Asimov's Science Fiction

June 2008

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 32, No. 6
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 144

This was an unusually good issue for non-fiction. Sheila Williams's editorial on memorable openings to stories was better than average, Silverberg's column on disappearing elements was fasciating (and disturbing), and Peter Heck's book column covered several books that I'm interested in reading. I liked James Patrick Kelly's grab-bag of interesting web sites too; amusingly, I've yet to go to any of the sites he mentions in his column (partly because I read SF magazines when not near a computer), but I still like reading his thoughts on them.

"Call Back Yesterday" by Nancy Kress: I doubt many will be surprised to learn that Kress's story features unusual teenagers. This time, they're in an asylum, with regular group and individual counselling, because all of them see people in mirrors or other reflective surfaces. People who look at them and do things but don't talk. After a short bit of asylum politics (and some creepy and manipulative doctors), they predictably make a break for it, leading to some startling discoveries about themselves and the world. The story turns out to be another angle on one of the current fads in SFnal devices (which one is a spoiler), which didn't do a lot for me. Caitlin's not a bad viewpoint character, though. (6)

"Surprise Party" by James Patrick Kelly: Kelly's story is a quiet and introspective look at ubiquitous, immersive entertainment. Not only have movies and television been replaced by full-sensory immersion, but people can even catch a ride with participating hosts, sit in the back of their mind, see through their senses, and listen to some of their thoughts. The viewpoint character is an aging actress, now past her day but still working on her own series of scripted entertainment. The story follows her through a birthday party and the minutia of her life; there aren't any large explosions, just a look at a different way of living and thinking about the world, with a bit of romance. Light, but surprisingly charming. (6)

"Burgerdroid" by Felicity Shoulders: By contrast, this first publication is a sharp shock. Sheila Williams's editorial calls it out as one of the introductions that grabbed her, and it's a good one, but it's the premise that grabbed me. The viewpoint character works as a robot waitress at a fast food joint whose selling point is that they have a fully automated staff. Except they don't, since real robots are still too expensive; they have trained people who pretend to be robots. It's a beautiful setup for some biting satire about corporate work, appearances, corporate dress codes and rules of conduct, and the buying and selling of illusion and control. It's good all the way through to the ending and doesn't pull any of its punches. This is an extremely impressive debut, good enough for an award nomination. (9)

"The Auctioneer and the Antiquarian, or, 1962" by Forrest Aguirre: I'm not sure what to say about this one. I don't think I quite got it, at least well enough to comment on in much depth. It's the story of a boy being treated for cancer and his two adult friends, an outgoing auctioneer and a more educated antiquarian. It's about movie serials, friendship, and the Cold War. Mostly, it's a slice of life, with awkward moments and partial understanding and an ending I didn't understand. I'm almost certain I'm just not in the target audience and others will get this in ways that I didn't. (5)

"Beneath Sunlit Shallows" by Derek Künsken: This story reminded me of Peter Watts, specifically Starfish but more generally Watts's way of writing psychological stories about broken characters. In this case, the viewpoint character is genetically engineered to live at the bottom of the ocean, the latest in generations of desperately altered humans attempting to survive on an alien world. It's a dark look at the limits of both technology and humanity, and in an oblique way touches on the morality of suicide and life support. It's depressing and compelling at the same time. I thought the ending was a bit dramatically weak (Künsken took one of the two obvious places to go, neither of which would have been that satisfying), but the scenario caught my attention. It's not as good as Watts, but it asks worthwhile questions that SF often dodges. (7)

"Gabe's Globster" by Lawrence Person: Stories of Cthulhu sea creatures seem to be a minor trend at the moment. This one features a recluse who's dropped out of contact with the world to live alone on a nearly deserted island. One day, he discovers the tell-tale glob of jelly on his beach, which immediately begins having strange effects on the surrounding wildlife. The story is a combat tale leading to an inventive bit of destruction; unfortunately, other than the final strategy, there's not much to it. (5)

"The Hob Carpet" by Ian R. MacLeod: MacLeod's "The Master Miller's Tale" was a solid examination of political issues from the perspective of a divergent fantasy world. "The Hob Carpet" could be classified with the same sentence, but rather than coming at the industrial revolution from the perspective of a craftsman, it comes at issues of race relations and humanity from the perspective of a pampered nobleman. In MacLeod's world, hobs are utterly ubiquitous, so much so that their labors provide analogues to modern technology for the humans who live (often literally) on the backs of their labors. It's a clear analogy to slavery and colonialism, and the tortures and maimings casually inflicted on the hobs are often disturbing.

The viewpoint character starts as oblivious to this as the rest of the humans, describing it matter-of-factly as part of his lavish accounts of gorgeous palaces and a life of leisure, but his key difference from the rest of his kind is an insatiable intellectual curiosity. When he inherits his father's estate, that curiosity leads him down a road towards productivity and efficiency rather than decadent luxury, and there necessarily into greater contact and understanding with hobs. (And, predictably, into conflict with the orthodoxy of his society.) One of the best things MacLeod pulls of here, though, is that the narrator never quite gets it; his curiosity leads him into far more understanding than other humans, but that curiosity seems to conflict with the empathy that would lead him the rest of the way. As a result, he captures the mindset of a certain type of reformer who supports change without quite understanding the underlying morality. It's an internal conflict that I've not often seen portrayed in literature, and MacLeod explores it from several angles and provides an excellent treatment. (8)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-06-02

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