Asimov’s, March 2004

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"A Plague Of Life" by Robert Reed
"Pulp Cover" by Gene Wolfe
"What She Left Behind" by Sarah A. Hoyt
"Jagganath" by Richard Flood
"Tammy Pendant" by Chris Beckett
"Thompson's Ferry" by Allen M. Steele
"The Saint" by Phillip C. Jennings
"Under The Flag Of Night" by Ian McDowell

ImageMuch to the detriment of my deeply cherished prejudices, I liked Robert Silverberg's column this month. It's a good start to a great issue.

In the past, Silverberg's column has turned me off with insider-ism and nostalgia. Not so this month. March's opener talks about the ancient Egyptian habit of stuffing animal mummies with cast off bits of papyrus. Written on the papyrus are treasures: lost plays and tidbits to keep the historians slavering for more. Silverberg spins out the story of this valuable trash in entertaining and engrossing detail.

Ancient Egypt makes another, glancing, appearance in Robert Reed's "A Plague Of Life." Alternate histories, a category in which this story might be placed, always struck me as the literary equivalent of crossword puzzles: they're mildly diverting, but they rarely make a lasting impression.

"A Plague Of Life," on the other hand, is the kind of story that I'm still thinking about a week later. What if animals never evolved death? What if, in the absence of disease, malnutrition and violence, people could live forever? What would your life be worth, and what would you do to protect it?

The story follows Hannah Cross in her troubled relationship with her grandfather Nathan, a patriarch of great age and significant power. There's a mystery to be deciphered (who murdered Hannah's father?) and a struggle to be resolved (will Hannah be able to remain independent of her grandfather's manipulations?). In the end all threads are brought to a satisfying and more than a little unsettling conclusion. My favorite story in this issue.

The "Pulp Cover" of Gene Wolfe's title isn't apparent until the end of the story, where it serves as an example of how fiction fails to describe the real world. The narrator, a mild mannered furniture salesman with moderate ambitions, falls in love with the boss' daughter, only to lose her to a Yale man with brains, looks and money. There's something wrong about this particular Yalie, but our narrator is unable to stymie the suit.

Wolfe pulls off quite a feat in the story: he plays it straight but somehow lays a patina of humor over the plot. It's a fifties-era story in a pedestrian setting that still leaves you with a creepy sense that there's something not right with the world. It sits somewhere at the intersection of Jane Austen, H.P. Lovecraft, and "Leave It To Beaver."

At the beginning of "What She Left Behind" I was afraid I was in for a hat trick of disturbing stories, but Sarah A. Hoyt turns a brutal beginning into a happy, even sappy ending. Pedro is a young boy who lives with an abusive father. His mother, who left the day he was born, appears like a ghost at several key moments in his life. When finally she returns to take him to his reward (the fantasy of every orphan) he has to choose between her and owning up to his responsibilities.

If the resolution of his decision is a little too close to a Hallmark moment, the story is carried by its luminous prose and honest characterization.

"Too much information, running through my head," was running through my head reading "Jagganath" by Richard Flood. I don't know if Flood was listening to Ghost In The Machine when he wrote this story, but its theme of massive distraction gibes with The Police song quite nicely.

Flood's main character Gita builds advertisements made of voxels, three-dimensional pixels that crowd the skies of India's cities and towns. Suffering from info-overload, she has been treated by Jigme, a new age monk and former child prodigy. Back at work Gita takes on a project to stop voxel hackers from hijacking her client's campaign, but the project is not as simple as it seems. Ugly behind-the-scenes politics force Gita into a choice between her own career and doing what's right. Jigme is her conscience, who gives her the means to bring an end to the noise.

This is the kind of near-future weirdness that is my particular favorite when it comes to speculative fiction. Floating holographic advertisements, middle management expert-ware, quasi-religious orders of monks fighting psychic overload: great stuff all. And yet the plot relied on an unlikely coincidence, and wound its way predictably to the expected end, and I was left less than fully satisfied.

From the writer's bio we learn that Chris Beckett has been a social worker, a career that judging from "Tammy Pendant" lends a tint of gritty nastiness to one's worldview.

The title character is a problem teen caught in the ministrations of the British social service. We meet her in between foster homes, suffering the attentions of psychologists and caseworkers. Tammy is bitter and angry. She alienates everyone who might otherwise care for her.

All the kids at the center where Tammy now lives know about the Shifters, a group of people who can move between worlds. Here's Tammy's self-defined salvation. She seduces a Shifter, steals his bag of magic pills, and takes one, only to be caught by the police and brought to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. The system, it seems, won't let her go.

Does the experience change Tammy? That would be telling. Suffice it to say that this is an excellent story with a mean streak that's true to the very end.

It feels like Allen M. Steele has had a story from the "Coyote" series in just about every Asimov's of the last two years. If it wasn't clear from the tone of that sentence, I'm ambivalent about that fact.

On the one hand the "Coyote" series represents something that can be rare in science fiction: good old-fashioned story telling. And the topic, the foundation of a new human colony on another planet, is the very stuff of wish fulfillment for every true SF geek (in which group I count myself).

But as I read these stories I get the sensation that Tom Clancy is feeding Steele his lines. The heroes are transplanted red-blooded Americans, the heroines beautiful and smart. The plot and the action could as easily take place in the old west, in a fantasy kingdom, or in any number of other SF settings.

What's more, these stories don't feel like they can stand on their own. "Thompson's Ferry" is a particularly egregious example. Clark Thompson is the de facto mayor of a village on the edge of the East Channel, a splinter group that acts as gatekeeper and ferry for refugees fleeing the colony's main city of Liberty for the rebel communities in Midland. On this particular day, soldiers of Liberty come after a group of refugees whose membership includes one important to the Matriarch of Liberty. Thompson refuses to cooperate with the soldiers, and through a misunderstanding, ignites a civil war.

There's not enough in this short story to engage the reader who hasn't read the rest of the series. The characters are roughly sketched out, and the struggle between the opposing forces is given no depth. If you've read and liked earlier stories in this series, you'll probably enjoy the latest installment. If you haven't, you'll be as happy skipping it.

"The Saint" by Phillip C. Jennings is set in a distant dystopian future in which humanity, or at least the remnants of it, serve the will of an Eternal Empress who sits on high in orbit. The Yazdis, as the narrator's people are called, are compelled to the Empress' will by Saints, entirely subjugated personalities that lay dormant until activated to serve the Empress' purposes.

The narrator is sent on a tour of the Empress' lands, which he finds desolate and empty. Returning home again he discovers that he has been changed by his voyage, and that what once was unthinkable may no longer be.

It's such a short story, and the scope is so limited, it's hard to form much of an opinion on it one way or another.

The last story is a fantasy with all the right ingredients: pirates, buried treasure, decapitated heads, magic, necromancy and eighteenth century science. Did I mention pirates?

"Under The Flag Of Night" by Ian McDowell stars (and I use that term advisedly – this story reads like a movie) Anne Bonnie, a formidable swordswoman and determined bodyguard of one Tobias Constantine, scientist and initiate in the art of magic. Constantine has with him the head of William Kidd, whose spirit he intends to compel to give up the secret burial place of a magic cauldron. Once he's obtained the cauldron, Constantine will bring it back to England, to be put to the service of the Crown.

Constantine has a powerful enemy, however, in a former compatriot whose loyalty to the Crown has been compromised, and whose intentions for the cauldron are far from benign.

Above all else "Under The Flag Of Night" is a lot of good swashbuckling fun with a dollop of pirate cheer, a measure of magical feats, and good old fashioned clever thinking thrown into the mix.

The issue concludes with an exhaustive (and to this particular reader, exhausting) review of the films of Hayao Miyazaki by Alice K. Turner. I will forever hold a grudge against Miyazaki for infecting me with the insipid theme song to "Totoro," but if you're an anime fan you'll find Turner's provided an excellent overview of all of Miyazaki's feature films.

All together, March is an issue well worth the paper it's printed on, and then some.

Jeremy Lyon is a freelance writer, tech industry cube farmer and the publisher of Futurismic, a site for people interested in the future and the effects of science and technology on the present.