Asimov’s, October/November 2012
Reviewed by Barbara Melville
As one might expect, Asimov’s Halloween issue shifts between various sinister sensibilities. There are a few recurring themes tying the stories together: how we negotiate death, how the banal can be fantastical, and the truth behind disguises. Initially I was excited about these stories – science fiction and fantasy are ideal vehicles for unease. Alas, I was disappointed. All but a few are disturbing for the wrong reasons.
“The Mongolian Book of the Dead” by Alan Smale kicks off the issue and stands head and shoulders above the rest. Set during the Chinese invasion of Mongolia, the rather ordinary John Tanner is kidnapped and taken to a shaman, where he learns he’s not as ordinary as he thought. This novella operates on interplays, such as the past versus the future and the ordinary versus the special. These are woven into the narrative through rich world building and characterisation, making for an immersive reading experience.
“The Stars Do Not Lie” by Jay Lake is the second novella in this issue. Set in an alternative past, scientist Morgan Abutti discovers evidence to support onerous heretical legends. The story tours through themes of religion, history and science, exploring comforting myths and uncomfortable truths. While the prose and imagery are strong, extraneous detail and subplots make this wearing to read. This might have worked better cut to novelette length, or conversely, expanded to novel length, giving breathing space to its ideas.
Gray Rinehart’s novelette “The Second Engineer” is set on a sonorous spaceship. The narrator is Anna, an engineer who interprets the ship’s songs as a cry for help. In some ways this is a good story – intriguing and well crafted – with beautiful chilling descriptions. But I wasn’t on the edge of my seat. The plot is nothing startling, the ending feels incomplete, and I found myself warming more to the cameo characters than to Anna.
“The Ghost Factory” by Will Ludwigsen is the second and final novelette of the issue. The narrator is a case worker in a hospital where mental distress leads to invisibility. This story’s strength is characterisation, including a splendid inappropriate relationship between the narrator and one of his clients. But the invisibility idea is nothing new and isn’t handled well. The parallel between fading in life and fading physically is waved in front of us, rather than woven in.
“Antarctica Starts Here” by Paul McAuley is set in a futuristic Antarctica. Tour operator Dan has a thirst for adventure, and he’ll go to extreme lengths to sate it. Told from the viewpoint of his friend and colleague Krish, the prose and characterisation are promising, but the world and premise aren’t fully realized. The science fiction elements are peppered here and there, and aren’t necessary for telling Dan’s story.
“Results Guaranteed” by Kit Reed is a mischievous satire on teenagers being pushed to achieve the impossible. At school, Billy Mangold stands out from the crowd for not being superhuman, and is forced to ludicrous extremes by his father. The story is over-exaggerated, even for satire, and could do with being toned down. But I still enjoyed it. Billy’s voice is spot on, and the ending is sharp and entertaining.
I have mixed feelings about Vylar Kaftan’s “Lion Dance.” Set during a flu pandemic in San Francisco, a group of friends perform a lion dance on the streets of Chinatown. This story questions what courage really is. The prose and world are sophisticated, especially during the dance itself, but the opening pages are too inactive. I didn’t care for the characters. Most of them are extraneous, and spend a lot of time talking about what they’re going to do. A slightly mawkish ending didn’t help matters.
“The Hologram World” by Eugene Mirabelli is told in mini chapters. When physicist Henri Orban’s wife dies, he obsesses over where she has gone. In an attempt to solve the unsolvable, he channels his neuroses into the study of black holes. While the writing is a little clunky in places, this story has a strength which so many of the others don’t – it has a point. The elements of craft, including form, plot and structure, are all anchored to its purpose. The result is an immersive and touching story of grief and abdication.
The siege of Leningrad is the backdrop for “A Handsome Fellow” by Ekaterina Sedia.This begins as the story of Svetlana, a young woman shadowed by an attractive vampiric stranger. But then it also appears to be the story of her brother Yasha, the narrator. This could have been a great piece – it has a penetrating spectral ambience – but technical problems spoil it. There are numerous pointless tense changes and plot holes, and Yasha’s narration is contrived. He’s unreliable to the point of unbelievable, claiming knowledge beyond the limits of his viewpoint.
John Alfred Taylor’s “Chromatophores” has an arresting premise. Superficial teenager Janice Spiegel uses chromatophores to enhance her facial appearance, but when a friend gets sick because of them, her shallow persona is called into question. Janice’s voice is striking and fun, but my quibble is the chromatophores idea seems underused. Even so, I liked this story for the most part.
Steven Utley’s “Shattering” is an unsettling mood piece, with its narrator travelling through space. At its heart this is a story about two types of dreams – the reflections of our consciousness as we sleep, and our greatest ambitions. It’s also about the reality of those dreams; nightmares and unknowns. While I love this story’s ideas and style, it could be more original. The plot is a bit off-the-shelf, making it too predictable.
Asimov’s, October/November 2012
Reviewed by Louis West
This issue of Asimov’s contains an excellent collection of SF tales, some with a touch of the supernatural, and others, horror. Although some were more work than others, I enjoyed reading every single one.
Alan Smale’s “The Mongolian Book of the Dead” is fast-paced, the action well-crafted and relentless. The setting is rich in detail about Mongolian geography, culture and history, while the characters are complex with layers of conflicting emotions. A definite read.
Roughly a generation from now, China invades Mongolia. John Tanner has been searching for meaning to his life, ever since his near-death experience on the operating table as an early teenager. His wandering journeys have taken him to Russia, then to Mongolia, with the next destination China. But China comes to him first. As Chinese forces overwhelm the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, Tanner is kidnapped and hustled out of the city by a group of four Mongolians-Khulan, a young woman, and three men. Only Khulan speaks some English. She eventually tells Tanner that the Chinese have banned all mention of “Hingas-Han” (Chinggis Khaan), the Mongolian national hero, and that the world won’t help. Their only recourse is for Mongols to help Mongols. Khulan’s twin-sister, Dzoldzaya (Dzaya), is a shaman who has seen the split in Tanner’s three souls, a split she can use to reach back into Mongolia’s past and acquire help from the great khan himself.
They flee into the western Gobi before turning south, then circling north, circumventing Chinese forces to get to the sacred mountain of Burkhan Khaldun, the birthplace of Hingas-Han. At first, Tanner rails against Khulan for kidnapping him and Dzaya for what her juniper smoke-laced shaman dances do to him—almost kills him once and drops him into the middle of a 13th century Mongol horde camp another time. Khulan is protective of Tanner, not wanting him to give in to her sister’s purpose. Mistaking her actions for interest, Tanner tries to kiss her, but is slapped away. However, this is the moment that binds Tanner to the Mongol men—the shared mystery of what women really want.
Tanner eventually decides to fully cooperate with Dzaya, while Khulan continues to resist. She fears that what her sister plans will cause a split in the world, irretrievably mixing past and future. She also doesn’t want to give up the promise of a modern life separate from the superstitions of her ancestors.
Overall, this journey is the making of Tanner, transforming him from frightened and directionless to a man of purpose, resolve and destiny. As Chinese forces chase them up the slopes of Burkham Khaldun, Dzaya uses Tanner to leverage herself through the veil of time, calling the Great Khaan’s forces to their aid. The hordes come, and the new Mongol Empire is born with Tanner as the Great Khaan’s pale-skinned translator and envoy to the modern world at his side.
Jay Lake’s“The Stars Do Not Lie” reminds me of Galileo’s struggle with the Catholic Church over what his astronomical observations told him about the real nature of the solar system, and, by inference, that the church’s teachings about the universe were wrong. This is a complex story interweaving the viewpoints of Morgan Abutti, the astronomer, Bilious Quinx, chief guardian (interrogator) of the faith for the Lateran religious authorities, and Eraster Goins, the Presiding Judge of the treason court for the Thalassojustity, the mercantile group that provides security and protection for all trade and commerce.
Steam power is the energy source of the times. Electricks, such as radio, are new, and optics have advanced enough to create large reflecting telescopes. The Lateran faith states that there is nothing of mankind older than 6,000 years, the time when the Increate created mankind and put them on the Earth. Yet, Morgan’s observations found an artificial object in Earth’s trailing solar libration point, a ship that had begun to move towards Earth. After Morgan tries to present his findings at a gathering of Planetary Society scientists, Marines take him to the Thalassojustity Palace where he faces Goins. Fearing for his life, Morgan tells Goins about what he’d learned. But, he’s astonished to discover that Goins already knew of the object. Goins insists that Morgan must witness something they’d found long ago on one of the volcanic islands controlled by the Thalassojustity.
What follows is a chase to the island. Goins, Morgan and all the senior Thalossojustity leaders travel by heavily armored ship, while Quinx by the fastest private airship. Conflict is virtually absent yet tension abounds. The story displays the constant struggle between the established order (the Lateran) and those it marginalizes. For example, whites are considered an inferior race and women unsuitable to join the work force. Quinx’ distaste is palpable, as he must interact with white and female members of the airship’s crew.
The intricacies of this story are compelling, although I found the lengthy expositions ponderous to read. In the end, Morgan is taken to a hidden Chariot, one of eight spacecraft buried at different places in the world. I never understood why Morgan had to witness this ship before its presence was to be revealed by the Thalossojustity. Perhaps they needed independent verification from a modern-day scientist; it was unclear to me.
“The Second Engineer,” by Gray Rinehart, is a space-opera that toys with the idea of AI self-awareness. Annalise, a Navy interstellar ship’s Second Engineer, has a problem—the ship’s AI “sings” to her, but she is the only one that senses it. Unfortunately, fellow crewmembers, especially Collins, mock her. The ship’s doc thinks she is hallucinating. Only Ensign Marcus Overbay is sympathetic.
Strange things are happening with equipment and material being moved without authorization. Then, Annalise is struck from behind after completing her shift. No one knows who did it, and the ship’s song is getting more insistent—it’s scared. But Annalise’s XO doesn’t buy it and orders two Marines to escort her to her cabin for rest. Using Marcus, Annalise finds a way to get rid of her Marine escort and hook into the ship, She learns that it was Collins that had struck her. She traps and interrogates him. He says the ship made him do it because Annalise wasn’t listening. The ship fears being attacked upon emergence into normal space, it and all the crew killed.
Annalise attempts to halt the ship’s re-emergence, but fails. The ship is attacked. An engine is knocked off-line, preventing the ship from escaping. Annalise exits the ship to repair the leaking coolant lines. She succeeds but doesn’t quite make it back into the ship before it jumps out of normal space. Between Marcus’ voice and the ship AI’s quiet presence, Annalise manages to escape the darkness of the void.
Will Ludwigsen’s “The Ghost Factory” is a melancholy ghost story accompanied by a sense of impending doom. It’s told from two first person viewpoints. You’re living in the abandoned ruins of the institution where you used to work. While surrounded by the ghosts of all your old patients, you reminisce about one of them, Valerie.
You’re a disillusioned psychologist working at a state mental institution. Valerie is a rich man’s daughter, who believes she is literally fading away. She’d tried college, travel, sex and drugs, all to find meaning. But, when her boyfriend gets his life together before she does, she believes he’s making her disappear. In a fit of rage, she drowns him, the act making her feel more solid and real.
You fall in love with her story and she with your willingness to listen. But the institution is slated for closure, and the staff must decide which patients will be released to the streets and which confined to a higher security mental hospital. You decide you must fix Valerie so she can be freed to live a life with you. But she’s furious with your plan, telling you to go to hell. She stops eating, growing thinner and thinner, while teaching the other inmates how to be invisible as well. One day, she and 50 patients disappear. In spite of a massive hunt, they are never found, except you see them every night, walking the grounds of the closed institution. Your final epiphany: “The whole world’s a ghost factory…people get less real the less you listen to them.”
“Antarctica Starts Here,” by Paul McAuley, is a first person eco-terror story set in a future where global warming has melted significant portions of Antarctica’s ice. Krish (you) and Dan are friends who run their own tourism business, escorting climbers and tourists, sometimes ferrying them via tilt-rotor helicopter. Dan laments the passing of the heroic age of exploration, where plucky stoicism was more important than survival. The growing intrusion of blue-skinned, avatar robots infuriates Dan. You strive to avoid conflict; Dan savors it.
Dan is planning to disrupt a colony of avatars both of you had observed while ferrying a group of execs back from an inland excursion. The avatars are corporate sponsored to reestablish birch trees that had been native to Antarctica during the last inter-glacial period. Dan had hooked up with a woman who said she could hack the security on the site and that no one would get hurt. You refuse to participate in this adventure. Dan handcuffs you to the bathroom pipes where the police eventually find you. You eventually learn that Dan and his crew did sabotage the tree-planting station but failed to hack all the security. Now, all but Dan are in custody, while he has vanished into the backcountry. Over the following months, stories surface about other avatars being sabotaged, and you wonder if, and when, Dan would ever resurface.
The story repeatedly dips into long-winded exposition about past events and cynical comments about Dan’s chip on his shoulder. This made it difficult for me to enjoy.
Kit Reed’s “Results Guaranteed” was a fun read about a pre-teen boy struggling to fit into school.
Your (first person POV) dilemma is that you’re the only normal kid among an entire school of abnormals—vampires, undead, werewolves. Your father is fixated on the belief that you can only succeed if you graduate with honors from Occam Middle School. Yet, the only way to get honors is to be abnormal. Your father yells a lot, constantly putting you down, reminding you of how much he’s spent to bribe people to get you into this school. Your mother is off on another one of her months-long global business trips. After enduring multiple tutors inflicted on you by your father, all in an attempt to somehow discover your hidden abnormal talents, a psychiatrist is brought in whose promise is “results guaranteed.” The psychiatrist listens to your tales of woe, declares the problem is your dad, magically whisks your dad away and suddenly your mother is home from her long trips and all things are good.
The style of the story reflects how a pre-teen would think and speak—intense, rambling, deeply frustrated by the constant bullying and the father’s self-centered indifference. Unfortunately, although the main character has a mnemonic gift, it never becomes a part of the story’s resolution. To me the ending was a bit like “and a miracle occurs.” Fun to read, but not a satisfying finish.
“Lion Dance” by Vylar Kaftan is an intriguing story of self-discovery amidst horrific times. You (first person POV) live in a San Francisco that’s been under 8 months of quarantine due to a virulent global flu pandemic. Your AIDs-infected younger brother, Jian, stays with you since he can’t support himself. While the quarantine has kept the casualties down, the local economy has collapsed. Your parents are getting evicted and your brother is out of his anti-virals. It’s the Chinese New Year which just happens to fall on Halloween. You and your friends are seriously bored, hiding away due to the quarantine, constantly wearing face masks to keep out the flu germs.
Wing, one of your friends, suggests donning his grandfather’s 2-person lion costume and going out into the streets to celebrate the New Year. After some debate, everyone agrees. You and your brother wear one. At first, it’s fun. People share in the celebration from their windows, a few local cops dance along, even a crowd of people in front of the hospital dressed in zombie costumes joins the fun. But something goes wrong, and the crowd turns into an angry mob. You and Jian flee. Your brother retreats to the hospital, where he leads you to the room of a man he says is his dying lover. Security is coming and the two of you run out. Then, you confront him, saying that he’s never met that man before and you're terrified that he could have caught an illness from the hospital. After all, that’s where the flu victims go to die. But Jian had risked his life to visit a stranger, because he cared about a friend, the spouse of that stranger. His choice makes you realize you could do something with your life besides hide away all day due to the quarantine. You can volunteer at the hospital near Chinatown, since you are Mandarin and English bilingual.
Eugene Mirabelli’s “This Hologram World” is a beautiful piece about a man’s struggle to come to terms with his wife’s death plus his doubts about where she’d gone and what was any longer real.
Henri Orban is a theoretical physicist, whose wife of many years dies a horrible death from a runaway staph infection. He’d known Vivienne since they were nine and remains very much in love with her, even though she is gone. Both Henri and his wife believed there was no afterlife, which left him unable to blame god for his pain. Absent any children or extended family, Henri’s friends check in on him, seeing how he’s doing, listening when he wants to talk, glad when he resumes his interest in physics.
Henri’s only other love is math. He pursues theories about black holes and information entropy, immersing himself in evolving ideas about the nature of the universe and reality itself. Eventually he’s attracted to the idea of the Holographic Principle--that reality is but a flawed projection of the true reality at the edge of the universe. However, when he looks at everything around him, he decides that “mathematics and what it can and cannot do doesn’t matter. Vivienne is gone and there’s no knowing where, that’s what matters.”
I loved “A Handsome Fellow” by Ekaterina Sedia. It's a gritty story set amongst the horrific times of the 900 day Nazi siege of Leningrad. Twenty-four year-old Svetlana lives with her mother and her two younger brothers in a shabby two-room communal apartment in a bomb shattered building. They’re starving. The siege and regular incendiary bomb raids have cut off the populace from food and protection. Rumors of cannibals and ghouls (upyri) abound. The careless are at risk of being eaten alive. It’s believed by some that, if you call a upyr by its name, it will revert to being human, and seek death.
Svetlana must get food for her family. During her cautious journey to the market, she is joined by Ilya, a quiet, unassuming, handsome man. But his unusually healthy face is “just as out of place as his smell.” Over the days that follow, he repeatedly joins her, giving her a growing sense of safety. In time, she even invites him into her bed, although they only sleep together, and he’s gone before she wakes. Her mother is concerned as to who this man really is, and challenges Svetlana to discover where he goes after leaving her. Then the grisly killings begin. First, her neighbor, then her aged mother--throats ripped out but bodies not eaten. There’d been hints, but love had caused Svetlana to ignore them. Now she discovers that Ilya is upyr and is terrified. Although she’d managed to get her younger brother evacuated, her oldest brother, Yasha, was still with her. One night she wakens in the dark to the sounds of loud, wet chewing and the crunch of windpipe cartilage. But Ilya didn’t eat Yasha up, like he’d done to Yasha’s mother. Now Yasha wishes his sister would call him what he is--upyr, so he could once again become human and seek a hero’s death.
“Chromatophores,” by John Alfred Taylor, tells the story of teen Janice Spiegel, and how she deals with the slow cancer death of her best friend, Anne. It’s post global-warming 21st century, and Janice and her three girlfriends are a tight clicque. Bored with school and the expectations of their “Parental Bodies” (parents), they plot mischief both in and out of school. They talk among themselves by subvocalizing through an invisible phone tattooed down their throat like the police use. They change their skin and hair color at will by using their embedded chromatophores.
One day, Anne gets unexpectedly dizzy, but her friends laugh it off. Several days later she faints in gym. Then she doesn’t come back to school. Janice visits and learns that Anne has cancer that’s metastasized. Janice and her friends thought their chromatophores protected them from the intense sun but forgot that their melanocytes needed protection as well. Janice’s parents have a dermatologist check her for cancer, but she’s clear. Over the weeks that follow, Janice is the only friend who visits Anne. The experience of watching her friend slowly die dramatically changes her--she pays attention in class now. Janice takes up painting and studies past artists, all to craft a three-part triptych in memory of her friend.
Steven Utley's “Shattering” reflects the rambling, disintegrating thoughts of an interstellar astronaut journeying towards the Alpha Centauri system. He believes he’s on an FTL ship with a crew of four scientists on a momentous journey to the stars. His dreams of his wife are so realistic that he has trouble separating them from reality. Yet, it’s his nightmares that make him doubt their wisdom of being there—he senses a presence in the void of hyperspace, curious, hostile. He awakens, screaming, wondering why he’s in a deep-sleep freezer. His crewmate answers—there is no FTL. They’re on a fusion ram ship plodding through space, and he’s carrying on like a crazy person.
While this is an intriguing look at the possible mental impacts from deep-space travel, I did take issue with the journey’s destination. Why target the triple star system of Alpha Centauri? It seems very premature to send people, especially on a slow-ship, absent any proof of a habitable planet. So far, no such exoplanets have been found in this star system.
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