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

Asimov's, June 2010

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Monkey Do” by Kit Reed
The Peacock Cloak” by Chris Beckett
Voyage to the Moon” by Peter Friend
The Emperor of Mars” by Allen M. Steele
Dreadnought Neptune” by Anna Tambour
Petopia” by Benjamin Crowell
Earth III” by Stephen Baxter

Reviewed by Daniel Woods

Monkey Do” by Kit Reed

Ever hear that old saying about a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters? Billy Masterton sure has. A writer still toiling in obscurity, Billy is desperate to produce a hit novel. To help inspire his latest epic, Rhesus Planet, Billy brings home a monkey called Spud. What better than a monkey to help him with a “monkey novel,” right? Sure enough, Rhesus Planet gets published. Unfortunately, the book is a complete flop, and now Billy is stuck with an irate primate that even the local zoo won't adopt (“a bad influence,” they said). So, to distract Spud, Billy decides to test the old theory, and gives that monkey a laptop. It is not long before the race is on between them for bookish stardom.

Monkey Do” is a tongue-in-cheek story about literary jealousy. Despite being a “poor me” tale, it is actually quite entertaining to follow. Billy's condescending opinion of Spud is sustained until the bitter end, which makes it extra satisfying to watch the monkey overtake him artistically. You can't help but think “ha, serves you right, Billy.” Plus, anyone who has ever tried their hand at writing will have met a Billy and a Spud. It brought a wry smile to recognise elements of each character in some of my friends (and even in myself on occasion!). Really, this element is this story's greatest strength. It is a deceptively accurate portrayal of the world of the wannabe novelist; a little googling is all it takes to find some real-life “Storygrinder” software, or a catty “concrit war” between users on a workshop website.

If you wanted to analyse the “writer = monkey” premise further, I suppose you could make all sorts of arguments about the artistic value of “the novel,” about celebrity authors all being giant hacks, etc. But frankly, I don't think that was Reed's intention. This is the kind of story you don't see too often -- one that expands on an idea, but sticks to it completely. There are no side issues here, no subplots or lofty commentaries; it is the understated simplicity of “Monkey Do” that makes it work. That said, its simplicity may also prove to be its downfall. While this is a good one for short-term enjoyment, it tends to be the great epics that stick in the long-term memory. Pleasing as this piece is, I think there is a danger that “Monkey Do” will be discarded as a trifle.

The Peacock Cloak” by Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett's “The Peacock Cloak” is set in a virtual reality universe called Esperine (a name which, if Google is to be believed, means “hope,” possibly coming from the French word espérer). Tawus is one of the Six: a group of “demigod” AI beings that inhabit Esperine, each one a slightly modified copy of the creator Fabbro himself. It was Fabbro's intention that they oversee his universe, but never try to control it. Things didn't go to plan. Tawus and the others grew restless, and gave the people cities, technology and government; the result was interplanetary war. Now, the end of the world is nearing, and with the many eyes of the Peacock Cloak watching out for him, Tawus has decided to seek out his creator and seize control of the universe.

This is a story about meeting God, allegorically speaking. Tawus seems to represent Man – a being made in his creator's image, who turns from the divine will and in doing so causes destruction. The Peacock Cloak itself is the pinnacle of Tawus' (Man's) invention. Literally a cloak with many eyes, it is an object that closes Tawus off into his own world, and protects him from outside influence. The religious overtones here are hard to miss, so it is particularly thought-provoking when “God” admits to being less than perfect in Esperine's final moments. Of course, since “God” here is a human programmer, such an admission is arguably meaningless: I will leave you to chase the God-Human-God argument yourselves, and leave off it before I get dizzy.

Despite the SF backdrop, there are also elements of myth and magic in this piece. I was reminded of ancient Greece by Tawus' descriptions of his siblings, for example (Cassandra in her Mirror Mantle, Jabreel in his Armor of Light, Balthazar in his Coat of Dreams). Gods and demigods aren't just real in Esperine, but constitute the central characters. Though it will not appeal to everyone, I thought that the merging of SF and fantasy made for a rich reading experience.

There is a certain poignancy to the ending that I enjoyed (though I won't spoil it for you), and the Peacock Cloak itself sticks vividly in my mind. Still, Beckett skims over the rise and fall of entire civilisations, zooming in on Esperine's final moments, so there is not much of a “story” to speak of. Really, “The Peacock Cloak” is about Tawus' moment of redemption, and by extension, a comment on the nature of mankind today. The argument seems to be that there is hope yet, in spite of all the world's suffering and mankind's mistakes. For that, I think you should read this piece. Just don't expect an easy-going SF romp: “The Peacock Cloak” is all about big issues.

Voyage to the Moon” by Peter Friend

Professor Thithiwith, your voyage has Our blessing. Professor Tlik, you will accompany Professor Thithiwith as his assistant. You may both now copulate with Us.”

To Thithiwith's intense relief, the Majesty hasn't killed him. Better still, the Majestic Glory is fully matured, big enough to fly and straining at its binds. This is it! With the Majesty's blessing now earned, the time for Thithiwith's long-awaited voyage of discovery has arrived. Throughout history, philosophers and scientists have debated over the nature of the moon: is it a giant flower, tossed across the sky by great Shuloku, or is it the fire goddess Gwilka herself? Probably neither, in Thithiwith's secret opinion. But, with everything prepared, all that remains is for him to go up there and find out, in Peter Friend's skyfaring adventure, “Voyage to the Moon.”

Friend's fantasy world is a kind of alien steampunk, where science is still in its infancy, but has progressed enough to question the old beliefs. Technology and theology are pitted against each other in a conflict played out by two of the main characters (Thithiwith and his religious tendencies, versus Tlik and his “mechanist views”). Thithiwith and Tlik are both ageing professors, so it makes for a solid conclusion when their young apprentice Pren strikes a balance between them. That said, there are a lot of familiar elements to this story. The psychotic Majesty in particular has popped up in various incarnations over the years, and in a world that is otherwise quite original, it was disappointing to see some rehashed ideas at the core.

The spirit of this story, as Thithiwith puts it, is “pure knowledge is its own reward.” Friend's world is fun and extravagant, filled with clouds that have tentacles and stars that eat things. “Voyage to the Moon” takes human curiosity, and then applies it to an alien race. In that sense, it is easy to relate to this piece, and charming to watch the events unfold from our “educated” standpoint: we already know the moon is not a giant flower, and wait eagerly to see what happens when Thithiwith discovers this too. In the end, however, it seems his world is actually quite confined and artificial. In Thithiwith's case, the truth did not set him free, and in a story about exploration (written in a genre that often emphasises the endless possibilities of space), I believe that is worth thinking about. Still, this is not an overtly complicated story. The plot is tight, the characters and setting entertaining, and I recommend this piece as a quick, engaging read.

The Emperor of Mars” by Allen M. Steele

Jeff Halbert is a “Mars Monkey” -- an all-purpose labourer, shipped out to the Mars colonies to help them with grunt work. It's a dangerous living, mostly hard labour, but in three years a man can earn enough money to buy a house, start a business, or do whatever he wants. It's a high-risk, high-pay operation with no shortage of volunteers, but not everyone can handle it. If the six month journey there doesn't send you mad, the Titan Plague probably will, and even if you make it to Mars in one piece, you're stuck there for two years until the next cycleship arrives. There's no telling who'll snap before then. When Jeff receives some devastating news from Earth, the shock of it pushes him over the edge, and everyone on Arsia Station must try to keep him calm until the next launch window. After all, out in the colonies, if a man goes crazy it's not just himself he could get killed.

The Emperor of Mars” is told from the perspective of the station manager, who recalls Jeff's time on Mars. The story is primarily about the way Jeff copes with his news by immersing himself in science fiction. We watch as he becomes more and more obsessed with SF stories, until he loses grip on reality altogether and starts to “live” in them. It's a well-handled progression that highlights the benefits and downfalls of pure escapism. I found it easy to sympathise with Jeff, and with the people around him as the station occupants try to adjust. However, there is actually a resident psychologist on Arsia Station – Dr. Rosenfeld – who is, as far as I can see, almost completely useless. It was frustrating to watch Jeff's therapist shrug his shoulders, say “to be honest, this is beyond me,” and recommend that everybody give him whatever he wants. That doesn't sound like good practice to me.

More than a story about Jeff's struggle, though, “The Emperor of Mars” ends up being a kind of salute to science fiction. We get a brief history of SF writers from the 1960s onwards (which felt conspicuous, like notes from a lecture or something), and in the end it is science fiction itself that saves the day. SF is held directly responsible for the colonisation of Mars, and allows Jeff to survive the wait until he can return to Earth without killing himself. Certainly, there is merit in Steele's “SF → space exploration → colonisation” argument, and Steele is obviously passionate about the genre. It just seems like his passion overtook the story. The world is well-constructed but familiar, and the ending is very “nice.” I enjoyed this story because I liked Jeff and I like the genre, but “The Emperor of Mars” was never something that had me on the edge of my seat.

Dreadnought Neptune” by Anna Tambour

In Anna Tambour's near-future, humanity is on the cusp of colonising space. When Jules and his son Eugene are lucky enough to stumble across a just-landed spaceship, Jules seizes the opportunity to be a part of history as it unfolds; the ships are rare, and fill up with passengers too quickly for indecision. Locked into a room little larger than a broom closet, father, son, and seventy other passengers must stand and wait for their launch. However, while Jules tries to impress the grandeur of the situation upon his son, claustrophobia begins to set in amongst the others, and as the hours tick by, people start to wonder: why hasn't the ship taken off yet?

Jules is very much part of an “old world,” viewing his great adventure into space with a wonder that will never be felt by his son. Without giving too much away, we find out that the characters have all wandered into a cruel social experiment, and it is Eugene – who grows up to live a life devoid of imagination – who helps his father in the end. Jules' desire to see his son look beyond facts and physics adds a nice dimension to their relationship.

The main focus of Tambour's piece, however, is on psychology and the devaluation of life. Jules and Eugene's existence is controlled and scientific, right down to the portioning of food, and eventually the value of their lives is reduced to that of two variables in an experiment. This science-versus-humanity theme is nothing new, but it was refreshing to see Tambour include an “old world character” for the old/new distinction.

I liked the piece, particularly the fart-in-an-elevator awkwardness at the start, but the subject matter is very old hat. Even the most casual SF reader will have come across dystopic futures in which life is undervalued before. Since this piece is essentially a reworking of that premise, I am not sure “Dreadnought Neptune” will leave a lasting impression on its readers (even in spite of lines like “Eugene picked a scab off his knuckle and ate it”).

Petopia” by Benjamin Crowell

Mina is sixteen, and has worked ever since her Baba became a drunk and couldn't afford to send her to school anymore. She salvages solid state hard-drives for Alseny's e-waste computers, scavenging them from the dump to feed her family. It is a harsh life. Her brother Raphael, on the other hand, does little but neglect his chores and drain power from the family's supply of batteries. Still, all that is about to change. When Mina comes across a talking purple rat called Jelly at the dump (a “Petopian,” a kind of smart toy for rich kids), she takes it home, and Raphael's lazy behaviour changes almost overnight. Mina goes to investigate, and soon both brother and sister are led into an increasingly adult world of money and violence. When news arrives that Baba is in trouble with the local soldiers, they'll all have to grow up quickly (with Jelly's help) if they want to save their father.

To borrow a phrase from the story, Crowell's piece is about “being kicked over the threshold” -- about being shunted out of that safe age when you're old enough to have fun, but too young for work and responsibilities. Mina, Jelly, and Raphael all go through this change, but each in a different way: Mina loses her naïvety about the world at large, Raphael stops being a drain on the family resources, and Jelly becomes less constrained by his programming. In that sense, “Petopia” is three “coming of age” stories woven into one, and the result is a dense, believable tale. Mina particularly is a compelling character – a little girl forced to shoulder the responsibilities of her now absent father – and her general ignorance works well against her brother's streetwise nature. The sibling rivalry between them is also a nice touch, adding depth to their relationship (“Oh, don’t worry about Jelly. I don’t think you’d like him. He’s a little old for your, ah, demographic.”)

Petopia” is about the development of its characters more than the science fiction. I must admit, I'm not completely sure which country it takes place in (somewhere in Africa, I think), but other than that the setting is easily recognisable. Family living in poverty, dangerous local soldiers, AI, robots, ultra-fast wifi, and so on. Since the story is strong enough to stand on its own, it doesn't need an impressive futuristic backdrop to hold it up, and though it wasn't the most thrilling piece I've ever read, I enjoyed the characters and the story's conclusion.

(One last thing: it took me ages to understand the title, so for anyone else who's on a slow day, “Petopia” is Pet-topia. As in Dinotopia.)

Earth III” by Stephen Baxter

Vala is a Sapphire – daughter of the Speaker of Speakers, and destined to lead a celibate and largely symbolic life of solitude, in homage to the great Designers and Controllers who created the world. Brod is the son of Maryam (representative of the Wilsonians, come to negotiate Port Wilson's contribution to the tithes that are paid to the Speakers every Great Year), and a soldier. By all accounts, they shouldn't be anywhere near each other, but when Vala and Brod sneak up onto a great monument known as the Eye, passion overcomes them. What neither of them realise, however, is that religious and economic tension has been building between the Speakers and Port Wilson for centuries, and their affair is enough to spark a war between the two nations. With the help of Tripp, a delegate from the far-off Polar region, Vala and Brod flee their homelands to start a new life together. However, escaping the political machinations of a warring region is no simple task. Chased by an army led by Vala's brother, Vala and Brod soon find themselves manipulated into an unprecedented expedition to Darkside, the dead half of the planet. What they find there, at the cold edge of the world, will change their understanding of the origins of humanity.

Earth III” is a story with two faces. On one side, it is about manipulation. From Vala manipulating Brod to gain her freedom, to Elios (Vala's father) manipulating whole countries into following the Speaker army, everybody has their own agenda. Brod, in fact, is the only honest one of the lot, and to a greater extent he comes off the worst (loses a finger, poor soul). Baxter has balanced all the different agendas and motivations in his piece very well (there are at least five, to my count), and the way in which the characters (particularly Tripp) navigate the political terrain is most satisfying to read.

The other aspect of this piece is discovery. Over the course of the tale, we are shown how an entire religion was created, and then watch as it starts to unravel. The world is dotted with mysterious “Substrates” -- ancient monuments, left by a previous race for an unknown purpose. As the characters make their way across the world, the Substrates and the lost tale of Helen Gray (supposedly one of the first humans) begin to shed some light on the origins of the universe, and on how humans came to live on Earth III. This is what erodes the accepted theology, and what drives much of the conflict. Though fantastical in many respects, Baxter's world is never downright implausible, because the social, physical, and historical elements of it all impact on each other. Everything has a cause and effect.

At the end of the day, this is a story that revolves around politics, and in that sense it is nothing new. Still, the sheer scale and intricacy of it are impressive, and it was nice to see an otherwise bizarre world grounded by believable issues. Most of the characters grow or change over the course of the story; the setting is vividly realised, and although the plot was a little predictable in places, this is a good, rounded piece that is definitely worth a look.