Asimov's Science Fiction

March 2009

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 33, No. 3
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 112

The non-fiction highlights this issue are a good guest editorial by Brian Bieniowski, revisiting James Blish's Welcome to Mars from an adult perspective, and Silverberg's column on the likely future path for the solar system (examining the speculations of Olaf Stapledon with science). They're both new looks at old works with fresh eyes, either literarily or scientifically, and I'd love to read more articles along those lines. I think Bieniowski did a particularly good job both acknowledging the flaws from the perspective of a current reader while explaining why the book was so fascinating to him as an eleven-year-old.

"Act One" by Nancy Kress: Kress is a prolific author with many novels and even more short fiction to her credit, but to me she'll always be associated with Beggars of Spain and the psychological impact of a race of superintelligent children who don't have to sleep. Many of her stories explore the social and psychological impact of genetic modifications that affect intelligence or emotions, but "Act One" is one of the more direct treatments I've seen since Beggars.

The protagonist is the manager, assistant, and friend of an aging movie star who will be playing a role in a movie about Arlen's Syndrome, a genetic modification making a person so adept at picking up cues of expression that they can tell with uncanny accuracy just what people are thinking. Genetic modification of this sort is illegal, but it happens anyway on the black market for those with enough money and the ability to go outside of the country for it. The protagonist is also a dwarf, with his own personal demons around genetic modification that come out as the story progresses.

Arlen's Syndrome is just the beginning of the story. The underground group advocating genetic modification of humans that we meet at the beginning of the story has some other tricks to pull, there's a fraught relationship between the movie star and the manager to partly sort out, and there are the two famous girls with Arlen's Syndrome, who demonstrate the sort of cruelty and mood shifts of children but with extra power from their abilities. The personal relationships serve as lenses to focus the ethical issues of the genetic modifications that drive the plot. There's a typical Kress sense of inevitability behind the drive for genetic modification, which for me led to a slight lack of satisfaction with the conclusion, but the story was meaty and kept me interested all the way through. It's not Beggars of Spain, but it's likely to appeal to those who liked the novel (or original short story), and it's a bit lighter on the libertarian outlook. (7)

"Intelligence" by R. Neube: I tend to like Neube's setups and feel disappointed by his endings, so I'm happy to report that this may be the strongest ending of any of his stories I've seen. Combined with another great setup and this is my favorite of his stories so far.

The first-person protagonist here is paid to talk to a computer. The computer in question is an AI experiment named Bob, and the point of the conversations is to teach Bob how to act more human and learn to carry on regular conversation. Aaron is supposed to talk to him about anything and everything, and Bob has a definite bent for conspiracy theories. Aaron gets talked into helping Bob escape the surveillance that he thinks he's under, and Bob tries to fix his social life and take care of his friends. The twist is that unlike some of the other benevolent AIs of science fiction, Bob has a lot in common with people, including overconfidence in his own abilities and a tendency to bullshit his way through mistakes. The result is in turns funny and creepy, undermining the idea of benevolent superintelligence with a world where it feels like everyone is just muddling through and no one has any idea what's really happening. (7)

"The Long, Cold Goodbye" by Holly Phillips: I wanted to like this story. It's told lyrically, with some beautiful descriptions of cold and loneliness, an affecting look at broken and past friendships, and a tantalizing background that is never quite explained. Unfortunately, I also found it horribly confusing. I may not be able to give it the attention it needs, since I read short fiction while exercising and it's not the best environment to go over every word. Those who do that with this story may get more out of it. I spent most of the story confused and hoping the next page would give me more of a clue, and then reached the end without ever quite figuring out what was going on. There's a bit of unreality, a touch of horror, and an interleaving of letters and story in what resolves into an odd sort of friendship, and all the pieces seem to have potential, but I never got a coherent whole. (4)

"Slow Stampede" by Sara Genge: This is a much more prosaic adventure story that gets its twist from alien creatures: in this case, enormous swamp elephants used as transport through marshland. It's the story of caravan raiders, essentially, but set among fanciful creatures. The protagonist is a posturing, arrogant youth who sets out to prove himself in a raid and become chief, and who's also being pressured to find a wife. My enjoyment of the story suffered from thoroughly disliking the viewpoint character, and while some of the visuals were interesting, I'm afraid nothing made up for that. (5)

"Whatness" by Benjamin Crowell: This very short story is another in the long line of short fiction pointing out the limitations of the thinking processes of people. The world has ended in an accidental deletion of spacetime, and the only beings that could be salvaged from it are a man and his companion. The story pokes fun at the man's inability to understand what is, to an alien, basic qualities about his world necessary to reconstruct it, with the predictable twist if one has read a few of these stories before. It struck me as the sort of thing Rudy Rucker writes, but without the hippie surfer vibe and horrible characterization. Slight, but entertaining. (6)

"Getting Real" by Harry Turtledove: In a grim future Los Angeles, a couple of police officers are trying to deal with a new drug called Real, which gives its users a fully immersive fantasy experience that feels far more enjoyable than real life. This is not difficult, given that the United States has gone through catastrophic decline, with runaway inflation, general economic collapse, and even the sale of land to China to pay debts. The story starts out as a sort of grim police procedural, but then increases scale and turns to geopolitics.

I found the tone of this story very odd. On one hand, it seems overtly political: Real is being used by China for its own (never well-explained) purposes and is intentionally introduced in the US, and there's a strong feeling of avoidable error and stupid decisions around overspending in the portrayal US economic collapse. All of this is shown in horribly stereotyped ways and with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. On the other hand, the story is also brutal to the idea of American exceptionalism. All of the American characters are pathetic whiners, the US politicians are some of the most inept and incompetent collections of militaristic lunatics that you could imagine, and the US gets is ass handed to it by China in every conceivable way. And yet, the Chinese characters are also treated with contempt and moderately racist stereotypes. It felt like there was some point or goal to telling this story, but all of the sides and characters are so unappealing that I can't imagine rooting for any of them, and no clear solutions or even cautions are presented.

I have no idea where Turtledove was going with this, but where he got for me was one halfway interesting idea (avatar projection) left completely unexplained in a bleak story full of cardboard cutouts and stupid stereotypes. Almost no character action in this story was both believable and more than superficial. (3)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-06-08

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