Asimovs, October/November 2008

Nancy Kress. The Erdman Nexus.

Kress on top form with a strong story to start the issue. There is an intriguing setup, as an alien vessel far distant reacts to something very unexpected, and we then meet Henry Erdman, an elderly physicist living in an assisted living facilty. Just how can these two events be related – for related they clearly are, and as Henry is setting out to deliver a lecture at his old university, something stops him in his tracks. Has he had a mini-stroke, or some other cerebral event to worry about?

The story progresses through Henry and his fellow residents as each of them finds themselves similarly affected, with the alien spaceship homing in on Earth, alarmed that something is happening in an altogether unexpected and alarming manner. As the cerebral events increase in frequency and impact, the residents realise that they are in fact sharing experiences, and what is happening is that the increasing global population of the elderly has caused a switch to be triggered, as the combined experience, wisdom and intelligence is beginning to merge together and to reach out to the rest of the universe. Those affected are offered an opportunity to become one with the greater cosmos, although not all take it, and those left behind are left wondering.

It’s a clever story, handling the varied elderly protagonists well, and certainly a welcome change to see older people having a more positive role to play in SF than as Alzheimer’s patients, as has been the case recently.

Peter Higgins. Listening for Submarines.

A claustrophobic setting of a high-security research centre whose staff spend their time listening for Soviet submarines (it’s set in the Cold War days). Christopher Osgerby is obsessed with the fellow research he sees little of, but whom he hears at night, when she takes someone, or something, to her bed. In amongst the sounds from the deep that the ‘enemy’ submarines make, there is an altogether more strange sound that he picks up. And it transpires that the girl next door has an altogether more intimate relationship with what it is in the deeps.

Sara Genge. Prayers for and Egg.

Another new author to me, Genge looks in detail at one aspect of an altogether more alien society, through an imminent marriage. She looks at the role of the wife, the wedding night, and the role of a third party in taking the fertilised egg and hatching it, and the potential for the child that is born to be a servant as the wetnurse, or be an altogether more high-born, as the father. It works well mostly, although I was brought up short by a reference to the ‘front lawn’ outside the house, which has an altogether too human ring to it. The main drawback to such stories remains that in setting up an entirely different alien society with its own customs that it is difficult in such a short space of time to become truly concerned with those facing the issues raised.

Brandon Sanderson. Defending Elysium.

A bit of a struggle to get through this one, I’m afraid, with a style that is much more Analog than Asimovs. An investigator arrives to investigate, using his ‘Sense’ which enables him to see even though he is blind. It’s an easy read in terms of the words and the action passing along quickly – a Dan Brown attempt at James Bond with some Heroes powers in space.

Leslie What. Money is no Object.

A short piece which explores whether having an infinite source of cash would be as good a thing as it would seem to be.

Gord Sellar. Dhuluma No More.

After his strong debut in Asimovs in July this year with his tale of jazz in space, Sellar has an altogether darker and more contemporary tale to tell. A journalist is working on a story on a Mozambiquan ship which is chasing icebergs – global warming causing them to drift from the poles. The climactic change is the crux of the story, and its effects on the crew, whose country has been ruined through a lack of water. Can blame be apportioned? The ship is in fact on a different mission, and captures a submarine with leading industrialists who can be brought to book for the impact of their technology on the planet. It is of course never quite as black and white as it would ideally be, and the climax resolves on just how far it would be appropriate to go to rectify the situation – and whether creating a different problem for other people in resolving the existing problem is morally correct.

Ian R. Macleod. The English Mutiny.

An alternate history story which ponders what would have happened had, instead of Britain becoming a global power, and ruling India, the roles had been reversed. Macleod makes it clear that the premise is from ‘William Dalrymple’s’ ‘White Mughals’, but he brings a powerful narrative, describing events in England when the mutiny that did in our world take place in India, takes place in England.

The narrator relates his role in the mutiny, right-hand man to the main instigator, and it’s a tale of brutality and murder and obsession, and closes with the terrible revelation of the price paid by the narrator for his final betrayal of the main he had followed loyally.

Jack Skillingstead. Cat in the Rain.

A dark tale of contemporary isolation and alienation, as cop Daniel Porter finds himself increasingly alone, in an apartment with only one other resident, with those nearby becoming increasingly faceless. Is the woman upstairs the woman with whom he has been communicating online, and is that really a dark passage through which the aliens are attempting to draw in those such as he?

Robert Reed. Truth.

One of the best stories I’ve read for quite some time. It’s a gripping, complex, multi-layered story with so much going for it. There are a number of three-dimensional characters in the story. There is a prisoner, held in a secretive military installation for many years. There are two investigators, one of whom is the main protagonist and who has taken over, as a matter of urgency, from her predecessor, who has recently died (and despite being dead, he comes across as a more real character than many cardboard cutout characters in a lot of SF). There is the chief officer of the prison, who has a large part to play, but even small camoes such as the US President, and a guard, come across as real people.

The central conceit is an intruiging one : is the prisoner really someone from the future, a Muslim terrorist/freedom fighter come back a couple of centuries to unleash hell on the decadent west? Have the recent events, post-9/11, including the devastating nuking of New York, been the result of his work, and those of his colleagues? Are there more terrorists amongst us?

The investigator begins to get to know the prisoner, as we find out more about the mess that the world is getting into, and its impact on the main characters is explored. The ending is a doozy, which left this reader needing a couple of minutes to recover.

Conclusion.

Kress, Macleod and Reed, master story-tellers all, provide top quality SF. Sellar and Skillingstead are in contrast still learning their trade, but provide further good quality, with the remainder slightly suffering in comparison. An excellent issue. Only slightly spoilt by the cover, which is one of those which I do make a point of avoiding letting anyone else see whilst I’m reading the magazine (for the record, the story was finished with the accompaniment of a very fine goat’s cheese and roasted mediterranean vegetable sandwich, and an nice pint, sitting near a log fire in an olde Oxfordshire pubbe. It don’t get much better than that.

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