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

Asimov's, October-November 2001

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"The Longest Way Home" (serial, Part 1 of 3) by Robert Silverberg
"Troubadour" by Charles Stross
"The Boy" by Robert Reed
"When This World Is All on Fire" by William Sanders
"Bad Asteroid Night" by Steve Martinez
"Lincoln in Frogmore" by Andy Duncan
"Liberty Journals" by Allen M. Steele
"Menage" by Simon Ings
"Aotearoa" by Cherry Wilder
"Nitrogen Plus" by Jack Williamson
"The Dog Said Bow-Wow" by Michael Swanwick

[Editor's note: While this magazine does not review serials, it is worth noting that Part 1 of Robert Silverberg's new novel The Longest Way Home begins in this issue of Asimov's. While Analog has run many novel serializations in its pages over the years, it is a rare, but welcome event to see one now in Asimov's.]

"Troubadour" by Charles Stross
Reviewed by Jay Lake

I have previously used Tangent's hallowed electrons to explain—at some length—how impressed I was with Charlie Stross's story "Lobsters" that appeared in the June issue of Asimov's. So I was quite eager to review "Troubadour" for this issue. It is another step in the continuing adventures of Manfred Macx. To quote Stross, "Manfred is an agalmic entrepreneur, a specialist in giving good ideas away for free to people who can do things with them." He's sort of an extropian intellectual philanthropist. Unfortunately, "Troubadour" wasn't quite the blowout its predecessor was. Don't get me wrong, it's entertaining as hell, extremely clever, full of all kinds of odd perspectives, and is a must-read story. It's just not a world-beater. Admittedly an impossible standard to which to hold an author, but Stross has proven before that he can hit it.

"The Boy" by Robert Reed
Reviewed by Chris Markwyn

How would our world be, had Jesus Christ been a woman? Such is the question Robert Reed attempts to answer in "The Boy," an examination of the effect a single sex chromosome might have had on the course of history. In the world of Helena, the protagonist, women have been the dominant sex for millennia, though recent affirmative action programs and other political movements have helped to raise the status of men. A chance encounter with a young man, the boyfriend of Helena's neighbor's daughter, triggers the events of the story. There isn't much plot here; most of the story concerns Helena's day-to-day life, relationships, and memories, and Reed uses these mundane events to show exactly how this world differs from our own. The background and setting are skillfully drawn, with hardly an infodump to be found; it all arises naturally from Helena's own life.

Reed also does an excellent job working out the implications of his alteration to history, and much of the story's interest comes from the little details: Helena's painting of the female Christ cradling a newborn lamb; Islam, no longer a world religion a billion strong, but an underground cult popular among male prisoners; the pictures of female pioneers on the American frontier, with their shared husbands and children; the Gospels of Judith and Cora, rather than Matthew or Mark.

But I never felt that the characters and events were sufficiently robust to carry the significance that is asked of them. The ending, especially, seemed contrived, symbolic, needlessly freighted with weight and meaning, and out of joint with the quiet, matter-of-fact tone of the rest of the story. While the world of the story is fascinating, the rest of the story is not equally compelling.

"When This World Is All on Fire" by William Sanders
Reviewed by Sherwood Smith

William Sanders writes with a distinctive voice: wise-ass, often funny, cinematic in image, character, and pacing. That wise-ass attitude slips you into a story that is perhaps darker than the reader might at first perceive. The time is the near future; global warming has triggered devastating problems, and Native Americans are trying to hold onto what little land they have left in this particular area of the South. David Blackbear is cruising around with his partner when they see smoke rising. They find a family of squatters; before the squatters are aware of them they hear singing, a voice of untrained brilliance, coming from a teenage girl. The father, warned to leave, turns out to be an angry racist, a lethal combination. The rest of the story unfolds rapidly. Davis sees the girl again, and instinct prompts him to approach her. He just wants to hear her sing, though with impassive realism she at first misinterprets his motives.

Helpless to give her any aid he buys her shoes, drives her home, to realize he's made a mistake. Sanders plays it tight right to the end, leaving readers to come to their own conclusions. What you see in this story might be different than what I see, which is that beauty matters, must always matter, especially when the world has become so ugly, but there is a cost.

A very fine story.

"Bad Asteroid Night" by Steve Martinez
Reviewed by Steven H Silver

"Bad Asteroid Night" is only the second story published by Steve Martinez. It is set in a world where prejudices run rife, although rather than being based on a "racial" basis, they are caused by the differences between humans, semi-sentient robots, and ganglies, a group of genetically modified humans. Trina, the main human character, is set to discover the identities of the perpetrators of the theft of ores from the asteroid on which she works. The main focus of the story is the desire of the ganglies for a sort of self-determinism, although Martinez includes a certain Van Vogtian sense throughout the conversation between Trina and Rakshasa, the gangly assigned to her asteroid. When Trina finds herself in an untenable position, one of her solutions is strongly reminiscent of Asimov’s "Marooned Off Vesta."

The story has a certain cinematic feel to it, although in this case it means that Martinez has left out some of the description which would have clarified the characters’ activities. Martinez shows that he has the potential for writing complex stories; however he does not yet exhibit the necessary seasoning to make the story entirely successful. Furthermore, like Asimov’s Foundation stories, Martinez seems to be setting Trina and her companions up for a continuing series or a novel, which gives the story an unfinished feel.

"Lincoln in Frogmore" by Andy Duncan
Reviewed by Jay Lake

Andy Duncan's "Lincoln in Frogmore" first appeared in his highly-regarded collection Beluthahatchie and Other Stories. It is a narrative telling of a relatively well-known piece of outsider art by Sam Doyle of the same title. I read the story the week of 9/11, and it brought me to tears. Abraham Lincoln is traveling through the South ahead of the Union Army, meeting and speaking to slave communities to inspire them to their futures. This is an astonishingly simple story that manages to be astonishingly complex at the same time. It is a meditation on courage, freedom, and dignity in adversity, all wrapped in the thick dialect of the Carolina Outer Banks. Read it slowly, then show it to someone else. I did.

Another View...

"Lincoln in Frogmore" by Andy Duncan
Reviewed by Sherwood Smith

I suspect that some readers will wonder where the genre element is in Andy Duncan's exquisite "Lincoln in Frogmore." The story is a frame tale, an incident told to a field historian by an elderly black man who was a boy during the Civil War. One night, all the blacks in his community slipped down to the cypress swamps to hear what turned out to be Abraham Lincoln, who had slipped away from one of the blockade ships. The voice is beautifully rendered, the writing superlative. Check out the description of Lincoln, in terms that in any other story would present an outright villain; the weight of Lincoln's charisma, borne down through history, scours away mere revulsion, leaving us an interesting Lincoln, a believable one, sentiment-free. As for the genre element, Duncan gives us the oldest form of fantasy, the legend, or folk tale: not just the childish folk legend of fireside entertainment but the one that has taken on enough mythic resonance to seem real.

"Liberty Journals" by Allen M. Steele
Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Allen M. Steele’s "Liberty Journals" is the story of a new colony told from the points of view of several of the colonists. Since each section of the novelette is taken from a different colonist’s journal, it allows Steele to present multiple slants on the events as well as provide the reader with different information depending on who is narrating events.

Throughout the eleven (short) sections of the story, Steele treats the reader to discussions of the flora and fauna of the new world, the orbital dynamics and how they are going to affect measurement of time and, to some extent, agriculture, and the political makeup of the colony. On top of all that, he introduces several relationships between characters, the most notable being between the orphaned Wendy Gunther and her new foster parent, Kuniko Okada as well as a budding romance between Wendy and the also-recently-orphaned Carlos Montero.

The multi-viewpoint story hints at future interpersonal relationships and conflicts, as well as the colonists’ trials and tribulations on a new planet following their revolt against a fascist American régime.

Unfortunately, although the characters and their situation is interesting, "Liberty Journals" seems to be more of an introduction to a longer story than a complete story in and of itself.

"Ménage" by Simon Ings
Reviewed by Rich Horton

Simon Ings's "Ménage" is an ambitious novelette, about an actor who has been written out of a popular soap opera. As the story opens he's recovering after some sort of mysterious operation, and finds himself taken to the house of the show's creator and her husband. Over a few weeks he finds himself almost ready to renew what seems perhaps to have been a past affair with the woman--oddly with what seems like the complicity of the husband. Slowly we learn what's really going on--as hints build up about the unusual nature of the soap opera, and about the actor's involvement with his rather Casanova-like character—until the true nature of the main character is revealed. I found this story intriguing but a bit slippery of meaning and not quite as effective as I hoped. Perhaps too much of its value is tied to its central conceit.

"Aotearoa" by Cherry Wilder
Reviewed by Rich Horton

"Aotearoa" by Cherry Wilder is a lovely short-short presenting by background hints a much altered Earth history. A young man in an affluent and comfortable sounding society tells of a visit to his Uncle for the latter's birthday, of a budding love affair, and of the fabled island Aotearoa, while in the background Wilder lets the reader absorb little hints of in just what ways this world is different. Very nice stuff.

"Nitrogen Plus" by Jack Williamson
Reviewed by Michael P. Belfiore

Jack Williamson's story, although it lacks strong characters, gives us something to sink our teeth into. A far future immortal entrepreneur sends his young (and very mortal) nephew to develop a new planet for him. While there, the nephew finds love, and a very alien sentience that just wants to be left alone. Interstellar travel, daring explorers, and haunting alien landscapes are the order of the day here. As befits one of science fiction's original masters, Williamson writes in the classic vein of broad sweeps of human history and of our destiny among the stars; themes that are far too often missing from the current literature.

"The Dog Said Bow-Wow" by Michael Swanwick
Reviewed by Michael P. Belfiore

When Michael Swanwick taught my Clarion West class, he told us that the writer of a short story is a suit salesman attempting to grab potential customers and pull them into his store to buy a suit. The first paragraph was key, he said, to making the collar.

Swanwick practices what he preaches; the opening to this story caught me and pulled me right in, hinting as it does of the hundreds of modifications required to allow a dog to stand upright and walk and talk like a man. Set in the far future, after computer technology has been banned because of demonic AIs that tried to destroy human civilization, bio engineering having outpaced every other technology on Earth.

The dog is quite the ladies' man, and, accompanied by a human partner in crime, he uses his wiles to gain access to a princess's jewels. Things go horribly wrong, however, when the two crooks discover that the apparently dead modem that is central to their scam is, in fact, capable of channeling a vengeful AI.

Engaging, entertaining, and brilliant in its portrayal of a fully-realized future history in a compact space, the story nevertheless lacks depth; it is, at base, only a shaggy dog story.

Another View...

"The Dog Said Bow-Wow" by Michael Swanwick
Reviewed by Chris Markwyn

I'm sure there are good cultural and psychological explanations for the attraction many science fiction writers feel to Victorian England, but I don't know what they are. "Steampunk" is still a minor sub-genre of sf, with Neal Stephenson's Hugo-winning The Diamond Age its highest-profile member, and Michael Swanwick comes merrily along here to enjoy the territory. It may not be terribly probable that the future will decide to replicate the culture of 19th century England, enhanced by genetic engineering and biotechnology, but it's fun to pretend. Here, England and the rest of the world have recovered from the madness of the ancient Utopians, whose civilization (presumably our near-future) was destroyed by the demonic artificial intelligences that were loosed onto the computer networks. Now, modems and other networking technology are banned, and biotechnology rules the day.

Onto the scene come Aubrey Darger, a roguish chap, and his new-found partner Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Preciuex, also known as "Surplus," the bipedal, intelligent dog of the story's title. The plot concerns their attempt to swindle the Lady Pamela Coherence-Hamilton of her fabulous diamonds, with the aid of a seemingly workable modem. Their plans go awry, of course, and they barely escape with their lives, but the plot is a bit of a McGuffin, after all. What entertains here is Swanwick's manic ringing of all the variations on the steampunk theme he can cram into twelve pages: Gloriana, the Queen of England, whose thirty-six brains are arranged in a hypercube combination; Buckingham Labyrinth, with its cast of dwarf savants and intelligent baboons; and, of course, Surplus himself, thief, lover, and mutant dog. Highly entertaining, and apparently the start of a series.