Asimov’s — September 2010

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“The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis
“Backlash” by Nancy Fulda
“Wheat Rust” by Benjamin Crowell
“The Palace in the Clouds” by Eugene Mirabelli
“For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Reviewed by Caroline E. Willis

“The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis is the story of three terribly awkward people, one of whom owns a planet. In his bid for control of the dissident cities, he attempts to seduce Dr. Leah Hamakawa. H is the titular character, the Sultan of the clouds, and he is about twelve (Earth) years old.

Our hero, the narrator, could be any bookish male who thinks it is nobler to obsess from afar than to declare his feelings, and Dr. Hamakawa is so emotionally distant that for once I agree with the poor man.

I suspect that this is a good story. I didn’t enjoy it, but I am rarely this annoyed by characters who are simply poorly written, which in this case they aren’t. They are convincing and complex and yet difficult enough to predict that they should be interesting to someone. Probably someone who understands the romance of avoidance.

The physics of the story are fascinating, I’ll admit. The social science, not so much. The culture of Venus was presented as shocking by a narrator who came across as easily shocked. It’s quite a tease, being exposed to a unique society through the eyes of someone who can barely see it.

Overall, “The Sultan of the Clouds” was a well-written story that takes place in an innovative setting following the behavior of depressingly realistic characters. It just didn’t work for me, that’s all.

“Backlash” by Nancy Fulda is an espionage thriller that involves time travelling thought streams who attempt to prevent a catastrophic explosion by blowing up the device that caused it.

If you can wrap your head around that logic, you’ll have a grand time with this story. “Backlash” is full of face-paced high-stakes fiction that never slips into abstraction or melodrama. The real highlight of the story is the complexity of the characters. Fulda manages to weave back story and emotional entanglement seamlessly into gunfights and field surgery, drawing you in until you have to know what happens next. The conflict between Gutierrez and his daughter is especially gut-wrenching. That plot thread alone is worth reading it for–never mind the great action scenes and colorful supporting cast. I can’t recommend this enough.

“Wheat Rust” by Benjamin Crowell follows the classic script of a rake finally falling for a girl and discovering what idiots men make of themselves when that happens. It’s set in an artificial habitat out in the Neptune Trojans, an essentially rural place. Most of the technology could come from early 20th century America, and the locals are more concerned with local territorial politics than anything outside the habitat.

The characters are charmers and rogues, all. Rui, the rake, is a violinist and a bit of a fop at the beginning; the only adventures he seeks are explorations into the depths of pretty girls. Anu, the lady-love, was raised in a convent and is terminally sweet. Luckily, she also has sharp eyes and a dose of practicality Rui never got. (Rui traded his in for an extra dose of luck.)

Rui is the narrator, and since he doesn’t know much about the technology that runs his world, neither do we. In spite of that the world was crafted with enough skill that there is a sense of underlying logic and structure that supports more than just the needs of the plot.

The only thing I didn’t like about this piece was the ending. Once the love story concluded, the author tacked on two paragraphs winding up all the other plot threads that had conspired to throw the lovers together in the first place. It was an awkward ending to an otherwise amusing bit of pulp SF.

“The Palace in the Clouds” by Eugene Mirabelli is the story of the romance between an American, Vincenzo, and Lucia, the last citizen of the Independent Republic of Venice.

The story alternates between a fictional history of Venice and the romantic conflict of the main characters. It is told by Jason, Vincenzo’s nephew, who presents the whole matter in such a matter-of-fact way that I wondered, at first, why he was telling the story at all.

Lucia lives in a wood-and-wicker dirigible covered in white silk. According to her, and implied by the “history” sections, it was but one in a fleet of cleverly disguised floating villas into which her ancestors escaped after Venice fell to Napoleon. They drifted off into the skies, a second Venice as beautiful and ephemeral as the first.

Nostalgia and doubt are the major forces in the story. Lucia is nostalgic for her past splendor, and thus refuses to leave her tattered little cloud. Vincenzo doubts her while she is there, but when she is absent he does everything he can to prove that she, at least, was real. The narrator is an adult recounting the events of his childhood, and while the account is unemotionally presented, the fact that he doubts his memories and attempts to corroborate them by presenting us with history reveals his own nostalgia for the past and fear that we might not believe him.

If there were a classy, SF version of “tears in your beer” country music, “The Palace in the Clouds” would be it.

“For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal is a space drama concerning the discovery that an AI is protecting a human from being recycled, i.e. euthanized.

Little is said about the origins of the setting, but we do know that it is an enclosed environment where both life and death are closely regulated. People must apply to procreate, and once they have stopped being useful, submit to being recycled.

The story follows the AI Cordelia’s wrangler, Rava, as she attempts to fix a minor problem with Cordelia’s chassis. Slowly but surely things unravel until Rava and the family council are faced with the decision whether or not to eliminate Cordelia and the one she was protecting.

This story disturbed me. It took me a while to realize that someone might honestly want to induce this feeling in their readers, but “For Want of a Nail” is a true tragedy, where all of the characters being true to themselves and the needs of their environment are forced into awful situations and must see them through. It is meticulously, scrupulously horrifying. Read at your own risk.