Asimov’s, September 2005

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"The Company Man" by John Phillip Olsen
"Harvest Moon" by William Barton
"A Rocket for the Republic" by Lou Antonelli
"Second Person, Present Tense" by Daryl Gregory
"Pipeline" by Brian Aldiss
"Generations" by Frederik Pohl
"Finished" by Robert Reed

The September edition of Asimov’s Science Fiction holds a number of wonderful, thoughtful tales. Some of these stories truly shine.

Can a company stooge develop a conscience? That’s the question in John Phillip Olsen’s fine story, “The Company Man.” Kurt Soman works as an agent for an unnamed company charged with procuring intellectual property and material goods for the snake-like Hydrians. These reptilian aliens fancy all things human, and they are willing to trade much-needed advanced technologies to satisfy their cravings. Until now, they’ve confined their purchases to “films, recorded music, and pulp literature,” but now the Hydrian Mr. Tsishh has asked Kurt to procure Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream—not a reproduction, but the real deal.

“Many of my people say it captures the Terran soul,” Mr. Tsishh explains, but Kurt has no liking for, nor understanding of art. In an exceptionally deft bit of characterization, we learn that Kurt values his one painting (a gift from a friend) because it is “a useful conversation piece with women visitors.” Nevertheless, Kurt wonders why the Hydrians want paintings all of a sudden, and he fears their appetite may not stop at one. His concern is validated: before long, the Hydrians give him a shopping list.

Kurt’s desire to understand the Hydrians’ motives becomes an obsession, one which is inextricably linked to his efforts to understand Munch’s paintings. But can a consummate operator like Kurt—the ultimate materialist—figure it out in time?

Olsen constructs a credible story, with a brief but convincing look at Kurt’s methods of operation, and a well drawn (and nasty) slice of office politics. Munch’s paintings, particularly The Scream, The Vampire, and Melancholy, become effective symbols providing depth and resonance to the story. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself running to the Internet to see these paintings for yourself, even though Olsen’s descriptions stand on their own merit.

“The Company Man” succeeds on many levels: it’s swiftly paced, entertaining, and meaningful.

William Barton’s “Harvest Moon” depicts an alternate history in which Richard Nixon wins the White House in 1960, and a US Army-run space program builds a Moon base beginning in 1965. Planetary geologist Bill Dunbar, the only civilian aboard the first manned landing, left behind a wife and three kids for what he thought would be a two-year stint. Now, nine years later, the Russians have developed a way to bring the long-term folks home, and Dunbar’s final days on the moon are at last in sight.

There’s a well crafted rescue story here, and an amusing cameo appearance by a famous astronomer, but the story’s primary strength is its human dimension. A poignant conversation between Dunbar and his son on Earth, now an adult with space aspirations of his own, sets up the basic conflicts. Was Dunbar’s  mission worth giving up his life back home? Will he try to salvage what’s left of a normal life, or will he seize the opportunity for a new adventure? Barton gives due time to developing this aspect of his story, and the resolution is believable and satisfying.

“Harvest Moon” is tightly written, at times so heavily slanted to "show" over "tell" that the action might be hard to follow. But, as a consequence, the story zips along nicely. The descriptions are vivid but not overdone, and the dialog is snappy. “Harvest Moon” may lack in the wow factor some SF readers seek, but makes up for it by being a successful Hard SF tale that tackles a difficult question: what do we want from life, anyway?

Lou Antonelli’s “A Rocket for the Republic” is a monologue, one side of an interview between a Texas centenarian and a reporter. The interviewee tells the reporter the story of his ride in a rocket ship long before Apollo—“A lot longer.”

Whether the reader enjoys this story will depend on his patience for the interviewee’s excessively heavy dialect. (For example: “He paid everyone in new U.S. silver, and afterward asked me if I would stay and help him at his labber-ra-tory. He’d always been civil to me, and I couldn’t see hows working for him could be worse than pulling a ferry.”) It also depends on the reader’s inattention, since the "surprise" ending is evident in the first page.

Steam Punk fans who long for a wholly American twist on the genre will enjoy this story. I found the core story lightweight and unoriginal, the excessive dialect tedious, and the ending annoying because it was telegraphed from the first page.

"Second Person, Present Tense" by Daryl Gregory is the real star in this issue, succeeding both as mind-popping SF and as a moving look at a teenager’s troubled relationship with her parents. We first meet the protagonist at her discharge from a psychiatric hospital. Her parents have come to pick her up. But is she Therese Klass, loving daughter of Mitch and Alice Klass—a regular churchgoer, a good girl—or is she someone else entirely?

The protagonist knows Therese’s story well. She can even, with a bit of effort, dip into Therese’s memory. Therese was the victim of an overdose with a new designer drug, Zen, AKA "Zombie" or "Z." From the protagonist’s perspective, Z killed Therese; but the truth is far more surreal.

There’s a 120 millisecond gap between true volition and the conscious recognition of volition. In the protagonist’s words, “Thought is an afterthought.” Depending on dosage, Zen extends this delay (normally edited out by the conscious mind, what we regard as Self) to minutes or hours. With an overdose, the Self gets lost altogether, and someone else takes its place. Thus, the protagonist is a stranger in Therese Klass’s body.

The story follows the protagonist’s troubled reintroduction to her parents and its aftermath. Throughout, Gregory exquisitely renders the protagonist’s pain and frustration. When she first arrives home, her father tells her that her mother knew she would come back.

I have never been here, and she is not coming back, but already I’m tired of correcting pronouns. “Well, that was nice,” I say.

Will the protagonist become Therese, as her parents desperately want her to do? More importantly, will she come to terms with her deeper relationship to Therese? Ultimately, "Second Person, Present Tense" works as a metaphor for the troubled secret lives of children, and their struggle to form an identity separate from the one their parents envision. Though this story has many strong elements, its focus on identity, relationships, and the nature of memory, are all high points. Best of all, the resolution smacks of truth: there are no easy outs, no pat answers.

“Second Person, Present Tense” also works as a reminder of one of science fiction’s greatest aspects: the ability to highlight classic themes with magnesium-flare intensity, thanks to the author’s innovation.

In “Pipeline” by Brian Aldiss, an international consortium (led mainly by the Americans and Chinese) has tapped into Central Asian oil stores and built a pipeline to a Turkish port. It’s a massive project which, if successful, will make Middle Eastern oil reserves far less essential. The pipeline is done, but the oil has yet to pump. Politics at the Central Asian terminus is holding things up.

Enter Carl Roddard, the project’s Chief Architect, an amoral fellow who is willing to trade a company-protected dissident to the local government to ensure their cooperation. After the successful conclusion of this trade, Roddard treats himself with a reward: he’ll be the first person to drive the length of the pipeline, all the way to its Mediterranean port.

What follows is part travelogue, part adventure story as Roddard leaves Turkmenistan, skirts south of the Caspian Sea, and crosses Northern Iran, Kurdistan, Iraq, and finally Turkey. Terrorists and foul play provide excitement along the way. It’s a richly realized world, and enjoyable enough for what it is. Readers searching for deeper meaning may be disappointed. Perhaps I misread the ending, but I was left with the sense that “Pipeline” was little more than a Western wish fulfillment fantasy.

“Generations,” by Frederik Pohl, is an ambitious story that covers (among other things!) the impact of scientific discoveries on human relationships, the nature of the universe, the death of the old religions, and the rise of American fascism. As a varied cornucopia—mind candy—"Generations” succeeds. As a single coherent tale, “Generations” has its problems.

The story consists of a series of narratives, each told from a different protagonist’s point of view. These passages read like memoirs, and each one develops the plot and advances the story forward in time. As the title suggests, “Generations” spans an interval wherein some pretty serious upheavals occur.

In the first passage, high school science teacher Stephen Avedon courts and weds Wall Street lawyer Sheila Carrington. In the second, their daughter, Silvie Avedon Koshaba, writes about her courtship with Iraqi-American Ronald Koshaba. This puts the reader perhaps twenty years into the future, and it’s at this point, with Pohl’s forward-imagining of the American-Iraqi conflict, that the story truly begins to shine.

It’s an ugly new world in which the US has hunkered down for the long haul: nearly everyone is eligible for the draft, shortages abound, and money has been drained from basic science research, earmarked for more practical military applications. A grim world, but it soon gets far worse with the discovery that the fundamental physical constants are changing.

This throws everyone for a loop, to say the least. Pohl clearly had fun envisioning a topsy-turvy world where the powerful are brought low, today’s dweeb is tomorrow’s fascist dictator, and morality and ethics are laughable conceits. His conception of a final solution for the Iraq War is chilling: not science fiction at all, but wholly medieval.

Pohl’s premise, that a scientific discovery could short-circuit the faith of billions, seems highly improbable. I suspect each and every one of the world’s theistic religions would take the variability of the fundamental constants in stride by assuming that God can do whatever He wants with His creation. This faulty premise would be a weakness if Pohl were writing a straightforward SF story. But by the ending, it becomes obvious that “Generations” is pure satire, a dissection of the way certain governments happily use religion to justify whatever agenda suits them for the moment.

My only criticism is that this story begins as a very human tale, centering on family relationships, but loses that focus by the end. In particular, the fate of Ronald and Sylvie’s marriage is tossed off with little or no feeling. This made me question why Pohl had put so much emphasis on relationships in the first half of the story. Thus, “Generations” is not so much a gem, as a diamond in the rough.

Robert Reed’s “Finished” is a fun and surprising tale of the post-human condition. Finishing is an expensive process whereby a person is taken apart and reconstructed as an immortal but essentially unchanging human-like creation. Unchanging, that’s the kicker. Candidates for finishing go to great lengths to lock in the right mood, one which will serve them well for all eternity.

What seems at first to be a straightforward love story between a finished man and a mortal woman gradually evolves into something a good deal different. There’s a delightful reversal, but before that arrives, Reed treats us to a thoughtful examination of the finished condition. His tone is consistently light, yet he’s dealing with one of the more serious SF themes: what does it mean to be human? I think Reed is suggesting that the capacity for personal growth is essential. And, with his nut-kicker of an ending, he’s also making clear that some aspects of the human condition are inflexible. The more things change, the more they stay the same.