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

Asimov's, Oct/Nov. 2002

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"With Caesar in the Underworld" by Robert Silverberg
"Stories for Men" by John Kessel
"War, Ice, Egg, Universe" by G. David Nordley
"The Hidden Place" by Ian McDonald
"The Clear Blue Seas of Luna" by Gregory Benford
"At Dorado" by Geoffrey A. Landis
"The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport" by Michael Swanwick
"A Slow Day at the Gallery" by A.M. Dellamonica

"With Caesar in the Underworld" by Robert Silverberg
Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Robert Silverberg's "With Caesar in the Underworld" is another entry in his on-going Roma Eterna series of alternate history stories following the path of Rome in a world in which Christianity never arose and Judaism remained a minor cult. This story is set during the reign of the Eastern emperor, Justinian (527-565) and concerns Menandros, an ambassador sent to Rome to initiate negotiations to marry Justinian's daughter to the heir apparent of the Roman empire, Heraclius Caesar.

The majority of the story follows Menandros, the bureaucrat Faustus, and Heraclius's profligate younger brother, Maximilianus as they tour the bawdy alleys and seedy places of Rome. Told through the eyes of Faustus, the characters are portrayed simply, only showing their true complexities at the end of the story through an unforeseen turn of events. While most of the story seems to be simply a tour of the Roman demimonde, Silverberg does provide substance to the piece in the last few pages. Although Silverberg's viewpoint character, Faustus, is completely unaware of the situation, there is a complex subtext which runs through everything he reports. While the reader may feel like the story is something of a waste of time while it is being read, Silverberg's eventual denouement makes the story well worth the time put into it. Furthermore, even when the story seems to be practically plotless, it remains entertaining as Faustus shows nonchalance at whatever new forms of debauchery Menandros and Maximilianus quest for.

"Stories for Men" by John Kessel
Reviewed by Deborah Layne

Set among the Society of Cousins lunar settlement which was the scene of John Kessel's "The Juniper Tree" in 2000, "Stories for Men" follows seventeen-year-old Erno, a young man who is beginning to feel somewhat at odds with the social structure of the Society. The Society of Cousins is the ultimate antidote to centuries of patriarchy. Matronymic and egalitarian, this is a society in which biology is no longer destiny; the Society is that Woman-Centric Dream World they tried to sell us in all those Women's Studies classes in the early 1980s. Men are trained from an early age to be good sexual partners (to men and women), and while the women may control the Society and its resources, it is a benevolent control. But, look closer.

Erno meets a comedian, Tyler Durden, who is sort of a Lenny Bruce (or maybe Andrew Dice Clay). His act is designed to shock the men in the audience into realizing what all this gender role change has cost them. Much of his routine involves conversations with his penis that show the absurdity of some of the ideas that form the basis of the Society of Cousins. When a riot breaks out at the club, Erno helps Tyler escape. During the escape, Tyler finds an old paper book from the twentieth century, a collection of short stories titled, "Stories for Men," which he gives to Erno. The men in these stories (from Hemingway, Faulkner, and Hammett, among others) fascinate and horrify Erno.

As it happens, Tyler has ambitions beyond being a comedian who "makes men think" and Erno, a biotech worker ("gene hacker") figures into Tyler's plan. Erno's participation in this scheme forces him (and us) to take a good long look at the Society of Cousins.

"Stories for Men" works beautifully as both SF adventure/mystery (What is Tyler really up to? Will Erno really join him?) and social commentary. I hate to use the phrase "social commentary" because what Kessel does here is so much more. As a woman, a wife, and the mother of a son, this story has had me thinking about gender and about sexual politics more in the past five days than all those Women's Studies classes put together. But the story never descends to the level of a polemic. It does what the very best SF does: it takes us down one possible future path to illuminate our present a bit more brightly. Read this one and then think.

"War, Ice, Egg, Universe" by G. David Nordley
Reviewed by Michael H. Payne

Imagine, if you will, that Jules Verne or H.G. Wells had been reborn as a giant alien crustacean living in the liquid on the underside of some frozen planetoid's ice sheath. "War, Ice, Egg, Universe," then, the first novelette in this issue of Asimov's, would be the sort of story our alien author would write.

G. David Nordley keeps us firmly in the 1st person viewpoint of our alien hero Loudpincers as he and his colleagues from the University journey first "up" toward the center of their earth in a marvelous bathysphere, then tunnel "down" toward what we would call the surface of their planet, all in an effort to find the lightstone that will aid their country of Long Valley in its fight against the invading Westerian Empire.

Now, I enjoy stories told from the alien's POV...when they don't frustrate me too much. It's just, well, these stories have to be written in a sort of code to make them seem more alien: here, for instance, we have the various references to lightstone; all the measurements are described in powers of eight; they use the word "cycle" instead of "day," stuff like that. Nordley does a good job, though, of keeping my confusion to a minimum, and he pretty much manages to answer most of my questions before the story's over.

It's also another example of a story that's the right length for itself, Loudpincer's two journeys needing the room a novelette provides to play out. And I love the pseudo-Victorian diction the story's told in: like I said, Verne or Wells as giant alien arthropoids. A winning combination all around.

"The Hidden Place" by Ian McDonald
Reviewed by Chris Markwyn

The human Clade has spread across the galaxy, settling planets, diverging into a myriad of branches, races, and subspecies. On the planet Fanadd, a single genetic error eleven thousand years ago during the initial seeding of the world has resulted in every birth being twins, marking the native culture with an aversion to isolation and a strong sense of duality. Now the Clade has returned to Fanadd, to see whether its people are ready to rejoin the human community. A six year old girl, artificially grown and implanted with the memory nanomeres of the Prebendary Shodmer of Naul, is the Clade's ambassador, and Fodhaman is the woman assigned to her as both liaison to and spy for her government. When her superiors learn more about the device that brought the Prebendary to their world, however, Fodhaman is forced to choose between her loyalties to her country and to Shodmer.

Such is the story in Ian McDonald's "The Hidden Place," and it is strongly reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin's stories set in the Ekumen, especially her novel The Left Hand of Darkness. McDonald reverses that novel, using the native point of view rather than that of the ambassador, as if Le Guin had told her novel through Estraven's eyes. McDonald puts nearly a novel's worth of material into this story, and its density at times overwhelms the simplicity of the plot, but the relationship between Fodhaman and Shodmer is well drawn, and the Clade itself has the potential to be an intriguing updating of the idea of the galactic community. There are times when the story feels like a preliminary sketch for a series, but the characters ultimately keep it grounded.

"The Clear Blue Seas of Luna" by Gregory Benford
Reviewed by Michael H. Payne

I'm not sure I understood Gregory Benford's novelette well enough even to summarize it. But, well, let's give it the old Tangent try.

Benjan has been working for centuries to terraform the moon, and now that's he's within decades of completing the project, he's informed that it's no longer going to be an open colony: one clan out of all the people on Earth has been given complete and total settlement rights. Benjan had only agreed to work on the project in the first place because he thought it would be free to everyone, so now he decides to do something about it.

And that's the part I'm not quite sure I understand. He's apparently been working so long with the machines re-shaping the moon that he's become a part of them--Martine, the love of his life, has also merged with the machines but for slightly different reasons—so we get an interestingly disjointed narrative, all the various bits and pieces of Benjan doing their part to carry out his plan. But the plan itself stayed so vague to me, I couldn't tell you what happened at the end even if I wanted to spoil it for you.

So it was a very long story for me. I mean, I can see that the pages describing in some detail how to terraform the moon are maybe there to show us that Benjan is engineer enough for the project, but this non-engineer was perfectly willing to take that point as read. Of course, the whole engineering aspect might very well be the point: I mean, Benford says about halfway through the story, "Let's remember that the future belongs to the engineers." So maybe I'm just not the audience he's aiming at.

It wasn't a bad story at all—I can't imagine any story that makes it into Asimov's is gonna be "bad." But as much as I enjoyed some of the scenery along the way, I just didn't follow Benford to the end.

"At Dorado" by Geoffrey A. Landis
Reviewed by Michael H. Payne

The first short story in this double issue is a tale as old as humanity: men must go down to their ships, and women must remain in port to weep when the wreckage of those ships is brought back. Here, though, the port is a station in orbit around a wormhole called Dorado—hence the story's title—and the ships go traveling through those wormholes from one end of the galaxy to the next.

The woman is Cheena, a barmaid at the Subtle Tiger, her man is Daryn, the navigator on board the Hesperia, and from there, the story plays out exactly as it has for thousands of years.

Except, well, this is science fiction, and with Geoffrey A. Landis at the helm, science fiction of the highest order. Now, I can't say that I understand all the technical jiggery-pokery that he lays out for us about how wormholes work, but the way he uses it to expand the traditional tale in a very poignant coda makes this a story worth telling. And Landis's wonderful ability to make the characters and the setting come alive in a few choice words makes it a story well-told; it's a real treat for me to come across a short story that's not rattling around in the oversized clothing of a novelette or a novella....

"The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport" by Michael Swanwick
Reviewed by Chris Markwyn

"The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport" is a sequel to Michael Swanwick's Hugo-winning short story of 2001, "The Dog Said Bow-Wow." Here we rejoin the dashing pair of confidence men, the charming and canine Surplus and the roguish and more human Darger. As the story begins they have come to Paris, living on credit while their elaborate confidence schemes mature. One morning they receive a present, an antique pistol dating from the time of the Utopians, sent to them by Madame Mignonette d'Etranger. They hope to entrap her husband, Monsieur d'Etranger, who is both immensely wealthy and dying, with a plan to raise the non-existent ruins of the Eiffel Tower from the Seine, but the two are soon themselves entangled by the feline wiles of Madame d'Etranger.

The story may lack some of the brio and panache of its predecessor, but as the second in a series it is only required to tell a story, not lay the groundwork for an entire world. The two stories are roughly the same length, but Swanwick has not crammed this one quite as manically full of invention as he did the first. Here the focus is more on plot, the cunning machinations of scheme upon scheme, as Surplus and Darger find themselves in the unfamiliar role of the dupe. This may not win another Hugo, but Swanwick seems to be enjoying himself immensely, and so are we.

"A Slow Day at the Gallery" by A.M. Dellamonica
Reviewed by Jay Lake

It's rewarding to read a science fiction story that could only be a science fiction story—and in general there's some very fine genre fiction that could be recast as historical, contemporary or otherwise. A.M. Dellamonica's "A Slow Day at the Gallery" is a revenge story, a minor mystery, an anthropological speculation, a riff on art history, a buddy story, and damned fine science fiction, all in about 4,000 words. The interplay of fine art, culture and killing anger is fascinating, the ageing antihero is engaging, and the outcome surprising, and utterly science fictional. This is a clean, tight piece of solid SF.