Asimov’s, September 2004

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"Oversite" by Maureen F. McHugh
"The Third Party" by David Moles
"Brethren" by Meredith Simmons
"The Pasho" by Paolo Bacigalupi
"The Biography Of A Bouncing Boy Terror!" by Y.S. Wilce
"Sleeping Dragons" by Lynette Aspey
"The Hat Thing" by Matthew Hughes
"Elector" by Charles Stross

ImageIf at times reading September's issue feels like cramming for an exam ("The Pasho" and "Elector" come to mind), or a little melancholy ("Oversite" and "The Third Party") it's nonetheless filled with good ideas and great writing.

"Oversite" is a story about the terrors and the limits of responsibility. Clara has an elderly mother suffering from Alzheimer's and a teenage daughter. Both have Digital Angels, implanted devices that let Clara find out where they are at all times.

Early into the story we learn that Clara's daughter Renata has run away after a wholly typical mother-daughter spat. Renata wrapped electrical tape around her arm, blocking the implant and leaving Clara in the dark about where Renata has gone.

Although the events of the story are wrapped up, there's no conclusion to the fundamental questions of the story. Probably that was McHugh's intention, because it leaves you thinking.

In the distant past of David Moles' story "The Third Party" human intergalactic civilization rose and fell, slipping into a period of isolation and barbarism from which it is only now recovering.

The main character, Cicero, is a kind of agent provacateur, representing the socialist civilization known as the Community. He and his fellows have infiltrated the society of the nation of Travalle, on the planet Salome. It is their mission to slowly, over a period of generations, introduce ideas and technology that will bring the people of Salome into the Community.

But Cicero's mission is compromised by the arrival of a second interstellar civilization, whose local representatives are known as Marginal LLC. Marginal represents a capitalist civilization, with a philosophy and methods that directly oppose the Community's.

When Travalle's Special Police arrest Cicero and his lover Thalia (a local woman with no knowledge of Cicero's background or mission) it's the start an all-out war between the Community and Marginal, who each assume the other is moving against them. In fact it's the third party of the title who set the two civilizations at odds, and who is the ultimate victor.

Although the events of the story take place in a single day, the scope of the story is huge, and it's full of intriguing ideas. If the Community and Marginal LLC each seem a bit simplistic, we can excuse it in recognition of the wealth of other detail throughout the story.

In Meredith Simmons' "Brethren" humanity has split into two branches called the Remnants and the Exiles. When climate change turned the Earth into a poisonous hell, the Exiles colonized the stars while the Remnants stayed behind, mutating themselves to survive unshielded on the new Earth.

Jase is a rich, idealistic Exile returned to Earth as part of a psuedo-religious pilgrimage. Hof is a Remnant who owns a store that caters to the pilgrim trade. Will these two representatives of their races recognize their shared ancestry? The answer is yes, but with a twist that brings the story to a satisfying and amusing close.

"The Pasho" of Paolo Bacigalupi's title is Raphel, a Jai returned to his harsh desert home from the soft urbanity of Keli. And with that one sentence you get a taste for the density of this story, which is not an easy read.

Bacigalupi's story is set in a distant future, after plagues and wars have depopulated the Earth and left those who survive in a state of barbarism and isolation. The story begins long after the plagues, as the peoples of the Earth are beginning to restore civilization. (It feels, in fact, remarkably similar to the past history of "The Third Party," only on a terrestrial scale.)

A Pasho is a kind of monk, devoted to the careful reintroduction of knowledge. The Jai are a hard desert people, instigators of a bloodthirsty war recent enough for living memory. Keli is a city of lakes and streams, a political center whose influence the Jai resist.

Raphel went to Keli to become a Pasho, the first Jai to do so. His grandfather, Gawar, a warlord who burnt Keli to the ground as a young man, believes his grandson has turned his back on the Jai. To Gawar, the Jai must remain tough, bloodthirsty and raw. To accept the gifts of the Pasho is to give up what it means to be Jai. Raphel feels that it is possible to remain Jai, but to give up the barbarism his grandfather treasures.

It's tempting to read this story as a consideration of cultural relativism: is it possible to judge a culture by standards outside it? Is cultural identity fungible? Who decides what defines a culture? Even if you don't look for answers in this story, "The Pasho" demands a thoughtful read. In the end, it's worth it.

"The Biography Of A Bouncing Boy Terror!" is a variant on the story of the seven leagues boots, told in a dialect that struck me as part Cockney and part Newspeak. It is, as the subtitle suggests, the first part in what will undoubtedly be a multi-part series.

The main character is a young boy sent out to buy groceries for his large and dirt-poor family. On the way he is distracted by a pair of beautiful red boots. He buys them with all the money he was given and discovers to his regret that he is not their master, as they take him on an exhausting, leaping, miles-long excursion. With the help of a mysterious stranger, Jack realizes that the boots' miraculous jumping abilities may have a useful purpose as well, and thus begins what we are told will be an illustrious, and larcenous, career.

I don't know for sure that this story is one part of a series, but it shares many of the drawbacks of much serialized short fiction. Not enough happens, too much is left unresolved, and the characters aren't developed as they should be. I suspect I'd enjoy the novel, but as a short story "Biography…" didn't work for me.

"Sleeping Dragons" by Lynette Aspey also feels like the first part of a longer work, but it holds together better than "Biography…." Elaine is a young girl whose baby brother Ryan was hatched from a golden egg. Ryan is, as you might expect, not your average little boy: he is the offspring of a dragon goddess who came to Earth thousands of years past and landed in Vietnam. Elaine's father purchased Ryan's egg from the family who has guarded it ever since; guarded it for so long that even they began to doubt the truth of the old stories.

Elaine, Ryan and her father live happily alone in the Australian outback until the arrival of Mr. Pham, the father of the woman who sold Ryan's egg. Mr. Pham has come for Ryan. Ryan needs protection and training, which Mr. Pham can provide. Neither Elaine nor her father want to give Ryan up, but they know they must do what's best for the boy.

But does Mr. Pham have Ryan's best interests at heart? And will the Australians give up the baby? The resolution is not much of a suprise, but entertaining all the same.

"The Hat Thing" is a quick little consideration of the tells that would identify the time travelers among us. Suffice it to say, watch the way you smoke your cigarette.

I reacted to the first story I read in Charles Stross' "Accelerando" series the way I reacted to "Johnny Mnemonic" by William Gibson: with an exhilirating sense that this was something completely new in science fiction.

The "Accelerando" series follows one Manfred Macx into the singularity and out the other end. We're past the singularity at the beginning of "Elector," which takes place in the refugee camps on Saturn. The camps are rapidly filling with the incarnated simulations of historical persons, created by the Vile Offspring (weakly godlike intelligences, self-evolved from human-equivalent intelligences) for their own mysterious purposes. Manfred Macx has decided to give up his existence as an emergent function of a flock of passenger pigeons in order to incarnate and help his daughter, Amber Macx, run for office.

The City (the name for the habitat on Saturn) is about to conduct an election. The stakes are higher than most people realize: the Vile Offspring may be coming for Saturn sooner rather than later, and the conduct of the election may determine whether human-equivalent intelligences will survive.

Did I say "The Pasho" was dense? "Elector" is so jam-packed with ideas you'll want to take a breather after every paragraph. Take this sentence, for example: "The big question is whether information originating in our light cone is preserved, or whether we're stuck in a lossy medium where our very existence counts for nothing."

It ain't easy getting through the stories in this series, but it's fantastic and engrossing. "Elector" is par for the course.

Overall, September is a meaty issue, and well worth the cover price.

Jeremy Lyon is a freelance writer, tech industry cube farmer and the publisher of Futurismic, a site for people interested in the future and the effects of science and technology on the present, now featuring original fiction.