Asimov’s, May 2002

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“Breathmoss” by Ian R. MacLeod
“A Champion of Democracy” by Tom Purdom
“Madonna of the Maquiladora” by Gregory Frost
“Knapsack Poems” by Eleanor Arnason
“Patent Infringement” by Nancy Kress

“A Great Day for Brontosaurs” by Michael Swanwick

There is a raging debate on Locus Online about the relative merits of literary fiction and science fiction, and whether it is a good or bad thing when science fiction takes on literary overtones. I’ve been reading the posts, trying to figure out where I come down in the discussion.

Although I was appalled at Harper’s recent superficial article trashing science fiction as an adolescent genre, and have read very little literary fiction lately that impressed me at all, I’ve also been disappointed by many of the stories selected for the final Nebula ballot. Some seemed just ordinary; others didn’t live up to their initial promise.

I thought maybe I was getting cynical about fiction. Or that perhaps it’s true—as my sister the poet says—that writing fiction can spoil your appreciation for it.

And then I read Gregory Frost’s “Madonna of the Maquiladora.”

Now I remember what great fiction is. Genre be damned.

Frost gives us the gritty reality of the maquiladoras—the foreign-owned factories that line the Mexican side of the U.S./Mexico border. Using the second person for his main character, so that the reader is sucked in and made to suffer along with him, Frost shows us injustice that makes our hearts bleed, and then reminds us that we don’t have the guts, or the will, to fight it. And yet he leaves us with a bit of hope.

I found myself living in the story’s reality long after I had put the magazine down. There’s only one thing wrong with this story appearing in Asimov’s: It ought to be read by a vastly larger audience. I doubt anyone writing any kind of fiction has written a better story—or novel, for that matter—on the inequities built in to our current economic system.

The best thing about this issue of Asimov’s is that Frost’s story isn’t the only good thing in it. Ian R. MacLeod demonstrates conclusively in “Breathmoss” that science fiction can bring added depth and texture to a girl’s coming of age story. In a world in which men are a rarity and where the ancient stories have changed to reflect a female-centered world, the difficult passage of adolescence remains the same. A girl must figure out love, her relationship to her family and to the child she once was, and what she is going to do with her life. And all this takes place in a reality in which interstellar travel bends both space and time, adding another dimension to the tale.

It’s a slow story—if a novella occupies the continuum between a short story and a novel, then “Breathmoss” is closer to a novel—but well worth your time.

Eleanor Arnason’s “Knapsack Poems” was so much fun to read that I didn’t want it to end. Arnason’s Goxhats are, in most cases, a collective of beings, some male, some female, some neuter, each with different primary tasks. A Goxhat can compose a poem and write it down while walking along a path and keeping a sharp eye out for danger. A Goxhat can also argue among/with itself.

Arnason sticks in some sly comments about the life of a poet—“Why were my purses empty?”—and gives us a gentle discourse on gender in the guise of a discussion of the proper healthy number and mix of parts for a Goxhat.

But while Arnason gives us some ideas to ponder, she also gives us that wondrous thing that is the hallmark of science fiction and fantasy writing: Imagination.

Tom Purdom has also used his imagination to create a war between two governments on the Moon in “A Champion of Democracy.” In this delightful story, the First Administrator of a democratic regime has come up with the idea of a War Poll that votes every twelve hours on how to conduct the war against the tyrant who is trying to invade.

Despite being about war, the story is more cheerful—and hopeful—than the current news of the world. I am not sure it has a moral, or that I would recommend the First Administrator’s methods to our own government, but it does provide interesting thoughts about strategy.

Nancy Kress and Michael Swanwick can always be relied on to give the reader a good time, and these stories are no exception.

Kress’s “Patent Infringement” is a funny “what if” about the outcome of the patenting of genes. If you follow current discussions on intellectual property law and litigation, the story strikes a little too close to home to be comfortable. I wish, however, that Kress had not converged civil and criminal law in this story; staying within the civil law would have allowed the same result.

Swanwick’s “A Great Day for Brontosaurs” gives us, in the guise of a story, a more accurate (even if simplified) explanation of what we can and cannot do with our recently-acquired knowledge about genetics than any of the general reporting I’ve seen. His story demonstrates that getting the facts right doesn’t have to be boring.