Asimov's, August 2003

Monday, 11 August 2003 18:00 Phil Friel
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"Benjamin the Unbeliever" by Allen M. Steele
"Touching Centauri" by Stephen Baxter
"The Mouth of Hell" by Tim Sullivan
"From the Corner of My Eye" by Alexander Glass
"Sheltering" by Tom Purdom
"Exile" by Stephen Utley

This month we have a novella, three novelettes and two short stories.

The novella is "Benjamin the Unbeliever" by Allen M. Steele, the latest of his stories set on the frontier interstellar colony world of Coyote. Steele's transposition of the wild west/redneck hillbilly scenario to an alien world makes for entertaining reading, even if it's nothing new, having been done numerous times before in science fiction. The main character is one of the locals who finds himself tied up with a religious cult that has just arrived on Coyote, and who makes the big mistake of falling in love with one of the female cultists. The charismatic leader of the cult has been transformed by nanosurgery into the very image of Satan himself, and although a very endearing and amusing person, is later revealed to be quite insane. The cult and their new "recruit" are dragged on a perilous journey over dangerous terrain, culminating in a dark and tragic ending from which the protagonist is the only survivor out of a group of more than thirty.

There's some political commentary in the story, including overt bashing of socialism. I found the comment "the system is rigged to take advantage of losers" to be not only sadly true and an indictment of deep-rooted human greed and selfishness, but also applicable to almost any socio-political system, including both socialism and capitalism. But the real meat of the story is in the main character's relationship with the cult, in particular his budding romance with the girl and growing respect for the cult's leader. We get a frightening inside view of cultist psychology, from the brilliant and charismatic, if insane, cult leader, to the other members of the cult, in particular the girl, who are completely under his control. The scene in which the protagonist realizes what is going to eventually happen and is desperately trying to convince her to come with him, but she chooses to stand with her mentor instead of her lover, is a very powerful one, really showing the psychological power of cults and religious groupings. Love, tragically, does not conquer all.

I'm never surprised when people of low intelligence become sheep and fall prey to conmen with sharp wits and tongues, but I never cease to be astonished when people of supposedly high intelligence fall into that same trap. They just seem to stop using that intelligence and allow themselves to be brainwashed, following the herd. Intellectual thought is a mere Johnny-come-lately, a papering over of the evolutionary cracks that is easily stripped away by the resurgence of more primal instincts, and emotional control and manipulation is a powerful weapon taking advantage of that, reaching right into our inner core, our deepest fears. It seems that the vast majority of the human race has an innate need (or weakness) to be controlled by someone of stronger will or personality, and there is regretfully almost always someone there to fulfill that need.

The prolific Stephen Baxter appears this month with "Touching Centauri", a new Reid Malenfant novelette set in the same milieu as his excellent novel Space. This one offers a strange solution to that story's Fermi Paradox dilemma. The aliens are there but are hiding, and our world, and indeed the entire visible universe are nothing more than part of an elaborate computer simulation designed to conceal "the truth" from us. But what happens when one crazed genius has figured this out and has crashed the computer simulation in order to make those controlling it reveal themselves?

I'm a big fan of "hard" SF, and a huge fan of Stephen Baxter in particular. He almost always writes a good story, and I quite liked this one, but had one or two personal "except for..." reservations. I found the premise slightly too fantastic for my liking compared to most of his other "hard" SF stories, and I'm becoming ever so slightly jaded and tired with the whole recent "virtual reality/nature of reality" thing spawned by The Matrix and its plague of imitators. It used to be one of my favourite themes, and Baxter's story is certainly much better than the average movie treatment, but I think the whole idea has been done to death over the last couple of years.

Tim Sullivan's "The Mouth of Hell" is a novelette of a completely different kind. It starts off like an historical fantasy or alternate history set in the declining days of the Roman Empire, complete with rich period detail and background, but surprisingly turns into an SF story dealing with alien visitation. The main story focuses on two Roman citizens, a man and a woman, and the woman's slave, who go on a perilous expedition to find the woman's parents into the "Mouth of Hell", a huge fissure beneath the Circus Maximus. Legends claim that the ghosts of the dead sometimes escape from this fissure into the upper world, where they appear as demons or the deceased loved ones of the living. The sfnal twist is that these "ghosts" are actually shapechanging telepathic aliens who were shipwrecked on our world millennia before.

I was quite impressed by this story. It's a rather unusual combination of historical fantasy and science fiction, and the setting is also unusual (I don't recall very many alien visitation or other SF stories set in this time period). The story also has a distinctly Vernesian feel to it, feeling almost like a scaled down version of A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, right down to the adventurers using chalk to mark their passage through the tunnels, and with the same claustrophobic feel and the battle with the harsh conditions as they descend into the hellish environment of the fissure. The historical background to the story is also quite interesting, particularly seen from the viewpoint of the two non-Christian traditionalist Roman protagonists. Their fear for the present and future as fanatical Christians take control of the Empire and try to extinguish the "old ways" is all too apparent, and I smiled at the reference to Christians as a "death cult", a rather unusual perspective for the vast majority of us who see Christianity from a modern, different viewpoint. Also interesting is the way in which the main character starts to question the very basis of his society's beliefs in religion and the supernatural in the face of the reality of the aliens, previously assumed to have been supernatural in origin.

"From the Corner of My Eye" is a novelette by Alexander Glass, someone I've seen a number of times before in the British SF magazine Interzone. This is by far the best story by him that I've read, and is my favourite story of this month, narrowly pipping Tim Sullivan's novelette. It's yet another virtual reality story, but quite different to the more common type of Matrix-ish tale in which we have total immersion in a completely artificial VR environment. This story features a society which is based in the "real" world but which has another world (Virtua) layered on top of it, enhancing it, with most of the population "augmented" to interact with that virtual world. Both worlds interact but the virtual world is visible only to "augmented" people, and the story revolves around a Bladerunnerish "hunter" who tracks down "Ghosts" - rogue virtual AIs/personae - but finds not only a few unexpected problems courtesy of the crafty Ghosts but also an even weirder newly-evolved higher virtual "lifeform" which gives both himself and the Ghosts some major headaches.

This is a Gibsonian cyberpunkish virtual reality tale firmly rooted in the real world, not one of those currently fashionable Matrix/"holodeck" virtual fantasies which seek rather to escape from reality. In this story the reader is always aware that they're in the real world, that these are real people, and real buildings, and real streets. But seeing all this through the senses of the "augmented" central character lets us see extra detail, colours and enhancements added from the virtual world on top of the real one. Conversely, we also get images of drabness and decay from the real world, with which these people rarely interact and which is allowed to fall into disrepair as most people favour the more colourful virtual world. What would it be like if people really had access to this technology? Given how so many are addicted to current primitive virtual and 3D computer worlds, I'd assume that this problem would increase by many magnitudes with the availability of much more realistic VR technology, especially in the case of those who would use it to escape the harsh realities of "real life". The theme of virtual lifeforms is also particularly interesting. Is the existence of such lifeforms even a remote possibility? If true AI lifeforms such as this are ever created or evolve, such a virtual world as the one in this story would most likely be their reality - they sure couldn't exist in the real world.

This is another twist on the "what is reality?" theme. Is the world our senses reveal to us any more "real" than such a virtual world? Is not everything we see in reality nothing but a vast sea of subatomic particles, if we look closely enough? I've always been interested in alternative viewpoints. How does a blind person "see" the world around them, or, to a lesser extent, someone who suffers from colour blindness? How would a blind person see the world - real or virtual - if the technology in this story is ever invented? How would even sighted people then see the world around them?

"Sheltering" by Tom Purdom is the first of our two short stories, and is set entirely in a bomb shelter during an early 21st century war. An old man with a passion for computerized war games is playing a simulation of the D-Day Normandy landings, and he attracts the attention of a young boy, who shows a strong interest in and aptitude for the game, much to the dismay of the boy's father who is a very PC "modern man" and against such things as wars and war games (which seem much the same thing to him). The old man is more than happy to take his new apprentice under his wing.

An interesting (if short) look at the strategic nature of war and its close connection with strategy games such as gaming simulations and even chess, this story illustrates a personal belief of my own that much of the problem with wars is that those who prosecute them do think of them as games, mainly social, religious, and political, thus sidestepping the moral responsibility that they bear for the real horrible consequences of war. For unfortunately in these games millions of people die and you don't get to start the level over again. Though my accustomed stance is rabidly anti-PC, I found myself in the unusual position of sympathizing slightly with the boy's father over this, particularly given the situation that they were in, cowering in a bomb shelter during a war.

Stephen Utley's short story "Exile" is the latest in his long series of Silurian Tales, based around the daily activities and lives of staff at a temporal jump station, linking some point in the near future with another station at the Palaeozoic Silurian-Devonian boundary, some 408 million years in the past. The main character in this story is a menial worker at the station who is (unknown to his fellow workers and visitors) a "shamed" scientist, a pariah who has adopted a new identity to get close to the object of his scientific obsession, the temporal anomaly. The story catalogues a day in the life of this man; the boredom, the long line of ignorant and obnoxious visitors from the general public, his constant fear of being exposed by someone who might recognize him, and the overpowering knowledge that, after his fall from grace, this is the nearest he's ever going to get to going back to the Palaeozoic.

I found this story quite entertaining, with a number of nice scenes in which various (usually thoroughly obnoxious) members of the general public come to view the nice little prehistoric creatures in the PalaeoAquarium. A reasonable level of "human element" is portrayed, as the protagonist is played as a relatively sympathetic character. True, he's been a naughty boy, but he genuinely regrets what he did and he's now paying the ultimate price for his misdeeds. Like Moses way back in Genesis, he'll never get to enter the promised land, even though he's within touching distance of it.

From a scientific point of view, I'm a bit "iffy" about the premise of the series, which may be interesting and entertaining from a fictional standpoint, but which looks slightly dodgy from a "factual" angle. It certainly comes much more from a Robert Silverberg Hawksbill Station school of thought than Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder", and I find it strange that I'm gravitating more towards Bradbury, someone not exactly renowned for adherence to scientific fact in his stories. The images of those thousands of humans stomping all over pristine, previously untouched-by-life Palaeozoic Gondwanaland, uprooting everything and sending numerous specimens of irreplaceable ancient aquatic lifeforms through to the present to be put on public display made me feel distinctly uneasy. What kind of bugs and other nasty things could thousands of people and their leavings introduce into the ancient environment, and what harmful effects could it have on the course of evolution? Ray Bradbury was right, I fear, and he only had one person creating a cock-up, not thousands. Just as we destroy the environment in our own world, this scenario would be a logistical and temporal nightmare, leading to the wholesale extinction of ancient lifeforms which should never have become extinct and the diverting of evolution down a completely different path, if not curtailing it altogether. The contamination of the ancient biosphere and disruption of the native ancient marine lifeforms at such an early and delicate stage in evolution would surely produce a massive alteration of the timeline, and the effects on our cozy existence in the present would be catastrophic, if not terminal.

Overall this was an enjoyable issue of Asimov's, with several really good stories, and every one of the stories was at least a good, entertaining read. Alexander Glass's "From the Corner of My Eye" takes the honours as my favourite this month, with Tim Sullivan's "The Mouth of Hell" close behind. But the overall standard of the stories was high, high enough indeed that I'd make a point in tracking down and reading other stories by any of the authors who appeared this month. Once again my favourites are the novelettes and novella, which reveals only my preference for longer forms of short fiction rather than making any inference that the short stories were in any way inferior.

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.