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

Asimov's -- July 2015

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Special Double Review

by Clancy Weeks and Jerard Bretts

Asimov’s, July 2015

 
Pollen From a Future Harvest” by Derek Künsken
Like Native Things” by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Great Pan American Airship Mystery, or, Why I Murdered Robert
Benchley” by David Gerrold
Acres of Perhaps” by Will Ludwigsen
Petroglyph Man” by Rudy Rucker

Reviewed by Clancy Weeks

I love a good mystery, and “Pollen From a Future Harvest” by Derek Künsken is indeed a good mystery. Some of that mystery is in parsing the twists and turns related to time travel, along with the prose itself, but it is rewarding nonetheless. Major Okonkwo, of the Sixth Expeditionary Force of the Sub-Saharan Union, is a military auditor—a bookkeeper—and she has been given the open-ended task of auditing the entire base. There are layers, sub-plots, and twists here, but the main issue is dealing with a possible “grandfather paradox” associated with time travel. In this case, information can travel only one way, from a future only eleven years distant into the past. Something has happened up the line, and Okonkwo needs to find out why, and if it is related to the recent death (some would say murder) of her senior husband. There is an amazing amount of backstory we learn along the way, and rich, multi-layered world-building. There is so much, in fact, that I feel the world Künsken creates deserves a novel all its own. The grandfather paradox is neatly solved, and seems almost anticlimactic. For a look at how such a paradox can be used as the basis of a story, look no further than the film, The Twelve Monkeys. Still, there is much to like here, and the presence of the vegetable intelligence is one of them. While they play a vital role as foil for Okonkwo, they are also integral to the plot itself. The characters, with their political ambitions, limitations, and foibles, are well-presented and believable. The only problem I have is that the author goes to great lengths to emphasize that only information can travel back in time through the “gates,” and only information coded in the pollen of the vegetable intelligences at that, yet we see an entire research project dependant upon humans doing the thing he says can't be done. Maybe I'm missing something. That one niggle aside, it's a very good and entertaining read.

Do not—and I can't emphasize this enough—toy with a woman's emotions. Ever. That's the take from “Like Native Things” by Mary Robinette Kowal, and it's probably a good lesson. Tilda is a scientist, one of a team who years ago pioneered the wetware technology that allows humans to “ride” animals, entering their minds to control their movements. She and her assistant, Helmut, have a government contract working with various animals, concentrating on dolphins. After she crosses a line with Helmut, he soon crosses one of his own, and she is forced to improvise in order to stop him. Lots of action, and some nicely visceral descriptions of what it's like to saddle another animal and go for a ride. Tilda discovers that, sometimes, it's better to let the animals do what they do best. This was a fun read.

The Great Pan American Airship Mystery, or, Why I Murdered Robert Benchley” by David Gerrold is not my favorite kind of story. Not the fact that it's alternate history, but that it reads like a travelogue, a first-person perspective slice-of-life tale that usually goes nowhere. And yet… I found myself oddly satisfied at the end, the last few lines wrapping up all the events in a neat little package. It's 1937, Tesla is wildly successful as both inventor and businessman, and many of his best ideas have changed the world. Cheap helium production has led to a boom in lighter-than-air craft taking over the role that, in our world, is inhabited by airplanes. The craft in question is the Liberty, and at four times the size of the Hindenburg, she is the very finest in luxury travel accommodations. A heady group of writers, entertainers, artists, and politicians are on hand for the maiden voyage across the country, and our narrator is a lowly steward who wants nothing more than to be a famous author. Gerrold's portrayal of the various entertainers and writers (both journalist and fiction) is spot-on and amusing, each of their lines delivered just as you might imagine. The inclusion of Hugo Gernsback is a nice touch, as well. Overall a very nice story, even if it, unlike the airship, doesn't go anywhere.

Acres of Perhaps” by Will Ludwigsen asks the question, “Where do a writer's ideas come from?” Repressed anger, hard life, the bottom of a bottle? Or is it the bottom of a hollowed tree knot? It's that last option that lends a taste of fantasy to this tale, giving it just a soupçon of magic. David Finley is a writer for a television anthology series in the mold of The Twilight Zone, and Barry Weyrich, another writer on the show, tells his story. David, it turns out, was once another man, born into a much simpler world, and his wife and family are now here to take him home. The evils of Hollywood are just too great for a simple man, after all. Ludwigsen delves into the psyche of what it takes to make a great (or at least good) writer, and ultimately falls on the sage old advice of “just write.” Everyone in this story will, at some point, come to terms with the choices they make, though not all at the same time, and certainly not for the same reasons. My only gripe with this piece is that the character of Tony is a prop, when he could have been so much more. I got the feeling that he was added for no other purpose than to inform the reader that Barry is Gay, and that's a shame. Still, this was one of the more enjoyable tales in this issue, and it is well worth the read. Recommended.

Is it SF? Well, there's a thingamabob that does some [insert quantum technobabble here] stuff, so… check. But there's a whole fantasy/horror aspect to “Petroglyph Man” that I can't wave off. Rudy Rucker gives us the story of Julio and Beatriz, a married couple in the midst of falling apart. A trip to Hawaii seems to be just the cure they need, but Julio's insistence that he use his latest smartphone photo app almost becomes their undoing. The app, you see, doesn't take pictures of what's there so much as it shows you what you want/need/fear to see. When you've lost that lovin' feeling, trust in the Petroglyph Man.


Clancy Weeks is a composer by training, with over two-dozen published works for wind ensemble and orchestra—his most recent work, “Blue Ice, Warm Seas,” was premiered in Houston on March 28, 2015—and an author only in his fevered imagination. Having read SF/F for nearly fifty years, he figured “What the hell, I can do that,” and has set out to prove that, well… maybe not so much. His first short story, “Zombie Like Me,” will appear in an upcoming issue of Stupefying Stories. He currently resides in Texas, but don’t hold that against him.



Asimov’s, July 2015

Pollen From a Future Harvest” by Derek Künsken
Like Native Things” by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Great Pan American Airship Mystery, or, Why I Murdered Robert
Benchley” by David Gerrold
Acres of Perhaps” by Will Ludwigsen
Petroglyph Man” by Rudy Rucker
 
Reviewed by Jerard Bretts

Asimov’s continues to be on a roll with another bunch of good and varied stories. There is something for everyone and it demonstrates that SF short fiction still has a future in the print magazines.

Derek Künsken’s “Pollen from a Future Harvest” is the longest piece in the issue, hard SF mixed with a dash of espionage thriller and detective story. Major Okonkwo, grieving for her dead “senior husband,” is charged with investigating a possible security breach in the Sixth Expeditionary Force’s research base in Middle Kingdom space. I’m not a great fan of hard SF and so perhaps the fault lies with me rather than the novella but I found it very hard going. It is full of clever ideas like vegetable intelligences that are adapted to time travel, “grandfather paradoxes” and “tachyon signals” but the flow of the story is disrupted by lots of dry and complicated exposition.

In sharp contrast, Mary Robinette Kowal’s near-future “Like Native Things” is both short and suspenseful. Kowal explores a single concept well ─ the “wetware patch” which enables people to merge consciousness with other creatures. (Kowal is clearly drawing on her experience as a puppeteer here!) In Tilda she has created a sympathetic and believable heroine who runs a gauntlet of betrayal and sabotage.

The Great Pan American Airship Mystery, or, Why I Murdered Robert Benchley” by David Gerrold is set in an alternative 1937 America when the Pan American Liberty ushers in a new era of travel by gigantic airship. Gerrold has great fun with this vivid novelette, bringing in real-life characters such as humorist Robert Benchley, actress Tellulah Bankhead and writer Dorothy Parker. Even SF pioneer Hugo Gernsback gets a look-in. The plot is rather weak and inconsequential but it is still an absorbing and well-written tale, which lightly wears all the research that must have gone into it.

Acres of Perhaps” by Will Ludwigsen is neither SF nor fantasy. Rather, it is a mainstream story about the well-springs of creativity and the difficulties of staying true to oneself. Like The Twilight Zone, Acres of Perhaps was a cult TV series which pushed the boundaries of the fantastic. From the vantage point of today one of its writers reminisces about the visionaries involved in its creation. This is a very funny, moving, and inventive work of fiction.

Petroglyphs are very evocative rock engravings which can be found extensively along Hawaii’s coasts and in its national parks. The short story “Petroglyph Man” by Rudy Rucker makes potent use of these mysterious ancient artefacts. Julio and Beatriz go on a “second-honeymoon type” vacation to a tacky resort in Hawaii to save their faltering marriage, giving Julio the opportunity to try out the new “Benthos photo app” which reveals “deeper levels of reality.” This is a creepy, character-driven story which mixes fantasy, horror and SF elements well, to leave you with a ghostly shiver.