Asimov’s, Oct/Nov 2006

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Image"1 is True" by Rob Collins
"A Billion Eves" by Robert Reed
"After I Stopped Screaming" by Pamela Sargent
"Biodad" by Kit Reed
"Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth" by Michael F. Flynn
"Down to the Earth Below" by William Barton
"Foster" by Melissa Lee Shaw
"Saving for a Sunny Day, or, The Benefits of Reincarnation" by Ian Watson
"The Seducer" by Carol Emshwiller
"The Small Astral Object Genius" by James Van Pelt
The Oct/Nov 2006 double issue of Asimov’s starts off with the scrumptious geek-fest novelette "1 Is True" by Ron Collins.  Gordie Rath is getting the stuffing beaten out of him by a cop.  He’s the suspect in the murder of his former lover, Yulani, and his interrogator gives him an ultimatum to either solve the crime or take the rap.  Determined to stay out of prison, Gordie heads for the nightclub of his former partner, Stango, demanding answers.  The two go way back, to the years when Gordie wrote the software that Stango sold and Yulani marketed.  Their hyper-real games brought them fame and wealth, but at a price that sent Gordie into exile.  At the club, Gordie encounters Stango’s latest endeavor: pseudo people who not only look real but feel real.  The sight of them switches on a need embedded within Gordie, the lust to code, to build the routines and data structures of a virtual reality so convincing you can touch it.  Though Stango claims his innocence with respect to the dead woman, his company is in trouble, late on delivery of the pseudo people software.  Like all murder mysteries, Gordie gets sucked into a plot as thick as pea soup.  Collins’s style is very noir, filling the first few pages with enough similes to float the reader down the river Spillane, losing a fedora and trench coat along the way.  Though the ending wraps rather quickly, it satisfies.  "1 Is True" is filled with cool gadgets and speaks in the voice of software junkies, with moments such as, "He breathed it in, feeling ones and zeros scour his lungs, imagining oily silicate clouds of digital smoke as he exhaled."

“A Billion Eves” by Robert Reed was simultaneously the most exciting and the most frustrating story of those that I read from this issue. The scope of Reed’s imagination excited me as he built up a religion at once Biblical and post-colonial in which humans—usually one man, a Father, and his multiple young wives—fill parallel Earths and subdue them. Then the ecologically conscious ethics of one intelligent, proto-feminist girl, Kala, challenge the patriarchal, exploitative order of things. Can women be more than breeders? she wonders. Can humans do more than callously overrun a world?

On the exciting side of things, Reed’s framework successfully fuses the fin-de-siecle “woman question” with the explosive present-day concerns of environmentalism. You first think he’s asking the question, “What if a radical Mormon sect got their hands on dimension-hopping technology?” Then, Kala starts worrying about species and prejudices from one world contaminating another. You realize that Reed is examining our own history of colonization, whether overtaking other human societies or running roughshod over other ecosystems. I wanted to read an entire novel about these cultures and concepts!

…However, I don’t think I could read an entire novel in Reed’s style. Equally dispassionate when writing about the First Father’s discovery of parallel Earths or Kala’s indignation over exotic species infestation, Reed’s words leave the reader little emotional purchase. Furthermore, Reed sometimes leaves out key elements. For example, while we get a lot of the First Father’s lore in summary, actual passages from Kala’s culture’s sacred books would have engaged me much more. “A Billion Eves” feels like a futuristic jog, but I wanted the author to break away and sprint with it.

"After I Stopped Screaming" by Pamela Sargent takes King Kong on a retrospective tour.  Told from the point of view of "The blonde in the big ape’s hand," the narrator speaks of her past interactions with Kong.  She reiterates her epiphanies with her therapist and her nightmares of the adventure, then switches to a sympathetic observer of the misunderstood Kong.  "It had to be depressing…[finding] another girl tied up and waiting for him, probably screaming her head off the same way I did, and the folks in the village beating their drums and waving their torches around and just basically telling him to gab the girl and go away."  She speculates on Kong’s love life, debating the existence of a Mrs. Giant Gorilla, and even psychoanalyzes the ape, wondering on his emotional state, the horrible repetitiveness of his life in the jungle, and the shock he must have felt in the big city.  Once in a while, one of these "new take on a classic" stories graces the pages of Asimov’s, and Kong fans will likely be satisfied with the attention to detail while others will enjoy the easygoing pace and intelligent ending.  Sargent masters the "what if" story with humor, common sense, and insightfulness. 

Kit Reed‘s "Biodad" uses multiple points of view to cleverly examine one woman’s obsessive and misguided personal choices.  Nina is the mother of twins conceived through donor sperm.  After breaking up with her latest boyfriend, she digs into the past, breaking promises she made ages ago to determine the name of her children’s father.  Not knowing when to desist, she pursues the man in chat rooms and then by phone until she decides he’s is the perfect man.  In a lapse of all reasonable judgment, she trades her comfortable life for a mobile home and drives her children across the country to their father’s house in the hopes that he will welcome his new family with open arms.  Luckily, the children, Susie and Freddy, keep their hopes grounded, questioning their mother’s choices and hoping to soon return to a sense of rationalization.  Their points of view give the plot texture as well as momentum as we witness Nina’s fall.  Reed carefully crafts the tale, adding subtle layers of insanity one upon the next, until Nina’s actions turn from silly to scary.   But just when the ending seems painfully obvious, Reed darts down a side corridor of darkness, metamorphosing the story into true horror.  The story has few speculative elements and so detracts from the cohesion of the issue.

The deeply affecting "Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth" by Michael F. Flynn was the last story from the double issue that I read, and it nearly outweighed my disappointment with most of the other stories. In a naturalistic style with a masterful sense of narrative rhythm, Flynn tells one story from many different angles, chronicling the disappearance of a Seattle commuter ferry into a space/time "drainhole." In a variety of first- and third-person perspectives, relatives, friends, and bystanders try to make sense of the life-defining disaster. Flynn’s psychological acuity comes through most strongly in vignettes that humanize and personalize universal grief reactions, like the scientist whose impersonal meditation on a rational explanation for his family’s death becomes a love letter of loss, or the boys whose youthful exploring has as its goal to "send a message to the Ferry People."
With so many recent large-scale losses leaning our consciousness—particularly, those of September 11, 2001—Flynn seems to be writing to the public at large, saying, "Here…this is how we grieve… But, then, these are the steps we take so that we may live again." Lest you think this is sappy, Flynn pulls off his thoughtful and hopeful story with aplomb so that the poetic allusion of the title comes across as a fitting description for the Ferry People…and their survivors.

William Barton’s “Down to the Earth Below” has the preteen Alan and his three friends finding a subterranean dreamland far different from the eventful summer of 1964 above. In fact, the dreamland seems suspiciously similar to the imaginary world that the protagonists have created together. But will the Earth Below seduce Alan and friends or lead them to adulthood?  Or both?

Sadly, I didn’t care that much. Though beginning with a heady evocation of the boys’ cultural moment, Barton soon ambles away from the good stuff. He spends 20 sluggish pages (of 60) getting the boys underground, which leaves only 40 pages overstuffed with condensed adventures.

Dah-ee-lah, the siren of Adulthood [or Femininity or maybe Sex] that initiates Alan, suffers most from Barton’s spasmodic pacing. Barton expends more energy on her first contact with Alan than on their electric and somehow innocent sex scenes. Thus Dah-ee-lah seems less like a goddess and more like a stereotypical sexy savage. There’s a surprisingly tender tale of sexual awakening in “Down…,” but the digressive style obscures it.

In “Foster” by Melissa Lee Shaw, our main character, caretaker of several newborn kittens, mourns her deceased family members, her husband and pets. Normally a sensitive individual, she is driven by grief to think that, just maybe, some unusual sacrifices will restore her lost loved ones. Such a story about loss depends on vivid characterization of the departed, but “Foster” is light on character development. All in all, though, it’s an intriguing idea that I wanted to see fleshed out more.

In a world where an AI barcodes human souls, the characters in Ian Watson’s “Saving for a Sunny Day, or, The Benefits of Reincarnation” are tracked from life to life so that they can pay off debts from their previous existences. Precocious Jimmy shakes up the system by cannily practicing…well, let’s just call it a homegrown inverse of artificial intelligence.  Watson’s sprightly casual style strikes the appropriate note for this clever tale.

In the first-person narrative of Carol Emshwiller’s “The Seducer,” our unreliable protagonist seduces a dashing older woman, who may or may not be his beautiful (and frightening) dead sister. Emshwiller occasionally conjures up an eldritch atmosphere—“There are clouds—fast, witch-like oblong clouds. It’s both dark and dazzling”—but then loses steam with irrelevant details, like paragraphs summarizing the protagonist’s preparations for a camping trip. Brooding but a little meandering, “The Seducer” evokes pale shadows of Edgar Allan Poe.

“The Small Astral Object Genius” by James Van Pelt is the best of the stories that I read. Each night, the middle-schooler, Dustin, sends his desktop-controlled remote satellite, the Peekaboo, to photograph far-off astral objects. His astronomical fixation disturbs his parents, who bicker with troubles of their own. The photos Dustin takes serve transparently as his attempt to find meaning and connection in a lonely, empty family life, and Van Pelt uses a matter-of-fact, understated style so that the symbolism goes down easily. The delicate balancing act of “The Small Astral Object Genius”—between sci-fi and headline news, between fiction and metaphor—brings the story to the level of Ray Bradbury’s visionary, wistful best.

(Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Allen except for "1 is True" by Rob Collins, "After I Stopped Screaming" by Pamela Sargent, and "Biodad" by Kit Reed which were reviewed by Suzanne Church.)