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

Asimov's, December 2004

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"The Christmas Tree" by Peter Friend
"Strength Alone" by Paul Melko
"The Star Called Wormwood" by Elizabeth Counihan
"Home of the Brave" by Allen M. Steele
"A Princess of Earth" by Mike Resnick
"Being With Jimmy" by Aaron Schutz
"Red Hands, Black Hands" by Chris Roberson
"Strood" by Neal Asher
"Echoing" by James Van Pelt
"A Reunion" by Keith Ferrell

Image"The Christmas Tree" by Peter Friend
Reviewed by Therese Pieczynski
"The Christmas Tree" by Peter Friend is just whacked. In a world full of dangerous wild vegetation, Christmas trees have become mobile and carnivorous and attract their prey with their sweet smell. Apparently, twice in a human lifetime they also bear fruit that can be harvested, the seeds of which are worth a fortune in the spice markets. As the story opens, our protagonist "Bloona" has just discovered "a ripe Christmas tree." Bloona, grandma, and a few village stragglers take a "north pole" and go out to investigate while the old men of the village begin to distill "Christmas spirit." Their eventual harvest of the tree's fruit is...well...difficult to explicate without giving away the story. You'll have to read this one for yourself!

"Strength Alone" by Paul Melko
Reviewed by Chris Markwyn
Paul Melko's "Strength Alone" is an impressive story set in a future when most of humanity lives in "pods," groups so close-knit that they function as nearly as possible as a single organism. Each member of a pod is specialized for a particular trait: strength; intelligence; communication; mathematics; and so forth. A group of young pods is sent on a final training mission into the mountains, and some meet with disaster. Strom, who is the strong one in his pod, believes he is the only survivor of his pod, and must, for the first time, operate as a singleton, an individual with only his own resources to draw upon. Melko's story reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin's classic "Nine Lives," another story of a part suddenly forced to be a whole, and he does a fine job of making Strom's perspective believable, showing us how it would feel to be part of a pod. Such an effort may never be entirely successful--how can you tell a story from the point of view of an arm or a liver?--but "Strength Alone" is a bold attempt.

"The Star Called Wormwood" by Elizabeth Counihan
Reviewed by Therese Pieczynski
In "The Star Called Wormwood," Elizabeth Counihan has crafted a story about evolutionary cycles. Every ending cycle creates opportunity for a new beginning. The comet, whose cyclic orbit sometimes takes thousands of years to complete, is such a wonderful metaphor that I'm not even going to complain about the bad science (what she does with her comet isn't possible). There are a few other slight flaws, but despite these, I found this quiet story both lovely and thought provoking.

The story opens with an omniscient narrator describing Wormwood's approach to Earth, first seen over Siberia. The description sets us in the far future. As the comet passes, the last person in the last Siberian ice palace dies. There's a scene break and we reopen in the desert and in "Kuri's" point of view. He's an old man, alone and failing. His only company is an "adapt" named Jade who appears to be a large, genetically modified cat with the ability to speak. We first see Kuri collecting pieces of colored ringlass (glass that emits sound when light strikes it). The windows of his home are made of this material, and he's decided that the song the glass sings when the sunrise strikes his East window is too harsh. His final act is to reconstruct the window with softer shades of glass and tune them (with an instrument called a klar) until the sound pleases him. As he completes this project, Wormwood is close enough for Kuri's windows to pick up its light and sing its song.

"Home of the Brave" by Allen M. Steele
Reviewed by Chris Markwyn
"Home of the Brave" is the final story in Allen M. Steele's "Coyote Rising" series, the followup to his earlier "Coyote" series. I doubt it would make much sense to anyone who has not read at least a few of the earlier stories, as it serves primarily to wrap up loose story ends and send some characters off in different directions, thereby setting the stage for the forthcoming novel Coyote Frontier.

"A Princess of Earth" by Mike Resnick
Reviewed by Chris Markwyn
I have to confess I've never read anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The closest I ever came was an old abridged version of one of the Tarzan books published by a children's book club that sat on my shelves for years, and is probably now somewhere in my parent's garage. Mike Resnick's "A Princess of Earth" might resonate more for someone who grew up with the John Carter stories, but I still enjoyed this bittersweet story of second chances, in which a cynical widower finds a naked man in his backyard one snowy evening, a man who claims to be John Carter.

"Being With Jimmy" by Aaron Schutz
Reviewed by Chris Markwyn
Psychic powers used to be vastly more popular in science fiction, with their heyday coming in the 1950s, as Astounding published story after story peddling John W. Campbell's pet theories about the next step in human evolution. Since then, such tales have gradually faded into the background, but telepathy and psychic mutants can still provide the basis for a good story, as Aaron Schutz demonstrates in "Being With Jimmy." Alphie, Jimmy, and the narrator, all psychic to varying degrees, live on an island, confined there by unnamed authorities. Jimmy is angry, violent, the victim of years of use and abuse, and Alphie and the narrator do their best to live with his rage and hatred. "Being With Jimmy" is far different in tone and purpose than the psi-power stories of decades past, being a fine-grained study of character, with an intriguing attempt to portray telepathy through the use of first-person point-of-view.

"Red Hands, Black Hands" by Chris Roberson
Reviewed by Therese Pieczynski
In "Red Hands, Black Hands," the alternate history by Chris Roberson, China long ago conquered the world, its emperor rules earth, and our story takes place on an outlying planet named "Huo Hsing." This is a red planet where miners (poorly paid, and under dangerous conditions) extract the rocks from which refineries squeeze breathable air. The protagonist is Song Huagu, a young, provincial novelist, who is in love with the romantic notion of revolution. The story opens with Song at a party given by "Madame Jade," a woman immigrated from Earth under "something of a cloud," who gives interminable parties for Fuchuan City's elite. At the party Song is attracted to a stranger, Jiang Hu, and arranges for Madame Jade to introduce them. It turns out that Jiang is a member of the insurrectionist movement "The Black Hands" and has come to Fuchuan City to raise money in hopes of improving conditions in the mines. Unfortunately, Madame Jade is an imperial spy and the emperor is feeling threatened by the articulate idealism of these two young people. This is very much a story about the power of ideas. Roberson's prose is exquisite. Though the story deteriorates at the end with the villain explaining her motivations, the strengths of this story far outweigh its flaws.

"Strood" by Neal Asher
Reviewed by Chris Markwyn
Within the first few paragraphs of Neal Asher's "Strood," we've encountered the titular "strood," a "pathun" with a "curiol matrix," and a narrator whose "gilst" seems to be malfunctioning. We soon learn what these peculiar words mean, but the enigmatic opening works to create a strong sense of the alien. The narrator, whose metastized lung cancer will kill him soon, has been given a ticket offworld by the pathuns, aliens whose near-godlike technologies have revolutionized human society. There he finds himself pursued by a strood, which resembles a harp crossed with a jellyfish, and must discover why the alien is obsessively following him. The narrator's bitter wonder at the alien marvels, with power that is capriciously denied to him, gives the story an appealing tone, and the revelation of the strood's purpose works on several levels to make this a satisfying story.

"Echoing" by James Van Pelt
Reviewed by Therese Pieczynski
"Echoing" by James Van Pelt starts with a truck driver on a snowy, deserted highway trying to make it home to his family in Albuquerque on Christmas Eve. He's uncertain exactly where he is, and he's thinking about being alone, the distance he must yet travel, and the danger he's in of freezing if he is forced to pull over, when he wonders, what if the snow isn't snow, but stars? The reader is instantly and deftly transferred into Commander Tremaine's point of view. The stars flying past his view screen have suddenly, inexplicably, made him think of snow. He's been thrown off course in [M]-space, a place of metaphor where reality and the perception of reality change. He, too, is in danger, and as he stares at the view screen watching the stars pass, he suddenly wonders if the screen will change. Immediately the reader is transferred into Brianna's point of view, a teenager who has just taken a potentially lethal dose of barbiturates and is staring at the screen saver (a star field) on her computer monitor. All these characters are in danger and are desperately trying to find their way home. Van Pelt deftly flips back and forth between them for the rest of this fine, technically impressive story.

"Reunion" by Keith Ferrell
Reviewed by Chris Markwyn
This issue ends with Keith Ferrell's "A Reunion," which bitterly presents the fatal incomprehension that can exist between parents and children. Years ago, during the shutdown, raiders cut off the flow of energy from suncatcher satellites, plunging the world into a state of primitive subsistence living. Now, spaceships sent out years before have returned, to turn the satellites back on and bring the marvels of advanced technology back to the world. The narrator, a young boy who was born after the shutdown, is wary of such a change, but his parents ignore him, eagerly awaiting the return of the lives they grew up with. Ferrell successfully captures the voice of a child, forced to grow up too fast and confront a change that will destroy everything he has grown to love. The final line of the story is chillingly effective.