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

Asimov's -- Oct./Nov. 2011

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Asimov's, October/November 2011

“Stealth” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“The Man Who Bridged The Mist” by Kij Johnson
“The Outside Event” by Kit Reed
“My Husband Steinn” by Eleanor Arnason
“The Cult of Whale Worship” by Dominica Phetteplace
“This Petty Pace” by Jason K. Chapman
“The Pastry Chef, The Nanotechnologist, The Aerobics Instructor, and The Plumber” by Eugene Mirabelli
“Free Dog” by Jack Skillingstead
“To Live and Die in Gibbontown” by Derek Künsken
“A Hundred Hundred Daisies” by Nancy Kress

Reviewed by Daniel Woods

“Stealth” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

“Do not finish your work. Do not bring your work. Once life tags move out of an area, that area will seal off. If sealed inside, no one will rescue you. […] The station will shut down entirely in...”

Squishy is running out of time. Fifteen... minutes, drones the computer in its androgynous voice, until the station goes critical, and people are still evacuating. Idiots, pausing to save their research before their own skins. Well screw the research, because Squishy is adamant that nobody is going to die today, even if she has to drag every last one of them to the evac point herself.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch kicks off this issue of Asimov's with a bang. The opening scene is a little familiar, but it grabs your attention right away – sirens, automated countdowns, people scrambling for evac pods like dinghies on the Titanic – and Rusch does a good job of maintaining the tension throughout her piece. This novella had me on the edge of my seat before I'd even reached the one-quarter mark, and to me that was impressive stuff.

“Stealth” is set in a gripping, intricate universe, crammed full of history and well-developed characters, and is designed to entertain rather than philosophise; there are no “higher issues” to speak of. The “Dignity Vessels” are particularly fun to read about, and I was also impressed by the relationship between Squishy and Quint. You come to really feel the mixture of love and hatred between the two characters. This piece may not be breaking any new ground, but “Stealth” is an exciting SF tale set in a rich, well-constructed world, and for that it deserves to be read by any SF fan.

“The Man Who Bridged The Mist” by Kij Johnson

On a world not unlike our own, human civilisation is split in two: two capitals, Atyar and Triple, kept apart for generations by a river of the caustic, alien substance known as “mist.” Kit Meiner, a talented architect, has been sent to Nearside to help complete a huge suspension bridge; the first permanent link across the mist ever attempted.

Unsurprisingly, the concept of “the bridge” is at the heart of this story, and it is the way in which the bridge (i.e. “connection”) affects peoples' lives that Kij Johnson is exploring. As Kit's project brings work, money, travellers etc. to both sides of the mist, we watch the riverside towns expand and change, until they become almost unrecognisable. As well as physical changes, we watch attitudes shift, and opinions waver, until ultimately the bridging of the mist brings about the death of an established way of life (the argument being that “nothing is permanent,” a sentiment echoed by Kit later on).

As a protagonist, Kit is an impressive creation on Johnson's part. At first he comes across as rather blank and two-dimensional, but as we learn more about him, Kit is revealed to be a complicated and reserved man. You feel a real connection to him as his past and his emotions are uncovered, so when an old university professor tells Kit, “you'll need what you're feeling to matter, to someone somewhere, anyway,” we count ourselves as among those unspecified someones.

Still, the plot is rather linear and predictable. The prose too is, while functional, hardly beautiful, and afflicted by the same tedious literary mannerisms that plague much of SF and fantasy literature. It is not necessary to “break one's fast” on “pepper-rubbed” fish, for example, when it is just as easy to “eat some peppered fish for breakfast.” That said,, “The Man Who Bridged The Mist” is not a piece of art. Nor is it a stark piece of science fiction, since its world is devoid of almost all modern technology. Instead, this piece is a concentrated exploration of a metaphor – “the bridge” as the connections we build between each other – and a compelling glimpse inside the lives of a group of deeply engaging characters.

“The Outside Event” by Kit Reed

Cynthia LaMotte has been chosen. Plucked out of countless entrants to be one of the lucky twenty to attend the Strickfield Writers' Retreat this year. Fame and fortune await the winner, so the pressure is on, but if you think it's just about the writing at Strickfield, you'd better think twice. A bad dress, an off smile, or a thoughtless action, and you're out, never to be seen or heard from again.

This is a difficult story, and no bones about it. But, “The Outside Event” is also a fascinating, experimental stream-of-consciousness narrative, a story about the insidious nature of competition, represented to us through Cynthia's agile and fragmented mind. The prose is the defining feature of this piece – wonderful to read, littered with entertaining one-liners like “Now it's this Miss Nedobity in her don't-fuck-with-me diamonds,” and complex enough to keep you guessing, and thinking, and clawing your own brains out as you desperately try (along with Cynthia) to unpick it.

Right from the start, something feels wrong about Strickfield, and even though neither you nor Cynthia can quite put a finger on why, the tension is always there to keep one glued to the page. As the plot advances, Reed draws heavily on Gothic tradition, and assaults us with images, sounds, lines of thought etc. that continually feed the anxiety: noises in the attic, monsters at the lake, the unknown fate of poor Ralph Strickler, contestants disappearing in the woods, the mystery of “Outside Event,” and the unspoken fear of “Will I go home at all?”... Even Cynthia's own frantic mind plays its part – her nameless fear is infectious, and she had me glancing nervously over my own shoulder at story’s end.

Indeed, Cynthia is an excellent character for this kind of story. She has a girlish, almost childlike personality, bolted onto a sharp intelligence, and the result is a sprawling, frenzied mind that analyses life from every conceivable angle. She is humanised somewhat by her relationship with her boyfriend, which occupies her thoughts just as much as the competition does, and I found it intriguing to watch the balance of power between head and heart (boyfriend or competition) shifting inside her head.

Despite all the difficulties it presents, this is easily the most interesting piece of the issue, full of wonderful lines like “he's too short to be trusted, it's hard to explain,” and although it might be more infuriating than enthralling at times, “The Outside Event” is definitely worth your time.

“My Husband Steinn” by Eleanor Arnason

At East Fjords, miles away from the bustle and pollution of the city of Rekjavik, Signy owns a summer house, and escapes to it every chance she gets to work on her unfinished novel. When a dead swan appears on her hillside doorstep one day, like a grizzly gift from an unannounced stranger, the calm of Signy's home away from home is shattered.

“My Husband Steinn” is a pro-environmental story with a dash of Icelandic myth thrown in (elves, trolls, etc). As Signy discovers that more and more of her country really is populated by trolls, elves and the like, Arnason's argument seems to be that progress and development are eating away at Iceland's heart. That the magic and the beauty are being shunted out of the land. This piece is divided into three sections, and includes an original myth, the tale of Loki and the Apple Corer (which is actually quite entertaining).

Unfortunately, this one threw me right from the start. Twice, actually. First, I misinterpreted the title as a pun – as “My Husbandstein” – and expected some sort of Gothic Frankenstein parody. Then the first line, “There was a woman named Signy,” hit me in the face like the start of a bad limerick, and already Signy and I were off to a rocky start. After that, and following the slightly stale wannabe-novelist-with-a-dream opening, there are some pretty shaky bits of reasoning from the characters to advance the plot.

By the end, the final message is something along the lines of “only stories have the power to change the world,” and Signy and her novel are the vehicle of that change. “My Husband Steinn” is not without its good points, but the environmentalist agenda is deeply ingrained in the story, and that alone may render it a little too didactic for many people.

“The Cult of Whale Worship” by Dominica Phetteplace

Dominica Phetteplace's first sale is a sad tale about the darker, radical side of environmentalism, and the dangers of interfering with nature. Tetsuo is determined to put an end to whale hunting – to save the majestic creatures from extinction. But uncontrolled zeal and a penchant for bioengineering are a dangerous mix, and when a mind-altering bacterium turns rogue in a poorly controlled experiment, the Cult of Whale Worship is born.

“The Cult of Whale Worship” is about fanaticism, primarily. It opens with an interesting character sketch, and the mention of the “suicide bug” in the second line opens up some nice story possibilities for the reader. After a little backstory, we follow Tetsuo's journey into self-inflicted insanity.

The constant threat of Tetsuo's suicide gives this piece a kind of “desperate” feel, which can be quite compelling at times, and to watch the cult's three members act in ways they don't understand is really quite interesting to follow. Still, this piece justifies itself with some rather long-winded passages of scientific jargon. A description of how cyanide affects the mitochondria in the body's cells, for example, was probably intended to portray Tetsuo's pedantic obsession, but actually just sent me running to Wikipedia for more information. I now know what an “organelle” is, but I'm not sure I enjoyed the piece any more for it.

“This Petty Pace” by Jason K. Chapman

When a man materialises on top of Kyle's coffee table, bringing portents of doom to his Upper West Side apartment, it seems that time is exactly what Kyle needs, and exactly what he doesn't have. If the man with the message is to be believed, lives will be lost and saved with every action that Kyle takes this afternoon.

“This Petty Pace” is about manipulating chains of events – about time, and control. It opens with a flood of information, and Chapman leaves it to the reader to either sink or swim in his story. As we get swept along in the currents of Kyle's frantic life, we watch a pattern taking shape around him, a chain of events that leads to a terrible, unseen future, and we hope for the best as he struggles against the tides of determinism.

Despite its temporal element, this is definitely not a time-travel story, and that realisation comes as something of a relief when reading this piece. Nevertheless, I found it hard to feel a connection with any of the characters until much later on, because most of my attention was taken up by trying to keep track of the multitude of events. “This Petty Pace” redeems itself with a satisfying conclusion, but a confusing start and a few cringe-worthy lines here and there (“Cool,” she said. “It's like time travel”) make it an average reading experience.

“The Pastry Chef, The Nanotechnologist, The Aerobics Instructor, and The Plumber” by Eugene Mirabelli

When Samantha hears voices whispering in the kitchen faucet's water stream, word quickly spreads, and an unlikely quartet of professionals gathers together to ponder over this mystery.

If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that this is more a portrait than a story. A cross-examination of personality types--the flighty, fragile Samantha, versus the unyielding, unimaginative Cy. The piece opens with a frustratingly banal conversation about a tap, and then segues into Cy's recollection of his first meeting with Samantha.

And yet, I can't dismiss this piece, because “The Pastry Chef...” coaxed such a strong reaction out of me that I think it bears a closer look. Cy is a loathsome character. And not the kind that you love to hate, either: I'm talking so obnoxious that you genuinely can't stand to read about him. It is not often that I find myself harbouring such hatred towards a character, and on reflection, that suggests an impressive level of characterisation in Mirabelli's writing. Still, I found the “I really, really hate him” reaction rather off-putting.

Eventually, the talking plumbing is no longer confined to the kitchen (spreading to include a toilet that is “tired of eating crap,” which made me giggle), and the piece winds down to an altogether baffling conclusion. If there is a story here at all, it is about the decay of Samantha and Cy's relationship due to incompatibility, and although I'm not sure I'd read it a second time, I think the fact that the prose had such a pronounced effect on me made it worth that first look.

“Free Dog” by Jack Skillingstead

Travis is recently divorced. All he wants to do now is forget the whole sorry affair, but when his ex-wife starts distributing a virtual copy of his beloved pet dog Cory, the audacity of it (and the fact that every other person on the street seems to have one of the damn things following them around) proves too much to ignore.

“Free Dog” is a thought-provoking piece. Initially, the plot comes across as a little farfetched, and follows an unlikely affair between ex-husband and ex-wife's personal assistant. By the end though, Skillingstead manages to create a pretty passable image of a man dealing with his feelings, post-breakup. This piece is about missing the idea of someone, not the real person, and I think that is something most of us can relate to. The story ambles along inoffensively enough, and ends up at a strange, speculative conclusion about “the important things” in life. But, it's not an exciting piece, and it won't have you champing at the bit to get to see “what happens next.” If you're in the mood for a little contemplation, then give this one a go.

“To Live and Die in Gibbontown” by Derek Künsken

“I screw the silencer onto the muzzle, using my palm to muffle the rasp. I’m Reggie and I’m a businessman.”

When you're in the euthanasia business, it pays to be good at your job: quick, efficient, and as tidy as possible. I guess it's just plain bad luck then that Reggie's “associate,” Murray, is precisely none of these things. When Reggie's latest job – a miserable old Bonobo female – goes embarrassingly pear-shaped, Reggie has to come up with a new assassination plan fast. No kill means no pay, and a rapidly expiring visa means Reggie faces deportation back to macaque territory, unless he can come up with some cash.

The astute amongst you will have picked up on “macaque territory,” and arrived at the appropriate conclusion: this is a monkey story, though it's no rehashed Planet of the Apes. “To Live and Die in Gibbontown” is set in a world ruled by all the various species of monkey, and from behind its light-hearted, comic plot, it quietly points out that regardless of any technological toys we might have crafted for ourselves, we're all still animals (still apes) at heart. Murray and Reggie are a classic “odd couple” – the sardonic “clever one,” and the bumbling idiot – and we follow their attempts to... well, kill an old lady. It's not nearly as dark as it sounds though; this is a funny piece, which redeems itself with a truly miserable old harridan as the assassination target, and it won't be long before you're just as eager for that damn Bonobo to get what's coming to her as Reggie is.

Although the prose can get a little film noir at times, e.g. all the “I'm Reggie and I'm a businessman” fluff, Künsken has littered this piece with some brilliant one-liners (“there are plenty of places in this town I wouldn’t walk without a high-powered rifle and a bulletproof chimpanzee”). Unfortunately, for every successful gag, there's another line that really fails to hit its mark, and it was disappointing to see so many bad jokes thrown in with the good ones.

“To Live and Die in Gibbontown” does a nice job of keeping the whole “euthanasia” subject very casual, and Künsken does not moralise or dictate to us for even one second. Overall, the story is quite amusing, and it ends with a satisfying, well-rounded conclusion – an appreciated change of pace after so many open-ended stories. Ultimately, however, a few too many bad jokes meant that this piece fell a little flat for my taste.

“A Hundred Hundred Daisies” by Nancy Kress

A pipeline is being built at the Great Lakes Basin. It will suck all the remaining freshwater further inland, away from the local people, in a last-ditch attempt to quench the thirst of a country that has, due to global warming, become a drought-stricken husk of its former self. When Danny ventures out ahead of his father and a band of locals to take radical action, angry protest turns into sabotage and criminal damage.

Kress paints a depressing portrait in this piece, of a world in which the only flowers left are the ones that are drawn by a little girl and scattered across the dead ground. To its credit, this story at least acknowledges its own agenda; this is not an environmental story masquerading as an uninformed one, and Kress makes no bones about the fact that she is trying to deliver a message. That makes the whole thing easier to digest, but unfortunately it also limits how much a person can enjoy it. I found Danny's story casually interesting, in an “oh, isn't that sad” sort of way, but I think that a lot of us will have been too jaded by images of starving children on televised charity appeals to really buy into this idea of a dried-up America. The idea, and the near-reality of it, should be horrifying, but the sad fact is that Kress is preaching to a choir that's heard it all before.