Asimov’s, September 2006

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"Sunlight or Rock" by John Kessel
"The Girl in the Empty Apartment" by Jack Skillingstead
"Primates" by David D. Levine
"Godburned" by Karen Jordan Allen
"We Are the Cat" by Carl Frederick
"Silence In Florence" by Ian Creasey

"Postsingular" by Rudy Rucker

The September 2006 issue of Asimov’s is packed with memorable characters—from the worthless life of one man on the moon, to a chambermaid in the seventeenth century, to a geek on overdrive.  Readers are bound to connect with at least one personality.

"Sunlight or Rock" by John Kessel launches the issue with a gritty tale of life on the moon.  Erno Pamson is broke, living in the run-down Hotel Gijon in the Mayer colony.  His neighbors range from a talking dog named Brian to a man named Alois Reuther who has modified his body with a variety of robotic enhancements and is rumored to be an ex-con.  When Ana, the concierge, demands the rent, Erno heads for the labor pool where he sits with the other destitutes hoping to be called for work that doesn’t come.  Abandoning the pool, he heads to the Café Royale and chats with Luis Ajodhia.  Luis has overheard information about an upcoming hockey game that might pay out big money.  Erno makes a series of inevitable decisions that only the poor risk.  Great hockey action and a dark, grim atmosphere fill Kessel’s offering with moving and personal moments of despair.

Jack Skillingstead makes another appearance in Asimov’s with the short story "Girl in the Empty Apartment."  A first person tale narrated by Joe Skadan, a playwright who gives everyone he meets a character tag.  When he meets Nichole, tagged as MOON GIRL, their relationship takes on surreal overtones.  It turns out that Harbingers hide out in the unconscious minds of human hosts and Nichole may be Joe’s unwanted guest.  Several plot twists later, Skillingstead pulls sense out of nonsense and an ending out of mid-air.  This story is work to read, but it’s a good sort of work—the kind that provides a sense of accomplishment combined with stiff muscles that remind you of your humanity.

With the forward action of a crime story, David D. Levine‘s "Primates" is a Bigfoot tale with SF punch.  Ed Vick takes an odd phone call at his job at Woodland Park Zoo.  Dan Stark, from Staircase in the Wonder Mountain Wilderness, is sure that there’s "a gorilla, or some other kind of monkey, that’s been digging in [his] garbage."  Ed travels to Staircase to investigate and is caught up in Dan’s white trash, rags-to-riches fantasy to capture Bigfoot.  Levine cleverly weaves a sense of humanity and empathy into the pages, questioning our roles as the dominant species on Earth.

"Godburned" by Karen Jordan Allen follows Pearl, a retired librarian, on her Mexican vacation.  On the last day, she visits the Great Temple of the Aztecs.  Her fascination with Aztec culture began in college when she studied Spanish under the "dashing [professor] Se­ñor Rueda" who once recited a poem while touching the Sun Stone.  Pearl’s only other visit to Mexico had been on her honeymoon and she and her husband Burney had spent most of the vacation sick in the hotel.  Jordan Allen interlaces moments from Pearl’s past—her husband’s premature death, her son and granddaughter, and her love of Aztec poetry—with the harsh poverty of the locals.  As the story builds to her moment in front of the Sun Stone, all of Pearl’s hopes and longings are tied to this piece of the Earth.  Avoiding the pitfalls of a travelogue story, "Godburned" is a well-crafted merging of cultures and spirituality.

In "We Are the Cat" by Carl Frederick, three Physics students—Paul, Alex, and Conrad—become trapped in a spelunking accident, a limestone avalanche, which also destroys their supplies and first-aid kit.  Worse, Conrad has been injured by a falling rock to the head, and their headlamps, their sole sources of illumination, prove faulty, threatening to plunge them into unrelieved darkness.  Despite the exciting setting of this tale, in reality, "We Are the Cat" is more an essay-masquerading-as-a-story.  To pass the time and to keep each other calm, Paul, Alex, and Conrad banter about quantum mechanics: the stochastic nature of space-time, the two-slit experiment, and Schrödinger’s Cat.  While interesting science, in this presentation, it does not make for interesting fiction.  The dialogue invites the reader to skim, and the three characters are not well realized or differentiated.  When Conrad says "It’s just that for a moment, I forgot your name," this reader was in accord, without the resort of a concussion to explain the lapse.  While briefly touching upon the nature of self and memory a la Conrad’s poignant "All I have is what I know and how well I can think," this story fails to engage with its characters, leaving the setting and situation to carry it.  Unfortunately, those elements are also given short shrift in an ending that, while an effective illustration of stochastic theory, is otherwise unsatisfying. 

"Silence in Florence" by Ian Creasey is a period piece focusing on a servant—a chambermaid named Maria—and her mute daughter.  When three foreigners staying in one of Maria’s rooms don’t piss at all in their pot, her curiosity sparks.  She spies on the foreigners at a banquet where they neither eat nor drink and they remain giving veiled insults to their host, the Duke.  This odd behavior leads Maria to believe that the three are angels and so she begs them to cure her daughter’s silence.  Rich details bring Creasey’s characters and their place in history into vivid relief against their noble keepers.

In the final slot is Rudy Rucker‘s novelette, "Postsingular."  Packed with layers, characters, and an odd ADHD feel, this technology-gone-amuck tale engages from the start.  Jil and Craigor live on a "scow called the Merz Boat" with their son, Momotaro, and daughter, Bixie.  They invite Ond, his wife, Nektar, and their son, Chu, over for supper and the world changes.  (Regular readers of Asimov’s may remember Ond the engineer who saved Earth from annihilation by reversing all-consuming nants in "Chu and the Nants" from the June 2006 issue.)  After the meal, Ond holds up a vial of orphids he’s created—small surveying AIs that will blanket the world and network to catalogue and analyze every aspect of the planet.  Despite the others’ objections, Ond releases the vial and within hours, the orphids have spread and telepathically shared their data with millions.  Rucker’s tale jumps POV from Chu to Ond to Nektar and the other characters, thus examining the turning point for humanity from many sides.  The predicable mayhem of the orphids is countered by a few tangential surprises.  The textured future provides a solid backdrop for Rucker’s novel-in-progress also titled, Postsingular.

Overall, the issue’s strength is its diversity of style.  My favorite must-reads are Rudy Rucker’s "Postsingular," David D. Levine’s "Primates," and Karen Jordan Allen’s "Godburned."

(Reviewed by Suzanne Church except for "We Are the Cat" by Carl Frederick which was reviewed by Eugie Foster.)