29 January 2010

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction (Jan. 2010), Part II

• See Part I.

2. Felicity Shoulders, "Conditional Love" (pg. 32-43) ** 1/2
Read 28 Jan. 2010. This is a well-crafted near-future dystopia in which genetic engineering creates enhanced children -- and can go wrong, requiring special medical and social institutions to handle the mistakes, such as the "Gene-Engineered Pediatric In-Patient Center" (32). The main character, Dr. Grace Stellar, has been working for eleven years at GEPIC, treating and dealing with the children dropped off or "dumped" (32) by their parents: such as Minerva, born without arms or legs, but in the process of having her arms grown by a combination of a special gel and operations. Then there is the new kid, John Doe, genetically modified to be "above the mean for cuteness" (33), yet has what amounts to constant short-term memory loss (think Memento): each time he sees someone, he starts all over again with, "'Who are you?'" (33). Shoulders weaves in intriguing aspects of the wider sociocultural consequences of "guppies" (34), as children such as Minerva and John Doe are called by some: i.e., the police detective Bob Kafouri, who is trying to gather enough evidence to bring down not just individual "'opt-docs,'" but the entire "'industry'" (35). The story's setting feels wholly plausible, and unnerving. Also, Grace makes for an effective main character and point-of-view, for we gradually understand that she is reaching (or has already reached) a kind of crossroads, an internal crisis built up after years of treating and caring for discarded, genetically misengineered kids. John Doe, about six years old and named "Danny" by Bob, serves as the catalyst for Grace finally to take drastic action, as she knows the cruelty of his memory loss will make him a difficult case to find the proper care for. The decision Grace makes is revealed expertly by Shoulders, leaving the reader with a mixture of compassion and a bit of horror. Yet I feel about this piece much like I felt about Landis's: I just read the prologue to the real story; I just got the build-up to the truly interesting matter of how Grace deals with her act of resistance and its effects upon Danny (and Minerva). Again, I am asking a writer to give me a different story than what I read, but, again, my sense is of an opportunity missed for a more challenging, provocative, and dynamic story. For instance, Danny and his memory loss defect contains great potential for exploring more of the implications of seeing/not seeing, recognition/not recognizing, in a society that dumps and disowns its failed human experiments: why do parents and doctors and corporations engage in their various blindnesses? what would make them see the moral, ethical, and very material costs of their hubris? would Grace's act of resistance become a flashpoint for wider social change?

3. Steve Rasnic Tem, "A Letter from the Emperor" (pg. 44-52) ***
Read 29 Jan. 2010. A space opera that focusses on Jacob Westman, a "sensor" (45) who travels to and between the worlds of the Emperor, picking up and delivering messages as well as monitoring and recording communications. He recently lost his fellow sensor and shipmate, Anders Nils, to an apparent suicide, and questions how much they were actually friends: "despite their long service together ... he and Anders weren't even friends, as far as he understood. Suddenly he wasn't sure. Was that possible?" (45). Tem sets up Jacob effectively at the story's start: he's at a point of crisis and doubt, and he generates interest for the nature of his response to Nils's suicide, which is somewhat coldly rational, even a bit selfish. Moreover, Jacob's inability to see the signs of depression in Nils is interrogated by ship command, which is linked to Command proper, giving us a hint of the layers of bureaucracy and monitoring of this interplanetary empire. Jacob goes to the world known as "960G4-32" (47), or "Joy" (46) as the officer Anya calls it, to deliver messages, scheduled to stay only for "two sleeps" (47). Anya's father, Colonel William Bolduan, is about to retire from his post of overseeing 960G4-32, and he is hoping for a personal letter from the Emperor acknowledging his long years of service -- but also because, according him, he knew personally and once fought in a war beside the Emperor. Tem paces this story carefully, keeps the focus solely on Jacob's point-of-view, maintains a consistent tone and voice, and deftly links together themes of memory and communication and truth and "fabrication" (49) and the crafting of (a) story. Jacob delivers the Emperor's letter to the Colonel in a way that brings together his skills as a sensor, his attempt to understand his (failed) relationship with Nils, and his compassion for those at the margins of an empire that may no longer have an actual emperor. The letter he constructs for the Colonel blurs the lines between facts and falsehoods, but is nonetheless true: for the Colonel, and for him. Jacob's truth is a sombre one: stories can also simply stop working for us, at which point we face the question of what is left to keep us living if our imaginations prove incapable of sustaining hopes, illusions, desires. Unlike the pieces by Landis and Shoulders, this one feels complete and resolved, like it told the correct and most interesting story. That Tem leaves the reader considering the very function of story, of fiction in particular, only lends his piece a certain self-reflexive substance that encourages reflection upon how much of our sense of identity and place in the world results from stories, even those we make up.

4. Chris Roberson, "Wonder House" (pg. 53-59)

5. Robert Reed, "The Good Hand" (pg. 60-75)

6. Carol Emshwiller, "Wilds" (pg. 76-82)

7. Allen M. Steele, "The Jekyll Island Horror" (pg. 84-100)

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