Asimov’s, September 2007

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"What Wolves Know" by Kit Reed
"By Fools Like Me" by Nancy Kress
"The Caldera of Good Fortune" by Robert Reed
"Draw" by Pati Nagle
"The Good Ship Lollypop" by R. Garcia y Robertson
"How Music Begins" by James Van Pelt
"My Heart is as Dry as Dust" by Kim Zimring
"The Prophet of Flores" by Ted Kosmatka
Kit Reed’s “What Wolves Know” is the latest entry in a long line of stories of humans being raised by animals, and in this case, the most popular animal in these types of stories: wolves. Happy was essentially abandoned as a small child and taken by a wolf pack, only to be found again by his brother when he is eighteen. There aren’t any familial or altruistic motives here, though; the brother is after money, and Happy’s mother is desperate for forgiveness.

While there isn’t anything especially new in the plot, Reed’s writing plunges you into Happy’s mind as he’s forced out of his old world by his wolf-father, dragged back into the human world by his man-brother, and grabs you with the conflict Happy suffers from being part of neither world. Happy is a close observer of details both in humans and wolves and tries to incorporate them into what he calls "not breaking cover." And when Happy’s wolfish behavior collides bloodily with human abuse, not only is it perfectly believable, the consequences are not quite expected but equally realistic.

Nancy Kress’s “By Fools Like Me” is a tale set several generations after our own time, several generations after environmental catastrophe has turned the world into a post-apocalyptic nightmare where trees are scarce and books are considered sins—not because of the words they contain, but because trees died to create them, a nice twist on the book-burning tale. Hope, the granddaughter of the narrator, has discovered a small cache of books buried in a beach nearby, and their words become the secret, guilty pleasure of both grandmother and granddaughter.

Again, not much here will come as a surprise: the suffering of the few survivors of the earlier catastrophe have warped religion into a mash of fearful pseudo-environmentalism,  the consequences for hiding and reading books can be dreadful, and weather-related catastrophes are interpreted by the new generation as divine punishment. But again, Kress’s writing rises above the familiar tropes, and the ending is a powerful punch about the desperate uselessness of fear and ignorance.

“The Caldera of Good Fortune” by Robert Reed is set in the universe of his Great Ship, a planet-sized starship taking a half-million-year-long voyage around the galaxy. Crockett is allowed to live in a particularly special place—special by virtue of the alien residents who live there—and makes a living taking a limited amount of people through the area…particularly the Caldera of Good Fortune, where the aliens live. Through the course of the story he winds up attached—sometimes literally—to an alien named Doom, chased by two hired killers, and caught near the edge of the Caldera as it gets ready to erupt. In “Caldera” Reed gives us a story that is both solid science fiction as well as a sort of classic adventure, mixed with the question of how much personal sacrifice you should allow to save someone when that someone may be a living moral ambiguity at best.

“Draw” by Pati Nagle is the shortest story of the issue and gets right down to the brass tacks of a crisis at the beginning.  Dimitri and his father live under the sea, and the father is long overdue from his rounds outside, in the water. What follows is a fast-paced take-a-deep-breath (whether you’re underwater or not) story that, like others in this issue, doesn’t necessarily hit you with anything new but does keep you reading to see how it all turns out. Well done, particularly for a first-time contributor to Asimov’s.

“The Good Ship Lollypop” by R. Garcia y Robertson offers up a twist on the old boogieman story, one set in the future but nevertheless where the boogieman turns out to be a real danger who could be menacing us right now. Thanks to a childish shenanigan, Shirlee winds up in juvenile detention—though not after a friend of hers is kidnapped by the boogeyman—and then later, after another tragic mistake, returns to prison. But ironically, the prison becomes her key to freedom and the path—albeit an extremely dangerous one—to discovering who the boogeyman really is and what he is after.

Overall, the story was excellent, well detailed with good characterization (not to mention realistic teen motivations—if working around students has helped me see this at all—yet never condescending to the teens and in fact playing up their strengths and intelligence), and grounded in the fact that some boogiemen are vastly more dangerous than their shadowy fantasy counterparts.

In “How Music Begins,” James Van Pelt takes the theme of how banding together against adversity can, for the most part, keep people alive and sane, and turns it on a middle school band that has been kidnapped by unknown beings. In their case, they hold together by being a band, letting the music and their practices and their disciplined interactions with one another preserve them. As the weeks became months, they do lose their assistant director, but otherwise they come to form a small society unto themselves—including two students who wish to get married, and a hidden group called the Perfectionists who believe (with no evidence) that their captors will finally let them go when they offer up a perfect performance.

Like in “Lollypop,” Van Pelt does a great job of not only portraying realistic teen behavior without playing them down, even teens who are only holding it together with the barest threads at times, but he also gives us a realistic portrayal of a girl named Elise Morgan, a Mozart of a student whom Cowdrey muses that every teacher longs to find, and, if they do, hopes they don’t crush the student’s talent. Elise does wonders with existing scores—and Van Pelt knows enough of what he’s talking about, and inserts it smoothly into the story, that we believe she can perform these spectacular musical feats—and then creates what feels like a miraculous wedding score as well. Everything comes together in a sacrifice that all but allows us to hear an orchestra playing in the background.

“My Heart is as Dry as Dust” by Kim Zimring competes with “Fools” for the bleakest piece in the issue; though while “Fools” takes place decades from now, “Heart” could be tomorrow. Adija is a scientist awaiting execution in Ghana. Her crime was creating a vaccine for AIDS that kills ten percent of the people it’s administered to. Adija decided that with the millions dying of a disease that killed 100% of its victims, this was acceptable, but ultimately the vaccine killed eighty million people, healthy and infected alike.

The story grabs you from the beginning, holds on during the flashback through the middle, and keeps its grip as tight as ever in the third part when—and this isn’t giving anything away—Adija is hanging from her noose. We learn through the course of the story that her lawyer is doing his best to defend her even though his own wife died, and he manages to sneak an implant to her that will preserve her life while she’s hanging…and yet Zimring twists both our and Adija’s expectations in the third part with a lesson that when even the best of intentions have such brutal consequences, there is a price to pay, and that price may find you no matter what you try doing to cheat it.

The final tale, Ted Kosmatka’s “The Prophet of Flores,” is set in a world much similar to ours except that religion—or perhaps more accurately, zealotry—dominates it to such an extent that the Darwinism was “disproved” by the 1930s and Carbon 14 dating was used to “prove” that the Earth is only 5800 years old. Enter Paul, first as a boy who teaches himself genetics in his parents’ attic who then goes on to become a scientist who helps discover the truth about a find that hasn’t gotten enough play in science fiction: the 5800-year-old “Hobbit,” the miniature human skeleton found on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Except in this alternate world, the Hobbit’s discovery would do severe damage to the accepted dogma, so much damage that people would be willing to kill to keep it a secret.

The story feels long, almost overextended at times, but is rich in detail, and the occasional intermissions of “quotes” from that alternate world add considerably to the story and are sound within the pseudoscience of its parameters. I’m certainly no expert on scientific expeditions, and I’ve never been to Indonesia, but Kosmatka’s details feel right, from the lush heat of the island to the meticulous work the scientists do at the cave site. An involved read, well worth the effort to reach the satisfying finish.