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

Asimov's, Oct/Nov 2005

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Image"Back to Moab" by Phillip C. Jennings
"Bank Run" by Tom Purdom
"Betting On Eureka" by Geoffrey A. Landis
"Cruel Sistah" by Nisi Shawl
"Dark Flowers, Inverse Moon" by Jay Lake
"The God Engine" by Ted Kosmatka
"Memory Work" by L. Timmel Duchamp
"Nightmare" by M. Bennardo
"Out of the Box" by Steve Martinez
"Overlay" by Jack Skillingstead
"Pericles the Tyrant" by Lois Tilton


"Back to Moab" by Phillip C. Jennings

Reviewed by Rich Horton

I’ve long been a fan of Phillip Jennings’s stories—mostly fairly traditional SF but with an offbeat feel. He’s been less prolific the last several years, and it’s nice to see a new novelette. “Back to Moab” is about a successful insurance expert who has a hobby of historical cartography. Intrigued by a picture of a mysterious globe, she rushes to Croatia to investigate. But the globe isn’t for sale—and it turns out it doesn’t even depict Earth.

The story gets stranger from there—of course, a visit to the planet depicted by the globe is in order. And we encounter secretive monks, a continuing Austro-Hungarian Empire (of sorts), reality TV (of sorts), and some strange aliens. Alas, none of these potentially very promising elements is really developed to its potential. Further, the main character is a bit hard to get a handle of—for the story to grab us I think we need to understand her relationship with her family better, and that never comes into focus. Which makes her choices not terribly important to us—and they should be world-shaking. The story was still pleasant reading, but ultimately disappointing.

"Bank Run" by Tom Purdom

Reviewed by Rich Horton

Tom Purdom’s “Bank Run” is my favorite story of this double issue. It appears to be set in the same future as his excellent story “The Path of the Transgressor.” Like that story, it features a man on another planet with a genetically-engineered female companion—a woman tailored not only to delight him but also to be loyal to him. The protagonist, Sabor, is one of the leading bankers on the planet Fernheim. This planet has a rather anarchistic social setup, with a few bankers, a number of “Possessors” (major landowners, I suppose), some providers of such services as mercenaries, and presumably a large underclass of genetically-engineered servants: guards, concubines, and everything in between, one assumes. And no particular laws, just social and financial pressure.

Sabor has just refused a loan to Possessor Kenzan Khan, partly on the grounds of the man’s irresponsibility. Khan responds by engaging a mercenary force to try to kidnap Sabor. Sabor’s defense strategy is a combination of flight, physical resistance, and financial negotiations with other banks, with Khan’s rivals, and with the mercenaries. The financial and small-scale political negotiations may sound dry—but I didn’t find them so at all. The story examines the ways in which financial pressure, and self-interest based both on financial opportunity and concern for one’s reputation, might substitute for laws. But this is no libertarian tract—the entire setup raises questions about its feasibility and stability, and does not insist on answers. Behind everything there are lurking questions about Sabor’s own character, and particularly the rather unpleasant implied economy of this future, with what seems to be essentially slavery as a main aspect. Finally, much of the emotional center of the story (as with “The Path of the Transgressor”) concerns the question of relationships with people engineered to love you, and engineered for you to desire—how “real” are the feelings on either side of such a relationship?

Another View--

"Bank Run" by Tom Purdom

Reviewed by Dave Smeds

Tom Purdom is one of the science fiction genre's veterans. His novella "Bank Run" reads like a veteran's work, which is to say, it speaks to those readers who crave tried-and-true "core" science fiction. It is a tale of daring, competent human beings on a many-light-years-distant colony world, striving against unsavory peers with the tools of high technology and, in the end, winning the day as much with their displays of personal grit, loyalty, and physical action as with the advantages granted by their whiz-bang accouterments. Stylistically, the piece has some quirkish qualities. Characters communicate with each other in mannered, analytical, erudite sentences one might expect to hear coming from the mouths of academics in the midst of discourse at the podiums of their lecture halls. Purdom's tone and diction worked for me, because the nature of the words chosen conveyed the milieu—futuristic, a different culture, a place generations removed from contemporary Earth. Other readers might find the prose stilted. If so, ignore it in favor of the solid adventure plot, the ample worldbuilding, and an original premise that tickled my fancy—Purdom's hero is a banker. It's a trick in itself to make a reader accept a member of such a profession as the good guy, but the author succeeds in making him sympathetic and deserving of his escape from the trap his enemies spring. At 20,000 words or so, "Bank Run" may be just a trifle long for its somewhat straightforward plot—essentially one long run/chase across a lake and through a jungle—but it deserves its standing as one of the anchors of the double issue.

"Betting on Eureka" by Geoffrey A. Landis

Reviewed by Sherwood Smith

Geoffrey Landis’s “Betting on Eureka” is a nifty story about prospectors in the asteroids. The setup is beautifully succinct: somewhere out in all those crazy trajectories there is reputed to be an asteroid veined with rich ore, despite the fact that asteroids don’t usually carry enough water to develop veins.
We discover the story is being told by Marcos, a guy who trades in data (or "infor," a slightly awkward neologism that could just as easily have been "info"), most of the time just barely keeping his oxygen bill paid. He meets up with an old acquaintance named Corwin, who claims to know the inside skinny on Eureka, and what happened. More important, where it is. It seems he was once part of the partnership that discovered Eureka, kicked off for a bad investment ploy just before the fateful trip. The story he tells is surprising—but it brings investors, and Corwin, about as down and out as prospectors can get, is suddenly living high on the expectation of phenomenal profits to be made by the consortium to which he sold his data.

The story is skillfully told, info on asteroids and their prospecting woven in at just the right time and just the right length. The ancillary details about exploratory robot ants, and the fact that humans will soon high-tech themselves out of a job, echoes the end of the Gold Rush era in California. This is not the only reminder of that strange time, when laws were few and speculators and prospectors (who all either knew one another or knew of one another) circled warily around various camps and dives looking for the one big deal. A good story in the Gold Rush days was worth a lot, and so it is in the time of this story. But when it becomes apparent that Corwin’s deal has some smoky details, and then the consortium comes up empty-handed, it looks like there might be trouble. Unless—

Landis has the mindset of frontier mining down tight, weaving that sense of life-stakes poker in with the sfnal ideas. The reader is kept guessing to the last card.

"Cruel Sistah" by Nisi Shawl

Reviewed by Dave Smeds

Nisi Shawl's horror fantasy, "Cruel Sistah," is rather slight. Set in the Northwest about three decades ago, Shawl does manage to present a complete story of a murder, a haunting, and a comeuppance, but it is difficult not to want "more." More words. More meat. Though the characters are sketched in, the setting is established, and two incidents get full scenes—the murder and the homemade construction of a banjo—"Cruel Sistah" felt like an outline rather than a story, or a vignette meant to eventually work its way into something fully fleshed.

"Dark Flowers, Inverse Moon" by Jay Lake

Reviewed by Rich Horton

Jay Lakes “Dark Flowers, Inverse Moon” presents contemporary magic users quite intriguingly. Sally has been fleeing, as it were, from her magical ability since her disastrous “Bringing” ceremony, when some of her fellow “Skilled” had died. But a (perhaps?) chance encounter with another magic user, Germaine Templar, threatens to force her to an accommodation with her magical skill. Germaine, it seems, is struggling to free her mother from enslavement by another “Skilled” person. It doesn’t hurt that Germaine is an attractive woman who shows immediate interest in Sally … The course of the story is predictable—we know that Sally will indeed embrace her “Skill” again, and confront her fears and guilt surrounding the events of her “Bringing.” It has to be said that plotwise “Dark Flowers, Inverse Moon” is only ordinary—and that it shares what I would call the fundamental problem of fantasy—how do you convince the reader that the invented powers of the heroes and villains aren’t conveniently set up by the author just to allow his story to resolve as he wishes? Too often, the reader simply isn’t convinced, and that’s the case here. But the story is still enjoyable—the magic system implied is pretty original and pretty interesting, and the characters, as well as the Texas landscape, are nicely realized.

"The God Engine" by Ted Kosmatka

Reviewed by Dave Smeds

"The God Engine" by Ted Kosmatka is neither too long nor too short. It is, as Goldilocks might say, just right. Perhaps this is because it is not so much a story with a standard conflict-and-resolution arc, but an unpeeling of the onion of a situation until the reader knows what the situation is. The change is not in what the characters do or learn; the change is in our understanding of them. Once that epiphany clicks in, we don't need to know more; the author wisely stops. The theme, cloning, has been addressed by many writers' work from Ursula LeGuin's "Nine Lives" on up, but Kosmatka keeps his treatment fresh, bringing us a scenario in which an extraordinarily gifted mathematician is cloned repeatedly, a circumstance of clear benefit to greater society, but which is at the same time morally reprehensible in its effects on the lives of the individual clones. I particularly enjoyed the theoretical math technobabble issuing from the lead character in the story's least bittersweet scene (bittersweet being the operative flavor here). A joy to scan on the page, it bears resemblance to the verbal pyrotechnics displayed by Matt Damon's character in Good Will Hunting.

"Memory Work" by L. Timmel Duchamp

Reviewed by Rich Horton

L. Timmel Duchamp is always a challenging and interesting writer. “Memory Work” opens with its protagonist relating her memory of certain events during the collapse of society on Earth. It seems that some sort of plague of violence has infected humanity. She is not entirely free, though the effects on her are more secondary, as she is driven from her home. It seems that the world has ended.
Then we learn that she is apparently in the custody of some kind of alien. The alien is demanding that she write down her memories. But it becomes harder to trust that her memories are real, or of a single person. And what are the alien’s motives in all this? In a curious way, I was reminded of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis books, which also feature aliens rescuing a few human survivors from the collapse of Earth’s civilization. But Duchamp’s interests are quite different—certainly, the story is importantly about the end of life as we know it. But it’s also about the way memory shapes consciousness, and the ways in which memories, and our response to them, make us human.

"Nightmare" by M. Bennardo, and
"Pericles the Tyrant" by Lois Tilton

Reviewed by John C. Bunnell

At first glance, M. Bennardo's "Nightmare" and Lois Tilton's "Pericles the Tyrant" would seem unlikely companion pieces—the former is a short, intimate, tightly focused contemporary tale, while the latter is a wide-ranging and mostly dispassionate Bronze Age alternate history. Yet it's fascinating to look at the two stories as a set, because they are oddly complementary in matters of craft and engagement. Bennardo's brief piece works very well indeed on an emotional level, but if one looks closely at the underlying logic the construct begins to fall apart. By contrast, the world-building and plot of Tilton's yarn is worked out in thorough and convincing detail—but its characters lack emotional resonance, and despite the story's open interest in drama, there is little actual tension in the recounting.
 
We never learn the name of Bennardo's first-person narrator, but we know enough about him to understand him: he's the father of three, and he has a powerful recurring nightmare that's been drawn to the surface by the family's visit to an aquarium whose exhibits are specters rather than fish. Only with the mostly unwitting but unequivocal support of thirteen-year-old Ryan does he confront his fear—and master it. The combination of first-person narration and present tense accents the emotional immediacy of the situation, the descriptive detail Bennardo provides is vivid and quietly disturbing in precisely the right proportions, and the story as a whole is admirably concise, introducing and resolving its primary conflict in smooth fashion. But while the psychological drama is utterly convincing, the foundation on which it rests doesn't stand up to close examination. To begin with, there are a couple of puzzling inconsistencies in what we're told. Both the narrator and Ryan insist beforehand that one must be at least thirteen to see the wraith exhibit (six-year-old Ethan is too young), but when they actually enter, it's evident that no one is making even a token attempt to enforce any such restriction. And the third sibling, Noelle, is little more than a cipher—old enough to be entrusted to watch over Ethan by herself, but too young to see the wraith, and almost entirely silent. More, the narrator's interaction with Noelle is such that an inattentive reader might mistakenly conclude that Noelle is his wife, not his daughter. Too, while the idea of an aquarium or theme park full of ghosts is wonderfully inventive, only the wraith is realized with any degree of conviction. Poltergeists don't break anything, and the sight or sound of banshees evidently does not foreshadow death—we're told via a half-read plaque that these ghosts are "persistent waste energy" rather than the spirits of the dead, but the assertion is too briefly made to explain why the wraith alone seems to possess true menace.

In "Pericles the Tyrant," the narrative priorities are almost precisely reversed. Lois Tilton's tale of Greek civilization transplanted to a Sicilian Athens is worked out in crisp and persuasive detail, unfolding with sweep and inevitability equal to any found in real-world history. But even though her narrator is the legendary playwright Sophocles, here cast as companion and sometime conscience to Pericles son of Xanthippos, there's little passion beneath the alternate-historical content to lure readers in. Part of the difficulty may lie in the story's split focus. Though Pericles is its title character and the fulcrum of both its speculative elements and its plot conflict, Sophocles as narrator is neither close enough to Pericles to put us into his head or to truly exert an effect on the course of events. Indeed, Tilton deliberately sends Sophocles on a decade-long world tour late in the story, leaving Pericles alone and offstage at exactly the point when both he and the reader most need Sophocles' insight to provide context and emotional support to provide explanations for what we see when Sophocles finally returns to the new Athens at the tale's conclusion. And though Tilton's writing is more than strong enough to make readers believe in Sophocles' skill as a dramatist, the story does not invest the playwright with any great degree of emotional depth. Ego, yes—there's significant attention to the competitive aspects of the Greek playwriting community—but not self-examination of the kind Bennardo shows us in his unnamed narrator. It's important to note that neither story's weaknesses are necessarily fatal. Fans of alternate history may well forgive—or even fail to notice—the omission of strong emotional content from Tilton's tale, and devotees of psychological fiction are likely to overlook logic-loopholes in Bennardo's story in favor of its well-developed character arc. But while both stories should appeal to audiences predisposed to enjoy the respective subgenres to which they belong, neither achieves the overall level of execution necessary to attract readers from outside their specialized niches.

"Out of the Box" by Steve Martinez

Reviewed by Sherwood Smith

Steve Martinez’s “Out of the Box” is a tight sfnal story crammed with ideas. It opens with Jacob sitting up alone through the night, working at testing remote servos, when a scorpion-shaped toy comes up and demands attention. At first Jacob addresses the little servo as Toby, his son’s name. We soon learn that the real Toby had a brain implant so that he can learn to control servos—an experiment his parents worry about for several reasons, including financial. But the toy hates Toby, insists it isn’t Toby, and forces Jacob to call it Not-Toby. It harasses Jacob into signing a contract, in blood, leaving Toby to the creature from midnight until morning, but Jacob insists the toy cannot touch Toby or communicate in any way. Fine, fine, the toy agrees, but it wants to get rid of Toby’s eyes, and says it will make it easy for the boy—tomorrow night, leave a knife on his pillow, or better yet a spoon. Jacob goes nuts; his wife Emily surprises him by giving the fighting toy a swirly.

You think at first because of that contract in blood, and Jacob’s accusing the toy of being a dybbuk, that we are straying into fantasy, but the story stays firmly sfnal as Jacob shows the toy the city beyond their compound. A destroyed, grim city, full of creepy-crawlies made by future tech set loose by idiots who didn’t know or care what they were doing.

The structure of the story is squeaky tight, mostly dialog, sparing on description (what there is is quite effective) and narrative (only action). It is so tight it reads like a novel compressed down. The ideas are a fast bullet-spray, leaving little time for exploration—and for characterization. Jacob’s motives are complex and therefore interesting, Emily’s less so (she speaks one line about women being screwed that seems promising, but goes nowhere). Toby is so briefly seen that his personality seems generic kid—a more important point than one would think. That said, the pacing is fast, the grim world seems quite possible, what with the news these days—and the story grips the reader to the end.

"Overlay" by Jack Skillingstead

Reviewed by Dave Smeds

"Overlay" by Jack Skillingstead is only a little longer than Nisi Shawl's story, but it is more successful in crafting characters that have a second layer to them. It could be categorized as cyberpunk. Certainly it includes tropes such as wetware implants and the "lifeloop"—to coin a term from a very early Orson Scott Card Analog story (so early that Ben Bova was still the magazine's editor). Skillingstead's protagonist is loaning his body out for a rich man's uses, and needs to know what that rich man has been doing while "riding." The author brings to life the gritty future-Earth setting, enlivens his main character, and nails down his two secondary characters with a few deft strokes that give the reader access to their motives (good, bad, neutral—enough that the protagonist knows who's on whose side). The plot wraps up neatly but perhaps too suddenly. This story could have benefited by being longer, and using what's already here as a launching point. (Reviewed by Dave Smeds)