Asimov's Science Fiction

January 2007

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 31, No. 1
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 144

I was highly amused by Robert Silverberg's essay on MMORPGs and purchasing levels, gold, and status in the game from companies that farm characters. I've been so involved in video games for so long that hearing an outsider's take (Silverberg doesn't play video games at all) is like looking into a different world. Silverberg's feelings on the pointlessness of it mostly line up with mine, although I think he misses a major motivation: some people play games for the cool stuff and the exploration, not for the achievement of levels, and the games are usually designed to reward higher levels with more cool stuff and more exploration. I can see wanting to skip tedious fighting if you care mostly about the exploration, although I think there are enough games to choose from that one can pick a game where the exploration doesn't require excess tedium.

This issue also features another interesting essay by James Patrick Kelly on SF web sites and how they're maintained and an extra-long and varied book review column by Paul Di Filippo. The fiction this issue is also decidedly above par. One of the better issues in a while.

"Safeguard" by Nancy Kress: I first encountered Nancy Kress's work in her novel Beggars in Spain and still connect her with stories about the mindset of unusual children. This is another in that vein, telling the story of four children who have lived their entire lives in an enclosed, sealed world, visited only by a woman in an isolation suit, with no knowledge of the outside. Through their eyes, we see an earthquake that breaks open their world and their attempt to make their way together outside. Through the eyes of their guardian, we learn the chilling act of terrorism they represent and the ethical and political battle she's waged for years to not kill them out of hand. Kress sets up a nasty moral dilemma with no clear resolution. The story is a bit too obvious in pulling on heart-strings (although it could have been worse) but engrossing despite that. (7)

"Poison" by Bruce McAllister: In sharp contrast from the previous story, this is a tale in the classic fairy-tale mode. A boy's cat is killed and he believes it was done by the neighboring witches. He goes to confront the nearest with the dead body of his cat, and there he discovers the cat's true cause of death, a ghost of sorts, and an eerie type of natural magic. It's more atmospheric than plot-driven, but it also embeds a good lesson in not jumping to conclusions and in respecting other people's ways of coping. (6)

"Café Culture" by Jack Dann: Dann had me thoroughly caught up in this dystopian future of rampant suicide bombings in New York, but he didn't provide much justification for how that future evolved. I was reading with interest, wondering where he was going to take the story after the obvious coming confrontation, and then came an ending which made no emotional sense to me. I think he's making a point about escalation of religious conflict and the setup worked, but the resolution didn't. (6)

"The Hikikomori's Cartoon Kimono" by A.R. Morlan: This is the story of an unlikely friendship between an artist who uses a tattoo gun to put designs into tofu and a former kimono painter who is now working as an apprentice tattoo artist. There's a creepy villain, a bit of a love triangle, and a plot arc involving both, but that's not the center of the story. The tattoo artist, the focus of tight third-person narration throughout the story, was a hikikomuri in Japan, someone who pulls away from social life due (in his case) to depression and what felt like overwhelming pressure. He was pulled out of his withdrawal but is still afraid to risk connection. This is a story about self-expression, sharing, opening to someone else, and using art as both language and purpose. It neatly dances around the ruts of romance and love triangles and finds an ending that I adored. I have a soft spot for tattooing stories in general, but even apart from that, I think this is the strongest story of the issue. (8)

"Battlefield Games" by R. Neube: I loved the framing idea. A grunt in a battlefield trench starts playing chess with an intelligent missile from the enemy. Unfortunately, I know too much about how chess-playing algorithms work to believe the strategem used in the story, and apart from the nice setup, the story doesn't go anywhere. Funny but forgettable, and will annoy anyone who knows how computers play chess. Attacks based on psychology and surprise are exactly the approach least likely to work on a computer. (5)

"Gun Fight at the Sugerloaf Pet Food & Taxidermy" by Jeff Carlson: This is an entertaining adventure in wildlife protection starring a Fish and Wildlife employee who traps hunters with decoy animals to see if they'll shoot out of season. After a particularly flashy man with automatic weapons gets away from a trap, she stumbles into a more serious and dangerous crime, leading to an amusing showdown. No deeper meaning or much extrapolation here, just a cops and robbers action adventure. (7)

"Trunk and Disorderly" by Charles Stross: If it weren't for the obnoxious and grating "hi-ho, pip pip" narrative voice in this story, I would have liked it much more. This is another action adventure, but with more of a sarcastic edge and some sendups of high society sports and parties. It drags at first, particularly since I didn't care at all about the protagonist's love affair, but the conclusion is highly entertaining. Unfortunately it suffers from the standard Stross problem of piling on technobabble as a stylistic effect, sometimes successfully but more often resulting in a clashing and garbled train wreck, made far worse by the affected voice of the first-person narrator. Comparable to the early stories in Accelerando before Amber is introduced, and plagued by a similarly annoying love affair. (6)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-02-24

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