Asimov's Science Fiction

December 2010

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 34, No. 12
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 112

The editorial for this issue was a bit self-absorbed and therefore not particularly interesting (I was never interested in the con reports in fanzines either), but Silverberg's column looks back on C.M. Kornbluth and inspired me to pick up the NESFA collection of his short stories. Peter Heck's book review is about average, although prompts me to wonder again if there's something in Allen Steele's work that just wasn't present in the bits that I've read, since nothing in one novel and five short stories has inspired me to read anything more.

"Plus or Minus" by James Patrick Kelly: Unless I'm misremembering, this is a sort-of sequel to "Going Deep". Regardless, it's the story of a teenager who's at the bottom of the crew totem pole on an asteroid freighter. There's a background of consentual reality and interpersonal networking, but most of the initial setup is about drudge work on a low-end freighter and the social dynamics of being only partly included in social groups. Then things go wrong, and Mariska's unique abilities might be relevant. The ending can be read as yet another slant on "The Cold Equations."

Kelly does an adequate job of framing a future society and showing it from a more working-class angle, but I never warmed to the story or to Mariska. It all hangs together, but I had a hard time caring. (5)

"Libertarian Russia" by Michael Swanwick: This story makes me happy, but it's almost custom-designed to entertain me. I don't know if this will translate. But if you also are a disaffected libertarian who wants to shake them and point out why things are more complicated than that, and why a libertarian paradise would be a brutal place, this story might make you happy too. It's about an idealistic libertarian who sets off across Russia on a motorcycle, enjoying the freedom of a post-collapse world without governments and social structure. He picks up a prostitute who is similarly living in a libertarian world. The difference is that she understands what that means and how to act on it, and as becomes increasingly apparent during their short interaction, he doesn't. It has a beautiful sting, all the more so because it's nicely understated. (8)

"Sins of the Father" by Sara Genge: This is another post-collapse story, although here the collapse is even more severe. Huge sea-level rise has isolated the remnants of humanity on a few islands in a world dominated by merfolk. The protagonist is an exiled merman, modified to survive on land, who is attempting to blend in with humans and who falls in love with a human woman. It's a dark and dismal story set against a backdrop of utter contempt by the merfolk, who are now the guardians of the environment, for the humans. The argument between the protagonist and his culture is vaguely interesting, but not quite enough to hold my attention. (5)

"Freia in the Sunlight" by Gregory Norman Bossert: I absolutely adored this story. Not only do I think it's the best story of the issue, I think it's one of the best short stories I've read in quite a long time.

The story is told from the perspective of a combat drone (something that took me a little while to figure out). It's a combat drone with extensive AI in order to allow it to adapt to changing battlefield conditions. Just enough AI, in fact, for it to start following human conversations out of curiosity and then trying to analyze their comments in the light of its programming and experience. So often, this sort of story leads to cautionary tales about dangerous technology, but Bossert goes a completely different, and heart-stoppingly beautiful, direction. I've rarely had a story help me identify so well with a non-human protagonist.

It's quite short, so I won't spoil it further. But this one is worth seeking out. (9)

"Variations" by Ian Werkheiser: Joe's father was a famous piano player, and Joe himself was trained by his father and spent hours listening to him. That makes him a good subject for a research group working on digitization of not only music but the tone and style and pattern of a particular artist. The goal is to absorb and understand the nature of the music so well that the computer can then play like that artist would have played. To do that, they try to pull from Joe's brain absolutely everything they can about his father's music, down to recreating the basement in which his father played.

This is SF used to tell a psychological story: what is personality in music, and what would it mean to one's family to be able to duplicate that personality? That's mixed with Joe coming to terms with his relationship with his father. The technology, and the questions that it posed, were rather interesting; the psychological story didn't do as much for me. (6)

"Excellence" by Robert Reed: The collapse this story is set after is less of a complete crash and more of another thirty years of the current economy. Against that grim background, the protagonist has a nice inheritance that lets him spend much of his time in an on-line virtual reality; not, as in most, by inserting himself completely, but instead by creating virtual characters and steering their behavior. He's approached by a private foundation that seems to want to give him a genius grant based on a particularly powerful character that he created. But, as is typical for Reed, there are a couple of sharp twists to come. Good, but not particularly memorable. (6)

"The Prize Beyond Gold" by Ian Creasey: Creasey here extrapolates the asymptotic perfection of athletic training, showing a future that has retained "traditional human" athletic events in a world of widespread genetic engineering but has perfected the training regime to a degree that almost every movement is carefully scripted to ensure maximum race-day performance. Breaking world records has become a legendary act, but the protagonist has a chance. Everything is lining up, including the altitude of the meet and the perfect wind conditions. That's when he's approached by one of the genetically engineered to ask about his plans afterwards.

There isn't a lot of plot here. It's mostly a character portrait, an attempt to put the reader inside the head of an athlete in a far more restrictive regime than we have today, and also to comment on what athletic training might look like from the inside. As that, it's quite effective. What is the meaning of individual athletic competition against the record book, and what meaning can be retained when we can modify the human genome? (7)

"Uncle E" by Carol Emshwiller: Emshwiller's stories are almost always about unusual people or strange families at the margins of society and how they define themselves and how they interact with the (often threatening) society around them. This follows that standard mold, giving us an orphaned family that's determined to maintain its integrity and protect itself from the outside world. The surprising help that it gets is a twist worthy of Robert Reed, but the strength of the story is it's quiet matter-of-fact treatment of insular loyalty against extreme odds. (6)

"Warfriends" by Tom Purdom: A sequel to The Tree Lord of Imeten, an Ace Double that I doubt many people have read (I haven't), this story follows the evolving alliance between two alien races. One is ground-dwelling creatures who share some characteristics with wolves or large cats but with more of a herd mentality, and the other is tree-dwelling pseudo-monkeys. They have a history of treating each other as obvious enemies (and as obviously inferior creatures), but in the backstory a human expedition created a bridge between them and got them to acknowledge each other's sentience. This is a continuation of that alliance, as both races attempt to cooperate to put a stop to a shared enemy. Most of the story is about balancing the drastically different ideas of proper cultural and societal behavior between the two races and attempting to overcome their deep suspicion of each other.

Like the other Purdom I've read, the ideas are interesting but the story felt a bit dry. It's the sort of story where one feels like the author is quietly explaining an idea that they found interesting using the story as a framework for the explanation. There's nothing wrong with that (it's a common style in older SF), but it does make for less compelling reading. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-04-18

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