Asimov’s — Oct./Nov. 2010

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“Becoming One With the Ghosts” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Several Items of Interest” by Rick Wilber
“Torhec the Sculptor” by Tanith Lee
“Frankenstein, Frankenstein” by Will McIntosh
“Names for Water” by Kij Johnson
“The Incarceration of Captain Nebula” by Mike Resnick
“No Distance Too Great” by Don D’Ammassa
“The Termite Queen of Tallulah County” by Felicity Shoulders
“Dummy Tricks” by R. Neube
“Changing the World” by Kate Wilhelm
“Under the Thumb of the Brain Patrol” by Ferrett Steinmetz

Reviewed by Rena Hawkins

This October/November 2010 Double Issue is packed with two novellas, two novelettes, and seven short stories.  There’s truly something here for everyone to enjoy.  As a long-term subscriber to the magazine, I feel this issue is one of Asimov’s strongest in recent memory.

“Becoming One With the Ghosts” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is a new tale set in the author’s “Diving” universe.  The Fleet vessel Ivoire has been adrift in an unknown sector of space for fifteen days.  When it returns safely to Sector Base V, the crew and their leader, Coop, should feel incredibly relieved.  Instead, they feel something is very, very wrong.

“Becoming One With the Ghosts” is a science fiction mystery with a creepy around the edges feel. It contains not only the nitty-gritty technical detail any hard science fiction fan should enjoy, but focuses much attention on Coop’s personal struggle to remain calm and professional in the face of his growing certainty that “they were in deeper shit than they’d ever been in before.”

While I enjoyed the story, I will admit it took some effort to work my way through it.  An obstacle to my reading was the repetitive use of the phrase “anacapa drive” (the machine that folds space for the Fleet) which appears twelve separate times on a single page.  Nevertheless, by the story’s end, I had come to care for the crew of the Ivoire and their fate.

“Several Items of Interest” by Rick Wilber, the issue’s second novella, also revisits a universe previously established by the author.  The story opens with Peter Holman on the home planet of the S’hudonni, where he serves as the personal Sweeper to Twoclicks, the S’hudonni now in control of most of the United States. Think of “Sweeping” as the future of Twitter with live audio and video feed.  The audience for Peter’s Sweeps, which focus on the alien Twoclicks, his family, and S’hudonni culture, number in the hundreds of millions.  Working with Peter is his lover, Heather, a woman who fits into both Human and S’hudonni cultures in a way you can’t imagine.  The other main character is Tommy Holman, Peter’s younger brother.  Tommy is the golden boy of the family, a brilliant researcher and successful in ways Peter never has been.  Complicating the relationship between the brothers is the fact that Tommy was at one time in love with Heather.

On its surface, “Several Items of Interest” seems to be a story centered on an alien invasion, but really, it’s a story about humans, an examination of how brothers can grow up to be two such different people they have no common ground left between them.  A word of warning–in order to understand the story, you have to read it all the way through.  Events are revealed via “circular logic,” with history and details mentioned at the very beginning only making sense at the end.  A complex, thought-provoking story that I really enjoyed.

The first novelette is “Torhec the Sculptor” by Tanith Lee.  Aamon Van Glanz is one of the wealthiest men on Earth and he wants to own something that’s supposedly not for sale at any price; a sculpture created by Torhec, an artist who is renowned for completely destroying every example of his work. When Aamon offers Torhec an obscene amount of money to own just one piece of sculpture that won’t be destroyed, Torhec surprisingly agrees–but only under a very strange set of conditions.  

This is a subtle, beautifully constructed story that builds tension almost without the reader being aware.  By the story’s end, you’ll be as anxious as Aamon Van Glanz himself to find out what exactly he has purchased.

“Frankenstein, Frankenstein” by new Hugo winner Will McIntosh (for “Bridesicle,” Asimov’s 01/09) is a story about exactly what you think.  Except, it’s not at all what you expect.  

Phineas Gage has been grotesquely injured in a railroad accident, so he and his friend Darby come up with a scheme to make money by exhibiting Phineas as the genuine Frankenstein monster.  When a man named Wilson comes backstage after a show and pays to ask Phineas questions about how he was brought to life, Phineas, believing him a fool, provides bogus answers.  

While performing their show in another small town, Darby and Phineas learn a second Frankenstein monster act has shown up.  The “monster,” a man named Graves Anderson, has also been severely disfigured.  Phineas and Graves form an immediate friendship and join forces to make even more money from their unwitting patrons.

In yet another small town, Phineas and Graves are shocked to hear there’s a third monster on display.  When Phineas goes to investigate, he discovers this new monster is horrifyingly real and that he played an unintended role in its creation.

Will McIntosh has penned a bizarre, wonderful story.  I’m a fan of horror and McIntosh wisely allows the mind of his reader to supply most of the gruesome details.  The story is creepy, suspenseful, and demonstrates that the kindness of the human heart has nothing to do with outward appearance.

“Names of Water” by Kij Johnson might be very short, but it contains a world of ideas (actually, more than one world).  To go into any detail might ruin the “aha” moment at the end when the whole story falls into place and that moment is eminently worthwhile.  

Wouldn’t it be great if heroes really did exist?  In “The Incarceration of Captain Nebula” by Mike Resnick, we meet Dr. Weaver, who has a fascinating new patient in his sanitarium; a man who insists he is an intergalactic hero named Captain Nebula.

The story is told in the first person by Captain Nebula himself, along with session records, Dr. Weaver’s personal notations, and letters. In the hands of a less experienced writer, this method might have been very confusing.  Resnick makes it look easy.

“The Incarceration of Captain Nebula” is a highly entertaining  tale that turns darker than you expect.

“No Distance Too Great” by Don D’Ammassa, tells the story of Jason, who is traveling through hyperspace on his way to a new job assignment–an assignment that he plans to be his last.  The journey is particularly painful for Jason for all he can think about is his dead wife, Kathy, and how very much she wanted to see hyperspace for herself.  When the transport becomes trapped in the constantly changing hyperspace landscape, everyone aboard begins to panic.  Jason, however, sees something outside the transport that elicits a very different emotion.

I’m all for more science fiction love stories.  While I wasn’t surprised by the ending, I appreciated D’Ammassa’s very cool new ideas on what interstellar space travel might be like.

In “The Termite Queen of Tallulah County” by Felicity Shoulders, the author manages to do what I would have thought impossible; she combines termites and time travel into a cohesive story.  Lacey Tidwell loves her family’s termite extermination business, but she misses working with her dad, who has become catatonic due to a mysterious illness.  Lacey can exterminate her customer’s termites, or, if the damage is really severe, she can perform a temporal intervention, a method of turning back time so the damage never happens.

When Lacey discovers severe termite damage in an elderly customer’s home, she investigates further and is shocked at what she finds left behind in an old crawlspace.  Perhaps her dad’s illness isn’t so mysterious after all.

While the idea of using time travel to prevent termite damage is a stretch, just go with it and enjoy the story.

“Dummy Tricks” by R. Neube, takes place on the snow and ice-covered planet of New Tahiti.  Here we meet Hal Koenigson, a man who was once a respected criminal, but now suffers from brain damage due to a months-long drug induced coma, hence, his nickname, “Dummy.”  Hal’s brain damage, combined with a genetic quirk, give him the very rare ability to withstand the Strumming, an electromagnetic pulse that drives almost all other humans off the planet during its two week season.  Due to his ability, Hal has been “adopted” by the Freemonts, wealthy landowners who can legally harvest ice cobras, flowers that bring an exorbitant price off-world.  

When Hal spots a pirate hovercraft trying to illegally harvest ice cobras, he attacks it.  To his dismay, the crew of the pirate vessel turns out to be a family.  But no family is perfect, as Hal soon discovers.

A disturbing story highlighting the strange truth about most people; no one is all good or all bad.

“Changing the World” by Kate Wilhelm introduces us to Melvin H. Toomey.  He’s sixty years old with no job, no hobbies and lots of time on his hands.  When Mel’s son-in-law makes the offhand comment that his parents would believe any allegation, no matter how crazy, voiced by the conspiracy theorists and hate-mongers, Mel is intrigued.  He decides to start an outlandish, over-the-top rumor about secret government agencies and UFO landings just to test how crazy an idea would have to be to make his son-in-law’s parents draw the line.  Mel’s fake conspiracy, Project Skylight, takes on a life of its own with frightening and far-reaching consequences.

For me, this story ends abruptly just as things are getting really messy and interesting.  I realize the whole point of the story is that a situation can get so out of control there’s no fixing it, but that didn’t prevent me from wanting to read more.

David is good-looking, athletic, and great at sports.  He’s also relentlessly picked on by the Neurals, the brainy rulers of his high school, in “Under the Thumb of the Brain Patrol” by Ferrett Steinmetz.  Yes, it’s the fantasy world of every geek; bulging biceps and flat abs are out, pale, flabby flesh and big brains are in.   

While I found the whole reversal of the jock/nerd stereotypes a little too obvious, humor fans and anyone ever picked on by high school jocks should enjoy it.