Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2007

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"Hormiga Canyon" by Rudy Rucker & Bruce Sterling
"The Bridge" by Kathleen Ann Goonan
"Prodigal" by Justin Stanchfield
"The Mists of Time" by Tom Purdom
"Dead Horse Point" by Daryl Gregory
"Teachers’ Lounge" by Tim McDaniel
"Thank You, Mr. Whiskers" by Jack Skillingstead
The August issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction opens with a crazy ride into "Hormiga Canyon," a world of giant ants, tiny mammoths, fractured time, and an amazingly sturdy Indian motorcycle. Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling tell the rollicking tale of a couple of out-of-work Hollywood special effects guys—one on a quest to find the One True String Theory and the other just trying to get by in California slacker style. Now, I don’t know anything about string theory or quantum mechanics, so some of the details may have been lost on me, but this is definitely one weird, wild, and fun ride.

Also on offer is Kathleen Ann Goonan‘s "The Bridge," a hardboiled detective story complete with a down-on-his-luck private investigator, a lovely and mysterious dame, and a noir sensibility. But this novelette is set in a near future world in which nanotechnology has taken over, and the U.S. government is only marginally functional. Mike Jones, once a cop and a good detective, pines for the old days when his services were more in demand and when the world made more sense to him. In the midst of a boozy reverie one afternoon, there is a knock on his office door and he’s pulled into a case that forces him to face this brave new world. Goonan seamlessly melds the retro detective genre with futuristic SF in an engaging and ultimately uplifting piece.

In "The Mists of Time," Tom Purdom offers a thought-provoking look at a complex period in history through the eyes of both a primary participant and his distant descendant. Emory FitzGordon has sponsored a documentary of a 19th century British Admiralty anti-slavery patrol captained by his ancestor, John Harrington. This will be a truly authentic, and expensive, documentary since Emory and the filmmaker are traveling back in time to capture the events as they happened. Despite having bankrolled the project, Emory has been forced to relinquish artistic control to the filmmaker, and he is concerned about leaving his ancestor’s legacy in her hands.

"The Mists of Time" offers both the excitement of adventure on the high seas and a meditation on the complicated, and sometimes contradictory, motivations behind human behavior. Purdom expertly handles the shifts in point of view between Emory and Harrington, bringing the ship around without jostling the reader out of the story or making her seasick. In the hands of a less imaginative writer, the outcome of this tale could have been all too obvious, but Purdom takes a different, subtler direction that pays off handsomely in the end.

Daryl Gregory also explores some weighty matters with the story of a brilliant woman whose scientific revelations come at the expense of a normal life. Since she was a young woman, Julia has periodically lapsed into catatonic-like trances while her mind mulls the nature of the universe and tests current theories on the subject. On awakening from these trances, she produces academic papers and books, with the editorial help of her brother, who also cares for her in her unusual state. But Julia has made a frantic call to Venya, her friend and once lover, asking her to come "before it’s too late." Venya believes she knows the reason for this call, but finds that Julia isn’t the only one who feels trapped at "Dead Horse Point." Gregory draws affecting characters and employs an apt metaphor of trapped animals in this poignant tale of love and desperation.

Tim McDaniel offers a spot of humor in a mostly serious issue, inspired no doubt by his work within the ranks of intrepid college-level ESL teachers. Mark, Cathy, and Arlene go about their daily activities in the "Teachers’ Lounge"—grading quizzes, preparing activities for their classes, discussing the learning challenges faced by certain brain-eating aliens—when they realize the confounding irregularities of the English language just might save the world, and their jobs. This clever short piece provides a welcome counterpoint to the many serious stories in the August issue.

Justin Stanchfield‘s "Prodigal" is the story of a father and daughter, estranged from one another and from the world. Mara’s father, Wil, a space pilot, has returned after many years because his other daughter is gravely ill. Mara and Will both underwent a medical procedure years earlier that made them virtually immortal, and consequently they are now barred from the Earth’s surface, making it difficult for Wil to visit his dying daughter in the hospital. Although Mara goes to a great deal of trouble, using her connections to get her father a pass to the surface, he takes his own, riskier way.

"Prodigal" did not resonate with me the way the other stories in this issue did. Although this is a tale of a broken relationship, the characters seemed distant and flat. The direct descriptions of Mara’s feelings created a sense of artificiality, which took me out of the story and rendered me unable to sympathize with either Wil or Mara, or to care about their reconciliation.

On the other hand, Jack Skillingstead‘s "Thank You, Mr. Whiskers" is both affecting and creepy, worthy of a second reading. Hadley, a poor widow living alone, experiences a wished-for but disturbing alternate reality. Appropriately disorienting, yet told with pathos, this story pulls the reader into the confusing world of dementia, where there is seemingly no one—except perhaps a remnant of her former self, or maybe just a cat—there to help.