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

Asimov's -- January 2011

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“Killer Advice” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Two Thieves” by Chris Beckett
“Dolly” by Elizabeth Bear
“Visitors” by Steve Rasnic Tem
“Interloper” by Ian McHugh
“Ashes on the Water” by Gwendolyn Clare

Reviewed by Mark Lord

The novella “Killer Advice” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch kicks off this issue of Asimov’s. Hunsaker, the manager of a backwater space-station hotel is not best pleased when his quiet life is disturbed by a spaceship forced to dock for repairs. Hunsaker has not only to get his rooms ready in a hurry but also has to deal with a group of disgruntled new guests. But it gets worse for the hotel manager. The spaceship was damaged by a fire that seems to have been the latest attempt to murder another of the passengers of the spaceship. With the help of the station’s doctor Hunsaker tries to solve this space-based whodunit.

“Killer Advice” has some interest for those who like mysteries, but I thought it lacked proper speculative fiction credentials as the story might easily have been set on Earth now or in the past. As far as I could tell the science fiction setting was for decorative rather than content purposes. However, I liked the way that the story used a number of limited third person perspectives, and Rusch did a good job of making each of these characters distinctive and interesting. The main body of the mystery plot worked quite well, but I felt that the mystery’s reveal was too rushed and contrived.  

“Two Thieves” by Chris Beckett follows the fortunes of two miscreants exiled to an island as punishment. The cynical twosome Pennyworth and Shoe soon find that an archaeological dig is a pretty easy work detail, and one that might lead to untold fortunes once they jump into a well that doubles as a gate between worlds. This story has some elements of a moral fable, using SF devices to provide its protagonists with awkward situations to navigate. But I thought the story fell between a few stools.  The author could have made more of the moral fable element, or perhaps injected more humour into the relationship between the two anti-heroes, or given us something to think about in the travelling between worlds device.

In “Dolly” Elizabeth Bear tips her hat to a certain famous SF author who also used to write a lot about robots, but in Bear’s world robots are strictly programmed to be man’s slaves, so there’s no need to have the three laws of robotics. The law simply doesn’t apply to non-sentient machines, which is all this world’s robots are supposed to be. The story is about Dolly, a female companion robot who has apparently been hacked into and programmed to murder her master, who used her as a sex slave. The main character of the story is the female detective who investigates the murder, and she too has her own robot companion, Eric, at home.

“Dolly” is an interesting interpretation of the sentient robot dilemma we’ve read before from many science fiction writers, but I liked the way that this firmly placed the robot as man’s slave, yet still left room for a possible subversion of the machine’s role. The detective story plot is well handled by Bear and she keeps the reader’s interest until the end.

Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Visitors” has all the attributes of a classic well-constructed science fiction story: characters you care about, a thought-provoking situation, good pacing and structure, with enough mystery to keep the reader guessing. My only criticism would be that perhaps the central science fiction concept isn’t that original (but what is), yet I loved the way it was told and the interaction between the characters shed new light on the concept.

“Visitors” is about an elderly couple visiting their son in prison, but it’s a very unusual prison. They struggle to engage with their son because of the treatment that prisoners receive in the future. I was moved by the way they chose to come to terms with the situation, and there is a subtle twist to the story in how they deal with their emotional trauma. The future is a frightening place.

“Interloper” by Ian McHugh is set in the Australian outback. The era is fairly indeterminable, but I am guessing we are looking at an alternative now, or an alternative near future. The set-up is that mutant-type creatures exist alongside humans. The protagonists of this story are a circus troupe, which seems to contain a number of freaks and mutants who are on tour in the provincial outback towns near Perth in Western Australia. But they’re not just aiming to entertain. They’re also on the look-out for interlopers, demon-like creatures from beyond the veil who are up to no good.

The story was vividly told and the interaction between characters was dynamic and interesting, but for what should have been a fairly straightforward story I found the plot quite confusing. I felt that there was a lack of explanation, almost too much show and not enough tell. I think the author could have gotten away with that if there had been more of a definite problem and conflict from the beginning of the story. The beginning of the story was interesting, but only in the way it told of the riotous behaviour of the circus people/mutants. In my opinion the story lacked a strong enough inciting incident to snag the reader’s interest. But with better structure I think “Interloper” would have worked well.

“Ashes on the Water” by Gwendolyn Clare is the story of an adolescent, Riti, who wants to lay to rest their sister Priya’s ashes in the traditional Punjabi manner of scattering them on a river. Punjab, we are told, is known as the land of five rivers, but in the future of this story, water is in such short supply that all the rivers are seasonal and scattering ashes in them is not permitted. Riti has to keep on walking in search of somewhere to scatter Priya’s ashes. The journey is one of reflection on the state of a country where desertification has caused water shortages and forced farmers to change the crops that they can grow. The message is not overly negative. Riti is determined to achieve her goal and can see a future for her country if its people learn to adapt in order to survive.  The story is a poignant description of the realities of a future affected by climate change. However, I would have thought that the reality described is already with many millions of people today, so whether or not this is science fiction is perhaps debatable?