidence that will be used by the Navy to justify war. Tilo, the Academician sent to find that evidence, does not give the Navy what it wants, and he and Neel are witness to the jousting of the great powers of the Third Expansion as they set the course of human history. Baxter is excellent at evoking a sense of temporal and physical vastness, even in the few pages of a short story. Neel’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the inevitability and desirability of war ("War! It was magnificent. It was inevitable.") clashes with our wider perspective on events to create a dissonance that enhances the effect of the vastly inhuman scale.
"In the Icehouse" is a novelette about teenage tramps during the Depression, and marks Sally Gwylan‘s first appearance in Asimov’s. Philippa, a thirteen year old girl who ran away from home, is caught in a freak ice storm and is forced to take refuge in an abandoned icehouse. A group of other young tramps have made a home there, and while most are runaways or orphans, three of them, Mara, Simon, and Jimmy, are keeping a secret. What the secret is will not prove a surprise to anyone who has read more than a handful of science fiction stories, but that’s all right. The impact of the story comes from the strong characters and the finely drawn depiction of the effect that discovering the trio’s secret has on Philippa’s psyche, rather than from any reliance on shock or surprise. The historical setting also contributes to the story’s success, creating a mood of mixed despair and hope in the world that reverberates with the revelation of the trio’s secret.
Joe Haldeman gives us a brief history of the end of the world in his short story "Giza." Someone, waiting for the end to come, has decided to record exactly what events led up to the destruction of human civilization. The story is quite short, with no characters, just a simple narration of events, but the scenario is interesting and Haldeman creates an effectively tense mood of impending doom in just four pages.
"The Waste Land" is the final appearance in Asimov’s by the late Charles Sheffield, who died at the end of 2002. The novelette is a low-key mystery, notable more for its lovingly detailed setting of a scientific workplace rather than for the solution to the mystery. When a government physicist at the Idaho National Lab is found dead, the apparent victim of massive radiation poisoning, Jeff King, a former cop and now a security guard at the lab, is drafted to investigate. To do so, he enlists the aid of Lassandra Kane, another scientist. Sheffield seems more interested in Jeff and Lassandra’s growing trust of one another and understanding of their disparate worlds than in the murder. Jeff and Lassandra’s arrival at the solution is a bit rushed, as if Sheffield remembered suddenly that he was in fact writing a mystery, and not just a story about working scientists. Nevertheless, Jeff King makes an appealing detective, and it’s a shame that we won’t get to read any more stories about him.