Asimov's Science Fiction

June 2010

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 34, No. 6
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 112

The non-fiction in this issue is about average. Silverberg dissects the mindset of a town that declared itself a Satan-free zone with good will and humor in a column mostly worth it for the more complete story of Cnut and the tides, which I'd not previously been aware of. James Patrick Kelley discusses free things on the net some more, partly as an analysis of the book Free by Chris Anderson.

"The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele: Clearly, everyone else (or at least magazine editors and Hugo voters) like Steele considerably more than I do. This story is set in a future in which people have established a colony on Mars. It's told as a retrospective by a colony manager. One of his staff is a young man who did odd jobs, whatever was needed, on a rotation for some time to earn money before he goes back to his wife and kid on Earth. Except one day he receives news that they've both been killed, and he goes quietly insane.

The story is full of callouts to classic SF, as one of the first signs of the insanity is that he starts seeing classic planetary romance figures outside the station. SF stories are also deeply involved in the ending, and lauded throughout. There are also obvious parallels to Emperor Norton, since the man decides he's Emperor of Mars and asks everyone to call him that, while still being happy to do his regular work, and the whole station plays along. It's not a bad story, and it's definitely a story about the best of people rather than the worst of people, which is a good change of pace. But it's also the winner of the 2011 Hugo for novelette, which seems a bit dubious to me. Like a lot of Steele I read, I thought it was a bit shy of plot and a bit too obvious. (7)

"Petopia" by Benjamin Crowell: An African worker in a near-future who processes electronic waste and looks for salvagable data storage (for phishing and identity theft is the understated implication) discovers an electronic pet, one with a fairly sophisticated AI and very sophisticated networking technology to connect to its home service. Except it's in Africa, where wireless networking is not ubiquitous. The story follows her and her brother's interactions with it, its attempts to treat them like the child it was designed for, and their attempts to make use of it in their lives. Despite not really being about computer hacking, this is a very cyberpunk novel: it's about the street culture finding ways to repurpose corporate technology in a hardscrabble world. I liked the sense of atmosphere a lot, and the culture clash between the pet's programming and the reality of the life of its new owners is mildly amusing. A solid story. (7)

"Monkey Do" by Kit Reed: From serious with a touch of humor to outright comic, this story is about a hack author who buys a pet monkey as research for a book and then ends up keeping him, giving him an old laptop, and finally buying him one of those ripoff programs that claims to be able to help with novel writing. This predictably gets entirely out of control. The enjoyment of the story lies mostly in rooting for the monkey against the lighthearted sleaze of the narrator, and for the improbable success of both of them. (7)

"The Peacock Cloak" by Chris Beckett: This is an odd story about an artificial reality, one ruled over by inhabitants akin to gods because they can manipulate the fabric of the reality somewhat. It's told from the perspective of one of them, on the day in which an apparently uploaded version of its original creator enters the world after having left it alone for an extended length of time. There's very little action; it's a psychological story, primarily, about identity, rebellion, and the nature of conflict in generating originality. I wanted to take something deep from it, and I think it wants to be deep, but it didn't quite click with me. (6)

"Voyage to the Moon" by Peter Friend: This starts with the sense that it might be a type of steampunk story, of a voyage to the moon using a grand variation of obsolete technology. But the technology is mostly biological in nature, a manipulation of giant and apparently special-purpose plants much different than our reality. And as the story progresses, the setting gets stranger and stranger: a ceiling populated by a strange life form, a sun that moves on a literal track, and a moon with a similar course that disappears into a dark hole. The setting is all there is; there isn't much else here except the thrill of exploration. For me, the deliciously weird setting wasn't quite enough to make a successful story. (5)

"Dreadnought Neptune" by Anna Tambour: This is by far the most depressing story here. A man and his son see a ship parked in town on their way to the toy store, and with many others crowd on board at the opportunity to take it into space. The hull seals, and they wait, in a crammed, closed area packed with other people. It's the sort of story that gives one a creeping feeling of wrongness from the start. It's also impossible not to read it as some sort of allegory, particularly given the reactions of the man and the boy afterwards: an allegory of unrealistic dreams and cold realities, of the betrayal of dreams, and of the bewilderment left behind. It mostly misses its mark for me, since I don't have that same reaction or relationship to dreams, but I suppose it's reasonably effective. I would have preferred a story where the plot worked better on a surface level, though, as there's rather a lot one has to accept unquestioning to justify the surface story. (4)

"Earth III" by Stephen Baxter: It's not often that you see a novella that includes a map! This is another related story to Baxter's novel Ark. Similar to "Earth II", it's about humans on an alien world who have lost much of their technology. This one is ruled, mostly, by a religious cult based around the belief that everyone is living inside a simulated reality designed by, essentially, omnipotent gods. The religion is centered around a tower in the dead center of the side of the tidally-locked planet that always faces its sun, one that is built of some unknown substance that predates human arrival and which is cleaned and used for a ritual once a year. The primary protagonists are a sailor boy and the daughter of the head of the religious order; the former falls in love with the latter, who is remarkably good at manipulating her way out of becoming a priestess.

This is a long adventure story, taking up much of the issue and eventually leading the protaongists to the dark side of the planet and to further revalations about the design of the ancient structures. The setting, and the religious debate between mechanists and those who believe in virtual reality, are the stars. But the story holds up reasonably well, and some parts of the characterization are quite good. This is definitely a cut above most of the Baxter that I've read, although the climactic revalation involves a mechanism design that makes absolutely no sense. But, overall, not bad. (7)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-09-04

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