Asimov's Science Fiction

February 2009

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 33, No. 2
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 112

Robert Silverberg's column in this issue talks about his early attempts to sell stories and recounts some early rejection letters. I like occasionally reading this sort of "inside baseball" story about how the business side of writing works. Sheila Williams also has a better-than-average editorial about the appearance of music in science fiction, although there's still a cliched feel to her writing style.

"Colliding Branes" by Rudy Rucker & Bruce Sterling: Another weird hippy story from Rucker about the coming singupocalypse. The protagonists this time are parodies of stereotypes of bloggers, with a vague air of Rucker and Sterling trying to write jokes about a culture they understand only in caricature. The conspiracy theory aspects are vaguely amusing; the ending falls apart with the least inspection and is rather boring on top of that. (4)

"The Bird Painter in Time of War" by Carol Emshwiller: I'm seeing a lot of Emshwiller stories lately, which is not a bad thing. The protagonist in this one is a typical isolated Emshwiller character, a former soldier with a horrible stutter who tries to stay out of the way of a war while painting birds. Nor stumbles across and befriends a soldier from the other side who's captivated by the paintings, and the two of them attempt to survive the suspicion and chaos of the battlefield. It's a good story about the distorting effects of war and the difficulties of trying to do anything normal around it without being affected by the paranoia and forcible taking of sides. (6)

"The Coldest War" by Matthew Johnson: It's quite a change from Emshwiller to this story: a thriller with a mild SF twist. Two Canadian soldiers are attempting to live on an essentially uninhabitable Arctic island for long enough for Canada to be able to claim territoriality over the opening Arctic shipping route. They believe the Danes want to thwart their effort so that the area will be declared international waters, and so take extreme measures (and use a few futuristic gadgets) to hide their heat profile and real base of operations. Once a day, they make a trek to the center of the island to release a flare to prove that they're still on the island.

The story starts when one of the two soldiers goes out and fails to return. The other goes looking for him, becoming increasingly concerned about hostile action and also needing to ensure the flare has been fired for that day. An accident and a failing heat cloaking suit add to the tension and growing paranoia. The story stays effectively ambiguous about what's truly going on, putting the reader fully in the head of the single isolated protagonist who can do little except guess. It's a reasonably good execution of a paranoid survival thriller. (6)

"The Certainty Principle" by Colin P. Davies: John Hale was the sergeant in charge when a Mars exploration vehicle crashed with a mixed crew of military and bio-engineered people. The flashback story follows a famous standard SF scenario (which, exactly, is a mild spoiler). But Hale's dislike of vat-born people is only the first twist in Davies's re-examination of the situation, which also adds a more cynically realistic explanation for how such a situation could happen and would play out. I thought the ending fizzled, but the idea had more potential than I had expected. (6)

"The Point" by Steven Utley: I'm not a fan of Utley's type of nearly actionless character studies against an SF background, but this one won me over. It's a short idea exploration that gives new meaning to team building and bonding exercises. The reveal and the characters' stubborn reactions both had me laughing. I think it's the most drily amusing and fun of anything I've read by Utley. (7)

"Pelago" by Judith Berman: Ari is a descendent of the People of Heaven, a starfaring race of humans who built ships keyed to their genetic makeup and who perfected and passed on a grasp of mathematics, symbolic thought, and helpful synesthesia. Her family was murdered by thugs who practice genetic engineering and modifications that were scorned by the People of Heaven, and while seeking an escape from the murderers, she accidentally signed on to the ship of those responsible. She's hiding unrecognized among them, seen as a resource to help control technology that's picky about genetics, while they're sent on a mission to retrieve something of value from a remote space station.

This story takes up about half the issue, which gives Berman a chance to hint at considerable complexity and world-building. I've seen the fight between the path of genetic engineering and genetic purity play out elsewhere, but Berman has an interesting take on it and does a great job portraying the feel of uncontrolled menace that Ari gets from the crew. There's a fair bit of enjoyable Big Dumb Object exploration tied with a bit of Ari's coming-of-age discovery of what she can control and interact with and how much she's inherited from her mother.

Unfortunately, there are also a significant flaw: everyone spends nearly all of the story talking in one of the most annoying dialects I've tried to read in a story. Berman mangles the grammar rather than the spelling, collapsing word forms and removing so much of the structural cues in sentences that I frequently had no idea what a character was talking about. The story justifies, but I found it frustrating and off-putting. (It was harder for me to read than excerpts from Feersum Endjinn, which may tell you something.)

If it weren't for that, I'd be calling this a great story. Ari is an interesting protagonist, helpless in the large but fighting back and learning in her own ways. The story persistantly didn't go in directions I expected and doesn't turn into a triumphant coming-of-age saga of a girl coming into newfound power. It leaves much of the universe mysterious but gives Ari an opportunity to find her own types of revenge and make her own decisions. If it weren't for the dialogue, I'd want to read more.

I suspect a lot of people will find the ending unsatisfying. I had trouble with it, partly because the build-up seemed so strongly headed towards the standard coming-of-age plot. But thinking about it afterwards, I think it worked and stayed more true to Ari's personality and weaknesses than the expected plot would have.

If it weren't for the dialect, which was a crippling flaw, I'd be watching for Invisible House, the novel-in-progress from which this material is apparently taken. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-05-04

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