Asimovs. February 2010.

Caroline M. Yoachim. Stone Wall Truth.

I read this on the train up to London, en route to see ‘The War Horse’ at the National Theatre on Drury Lane.

Yoachim takes a step up from the small presses with a first story in Asimovs, and its a confident debut. The story is set in Africa some time hence, with the rule of the gun very much in place, with tribal warlords holding sway as long as they hold the upper hand. However, there has been left behind a strange alien artefact, which has been utilised as a form of punishment and torture – using the alien tech, individuals can be crucified on this wall, flayed open, and have their darkest secrets shown to those watching. After the darkness has been seen, they can be stitched back together, and re-animated, brought back to life. It is through the eyes of one who is employed to carry out these tasks that the story is seen, starting with her putting back together and old female friend of hers. But when there is a change of warlord, and she has to carry out her duties on someone whose guilt she is not convinced (a somewhat arbitrary event to move the plot along), she finds herself pinned to the wall and having to face the truth about the darkness within herself. In doing so she also gets a tantalising glimpse of those who have gone before her, and of the alien, very alien, race who used the wall for quite different purposes. Low on tech, high on humanity, an excellent Asimovs debut.

I didn’t read much on the journey back home, as my mind was still racing from seeing the play. It was an interesting contrast to seeing Avatar in 3D a month or two back. I enjoyed that move as a spectacle, felt that the flying scenes were very redolent of some Roger Dean album covers from the 70s, but it was very much a masterpiece of digital creativity over storytelling. The War Horse was a mind-boggling technical achievement, but with emotional power. Over here in Britain, for people over a certain age, the First World War/Great War has very strong emotional significance, so a play against that setting is bound to have more impact than a fictional planet and a mineral called ‘unobtanium’.

But even at a technical level, I felt that The War Horse scored ahead of Avatar. The battle scenes in the movie were dramatic, fast moving, and a showcase of just what a skilled artist can do with a powerful computer. But in The War Horse they actually had a cavalry charge into a hail of machine-gun fire, and were able, with the willing suspension of disbelief, to have you believe that the charge was brought to a shuddering halt, and that dead cavalrymen were flying back off their mounts. A lumbering tank also made a rumbling appearance, and there were also lovely little touches, such as a farmyard goose (pushed around on the end of a stick by a member of the cast), and flying birds and carrion-gobbling crows. But the stars of the show were of course the horses – go to YouTube and search for The War Horse. And if you’re in London, get a ticket. I had thought seeing The Dark Knight sketch re-enacted in Spamalot, right down to the total dismemberment of the knight, was a highpoint of theatrical chutzpah, but not any more!

Damien Broderick. Dead Air.

Initially an oppressive near-future wryly observed, with the USA under the sway of German industrial and economic might, seen through the eyes of Jive Bolen, under the sway of his ex-wife, children, live-in elderly relative, employment, and the teeming urban sprawl in which he lives, all under the burning sun (albeit with measures in place to allieviate that problem).

To add to Jive’s woes, his fellow humans are increasingly under the thrawl of what is being beamed into their living rooms through the television – evidently willing to believe that they are watching the dead pleading wordlessly at them them through the screens.

Broderick details all this nicely, suckering the reader into thinking the dyspeptic dystopian view is a wry comment on our current society, until Jive gets proof positive that those people on TV are indeed the dead, and that the world is suddenly going to get much, much more unpleasant, on both a macro, and a very personal level.

Bruce McAllister. The Woman Who Waited Forever.

After a couple of very strong SF stories in the issue, a ghost story from recent history. Italy, fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, is the setting. A teenage son from a military family with strong belief in the proper way of doing things, is led astray by contemporaries from another navy family. In vandalsing a derelict Germany army hospital, one of the local boys is seriously injured. From the dark shadows of the building a nurse appears, and is able to save his life.

Visiting the owner of the manor on whose land the hospital lies, the truth about the nurse is revealed…

David Erik Nelson. The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond.

Another author making his first appearance in Asimovs, and its a neat little story – an intriguing setting, and an inebriated storyteller.

The storyteller, Dickie Turner, a one-eyed Johnny Reb, has stumbled out of Sadie’s Dancehall, the worst for drink, and as he staggers around the dusty streets, hugging his bottle of liquor, he regales the almost empty night of the tale of a cephalod for whom the call of that which existed beyond the sea was too much. Said cephalod made hisself an undiving suit, and braved the dry lands – only to find himself at the mercy of the local denizens when his suit stops working.

Collapsing into a drunken stupor, he is helped home by the clockwork soldiers who made such a difference to the recent war.

It’s an engagingly told story, with an interesting background, partially glimpsed from a vantage point behind the bushes outside the dancehall.

Aliette de Bodard. The Wind-Blown Man.

One of the ironies of Science Fiction is that sadly too-often far-future and what should be very alien societies are described with so little imagination that they are essentially contemporary western (American) 20th Century societies – whilst amongst us and next to us are societies that are quite different to that which we know, and are considerably more alien than the fictional worlds ‘created’ by writers.

Aliette de Bodard looks to China to create an alien society, alien cultures and technology – a world in which China is on a par, or better, with Western Christian society. For my money, I’d rather see Earth cultures used as inspiration to create truly alien societies, as that is true SF – but failing this, I’d much rather see the creative efforts as put in by de Bodard.

The SFnal element is that there is a technology that enables individuals to ascend to a higher plane, literally and metaphysically, as, once the students have achieved a zen-like balance of their elements, they are able to take to the skies, and create a Singularity through which they can pass, to go to a better place.

The story revolves around the Abbess of the White Horse Monastery, through whose hands many students pass. When the unthinkable happens, that one who has flown high actually returns – the matter is so serious that an Imperial Prince is quickly despatched. The same man with whom she had an affair with many years ago, which led to her being sent to the Monastery.

The crux of the story is the Wind-Blown Man of the title – why has he returned? What is his intent? He is mostly silent, and gives away little. It is the case that the Monastery is being used to remove from society those who are uncomfortable with it, and this is what he has returned to put right, as he begins his journey through the Empire.

Good to see another author being given a chance in Asimovs, and certainly the best of the few of her stories that I’ve read. I look forward to seeing more – hopefully with her moving on to even more alien landscapes,

Stephen Baxter. The Ice Line.

‘The Ice War’ (Asimovs Sept 2008) was set in 1720, and related the invasion of Earth by alien creatures, who come up against no less than Isaac Newton, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift and one Jack Hobbes. A century later, with Napoleon’s troops on American soil, and invading England (in the history of these stories, Nelson has lost the Battle of Trafalgar).

Background to the aliens is provided as a descendant of Hobbes flees north with Rear Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood and his daughter, and one Miss Caroline Herschel, the army of Napoleon on their heels. The race is on to get launched the ship that will be used to challenge the aliens massing on Mars for an attack on Earth.

With the Duke of Wellington putting up a stout defense based around Hadrian’s Wall, the vessel, powered by anti-ice, is duly launched, it’s small crew heading off to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of humanity.

I have to own up to much preferring Baxter’s SF to his alternate history – oh for the XeeLee days!

Conclusion.

A strong issue, with stories from authors well-established and authors on the way up.

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