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

Asimov's April/May 2006

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"Inclination" by William Shunn
"The Walls of the Universe" by Paul Melko
"The King's Tail" by Constance Cooper
"Home Movies" by Mary Rosenblum
"Heisenberg Elementary" by Wil McCarthy
"Hanosz Prime Goes to Old Earth" by Robert Silverberg
"The Final Flight of the Blue Bee" by James Maxey
"Datacide" by Steve Bein
"The Age of Ice" by Liz Williams
"Not Worth a Cent" by R. Neube
"The Osteomancer's Son" by Greg van Eekhout
"Except the Music" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

(Reviewed by: Jeff Cates, Suzanne Church, Janice Clark, and E. Sedia)

“Inclination” by William Shunn
(Reviewed by Jeff Cates)

William Shunn’s “Inclination” is an intelligent, well-crafted piece.  “The Bible” was reinterpreted and revised 120 years earlier.  In the founder’s version of their faith, their conclave is divided into six aspects of the Builder, and Jude belongs to a group dedicated to the inclined plane.  Six simple machines are the basis of all laws for those that pray to the Builder.  Jude Plane is a teenager who lives in a fundamentalist section of a space station with virtually every aspect of his life governed by religious rules.  He’s been told that his mother died when he was young, and he shares a small, cramped room with Thomas, his father.  Jude’s escape from his father comes when he dreams of his mother.   The father and son relationship is strained, and Jude is shocked when Thomas tells him he’s gotten him a job outside their religious community.  Jude is troubled and frightened by the sights he sees when he works on the outside.  “Sculpted” beings have been altered and are unholy abominations in his eyes.  The influence of the Wrecker seems to be everywhere, and he fears for the salvation of his very soul.  His father expects him to return to their small sleeping quarters each night and continue with his religious studies, and Jude grows to hate many of the things his father has done.  Jude learns that his father and their order are deeply in debt, and he has an opportunity to earn more money if he’s willing to be modified for the job.

I do recommend reading this absorbing coming of age tale.  Shunn’s elaborate details about the religious rules and philosophies of this group form thought-provoking parallels with some of today’s fundamentalist religious groups.  I particularly enjoyed a scene with an oilcan baptism that reminded me of the verse, “He anointeth my head with oil.”  Jude’s growing resentment and eye-opening contact with the outside while he attempts to remain the obedient son and keeper of the faith add more than their share of internal conflict to the story.  It would not surprise me if this tale eventually finds a place in someone’s year’s best science fiction anthology.

"The Walls of the Universe" by Paul Melko
(Reviewed by E. Sedia)

This an enjoyable tale of parallel universes and stolen identities, reminiscent of the late Robert Sheckley (it is a compliment.) A farm boy named Johnny runs into his doppelganger, who claims to be Johnny from a parallel universe. This Johnny has been traveling from one parallel universe to the next, with the help of a device given to him by yet another Johnny. As can be expected in such a situation, the doppelganger, a.k.a. Johnny Prime, has some unsavory designs for Johnny the Farmboy. This is when things start getting complicated.

The point of view constantly switches between two versions of Johnny, and it is a really neat narrative trick. The story is fast-moving and absorbing, especially so since Mr. Melko managed to create two equally convincing versions of the same person—similar but distinct, Johnny Prime and Johnny Farmboy are both sympathetic in their own way.

There were a few issues that distracted me a bit—like an associate professor in his late twenties; while I have no doubt a few do exist somewhere, it was unusual enough to make me wonder if I was missing something. Another minor annoyance came from the scene where Johnny is forced to kill his injured horse—that reminded me too much of Old Yeller. Regardless of these minor gripes, I wholeheartedly recommend the story.

"The King's Tail" by Constance Cooper
(Reviewed by Suzanne Church)

Constance Cooper tells "The King's Tail" from a reptilian point of view.  From the opening sentence, "The king's tail had nearly grown back" to the twist ending, Cooper's monarch maintains a dignity beyond that of his captors—referred to as the Hunters.  With a Gandhi-meets-alien-lizards sensibility, the king endures the hardship of imprisonment so that he may be an example of piety and discipline.  Though short, this tale is graceful and memorable.

“Home Movies” by Mary Rosenblum
(Reviewed by Janice Clark)

In “Home Movies” by Mary Rosenblum, nano-technology is applied to the ultimate in voyeurism.  Kayla is a chameleon, someone who essentially rents out her brain to rich clients.  With the aid of injected nano-ware which records all sensory input, Kayla can provide a total virtual experience for her client, an experience which she herself will forget when the nano-ware is extracted.  Thoughts aren’t included in the memory transfer, but the process induces a period of amnesia in the chameleon, leaving at most an occasional, illusive wisp of memory.  The rewards for the chameleon: good pay, and a chance to enjoy expensive vacations, even if she won’t remember them afterward.

So much for the technological aspects.  This is really a love story.  Usually Kayla works incognito, but on this occasion her true nature has been leaked.  Worse yet, she loses her objectivity and finds herself falling in love with a man she meets while recording a family reunion for her client.  Their brief liaison is bitter-sweet.  Both know that Kayla will not remember their time together and, perhaps worse, Kayla’s memories will be experienced by her client. 

In rebellion, Kayla refuses to turn over her precious memories, even knowing that the nano- ware is timed to self-destruct, so Kayla won’t have the memories either.  She loses her job, is forever blacklisted from the profession, and starts a new life as a waitress, wondering what was so special about that lost week that she threw everything away rather than share it.

The story ends on a hopeful note.  Love always finds a way.

"Heisenberg Elementary" by Wil McCarthy
(Reviewed by Suzanne Church)

For a dose of virtual weirdness, look no further than Wil McCarthy's short story "Heisenberg Elementary."  JimmyTim spends his time writing standardized tests in "real time" while he spends one hundred hours in a "virtual universe" for literacy block.  When the Chronarchists show up, the sergeant recluse demands he be hit by a chair to break out of the loop.  Soon after, he and his privates shoot Pammy TransAm with their funguns to turn her Happy and prevent her from becoming "President of Bitchtopia."  And that's only the beginning.  This surreal look at a disjointed future leaves a funny taste on the brain; a reminder that our world will digress into the ridiculous over time.  The prose is quick and witty, with ample doses of peculiarity.

“Hanosz Prime Goes to Old Earth” by Robert Silverberg
(Reviewed by Jeff Cates)

If you are the sort of person who enjoys the journey more than the destination, this is the story for you.  An Earth of the future is the Camelot of the galaxies, populated with beautiful people of extravagant wealth who live in castles of their own making.  Hanosz Prime wants to know how such advanced, enlightened beings will react to the prospect of Earth being swallowed by a force that is even more powerful than they are.
During much of the trip through space and time, Hanosz Prime speculates about who and what he will see in the mother world of mankind.  He tries to anticipate what wonders he will encounter and recounts some of Earth’s history along the way.  Despite all the changes this world and its inhabitants have undergone, he wonders most how these icons of Earth will act when they learn of Earth’s impending destruction.

When the protagonist finally sorts his thoughts, his ship reaches its destination, and we are introduced to one of Earth’s lovely inhabitants.  Readers follow this encounter to see if they too can learn the answers to Hanosz Prime’s questions.  Speaking as one who prefer answers more than questions, this tale raises an abundance of both.  I found this entire piece to be more of a slice of life story, and I don’t consider it to be one of Silverberg’s strongest works.

"The Final Flight of the Blue Bee" by James Maxey
(Reviewed by Suzanne Church)

An action-adventure romp with modern overtones, "The Final Flight of the Blue Bee" by James Maxey packs fun into the double issue.  When Mick Payton is released from prison after serving a forty year sentence for murder, his first act is to call in his minions: the bees.  Mick was once Stinger, the sidekick of superhero the Blue Bee.  But when he kills Mr. Mental to prevent him from launching a nuclear attack on the world, Stinger discovers that the device was merely "an army helmet wrapped in tin foil."  While imprisoned, the Blue Bee never contacts his former sidekick, leaving Mick years to stew and plot his revenge.  The true stars of this story are the bees themselves, who swarm thickly around the damsel in distress, holding her aloft a hundred stories above ground.  Though yarns such as this can slip easily from funny to silly, Maxey maintains pace and style, keeping the story grounded and sensible, yet still with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

“Datacide” by Steve Bein
(Reviewed by Janice Clark)

“Datacide” by Steve Bein begins as a spy thriller.  It soon becomes evident that Richard Sakabe is not quite what he seems to be.  By the time he’s traveled from Japan to the University of Chicago and jumped through hoops to get past security, it appears this is yet another story of an intrepid agent taking out a super-computer run amok.  Richard’s a likeable guy and it’s easy to sympathize with all the difficulties he encounters in the course of doing his work.  So he’s the good guy, and the computer, or AI, is the baddie, right?  Or not.

Arthur-1 is an ancient (as computers go) prototype, government surplus sold cheap to the university where he teaches political science.  So this isn’t a berserk AI that has taken over the government.  His only crime is doing such a good job of predicting political outcomes that people feel their vote is meaningless.  Perhaps if someone had talked to him about the situation they could have reached a compromise, but that’s not how the Washington cloak-and-dagger boys operate. 

Arthur protests his murder. Richard can’t see Arthur as a person and proceeds to do his job, but Arthur is several steps ahead of him all the way.  In the end, Richard is unable to wipe Arthur’s programming and has to destroy the hardware.  Mission accomplished?  Sorry, Richard, AIs have more lives than a cat if, like this one, they planned ahead.  And Arthur takes the murder of his previous incarnation personally.

“The Age of Ice” by Liz Williams
(Reviewed by Jeff Cates)

“The Age of Ice” is a tale that shows that not all wars are won or lost on the battlefield.  The protagonist in this story, Hestia Memar, is searching through the city of her enemies for a way to prevent a war.  After a library has been destroyed, the Matriarchy of Caud has delivered an ultimatum.  Winterstrike, a rival city on the Plain, is facing a war it cannot win, unless someone finds a means to end Caud’s threat.  The story is further complicated by the appearance of a ghostlike splayed warrior who appears and disappears at various times during the story.  These appearances make anonymity more difficult for someone not wishing to be noticed, especially when armed patrols of scissor-women are loose in the city.  The drumbeat of war is thundering throughout the streets of Caud rallying their people. Hestia is drawn to the ruined library and finds it hard to avoid patrols, especially after curfew.  Somewhere in the ashes and the debris she hopes to find the only weapon Winterstrike can use to end Caud’s plans for war.

Williams does a good job of painting a sympathetic protagonist who is trying to save her people from an imminent loss of life and liberty.  Hestia is loyal, experienced, and intelligent.  With a three-day deadline looming, she is pushed by forces from both sides.  As rumblings of war grow in volume, Hestia needs to navigate through the city, despite failing city services and armed patrols.  She does not seek confrontation any more than her native Winterstrike seeks war against Caud.  Personally, I would have liked to have known more about Hestia’s innate abilities, so I could better understand why she was selected for this mission.  Although the plot was relatively simple, the splayed warrior apparition made a more interesting complication.

“Not Worth a Cent” by R. Neube
(Reviewed by Janice Clark)

“Not Worth a Cent” by R. Neube takes place in a frighteningly plausible near future, in which Social Security retirement age is now seventy-six, and the checks stop coming when you reach a hundred.  Ex-cons aren’t eligible, and there seem to be a lot of them.  Some “cents” (centenarians) survive on minimum wage jobs; others live a precarious existence hiding out in crumbling neighborhoods.  The government doesn’t neglect them entirely.  There are the camps: conspiracy camps for the hopelessly paranoid, cough camps for those suspected of harboring disease.  “Benign neglect behind razor wire.”

Cent William Stewart teams up with ex-billionaire Hiram Bigg (who once bought the state of Kentucky with a credit card)  to pull off a drug heist—not street drugs, but medicine for the other members of their illegal geriatric commune. 

For all the social commentary, this is a fun read with plenty of action, and William is quite a character.  I’d love to see these characters again.  (Author please take note.)

"The Osteomancer's Son" by Greg van Eekhout
(Reviewed by E. Sedia)

"The Osteomancer's Son" by Greg van Eekhout is by far my favorite story in this issue. The year is still young, but I will be surprised if this one doesn't crop up in various "Best of" anthologies and recommended reading lists. This story takes place in a world similar to our own, but where magic is real. Mr. van Eekhout has a real gift for mixing the mundane (videogames, cars) with the magical (osteomancy, krakens, sphinxes) and the downright epic (The Night of Long Knives).

The protagonist of the story, Daniel, is a thief and the son of the powerful osteomancer. His father trained him in the ways of osteomancy—the magic based on appropriating the essence and magic of another creature by consuming their bones. The conflict in the story comes from the friction between the underground faction of osteomancers and the Hierarch—the ruler of the land, and the most powerful man of all. Daniel is caught in this conflict, due to his present occupation as well as his history.

The writing is perhaps the strongest point of this story—the sensory saturation is so high that one cannot help but feel a part of this dark and violent world. The imagery is simultaneously graceful and visceral.  Consider this passage, beautiful and chilling: "The look on his face was infinitely sad as he peeled back the corners of the handkerchief and revealed a small distal phalanx. A finger bone. A child’s finger bone, not white, but already turning brown. The bone of a child who has been fed bone." [Emphasis added]

I encourage everyone to read this story. Also, I am hoping the Mr. van Eekhout is going to publish a collection soon.

"Except the Music" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
(Reviewed by E. Sedia)

"Except the Music" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is the story of a classical musician who comes to the yearly music festival on Oregon coast. Max, the point of view character, comes across as disaffected and shallow.  The story starts as he is leaving the woman he picked up for a one night stand, and as Max drifts through the rest of the story, I felt that he was dwarfed by the supporting cast—the mysterious nameless woman and Otto, an old-school violinist and the founder of the festival. And, of course, by the music.

Music is a large part of the story, and it feels more alive than Max, who seems just an observer in the story about Otto's last festival and the place of the classical music in the world. He never seemed quite real to me, except for his lonely moment at the piano. The atmosphere of the festival, however, was expertly described, from the musicians to the patrons to the general feel of a classical concert.

While I enjoyed this story, my inability to connect with Max made me feel that his final insights were not quite earned, and that the revelation of the mysterious woman's identity was somewhat disappointing. But I recommend this story, especially to those who enjoy classical music; music is what this story is really about.