"Companion to Owls" by Chris Roberson
"Dark Eden" by Chris Beckett
"Dead Men Walking" by Paul J. McAuley
"The Gabble" by Neal Asher
"The Kewlest Thing of All" by David Ira Cleary
"Rwanda" by Robert Reed
The March 2006 issue of Asimov's offers modern themed stories as well as classic science fiction tales, thus appealing to a broad audience.
The youthful short story "46 Directions, None of them North" by Deborah Coates jump-starts the issue with a resounding "Cool!" The protagonist speaks in the totally believable and unique voice of a teenager attached at the hip to her cell phone and high school pals. The dynamic between herself, her jaded mother, and her busy father is typical of two-income families. The girl believes that aliens are sending text messages to her phone inviting her to Alaska to greet them. She spends her time trying to convince her friends or her parents to drive her to Fairbanks. The style sets this story apart from the pool of new "hip" stories; layered with heartfelt sentiments and cynical insights. Asimov's needs more stories like this one to entice the next generation of readers.
Chris Roberson's short story "Companion to Owls" elevates a cathedral to the size and position of a country. Steeplejack North is named for his position, that of maintenance of the North steeple. He lives on the roof, spending all of his days repairing the immensely tall structure, sometimes requiring breathing apparatus to work in the upper reaches of his domain. Once every two years a psychopomp makes its rounds to North's location to remove the shades of the dead that become trapped in the culverts and gutters, stuck between two worlds. Unfortunately for North half a dozen revenants are too deeply ingrained to be evicted easily, so he calls for assistance. All the while he is mesmerized by the shade of a young woman dressed in "veils that drifted around her like wispy cirrus clouds around the moon." When a necromancer arrives to assist with the spirits' removal, the story takes on a darker tone, capturing the rivalry between the man from the roof and the one from the church far below. Through twists and turns, the two climb in time with the action to the climax. Roberson uses a multitude of religious references to design a world saturated by spiritualism and might.
Moving from a study of a world-sized church to the planet Eden, Chris Beckett offers a spaceship novelette told from two points of view with "Dark Eden." Tommy is a sex-crazed astronaut with a sordid reputation and a need for recklessness. Angela is a space-cop who patrols Earth's orbit looking for rogue satellites. Tommy and his two crew-mates, Mehmet the Turk and Dixon the religious fanatic, are ordered to cancel their leap through sub-Euclidean space. They decide to make the jump regardless of their orders, forcing Angela and her captain, Mike Tennison, to chase after them. Tommy's ship, the Defiant, captures Angela's ship in its field and they are all propelled to a far-away, unmapped location. They discover a planet without a solar system that generates its own light and ecosystem—a perpetual Eden. They must decide whether or not to attempt the long trip home or remain on the unusual planet forever. What follows is the internal challenge for Angela and Tommy to come to terms with their decisions. The shifts between points of view provide the Adam and Eve perspectives of Eden.
The frame-shaped novelette "Dead Men Walking" begins with the last few breaths of Roy Bruce on the surface of Ariel, an ice moon of Uranus. Paul J. McAuley builds a fringe world where the Three Powers Alliance created a prison to reeducate and morally realign the lynchpins from the Quiet War. Roy is dying from a retrovirus built into doppelgängers like him that were grown in tanks and programmed to kill specific targets and take on their victims' identities. When people start dying, a specialist team is called in to investigate the murders. Roy, fearful of being discovered, attempts to contact the other doppelgänger. McAuley analyzes the subtleties of life and death, exploring what it means to live with a death sentence, just as criminals on death row are walking dead men. Reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but with assassins fighting amongst themselves, "Dead Men Walking" takes another look at the definition and value of life.
A true Asimov's story, "The Gabble" by Neal Asher is filled with gargantuan aliens on a harsh world. Jonas has been a taxonomist for fifty-three years and his latest assignment is studying the hooders on a moon near the gas giant Calypse. When he learns of a full specimen that has washed ashore, he borrows Shardelle's ATV. She is a linguist attempting to find the Rosetta stone for the "Gabble"—the language of the gabbleducks who are the sole prey of the hooders. As the two human scientists traverse the terrain, they discuss the tricones, hard-shelled creatures that are systematically eating through the soil of the moon and destroying any natural history of the environment. The relationship between Jonas and Shardelle evolves as their data is collected, adding a personal dimension to the scientific foundation of this story. Asher's scientists are cleverly complex, yet with the quirks and obsessions typical of people who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of knowledge. "The Gabble" is caviar for the hard science fiction enthusiast.
Another story with a hip feel is David Ira Cleary's "The Kewlest Thing of all." Bonny is one of Terrance's groupies, convinced that his Kewl implants and lifestyle are the best choice in a world full of corporate genetic branding. He assigns her to Katelyn Sayed, who "is branded—but her Corporation has been dissolved." Bonny must convince Katelyn to change her mind about re-branding to the powerful Steward corporation and to instead embrace Kewlness. In her first attempt, Katelyn whacks Bonny's facial implant, damaging the device and setting up the no-win situation: Terrance will only pay for Bonny's repair once she satisfactorily converts Katelyn. The story becomes a study in the humiliation of dependence as Bonny struggles to do enough to please Terrance and yet hold onto her self respect. Cleary captures the female desire to conform and be liked, taking the air-brushed fashion magazine stereotype of the perfect woman to the futuristic extreme. Science fiction is the perfect venue to debate this hot topic, as is evidenced by the popularity of recent novels such as Scott Westerfeld's Uglies and Pretties.
Master short story writer Robert Reed penned the final offering, "Rwanda." A young boy is fascinated by the empty shell of a cicada, symbolic of the humans around him whose minds have been replaced by an invading alien virus. He brings the shell to his father, afraid of the consequences since the man has little patience and an overabundance of rage. With care and depth, Reed paces information with emotion, providing only enough detail to urge the reader on. His use of second person point of view stabs the knife deeper, adding not only believability to the plot but also the promise that it could happen to you.
Overall, the connecting thread in the issue is realism. Though the worlds are creatively unique and the characters most certainly fictional, each story is built on a core of inevitability, acting as harbinger for events to come.
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