Asimovs, August 2008

Matthew Johnson. Lagos.

Neatly and wryly brings the bombardment of spam emails into the real world through the daily travails of a Nigerian woman as she tries to eke out a living. She remotely operates hi-tech equipment for a pittance, in some cases the equipment is as low-tech as a vacuum cleaner, and this involves being hooked up to VR equipment for a long working day. Struggling against rigid societal and familial mores, she would seem ill-placed to identify and stand up against the evil business practices of those at the top of the tree (or the office block), but as the tech starts leaking the spam into her sensorium, she has to stand up for herself, and her others, even if that means standing up against those in power on whom she has relied to get this far.

Robert Reed. Old Man Waiting.

One of those Reed stories where he takes an idea, or an image, from ‘real-life’ and turns it into a so-so story. (As opposed to those stories where he gives full reign to his imagination and sets his stories in an imaginery environment.)

A short piece in which a young man decides that the elderly gentleman he spots around town just has to be hiding something, and spends his time studying the gentleman and working through to a hypothesis for his behaviour. He guesses wrong, and indeed the tables are turned on him, as the observer becomes the observed.

J. Chris Rock. Lucy.

Short piece about two young nerdy geeks in remote control of an exploration vehicle in the seas of Titan. They’re doing so from home, home being a small apartment, and it’s their relationship, and their relationship (or not) with their neighbours, which is contrasted with their long-distance relationship with their vehicle. In the end they lose contact with the vehicle, which spends its life continuing to observe its environment, but unable to share its findings. Hmmm, a less for us all.

Ted Kosmatka. Divining Light.

Scientist fiction – but good scientist fiction. Kosmatka provides a three-dimensional character, with a history – employment history, family history, and a history of struggling with the bottle. He is facing several inner demons, and his life is threatend by the bottle, and the gun he carries (the gun his father took his own life with). He is struggling with having looked into a place he didn’t want to look into, and seen things that he didn’t want to see.

One final chance appears for him – an old colleague offers him a 3-month contract in a scientific establishment. Can he capture his past scientific glories? In fact, he probably doesn’t want to, as those glories have opened up the abyss on which he teeters. However, when some equipment turns up, he has the chance to test an old hypothesis, the Feynman double-slit (diagram supplied) which probes those same dark quantum spaces and asks questions about the role of the observer and his/its impact on what is being observed.

The scientist manages to replicate the original experiments, and does indeed open a Pandora’s box – one not only for himself, but for society at large, as it becomes clear firstly that in order for the observer to have an effect, that observer has to be human, but secondly, that there are those amongst us who do not have an effect.

And for the scientist, the results of one run of the experiment, a printed output in a manilla envelope, will give him the answer to whether or not he will follow in his father’s footsteps.

It’s an intriguing take on a story of the type that can frequently be one-dimensional and trite in setting up a scenario in which the author can expound on a a scientific conundrum.

Jack Skillingstead. What You Are About to See.

A minor quibble here with the editorial team, as Skillingstead’s story is, for my money, just a bit too close to the preceding story to be a comfortable bedfellow. They aren’t that alike, but sufficiently so in terms of tone and theme to warrant being spaced further apart in the issue (or even put in separate issues).

A member of a governmental agency, a poor drunk in contrast to his father, an accomplished drunk, is brought in to get inside the head of an alien, held in the desert in a top secret bunker. Except it’s more complicated than that, as the alien is an expert in getting in our heads, and is able to summon up alternate options for the way ahead, in some of which the agent’s recently departed wife resumes her place as a loving partner at his side, whilst his partner in the agency is reduced to a life cut short, brutally, in the service of his country.

Skillingstead handles the topsy-turvy flipping of reality well, unsettling the reader, whilst getting into the head of the protagonist.

Carol Emshwiller. Wilmer or Wesley.

A subtly affecting story that tugs the heartstrings – the dashing of hope in the final sentence ‘So that’s that, then.’ is as painful a conclusion to a story as you’ll get. It features a young ‘boy’, taken from his mother as a child, is displayed in a zoo, the subject of a PhD by the scientist whose care he is in. It’s told from his perspective, and it’s a perspective that struggles to see just what it is that is different about him to warrant being the object of such study and imprisonment. He is able to escape, and able to pass himself off as those who imprison him, but in the end he is simply not equipped to maintain his freedom.

Neal Barrett Jr. Radio Station St. Jack.

Another peek into the world of Neal Barrett Jr., which is invariably a treat, if generally a skew-whiff one. Once again, post-catastrophe, where not all is explained, as a small community makes do in a way that many out west did in the 19th century.

Father Mac runs the local radio station (television is a long-distant memory and a symbol of that which is lost but which is not mourned), and has been co-opted as the local priest. When a band of bad guys turn up and do a bit of shooting up of the town, it is at first just another visit from just another such gang, but it turns out that these are worse than most such gangs, and will not be put off which a few crates of whisky and other bribes. A confrontation is inevitable, as the townsfolk line up to defend, to the death, their way of life.

Rather delightfully, the day is saved by the bad guys turning tail and fleeing at the approach of another gang – this time, an ornery gang of cross-dressers.

It must be nice for Barrett to have such alternate worlds inhabiting his brainspace, and we should be grateful that he is able to share them with us (as opposed to his being incarcerated in an institution).


A strong issue.

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