"Count to One" by Chris Willrich
"Graylord Man's Last Words" by Gene Wolfe
"Dry Bones" by William Sanders
"The Madwoman of Shuttlefield" by Allen M. Steele
"The Apocalypse According to Olaf" by Barth Anderson
"Margaux" by Walter Jon Williams
The May 2003 issue of Asimov's SF opens with "Count to One" by Chris Willrich, a story well deserving of its featured place in the lineup. It's told from the point of view of Kwatee, an artificial intelligence ruling over a virtual world designed by scientists of the late 21st century. This "mirror Earth" was created as a model for experimentation that humanity hopes will help them stave off environmental disaster. But Kwatee's development as an independent, thinking being has complicated the issue, since it is feared his own ideas about what's best for the world may be in conflict with those of the human scientists. Consequently Kwatee is jeopardized from the outside by interests that wish to destroy him before he can bring his considerable power to bear on reality. The interactions between Kwatee and his real world visitors–including a human woman with whom he's fallen in love–provide the story's energy, and through them the story's thematic concerns emerge. This is a cleverly structured story, Willrich effectively establishing a future scenario filled with mysteries that are gradually revealed as it progresses. If the story has a flaw it is perhaps a tendency to ultra-serious talkiness, but even so "Count to One" is an enjoyable mix of familiar SF themes and ideas that vividly confronts important issues.
An intriguing little item by Gene Wolfe follows, "Graylord Man's Last Words." This clever far future tale of a young "boy's" involvement in a turning point of human history is told in a rustic American voice, as if aware that it is a science fiction story appearing in its own past. To reveal too much about the events would kill whatever surprise the story may hold; suffice it to say that the final turn is kind of old hat as an SF premise, but the puzzle is fun to decrypt and the story's effective self-subversion gives it a unique twist.
William Sanders is up next with "Dry Bones," a coming-of-age tale set in the rural south of the 1950's. Thirteen-year-old Raymond becomes intrigued when he hears the news that an ancient skeleton has been discovered on county land. Thanks to his science teacher, who first discovered it, Raymond gets to know the scientists who show up to excavate the find. Ultimately chance leads him to visit them just as their work takes a perplexing turn, which turns out to be the story's until-now unrevealed SF premise. In terms of plot there are no surprises, and considering the lengthy build-up, the eventual SF revelation didn't feel quite surprising or unusual enough. On the other hand the period feel is nicely evoked and the subtle community conflict between science and religion adds an interesting extra layer. Overall a decent story, but nothing new.
As a disclaimer, I should say that I seem to be one of the few Asimov's readers who never really developed a taste for the Coyote series by Allen M. Steele, a future saga of the colonization of a faraway Earth-like world. The author has launched a new series of Coyote tales with this issue's novelette, "The Madwoman of Shuttlefield." It's the story of Allegra DiSilvio, a musician with an implied dark past, who has come to Coyote on one of the subsequent colonization ships. Six years have passed since that first landing, and the settlement–its growing population now taxing limited resources–has become rigid and repressive. Allegra, having come to Coyote largely to escape her past, has a rough early go of it on the new world until she accidentally befriends the mad old woman of the title, who in various ways enables Allegra's new life to begin. More important than Allegra's story, it seems, is the madwoman's connections to the events and characters of the previous series, which foreshadow more important developments in Coyote's still-early history. All in all, this is a well written work in terms of story-telling, with fine characterization and engaging conflict. But I'm still not quite sold on the future described here; not enough seems to have changed in the three hundred years between now and the time of these stories. Some of the broader SF elements put a genre twist on events–the problems inherent in Earth's sheer distance, for example, and the interesting political backdrop of this future–but for the most part the speculative machinery is being used to power a basic tale of human drama. And as drama, it's effective and entertaining, but I'm not sure it needs to be science fiction. In the end, though, I suspect fans of the series won't be at all disappointed.
"The Apocalypse According to Olaf" by Barth Anderson is a puzzling urban fantasy involving a unique homeless man with extraordinary powers. This nameless man suffers from black-out "spells" and confusion as he wanders the cities of the midwest, symptoms of his strange extrasensory abilities. He finds himself accidentally entangled with a number of other weirdly empowered men, one of whom is connected with his hazy past. Anderson's style here is amusingly erratic, and while I found the action a bit of a challenge to follow, I enjoyed visiting this gonzo scenario and left it imagining bizarre hidden magic underneath reality's mundane surface.
Walter Jon Williams is a restlessly versatile writer, constantly shifting gears in terms of subject matter and approach even as he brings his own mastery of storytelling craft to each new work. There are more than a few hints that his new novella "Margaux," which closes the issue, is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel The Praxis, and indeed this tale–like the Steele before it–feels like prelude to a longer opus. It begins in the far future on the provincial world of Spannan, a planet on the fringes of a galaxy-spanning empire. In a society where power and wealth appear to be reserved for an aristocratic class called "the Peers," Gredel is a child of a broken home in a poverty-stricken "Fab" town. Gredel has fallen in a with a small-time criminal boyfriend named Lamey, who elevates her a step above destitution in exchange for certain favors, sexual and otherwise. As the story begins, one of these favors quickly becomes to more closely involve herself with Caro, an impulsive, reckless Peer who, slumming quite by chance in Gredel's Fab town, makes her acquaintance. The complicated friendship that evolves between these two teenagers, so different in class and with such dramatically different futures before them, is the core of the story. It's a relationship distinctly suited to illuminating the sociopolitical climate of the empire, but it also crackles with tension as the ambitions and behaviors of these two volatile characters clash. The opening is briefly muddled, but once things begin to roll Williams' usual storytelling prowess manifests, as Gredel's relationships propel her inexorably toward a way out of her hopeless situation. The overall plot is pretty predictable, but there are some genuine surprises along the way, and Gredel's change–as she gradually develops a better understanding of her situation and her options–is an enthralling character transformation. As far as its science fictional world, there is more hinted at than experienced–the multiple alien species that make up the empire, mention of a galactic Fleet certain to become important, rumors of other worlds and the network of wormholes connecting them, and mention of a "Praxis" governing the empire. But as a stand-alone work "Margaux" succeeds more on its small scale, its focus on characters interacting against a sfnal background that screams for further exploration. If this excerpt is any indication, the novel ought to be a real corker.
Christopher East is a regular contributor to Tangent Online, whose short fiction has appeared in Talebones, The Third Alternative, and Challenging Destiny, among other places. His next story is forthcoming from Say…, and he's recently started contributing to a group blog called Futurismic. He lives in Iowa City,IA.