Asimov’s, March 2005

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"The Fraud" by Esther M. Friesner
"The Card" by Gene Wolfe
 "The Wave-Function Collapse" by Steven Utley
"The Dodo Factory" by Lori Selke
"The Devil You Don't" by Matthew Hughes
"Tk'tk'tk" by David D. Levine
"Organs R Us" by R. Neube
"Bright Red Star" by Bud Sparhawk
"Green Shift" by Mary Rosenblum

ImageThe editor's introduction to this issue of Asimov's explains the peculiar route of the cover art, having to do with many permissions that proved frustrating to obtain and late-night phone calls.  Let me assure you, every bit of it was worth it.  The cover art is related to Esther M. Friesner's lead story, "The Fraud," and I, having no experience whatsoever with Renaissance art, couldn't even figure out exactly what was pictured.  But when I did, it didn't leave my mind for days.  Overall, the issue was spooky, with an eye towards the imagery conveyed in the stories, and I enjoyed most of them for that reason very much.

Friesner's story is kind of like that, too—it struck me that this was maybe what Lovecraft was trying to do, write an 18th-century kind of novel with an underlying air of menace beneath the innocence.  Friesner is absolutely a master; I was led by the hand into the mind of a smarmy young man in England, ‘round about the dawn of Science.  He's visiting a buddy of his liege lord to try to maneuver him into forgiving his master some debts, and the fantastical horror does not come from where you think it will come from, I promise you that.  What a read—buying this issue was worth it just for this story.

I think "Green Shift" by Mary Rosenblum was probably worthy of the silver metal.  It read like a novel where chunks of explanatory information had been taken out for expediency, but there were these lovely paragraphs of description, the kind that short story writers don't tend to devote themselves to.  In short: a young woman on a mission to avenge her brother's death (in a future universe where murder and revenge are necessary evils to keep the economy ticking) finds a hydroponic garden in the freefall section of a space station. 

The story would have held my attention better in the beginning had Rosenblum talked a little more about what Earth was like now; the main character's narrative of moving through the space station just didn't hold my attention.  However, the bits in the garden made me swoon for loveliness; I'd be interested in seeing how her novels in this universe read.

First prize for inspiring a mind-trip in short form goes to Matthew Hughes for "The Devil You Don't."  A summary would totally ruin it—let's just say that until you know Winston Churchill, you don't.  And that man versus the devil reference is completely appropriate.

"The Card" by Gene Wolfe also did a lot with the spooky and the imagery in a five-minute read, but the opening seemed awkward to me.  Not awkwardly written so much as it seemed abrupt to go from looking at a homeless man on the street to contemplating the hardships of knowing the future you could have had.  This story certainly might appeal to fans of Wolfe's previous work; my opinion was that if you want to be skillfully shocked but don't have the time to be transported, this is the story in this issue for you.

"The Wave-Function Collapse" by Steven Utley and "Bright Red Star" by Bud Sparhawk, however, both go down as the stories I just didn't get this issue.  I guess they were well-written: Utley had to do with a widowed husband obsessing over theories of quantum physics to the point of insanity, and Sparhawk's was from the point of view of an enhanced super-soldier fighting an a alien enemy, where the only way to win against them is to die before they can catch you.

Both Utley and Sparhawk try to vie for our sympathy with frankly tragic situations, but the characters weren't developed enough for me—the authors each focused more energy on the quantum physics and the soldier gear, respectively.  And I'm sorry, Mr. Sparhawk, but your little girl read like a cardboard cutout.  Not things I am ever going to feel an urge to re-read.

These problems were reversed in "The Dodo Factory," by Lori Selke.  We got a nice big look at the personality of one avian researcher immured on an artificial island with his turkeys, part of a team effort to bring back the dodo, and in designer colors, too!  For some reason the main character can't quite put a finger on, the designer colors bother him (I admit as an ex-science major, they bother me too) and he decided to smuggle out some dodo embryos and try to make them as they would have been way back when.  It was a good read, but the plot could have gone places it didn't, and the only reason the main characters were the main characters was stage time.  It was a nice diversion, but no cigar.

Same thing with "Organs R Us" by R. Neube.  Neube starts with an intriguing idea, and then beats it until dead and bleeding. The United States is long since bankrupt, and those not assaulted by the myriad of diseases and horrid genetic proclivities are able to sell their organs for a tidy sum.  The organ buyer is our main character, and the good folks of a southern town resent him, threatening to shoot his big shiny hovercraft full of rock salt.  Oh, and there's a murderer.  The organ-buyer sort of helps the under-funded sheriff with investigating, but really just feeds her a lot, and in the end, we don't know if the murderer really is the murderer.  Ultimately, a neat idea, but unsatisfying.

David D. Levine is the author who took the mid-length sci-fi diversion-without-a-plot format and did it right in "Tk'tk'tk."  A traveling salesman on another planet is our point of view character here, and he's following his grandfather's proud tradition, only the aliens don't want to buy anything.  He's running out of local currency (that looks like fertilizer) and he's about as unhappy as you can get, with uncomfortable rooms and inedible food, which finally turns into nothing at all.  But in a quest for ultimate enlightenment sort of way and following the Dao, everything turns out all right in the end.  The alien world was vividly imagined, the holiday, everything.  Anywhere Levine decides to take me, I'll believe I'm there.