Asimov's Science Fiction

October/November 2010

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 34, No. 10 & 11
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 191

Another double issue means another Norman Spirad book review column, and in this issue it's a follow-up to his tone-deaf column from the April/May issue. This time, the theme is how authors convey a culture other than their own while making it feel authentic to the reader.

There's more redeeming merit here than in the original column. Spinrad's thesis is that time spent immersed in a culture other than your own provides a perspective on how cultures can differ, and that perspective carries over into science fiction and aids in writing alien cultures that feel authentic. He examines this thesis across four interesting books, and the column succeeds in being a book review, although Spinrad's philosophy occasionally distracts from the books discussed. The main miss is in his frankly adoring treatment of Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which waxes rhapsodic about how accurate it is to Thailand (despite Spinrad's self-admitted lack of knowledge of Thailand) and makes a few unfortunate side trips into cultural stereotypes (of course Thai science fiction would involve ghosts!). Suffice it to say that reactions from people actually from the region have been more mixed.

Both Sheila Williams and Robert Silverberg tell personal stories in the other non-fiction of this issue: Williams of memories of the Space Coast, and Silverberg entertainingly describing his run-ins with a ghost despite not believing in them. James Patrick Kelly takes a look at social networking from the perspective of an author, but doesn't say much that's new.

"Becoming One with the Ghosts" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: This is the next in what's becoming an extended sequence of stories set in the universe of "Diving into the Wreck", stories that are now being reworked into novels (two, Diving into the Wreck and City of Ruins, are already out). "Becoming One with the Ghosts" changes viewpoint characters and story angles, following the crew of a lost starship rather than a team exploring the wreck of one, and does so with deep emotional effectiveness. This is great stuff even if you've not read a previous story in this series, but if you have been following the series, Rusch adds wonderful depth to her world-building and universe. I'd been on the fence about picking up the novels, since I'd already read large chunks of the included material, but now I'm eager to read as much in this universe as I can find.

The protagonist of this story is (realistically) slow and cautious about his situation, so some may find the pacing a bit methodical for their taste. But I think Rusch builds tension effectively while pulling off an ending that makes one think well of everyone involved in the situation. It's always refreshing to read a story that achieves tension and conflict without villains. Definitely the best story of the issue. (9)

"Names for Water" by Kij Johnson: This is a very short story, almost without plot, following the stream of consciousness of a female engineering student who's on the verge of giving up and switching majors. The genre element exists entirely in the narrative certainty that the connections she builds from a phone call filled with nothing but static carry deeper meaning, and the ending is a pure feel-good moment, but for me it still worked. I think it's significant that the protagonist is female; the story of newfound determination works for any gender, but in Hala it touches on something transformative in society at large. It left a smile on my face. (7)

"The Incarceration of Captain Nebula" by Mike Resnick: The protagonist, who gets the normally-printed sections, claims to be a pulp hero, protecting worlds of the galaxy from horrible space emperors. Italics belong to the psychiatrist who's attempting to treat him in the facility where he's been committed, and a fixed-width font is used for the transcripts of sessions. The tripartite structure tries hard to maintain a balance between the two possible readings of the story, but the story has inherent structural difficulties. One of the two possible readings is obviously more interesting than the other, and unless the writer is particularly skilled, the story is caught between predictability and disappointment. Resnick walks straight down the predictable path. Competently told, but insufficiently suspenseful. (6)

"Torhec the Sculptor" by Tanith Lee: This story, by contrast, felt like it was going to be caught by the same dilemma, but Lee managed to surprise me. Torhec is a world-famous avant-garde sculptor whose claim to originality is that he destroys every sculpture that he makes. They are exhibited for a fixed period of time, during which no permanent recording of them can be taken, and then in a public display he destroys them completely, using techniques ranging from sledgehammers to acid. The mega-rich protagonist has become fascinated by the sculpture and becomes one in a long line of people who have attempted to buy a sculpture to preserve it from destruction, but he's willing to agree to some twists that no one has offered before.

Huge amounts of suspension of disbelief are required here for the necessary impermanence of Torhec's sculpture, particularly by the time he's become so famous that the destruction fills stadiums and is broadcast in live segments on TV. Somehow, his security and contracts still keep any of his sculptures from being recorded, even by cell phone cameras (the story is near-future) or home TV viewers, which is obviously absurd. But if one can roll with that, Lee takes the tension between Torhec and the rich patron in some interesting directions and does a great job building psychological suspense. I shouldn't have been caught by surprise by the ending, but I was. Very well-done. (8)

"No Distance Too Great" by Don D'Ammassa: This is a rather odd story set against a background of interstellar travel by ground crawler through a bizarre reactive world. I've seen stories that give shape and property to "hyperspace" before, but I don't recall one that dives this deeply into strange landscapes that can't be altered even by nuclear weapons but change based on the emotions of passengers.

Given that setup, the protagonist is, of course, someone with unresolved emotional issues that have a profound effect on the voyage that he undertakes, to everyone's peril. The psychological arc isn't surprising; most readers will have seen something like that story before. But the interplay with the surroundings was well-done, and the resolution worked better for me than I was expecting. A bit too sentimental, but not bad. (6)

"The Termite Queen of Tallulah County" by Felicity Shoulders: With a title like that, I doubt you were expecting a time travel story, but a time travel story is what you get. Lacey is the daughter and granddaughter of pest exterminators and is now running the business herself after her father has become effectively catatonic due to an unknown illness. The latest in extermination technology, into which Lacey's father had invested heavily, is time travel: the exterminator goes back in time to remove whatever attracted the termites in the first place, thus reversing all of the damage.

This is the sort of time travel in which the traveler can change the future (obviously) and where no one much worries about paradoxes. The story doesn't get caught up in the details of the mechanics; instead, it's just a backdrop to more mundane (and therefore believable) revelations about Lacey's family business and father. The conclusion isn't horribly surprising, but the emotional dynamics worked for me. (7)

"Dummy Tricks" by R. Neube: Ah, there's our grim meathook future. The protagonist is one of a group of hard-scrabble colonists on a relentlessly hostile alien planet where they survive by collecting a very rare and slow-growing alien organism. He's supposedly dim-witted due to drug abuse (not that this shows much in the story), but that also means that he can survive a resonance that drives others insane. The story is his encounter with a pirate band invading the plateau and stealing ice cobras, which turns out to be far darker and grimmer than one might expect. There's plenty of tension, but the underlying situation is so vicious, miserable, and hopeless that it's hard to enjoy. (4)

"Frankenstein, Frankenstein" by Wil McIntosh: A man with a railroad spike driven into his skull but improbably missing anything critical in his brain is making a living pretending to be the Frankenstein monster in a traveling carnival when he runs into another team that's doing exactly the same thing. There's a nice bit of tension and then bonding between them, and then plot is provided by a man who believes their story and is using it as inspiration to create his own monster. The strength of the story is its look at what it would feel like to live as a carnival freak and meet someone else doing the same. Not bad, but not very memorable, other than the remarkably disturbing bits with the spike. (6)

"Changing the World" by Kate Wilhelm: This is a fairly short humorous send-up of conspiracy theories. Melvin is a retiree whose wife wants him to find a hobby. Three unconnected comments from his family give him the idea of seeing just how much of a conspiracy people will believe; the predictable revelation is "way more than he ever imagined." It's a slim story, but I think Wilhelm succeeds in showing how conspiracies and fear gain a life of their own and defusing them is surprisingly difficult. (6)

"Under the Thumb of the Brain Patrol" by Ferrett Steinmetz: Hey, do you know what would be hilarious? How about a story about high school in which all the geeks rule the social hierarchy and are the favorites of all of the teachers, jocks are despised sub-humans, and one has to constantly watch out or one might have one's DNA stolen and experimented on for laughs? And we'll make the jock protagonist fall hopelessly in love with one of the geek girls, who treats him like crap! Wouldn't that be a riot?

I'm sure this is to someone's taste, but not mine. I give Steinmetz credit for using the standard trope of this story, reversed, to show the sort of pleasure one can take in physical activity, but that's the sole redeeming feature of the story for me. (3)

"Several Items of Interest" by Rick Wilber: The second novella of this issue is the story of Earth following an alien invasion by a far more advanced species. The S'hudonni (carrying the alien apostrophe marker) aren't particularly aggressive or oppressive, but they are completely technologically superior and have taken thorough control. Peter is a journalist of sorts, more on the entertainment side than news side, particularly now that he's taken a deal from the S'hudonni to travel to their planet and show what starts feeling like propaganda to Earth.

The story is told in meandering and interweaving threads following Peter, his brother Tommy, and a woman named Heather who is involved with both of them and is also deeply involved with the S'hudonni. Peter is a collaborator; Tommy becomes a rebel. There's a lot happening here: legacy technological artifacts that even the S'hudonni don't know how to make, transporters that have some of the obvious capabilities usually omitted from science fiction transporters, constructed beings, and a rather more jaded look at the value of freedom than one normally sees. The latter is where I think this story goes interesting places. Does it make sense to rebel against fairly benevolent alien overlords who really are making life generally better?

I had a hard time liking the characters and the story meanders a lot, but I still enjoyed this one. It weaves SFnal technology into the story well, has a few good bits of action, and asks some disturbing questions about what it would be like to run into politely non-confrontational but overwhelmingly powerful aliens. (7)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-02-24

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