Asimov's, September 2003

Sunday, 31 August 2003 18:00 Phil Friel
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"Looking Through Lace" by Ruth Nestvold
"Off on a Starship" by William Barton
"The Long Way Home" by James Van Pelt
"Focus Group" by Kit Reed
"Big Ugly Mama and the Zk" by Eleanor Arnason
"First Principles" by Edd Vick

This month we have two novellas, and four short stories, with no novelettes this time around. Nice to see a couple of novellas in a single issue, a rarity these days. As is my usual style I'll start off with the bigger stories and work my way down towards the short stories.

The first novella is "Looking Through Lace" by Ruth Nestvold, an intelligent, complex story illustrating the difficulties of learning and understanding the nuances and intricacies of an alien language and culture, particularly one so similar to our own that we persist in viewing it (wrongly) on our terms. It's set some way into the future, and we have a Federation-style Allied Interstellar Community involved in a tricky First Contact situation with a human-descended yet strangely different matriarchal culture, on a world where the complexities of language and culture are proving a more difficult than expected barrier to communication. Out of the several main languages on the planet, why is the chief language spoken only by the women and is so secret that that no man is allowed to learn or speak it, including those in the First Contact team? Why do the women and the men have their own separate languages, with a third universal language common to both? And where is the written language, necessary to pass down the knowledge and records of this society?

The story opens up as the protagonist, a female xenolinguist, joins the team as an assistant to the team leader, one of the galaxy's most reknowned xenolinguists. Unfortunately this man is for some reason very uncooperative and overtly hostile to the new member, indeed to the idea of any woman serving on his team, and severe tensions arise between the two. We eventually learn why he doesn't want a woman on the team and that he has been concealing vital information all along, and his machinations and behaviour become more extreme as our female protagonist begins to unearth some startling evidence about the women's language and the culture and history of this race. Everything she and the rest of the team thought they knew is turned completely on its head, with far-reaching implications for both the cultural and the personal relationships between the First Contact team and the natives. It also really messes things up on an emotional level for our female lead character, who has become romantically involved with one of the local men, when she realizes that their relationship is totally different to what she had assumed it to be.

Overall I found the examination of the deeper complexities and misunderstandings between the two cultures to be thoughtful and handled well. The realization that there is a written language (based around the "lace" of the story's title, and, again, known only to the women) and it has been staring the First Contact team in the face the whole time comes as a startling one. The reason why the language of the women is so secret, and why there are so many differences between the languages of both men and women are logical and well thought out, and the final revelation about the true nature of the relationship between the women and the men comes as a nice twist. However, I do consider it highly unlikely that males would have allowed things to continue like this for so long in any human culture that I can envisage, especially a relatively peaceful one such as this which is under constant threat of attack by pirates.

William Barton's "Off on a Starship" is the second and longer of our novellas, and is my favourite story this month. A teenager is walking home one cold November night in 1966 when he spots a "flying saucer", sneaks on board and finds himself whisked off on an adventure to defy all imagination. The saucer is actually an automated probe ship from a long-vanished intergalactic empire (all that's left is the self-repairing transport system and stop-off points), sent out to pick up samples of alien flora and fauna. The young man finds that the saucer is a bit like Doctor Who's Tardis - bigger on the inside than the outside (some form of elaborate space folding) - and holds a menagerie of life forms, including Jurassic dinosaurs from Earth. It takes him to a huge mothership (an ark/worldship, as in Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama) orbiting Saturn and from there on an incredible hyperspace journey across the galaxies - no wimpy Star Trek Federation here, or even the slightly more expansive empires such as those in Frank Herbert's Dune or Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories. This story thinks Big with a capital "B", and the Lost Empire is/was over three hundred million light years from end to end, covering our entire galactic supercluster and several beyond, like other SFictional galactic empires do mere star systems. The hero has to travel two hundred million parsecs in a straight line and through two galactic superclusters just to get home!

After landing on a number of strange worlds our teenage adventurer manages to maroon himself on one for a few weeks when he goes out exploring and misses his automated ride. He meets a telepathic robot which transforms into the girl of his dreams, they begin an intense sexual relationship (it could only happen in SF...), and hitch a ride on another starship, exploring more strange new worlds, until they finally arrive back at Earth (forty-three years later, due to time dilation) leading a fleet of ten thousand automated alien battleships, each a kilometre in length. How's that for a homecoming! The story finishes with the fleet being used to seed the many worlds of the Lost Empire with scattered groups of humanity, and an open ending for a possible sequel.

"Off on a Starship" is a more complex and adult story than it seems at first (and I'm not referring to the sex scenes here), and there's so much more than a mere space fantasy going on in the background. As it's a first person viewpoint we get a lot of the young hero's thoughts and commentary on personal issues, such as his problems at home, falling out with his long-term best/only friend and fellow SF fan, and general problems being a geekish fanboy. We also get a picture of some of the important background events of the Sixties as seen through his eyes, such as Vietnam, the Gemini XII space mission (which is orbiting Earth as the story begins), the upcoming Apollo project, and his less than favourable opinions on mankind's "advances" into space when he returns in 2009. Like anyone from the Sixties, bursting with enthusiasm and optimism about the human race venturing into space, he'd expect to see a lot of advances in forty-three years: Von Braun geosynchronous wheel spacestations, moonbases, Mars bases, and a strong presence in the rest of the solar system, just for starters. Instead all he gets is a tinker-toy LEO space station, the space shuttle, and a few satellites and robot probes to the outer planets. He is not impressed, to say the least.

But most importantly, many male SF fans can relate to this protagonist - indeed he is us, or at least "us" as we were when we were his age. Like many teenage male SF fans (and I was one) he is socially awkward, girl-and-sex starved, and, dare I say it, a geek. He eats, sleeps and breathes SF, and like any true obsessed science fiction fan would doubtless do, everything he sees on his fantastic journey is compared/equated with some science fictional novel or universe from his memories. We get a "Who's Who" of SF magazines, authors and stories, such as Burroughs' "Pellucidar", Clarke's The Sands of Mars, and Frank Herbert's Dune (Asimov, Niven, Norton and a few other authors also get a mention), and a nice set of throwaway references to the classic sf movie The Day the Earth Stood Still when he went on the saucer at the start of the story (which was very funny). And the entire concept of a teenage male SF fan being taken away on a journey like this - well... it's every teenage male SF fan's wet dream. And I'm sure it was William Barton's, which is why he so obviously enjoyed writing this story.

This is a highly enjoyable, fun romp, and it reminds me a lot of the classic science fantasies of the Thirties (of which I'm a big fan), such as Donald Wandrei's "Colossus", Henry Kuttner's "The Time Trap" and "Avengers of Space", and Jack Williamson's "The Moon Era", in which the hero undertakes an amazing voyage through unknown and inconceivably remote and immense regions of space and time. The story is a complete flight of fancy, just oozing at the seams with good old-fashioned sensawunda and charm, unlike much of modern science fiction literature which I believe takes itself far too seriously. I thought this type of story was an extinct species, and it's just so refreshing to read something like this in a modern SF magazine. The most fun story I've read all year, bar none.

"The Long Way Home" by James Van Pelt is the first of this month's short stories. We've got a nuclear war breaking out, and desperate attempts to make sure mankind's first starship successfully enters hyperspace with its precious cargo of survivors, just as the bombs are falling. But this is a new, untested kind of engine, and disaster strikes as the ship leaves its human cargo behind when it enters hyperspace (they call it juxtaspace). The physical bodies are dead, floating frozen in space, but the "consciousness" of the more than fourteen thousand dead crewmembers somehow survives as a gestalt supercooled entity, continuing on out until they reach the Oort Cloud, where the sun's gravity begins pulling them on their centuries-long return trip back to Earth. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the human race did survive the nuclear war, and we see the long struggle back up the technological ladder and back to space in a series of three short interlinked vignettes, each jumping forward a bit more in time until we reach the momentous moment of mankind's return to space, almost half a millennium after the nuclear war.

The story illustrates one of the major ironies of human existence - we are our own worst enemy, and the near extinction event/nuclear war was of our own doing - and contrasts that with the hopes and dreams of the survivors as the human race crawls back from the abyss to the stars, attempting to relearn both the knowledge of the "Old Timers" and how not to make the same mistakes that they did. I thought that the final scene was a nice touch, in which the female pilot of the first rocket back into space sits talking with her husband on a hill overlooking the launch site, just a few hours before launch, and they witness a spectacular meteor shower. Ironically this is actually the passengers and debris from Earth's first starship, returning home at last. A sign that it's time for humanity to go back into space? I'd like to think so. The story is nicely written, and evokes for me a nice mood of sadness but also optimism for the future, even if we do mess up a bit along the way. It also has a bit of a "retro" feel to it, reminding me a lot of some of the 1950s and early-1960s classics, possibly early Poul Anderson or something similar. I remember a story by Anderson ("Epilogue" from his collection Time and Stars) in which another ship flees to the stars, again narrowly escaping a nuclear war, and because of zipping around the galaxy at near lightspeed and undergoing extreme time dilation (a bit like Tau Zero) it returns to Earth three billion years later, only to find it a totally alien world with a poisonous chlorine atmosphere and non-carbon based metallic "animal" and "plant" lifeforms descended from mankind's AI robots and machines, which had survived the war and mutated because of the radiation. I've always loved that story, and Anderson's short fiction in general, and anything with a similar "feel" is something I'm likely to enjoy. This alone makes "The Long Way Home" my favourite from among this month's shorter pieces, with the added bonus that it is a nice story in its own right.

Kit Reed's "Focus Group" is set in a relatively near future, in which the Focus Group of the title is a "jury" of twelve random individuals representing the general public, and who have been chosen by the television network executives as a "barometer" of public opinion. To make things more accurate they are wired up and implanted with special chips which record their reactions to certain shows, characters and situations, information upon which the networks base their evaluation of how the public will react. This story is told from a first person viewpoint, that of a member of the Focus Group, a rather unbalanced and obsessed female soap fan who has developed an extreme fixation on a male actor in a newly-cast soap opera series. The woman is completely irrational, living a fantasy romance with the male soap star who is, in effect, a fictional character on a television screen. She very vocally takes credit for every decision made regarding this character, using all her influence in the Focus Group to ensure that the writer (who is using her both physically and to further his career) gives her "man" juicy roles, and she resists any attempts by other members of the Focus Group to get rid of the actor. Her skewed mental viewpoint and vastly overblown sense of her own self-importance are starkly contrasted at the end of the story with the much more realistic attitudes of the writer and the soap star, who is glad as hell to get out of the crummy soap and into a much better large film role. It's amusing to note that he doesn't even know who she is - so much for his "Number One Fan" - a big reality check for deluded, egotistical fans who imagine they have a personal relationship with big media stars. The fickle nature of such an unbalanced fan persona is also shown as she very quickly transfers her obsession from the previous star (who has just "rejected" her) to the new hunk who has just come on the soap.

The really scary thing is that we've all met people like this in real life. I've known a few in my time - crazy Trekkies, general SF saddos, and addicted soap and sports fans who eat, sleep and breathe their respective obsessions. Quite a large percentage of the population (particularly in Western society) suffer from some similar obsession or another, a sad reflection on the general level of human psychological instability and the nature of the society that makes it so fragile. The story also deals with the psychology of mass media and the general public and also illustrates the unnerving near-symbiotic relationship between the television networks and the public in our own society. TV networks are desperate to please the public - if they fail they sink without a trace - and they give us what we want (or what they think we want - a steady diet of junk TV) and in return we make them stinking rich.

In a lighter vein "Big Ugly Mama and the Zk" by Eleanor Arnason is a rather strange but charming story in which an unfortunate encounter between a really weird superbeing and a spaceship in distress has unexpected consequences when it triggers an unwanted metamorphosis in the lone alien crewmember, one of the insectoid Zk species which has a number of different stages in its life cycle. Unfortunately the alien is also a VIP, a prince who is a king-in-waiting, on the way to his own coronation, and desperate measures are needed to get him back to the way he was. Strangely he has regressed two stages backwards in his life cycle, so the Big Ugly Mama takes him back in time (to the early Carboniferous period, where he feels right at home among all the plants and bugs and where there are no large land predators to trouble him) and looks after him for twenty Earth years until he progresses two stages forward to where he was when it all started, learning so much more about how to be a better man and king in the process. After many years together they become rather attached to each other, but things become even more complicated with the appearance of a fearsome Zk Big Mama. But all's well that ends well, as the two Big Mamas put their heads together to think of a solution to the problem.

I've read some of Eleanor Arnason's previous stories, all of them good, and this one is quite different in style to any of the others. It's a more tongue in cheek, whacky, amusing tale with some quite humorous dialogue and situations. The Big Mamas and Big Poppas are an interesting if unlikely concept, possible ultimate forms or superbeings arising from many intelligent species, including our own. And the Big Ugly Mama is the strangest of the lot, not quite a Big Mama but a "potential" one, hence her incredibly ugly and deformed appearance as opposed to that of a real human Big Mama, which would've looked human. Overall this story was an entertaining read, but nothing to be taken too seriously.

Edd Vick's "First Principles" is the final short story this month, and is a very short story indeed, more of a short-short in fact. It's an alternate history, taking a "what-if" look at the life of famous German physicist Werner Heisenberg, the "father" of modern quantum physics and head of research into the unsuccessful attempt to develop nuclear weapons for the Nazi regime during the Second World War. This tale is a bit vague and confusing if you don't know the details of Heisenberg's life and career, but looks at a Heisenberg who took a different path in life, didn't get married or have seven kids, didn't take up teaching, and who remained a lonely, solitary figure devoted to his work. The implication of the story is that he has successfully designed a nuclear bomb for the Nazis, and that history will take a quite different course as a result.

The irony of this story is that the man who first developed the theory of quantum physics (which theorizes that we all have an infinite number of choices from an infinite number of possible situations) is a lonely old man who finds himself trapped by the fact that he has no other choice than to take the path he has taken, and who feels that mysterious outside forces have controlled and guided his life and work. We never find out who they are - time travellers, supernatural or more earthly forces, or whatever - although the inference is that the first person narrator who is telling the story and has been keeping a close eye on Heisenberg is one of them. I'd have liked to see more, but the story was much too short to do anything with the potentially interesting ideas it presented, and left me dissatisfied because it didn't deliver and I was left wanting much more. I also have to admit to my general dislike of short-short stories, which I find almost all suffer from the same problem.

Overall this was a very enjoyable issue of Asimov's. The two novellas are easily my favourite stories of the month, and the Barton novella is one of my favourites of the year. From the short stories, my favourite was the James van Pelt tale, although I also enjoyed the Eleanor Arnason and Kit Reed stories. The Edd Vick story had potential, but was much too short to do anything worthwhile, a major peeve of mine concerning very short stories. Not enough meat on the bone. An issue of Asimov's well worth reading for the novellas alone, and which once again displays my own personal preference for the longer forms over short stories.

Phil Friel lives in the city of Derry, in Northern Ireland. He's been reading SF for almost thirty-five years (his first SF novel was The Time Machine when he was eight years old), and his tastes range the spectrum from space opera to the hardest of hard SF. He's always looking to expand those tastes, and reckons that the SF magazines are the perfect place to do just that. He likes both novels and short fiction, but prefers the shorter forms.