Asimovs, June 2008

Nancy Kress. Call Back Yesterday.

Ahh, a copy of Asimovs which opens with a Nancy Kress story … now that’s what I call a science fiction magazine

As (almost) ever, Kress furnishes the goods. The setup is immediate, with a short, intriguing opening sentence ‘This morning the bathroom mirror shows only a lone person – besides Caitlin herself, of course’. Caitlin is a young woman in some form of an institution, in which a number of young people who are getting treatment for ‘Cathcart Syndrome’ which results in people believing that they can see reflections of other people. Except, that it appears that Caitlin very much can see other people.

There are some good intra-patient dynamics explored, giving the story a solid feel to it, and then it kicks into a higher gear as we find out that there is more to the institution and its inmates than meets the eye – as we find out when Caitlin and a couple of others flee the grounds. We find out the extent to which things have changed in the outside world, and just what those reflections might indicate, as Caitlin’s role becomes that of the little whos that Horton has to encourage to make their presence felt to a much larger community unaware of their existence.

James Patrick Kelly. Surprise Party.

No surprise that there’s a Jim Kelly story in the June issue – it’s the 25th such occurrence. He matches Kelly with the opening sentence : “When Mercedes Nunez woke up on the morning of her fifty-first birthday, there was a man in her head.” Kelly successfully gets into the head of a woman who has a customer paying to view the world through her eyes. It’s a near future where virtual reality and an obsession with celebrity have come to point where fans will pay to see the world through the eyes of those they worship.

Mercedes herself creates VR experiences, and we get a short section in which we see her working out a scenario for her main character, with dialogue, set instructions and actions scripted out. This can tend to grate on me if it is overdone, but in this case it just over a page, which doesn’t overstay its welcome.

The main part of the story is devoted to the titular party, in which Mercedes is matched up with an old lover – and she has to decide whether she wants him back in her life.

Felicity Shoulders. Burgerdroid.

After Kress and Kelly, with a squillion short stories to their names, comes a first published story, which as you would expect (there are only a few writers whose first published stories don’t clearly stand out as so), suffers slightly in comparison. Shoulders posits a near future burger chain staffed by robots – with the exception that the robots are in fact actors/dancers in outfits, playing the part.

The story looks at one woman, a single mother, struggling to manage parenting and flipping burgers, who at the moment finds herself with an opportunity to get into a relationship with a colleague, comes up against some armed robbers who are only too happy to loose off a few rounds at a robotic employee (something that would have happened long before the burger chain went local).

Forrest Aguirre. The Auctioneer and the Antiquarian, or, 1962.

There’s been a plethora of stories of late in which SF writers look fondly back on the halcyon days of their youth, often tied in to the ‘space race’ of the 1960s. Fortunately the majority of them (the ones I read, at least) benefit from being written by well established, experienced writers who are up to the task, as is Aguirre.

A young boy is struggling with cancer, but the promise of the future, and a space helmet and raygun, may offer him, and those around him, a safe place in that future. The auctioneer and the antiquarian are a pair of old guys in the neighbourhood who help him out, and argue like an old married couple. Nowadays of course, they wouldn’t be allowed a country mile near young boys!

Derek Kunsken. Beneath Sunlit Shadows.

Having been small press to date, Kunsken makes the leap to stand alongside the giants. OK, he’s some way of standing on the shoulders of giants, but at least he’s got a hold on a trouser cuff and the only way is up (unless he’s shaken off and gets trodden on and squisheroonied).

If I may stretch the analogy a bit further he’s following in the footsteps of Stephen Baxter (who himself has done a bit of shadowing of Arthur C Clarke) in writing a story which explores the lengths humans in the far future, and in inhospitable far flung environments, may have to go to survive.

He very effectively follows one ‘human’ who has been genmod to live at the very bottom of an alien ocean, there the better to survive the terrible battering being put upon the planet by meteorites – the very same swarm of which destroyed the planet which his forebears had travelled so far to settle.

He has to decide – is the existence being eked out worthy of being called living? Or would he be better simply swimming up to the surface, where there is light – and a drop in pressure that will kill him.

Kunsken handles the story well, fitting in the back history of the putative settlers.

Lawrence Person. Gabe’s Globster.

Gabe is a longer, a ruum-drinking, spliff-toking miscreant who is only too happy doing a bit of driftwood carving whilst mostly hanging around on his remote beachfront property.

Consequently, he is slightly irritated when a very large, very strange ‘thing’ appears down the beach from him, an amorphous, jelly-covered creature from the deep. But is it from deep water or deep space?

Worse still, it appears to exert a malevolent influence on creatures near it, and, waking up one night very close to being absorbed by the alien, he decides that enough is enough, and a tethered goat and some panniers of petrol give the alien a meal which gives it much more than heartburn.

Ian R. Macleod. The Hob Carpet.

A story which warns that there are scenes which may be disturbing to some readers. Now for my money, an SF story which doesn’t feature such a warning is actually failing to do its job properly!

It’s an alternate earth, one in which a small human-like race of creatures, the hobs, are enslaved by humans. Fearfully treated by humans, the hobs are ever-present (and the reader is advised, this means ever present) to the extent that humans largely ignore them, simply accepting their presence as they would, for example, a sheet of toilet paper.

Worse still, the hobs are used for sacrifices, and drawn-out torture, to appease the gods, in a way that they are strangely willing to accept. We follow one young man, who, unlike everyone else, takes more notice of the hobs (partly intrigued by the human gardener whom he catches in flagrante hobbito – the gardener does wha?)

Growing up, the young man finds that of course the hobs can meet every need a young man might have, and that they are very much willing to give a helping hand, even on a wedding night.

Once married, the young man endeavours to understand the hob further, and in becoming more involved in the running of the family gardens, he increases production markedly. However, in times when the ice sheets are returning (for these humans have not been as wise as we, and have not fuelled the atmosphere with greenhouse gases to keep the ice away) the superstitious populace look for a scapegoat.

And it is whilst in prison, awaiting trial, that the young man pens his memoirs, which it is that we are reading. Until his wife arranges his escape, taking his place as the sacrifice to the gods (the exact details are fortunately spared, but the detail about the flaying of hobs which has gone before suggests a very long, drawn out death). It’s a very strong story, with lots of invention, which isn’t always the case in SF.

Conclusion.

Another mighty fine issue.

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