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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Asimov's, October/November 2004

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"Survivor" by Charles Stross
"Sisyphus and the Stranger" by Paul di Filippo
"Though I Sang in My Chains Like the Sea" by William Barton
"The Catch" by Kage Baker
"Scatter" by Jack Skillingstead
"A Change of Mind" by Robert Reed
"Skin Deep" by Mary Rosenblum
"We Could Be Sisters" by Chris Beckett
"Perfectible" by Geoffrey A. Landis
"The Word that Sings the Scythe" by Michael Swanwick
"The Defenders" by Colin P. Davies
"Liberation Day" by Allen M. Steel

Image"Survivor" by Charles Stross
(Reviewed by Jeremy Lyon)
Charles Stross' Accelerando stories toss out speculations with reckless abandon, as though imagining the post-singularity world were as easy as predicting tomorrow's weather. Stross should be ashamed of his conspicuously spendthrift ways, when the rest of us must tend our meager hoards of good ideas like farmers in the desert.

Take the setting for the Accelerando story "Survivor." "Survivor" takes place in a New Japan, one of several colonies located in cylindrical ships orbiting brown dwarf systems, where every habitat, even rooms within a home, are connected by wormholes.

New Japan is where the current generation of the Macx clan has chosen to make a home. Manfred Macx is the progenitor of the family and the series. The most continuous, discrete copy of Manfred, with a lifetime of memories, waits in the colony's digital storage for the universe to get interesting enough to justify returning. Manfred's grandson Sirhan and Sirhan's wife Rita are raising a clone of Manfred, without the adult Manfred's memories, called Manni.

All is cozy domesticity until the god-like alien intelligence that started as Manfred's robotic cat Aineko returns after a long absence. Aineko has received a message from a copy of itself that ventured, along with a copy of Manfred, in search of the mysterious alien intelligences that built the wormhole-driven Router network. The message implies that the aliens have been found, but Aineko wants to verify its accuracy. The only way to do so is to take yet another copy of Manfred and use it to test the veracity of the message. That can't be done without destroying the duplicate Manfred.

Aineko's return prompts Sirhan to abandon a briefing session with Manfred's ghost, which in turn convinced Manfred it's time to instantiate. Aineko instantiates Pamela, Manfred's estranged wife, as a kind of bribe to Manfred in exchange for allowing the cat to enslave and destory a Manfred copy. The story concludes with a confrontation between Aineko on the one hand, and Manfred, Pamela, Sirhan, Rita and Manni on the other, in which the true history of the Macx clan is revealed, and its future is rewritten. "Survivor," appears to be the last in the Accelerando series, and it's an incredibly dense, endlessly fascinating, and thoroughly entertaining cap on an amazing series.

"Sisyphus and the Stranger" by Paul di Filippo
(Reviewed by Steven H Silver)
Paul di Filippo gives the reader a revived French empire in "Sisyphus and the Stranger."  Set in the provincial capital of Algiers in 1954, fifty years after the N-ray was developed by French scientist René Blondlot and paved the way for French supremacy, the story follows a relatively obscure minor functionary named Albert Camus.  Despite the obvious potential for writing a political alternative history, di Filippo attempts to write one with a more philosophical bent. Unfortunately, he also spends an inordinate amount of wordage in the short story providing historical exposition to let the reader know how and why this world is different from our own, with the result that a strong background weakens the story as a whole.

"Though I Sang In My Chains Like the Sea" by William Barton
(Reviewed by Michael Gabriel Bailey)
William Barton opens the novelette "Though I Sang in My Chains Like the Sea" confidently, without a bang, as novelist Alex Keegan might say, but instead with a calm promise.  Barton then follows up with a fascinating story in a very strong and consistent voice.  Winthrop is a fourteen-year-old boy struggling with growing up in the sixties while his family is falling apart.  His problems are placed in perspective when humanity suddenly and inexplicably begins shrinking.  Divorce and peer-pressure take a back seat to avoiding becoming lunch for a cat, or a mantis.  The "shrinking" places the story more into the territory of fantasy than science fiction, as human brains and other organs somehow continue to function normally even at tiny sizes.  It seems fitting that Winthrop spends so much time reading or dreaming about pulp-era fiction, especially since the unexplainable shrinking phenomenon in Barton's tale seems so pulpy.  The story is greatly enhanced as told from Winthrop's perspective.  Barton grounds the story well by focusing on the items, events, and relationships that would most interest a boy.  That focus grants a sense of verisimilitude which helps counter the unlikely shrinking effect.  The last three pages of Barton's story felt out of place to me.  I felt that they transformed the story from the pulp adventures of a very realistic boy into the fearful and somewhat maudlin memories of an old man.  It almost seemed like the author was getting biographical.  In my opinion the story was more effective until those last pages.  I agree with Poe that the elements of a short story should contribute to a single effect, or theme, and I was distracted by what seemed to be a jarring change of direction at the end of "Though I Sang In My Chains Like the Sea."  Aside from the confusion of the last two pages, I felt Barton did a great job of expressing a message about the insignificance of humanity, and more subtly, the nobility that can be found even in the face of hopelessness.  The shrinking phenomenon made humans physically insignificant, and the required shift in priorities made previously important social issues irrelevant.  In the face of certain doom, Winthrop's simple bravery and honesty took on a strong and noble aspect.  In that regard, Barton did justice to the Dylan Thomas poem, "Fern Hill," the final line of which is the title of Barton's tale.

"The Catch" by Kage Baker
(Reviewed by Steven H Silver)
Kage Baker presents another tale in her on-going series about the time-traveling Company.  In "The Catch," Baker relates the story of one of the Company’s early recruits, ten year-old Bob Ross, who was orphaned in a car accident in 1958.  Unlike so many of the Company’s recruits, Ross wound up as an experiment gone awry, as well as extremely powerful.  The Company is required to spend countless man hours and resources attempting to rectify the situation without full knowledge of what Ross plans to do or how he is able to do things like travel through time using only his mental powers.  In the story, Baker effectively demonstrates the ruthlessness of the Company and its operatives, however the unsympathetic portrayal of Ross as a boy whose life is screwed up, means that neither the Company nor Bob Ross receives the reader’s empathy.

"Scatter" by Jack Skillingstead
(Reviewed by Chris Markwyn)
I've read two stories by Jack Skillingstead now, "Scatter" in this issue and his earlier "Rewind," and I've been very impressed by both.  Daniel Frye is a dead private investigator.  On a vacation with his wife, Molly, he fell off a balcony, putting a final strain on their failing marriage.  Now he survives as a "biolo," a swarm of nanobots and a digital personality.  One day, as so often happens to private eyes, a beautiful woman sashays into his office.  In Daniel's case, however, she brings him not a case, but a virus that threatens to contaminate his mind.

Being a swarm of nanobots means Daniel can appear however he wishes, and he likes to look like Robert Mitchum, or Humphrey Bogart, or other PIs from the movies.  What he can't do, though, is be real, at least real in the way everyone else is.  Skillingstead gives us a finely drawn sketch of a man trapped between two worlds: not only between the everyday world of humans made of meat and bone and Daniel's new digital world, but between the past and the future.

"A Change of Mind" by Robert Reed
(Reviewed by Steven H Silver)
Robert Reed’s "A Change of Mind" begins in an incredibly disjointed manner.  It soon becomes apparent that it is a story about the spread of memes, which seem to have replaced nanotechnology as a hot topic in science fiction.  The disjointed nature of the beginning of the story is indicative of the random nature of memes and the apparent arbitrariness of the way they affect people.  When a series of inexplicable behaviors seem to sweep across the country, a message appears which indicates that the perpetrator will only explain what is happening to Morgan Lee, an ex-girlfriend.  Despite her initial reluctance, Morgan realizes that she must, indeed, help the government in their inquiries.  Reed mostly recovers from the early nature of the story, but it influences the rest of the story and never completely recovers.

"Skin Deep" by Mary Rosenblum
(Reviewed by Michael Gabriel Bailey)
Like Barton did in "Though I Sang In My Chains Like the Sea," Mary Rosenblum wrote her novelette "Skin Deep" with a strong first person narrative voice.  Again, the story is greatly enhanced by using this perspective, and I found the world a disturbing place when viewed through the eyes of the disfigured protagonist, Eric.  I felt the strongest lingering effect of "Skin Deep" was that it exposed the way humans treat each other based on beauty.  The way passers' gazes slid away from Eric's face, the way he hadn't had a comforting hand on his shoulder in recent memory, the way people's smiles were fixed masks and their eyes busy anywhere but looking at him; those moments seemed like daggers, and though Eric was supposedly scarred enough not to feel them, I felt it was a testament to Rosenblum that I did feel them.  The mysterious daturk left me a bit confused, as I was unsure what role he/she/it was really playing, but daturk's image communication was a pleasing eyeball kick.  Eric's emotional struggles during his reconstructive "procedure" seem to be the intended climax of "Skin Deep," but I found his personal challenges less intriguing than the underlying messages about the cruelty of society.

"We Could Be Sisters" by Chris Beckett
(Reviewed by Jeremy Lyon)
Chris Beckett has given himself a wonderful vehicle for wanton speculation in the world of "Tammy Pendant" (from the March, 2004 Asimov's) and "We Could Be Sisters" (in the current issue). "Nature," he writes, "Is profligate. All possible worlds exist..." and for those willing to take a very special kind of drug, all possible worlds are accessible.

Jessica Ferne is the moderately wealthy owner of a London art gallery. She lives and works in, "subscriber areas," neighborhoods that are only accessible to those who can pay a monthly fee.

Jessica has immense difficulty establishing a meaningful relationship of any kind with an equal, and feels the absence keenly. On a walk outside her subscriber area she runs into a beggar woman who could easily be her sister. Since Jessica was adopted, she realizes it's possible that this beggar woman really is her sister, and that she might be the equal she so desperately wants.

The beggar woman is Tamsin, Jessica's alternate self from another reality. What if Jessica hadn't been adopted, had been left instead to the cold streets and an indifferent public health system? Tamsin, the beggar woman, is a living answer. Jessica takes Tamsin to her home, feeds and clothes her, and gives her a good night's sleep. She begins to believe that she has found someone with whom she can finally connect.

But Tamsin is not the same person. As Jessica thinks in a moment of doubt, "What did a shoot-'em-up game and a word processor have in common, just because they could be run with the same hardware?" What Tamsin means to Jessica is not the same thing as what Jessica means to Tamsin.

The story feels a little unfinished, I think because it's about Jessica, but Tamsin is the more interesting character. A little melancholy, but delivered with skill and intelligence, it's an intriguing piece.

"Perfectible" by Geoffrey A. Landis
(Reviewed by Michael Gabriel Bailey)
"Perfectible" by Geoffrey A. Landis is slightly less than a page long, mildly humorous at the start, and a touch poetic at the end.  I can't say much else without spoiling it, but it does touch briefly upon the foibles of humanity.

"The Word that Sings the Scythe" by Michael Swanwick
(Reviewed by Jeremy Lyon)
I know less about Michael Swanwick's work than I should, given his prodigious and influential output. I've been a little reluctant to jump on the crowded Swanwick bandwagon because I'd feel like an impostor: everyone else seems to get his work in a way I don't. I'm often on the edge of revelation, but never quite there.

So I've sampled Swanwick at random points in his career. I was there for the serialization of "Vaccuum Flowers," and I checked back again for "The Iron Dragon's Daughter."

"The Word That Sings The Scythe" is set in the same world as "The Iron Dragon's Daughter," if my inconstant memory serves. It's a world where the fey folk and modern technology coexist, where wars are fought on an industrial scale by giants and centaurs with magic and revolvers.

Will is an exile and an outlaw, driven from his village because he collaborated with a wounded enemy dragon (although he had little choice in the matter). Will gets swept up in a massive tide of refugees escaping the onslaught of war. By chance he is in the right place at the right time to help protect a little girl named Esme from a rapine lubin. Together they travel through the war-torn countryside, eventually ending up in a refugee camp.

Esme is not the simple little girl she seems, as Will learns over time. Her tale and his are natural complements, and as the story progresses we learn the ways in which their stories fit together.

The story is wierdly compelling, the entanglement of genres which could easily be jarring in less capable hands somehow intuitively appropriate. This is a sad tale, as any tale about war must be, but at the same time hopeful. I was left at the end wanting more, which in my book is always the best sign of a good story.

"The Defenders" by Colin P. Davies
(Reviewed by Chris Markwyn)
Colin P. Davies' "The Defenders" is a very brief story, set on an unnamed planet where humans live with the constant threat of attack by the natives.  To protect themselves, the humans engineer the "defenders," enormous clawed and winged beasts grown from the humans' own DNA.  Elisa, thirteen, and her grandfather, who created the defenders, go fishing one day.

The most recent batch of defenders was grown from Elisa's own DNA, and she has some odd notions about them that this fishing trip was mean to address.  For such a brief story, Davies encompasses a wide range.  I recently read James Tiptree, Jr.'s story "On the Last Afternoon," and "The Defenders" brought to mind a comment by John Clute (in reference to both Tiptree and the underrated Kris Neville:) "A capacity to develop the sometimes routine initial material of a story so that its implications expanded constantly...."  Tiptree did this with breathtaking ease, and Davies displays a similar ability here.

"Liberation Day" by Allen M. Steele
(Reviewed by Chris Markwyn)
The second series in Allen M. Steele's "Coyote" cycle nears its conclusion in the novella "Liberation Day."  While I read most of the stories in the first series, I've missed a number of the stories in this latter series.  I was still able to figure out what was going, and managed to remember who most of the major characters were.  For a long story, not that much actually happens.  The events essentially serve to bring the confrontation between Robert Lee, leader of the original colonists who stole the starship Alabama way back in the first story in the series, and Matriarch Something-or-other, leader of the Union colonists who followed centuries later.  If you've enjoyed the earlier stories, you'll probably like this, but someone coming across this without reading many of the earlier stories would likely be at a loss.