Asimovs, March 2008

Brian Stableford. Following the Pharmers.

Stableford has published several stories looking at the consequences in developments in biotechnology, and here he explores how unintended consequences can have impact on a small, personal level. Ekeing out a mostly anonymous life amongt the flooded plains of East Anglia, one pharmaceutical experimenting finds his contentment shattered by the arrival of a wealthy fellow scientist. He is chary of her, clearly preferring a quiet life (we find out why later). She, on the other hand, very much sees him as part of her business plans, and in jumping to a wrong conclusion, he fights her with a subtle biotech nuance that undermines her plans – and which reveals more about his history and motivation as all is cleverly revealed.

It’s a good story, although getting a little bit detailed on the biotech at times with some lengthy technical conversations filling in details.

Cat Rambo. Kallakak’s Cousins.

On a trading outpost in space, alien-alien interactions are explored, as Kallakak finds his small business at risk from others who have a prior claim. Fortunately (fortune rather than his actions) enable him to keep a hold of his shop. It feels a little Star Trekky to me – a universe where most of the aliens are primarily humanoid with a few stick on frills and wibbly bits, a few behavioural ticks, but otherwise entirely human under the latex.

Steven Utley. The World Within the World.

Very short piece in which the ghosts in a machine spook those working it. One of those stories where you end up re-reading the ending and the beginning to see if there are any subtle changes between the two to tip the wink as to changes made during the story (as in A Sound of Thunder).

Elizabeth Bear. Shoggoths in Bloom.

I’ve little knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos, so apologies if I’m missing a trick here. The story features shoggoths, jelly like creatures off the Maine coast. A young black academic visits to study the creatures, and it being the 1930s we find out a lot about being a black American at that time, with another war on the way. The academic finds out that it is not the race that evolves, but individual shoggoths – and he is offered an opportunity to offer leadership to the largely unthinking creatures he has been studying, who exist simply to obey. But rather than taking that opportunity, it is to France he heads, making that same evolutionary step himself.

A clever story, with perhaps even more for Lovecraftian students. (I recall reading The Mountains of Madness, and by golly it gave me the willies!)

Ian Creasey. This Is How It Feels.

A motorist caught three times for speeding opts for an alternative to losing his license – no resitting his test, or taking a speed awareness course, but having an implant giving him the memory of having a daughter killed by a speeding motorist. A meeting at the graveside of the girl whose memory he carries causes him to reflect on his options, and the need to get to business meetings on time is suddenly less great.

Tom Purdom. Sepoy Fidelities.

Purdom revisits a setting from the early 90s, with Earth under the dominance of an alien race which can transplant human minds into fresh bodies. One man benefitting from this is a previously paralysed young man, who is willing to overlook some of the requests of the aliens on account of his new found freedom. He and a colleague are sent on a rescue mission, which doesn’t really grab, and rather gets in the way of what could have been a more detailed psychological study of the interesting premise. The dramatic denoument is described in detail – movement by movement, which rather slows down the action.

Sue Burke. Spiders.

A father takes his young son out in the alien forest, guiding him amongst the trees and pointing out the various flora and fauna, some of which are quite dangerous. The story rather pokes into the dark underbrush, rather than getting a flashlight in there and having a thorough examination.

Carol Emshwiller. Master of the Road to Nowhere.

The strongest story in the issue by far, with an unsettling look at a world very close to ours. A very strange sect are seeking the promised valley – a matriarchal society with men on the outskirts and rigid laws to follow. In deciding to face up to those rigid laws, to claim a love for each other that goes against all that is held to be right, a young man and woman become outcasts and seek to eke out a living amongt the rest of society.

It’s an unsettling story, with the sect just that step beyond even the strangest of sects we have at present (and there are some doozies), and it is as if the story is seen through a slightly distorted lens, one that gets a hook under the skin in a way that only the best writers can manage.

Conclusion.

Emshwiller, Bear and Stableford the pick of the bunch, in a double issue that doesn’t quite hit the heights that other double-issues have. [Correction, some days later : duh, this isn’t actually a double-issue, so it’s a bit unfair of me to use that yardstick against which to measure this issue. So, for a single issue, the three aforementioned remain the pick of the bunch in a solid issue, with Emshwiller the pick of the pick of the bunch)

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