19 August 2010

Asimov's Science Fiction (Mar. 2010)


Continuing to play catch-up with my reading of Asimov's Science Fiction for 2010, I've now finished with the March issue. This issue proved disappointing in its overall quality, lacking a true standout like the January and February issues, but also lacking a group of at least a few stories that I would consider good to very good. Still, there are two strong pieces and one real gem. Ratings are out of four stars.

1. William Preston, "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" (pg. 12-33)  ** 1/2
Preston offers a kind of alternate history vision of a pre- and post-9/11 world in which the boundaries of morality have shifted, needing someone such as the old man and his team to keep the world in balance (known as "'the Work'" [12]), mostly covertly. The tone established by Preston alludes to the feel of espionage and secret ops, with elusive identities and classified missions and the sense of the narrator -- Lanagan, anthropology professor and former member of the old man's team -- always looking over his shoulder, never quite free of the suspicion and distrust of others developed while an agent. Before 9/11, the old man took on various missions throughout the world to deal with tyrannies and injustices, and this aspect of Preston's setting is the strongest feature of the story, I think: a mostly "hidden" (18) group, working off the grid, to hold the bad guys at bay "when official action had proven useless or unavailable" (17). Moreover, this aspect of the setting creates the context for the shift of morality after 9/11 occurs, as the National Security Agency desires to find the old man, who went quiet just before the attack on the towers and has remained so. Lanagan gets put in the difficult position of leading the NSA to the old man, gradually feeding on the tenuous reasoning served by his NSA contact: why did the old man let 9/11 happen?
        I see in this sort of question perhaps something of the trauma of 9/11 that remains unresolved, with Preston exploring the need to find a cause on different levels (individual, national, and international), the need to make sense of 9/11 and why the good guys failed. What Preston does well in presenting this question is to suggest the tensions today between what we can and cannot believe about the historical record (of 9/11, certainly): "Much of what the least credulous believed to be untrue about the old man's adventures was, instead, true. . . . And so a quotidian substructure of lies supported an utterly authentic architecture of the fantastic" (17). (I like the hint of genre self-reflexivity here: i.e., how SF&F, as with all fiction, gives readers "lies," yet also asks, if not demands, that the reader approach the "fantastic" as being "authentic," certainly within the world of a specific story.) Yet placing the burden for 9/11 on the old man's shoulders ultimately seems too easy, and the embedded critique of the manipulation of the world that is "seen and unseen" (34), which confuses everyone about the distinctions between heroes and villains, feels too obvious in the end.

2. Benjamin Crowell, "Centaurs" (pg. 36-42)  ** 1/2
A story about an interplanetary first date set up through a mutual friend and planned first by remote/online means, as Ginny meets Serge on Centaurus to go see one of the moon's peculiar rock formations. She's 17, he's almost 16, and they're both properly trained and rated for adventure in vacuum. Crowell captures effectively the perspective of the teenager here, giving attention to Ginny's mixture of expectancy and uncertainty and embarrassment and curiosity and, finally, wisdom gained. There's a kind of lightheartedness in the tone, too, even when Ginny ends up in some danger and must be helped to safety by Serge.
        In one sense, the story focusses on a coming-of-age moment for Ginny, about the miscommunication of intentions and the awkwardness of feelings and desires. It is a moment forged in the accident that puts her in danger, spinning out of control in vacuum during a jump down a sort of well and incurring a small leak in her pressure suit, and for this part of story Crowell demonstrates effectively how to let dialogue and short paragraphs and short sentences generate a mood of anxiety and the impression of things happening quickly. As well, Crowell keeps the story squarely targeted on this significant experience for Ginny and sketches in just enough of the setting to make this a different yet plausible first date of the future. Moreover, "Centaurs" makes for an intriguing title in the context of Ginny's date, suggesting an illusion or fantasy overcome or surpassed.
        Upon reflection, however, I see this story as primarily an "idea story" that does not reach very far beyond its "what if?" scenario (i.e., what would dating be like in the future, with humanity settled in other parts of the solar system?). While constructed and told well, the story ultimately offers nothing truly surprising or illuminating in terms of its overall substance and implications. It doesn't display the skill and wicked inventiveness I enjoyed so much in Crowell's "A Large Bucket, and Accidental Godlike Mastery of Spacetime" for the December 2009 issue of Asimov's.

3. Alexander Jablokov, "Blind Cat Dance" (pg. 44-62)  ***
Jablokov envisions here a fascinating and somewhat disturbing future in which humanity's meddling in genetic coding creates a world where animals do not see people but do perceive urban settings as their natural habitats -- forests, jungles, and the like. The first sentence smoothly and pointedly establishes this estrangement: "The cougar stalks into the cafe, its skin loose, looking relaxed, even a bit bored" (44). The plot Jablokov employs to unfold this future is essentially a love story, beginning with Berenika having left her husband Mark and then moving through different encounters with her friends Mria and Paolo, each in a new location but also with the cougar present. We learn that Berenika wants to become a "Trainer," like Mark, which is someone who, from what I gather, sets up ecosystems and genetically alters animals to live and survive in various conditions -- part scientist, part artist. As the narrator, Tyrell, says, "That's my job, really. To make things seem like they just happen" (55), which represents the aim of Trainers in their care for and manipulation of the "natural world" (55). Berenika eventually figures out the significance of the cougar and discovers Mark's role in its appearances.
        Yet Jablokov weaves in another kind of love story, too, with Tyrell (something of an employee of Mark's) admitting his love for what he does, his investment in what he calls "this impoverished ecology" (62). Through Tyrell's point of view, the reader can gather from certain hints that what he and Mark and Berenika do forms part of humanity's effort to save the world, seemingly from the consequences of severe environmental degradation. They are scientists quite literally turned to doing the work of Adam and Eve, tending the garden and husbanding the animals of Eden. This is the disturbing element of Jablokov's envisioned future: that humanity can and needs to "take . . . archipelagos of environment and reassemble them into continents in the minds of the animals" (62), to the point where cougars pad through and hunt elk in crowded cafes, thinking such places are their natural, wild habitats. I wonder if love is enough to save and sustain such a world.
        Some moments of fine lyrical skill give the story a nostalgic tone. For instance, "It has no idea it's in a place that serves good Turkish coffee, black as night, sweet as love, hot as hell, a place that makes you wear a ridiculous jacket to serve it" (46); or, "She has a gift of meaningful stillness. Snow glitters in her dark hair. She is a nature goddess only temporarily among the worlds of men" (49). However, I struggled for a bit to understand the narrative point of view for about half of the story, which caused me to be uncertain about what precisely I was reading. In the story's first section, the narrative begins with what appears to be the third person omniscient perspective, but then around a third of the way into this section "I refill Mria's cup" (45) occurs, then a bit later "Mark had led me to expect" (45) happens, and I found myself off-balance. By the end, the story clearly functions as something of a long letter from Tyrell to Berenika. Structurally, though, Jablokov leaves this clarity of perspective and motivation too vague for too long, and the dissonance between the first person and third person proves tricky to overcome at times.

4. Derek Zumsteg, "Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising" (pg. 64-70)  ***
The title for this story is delicious in its hyperbole, exaggerating to epic proportions said ticket inspector's dedication to his job in the face of alien cultural and economic takeover. Zumsteg's satire works because the narrative plays it straight, so to speak. Phillip Gliden believes strongly enough in the importance of his job that he will ticket even his new employers for improper use of the "U-bahn" (64) as two of the aliens ride with him to assess how the system operates. During this journey, the aliens discuss ways to "fix" (67) the system, ways that amount to exposing their unfamiliarity not just with the ticketing rules but with the significance humans invest in particular places and the names of such places.
        The debate between Gliden and the aliens becomes an exercise in cultural dissonance, a clash of ideologies, with aliens assuming a frighteningly practical and materialist stance and Gliden a more, well, human and emotional stance. For example, the aliens consider a "'geotemporally appropriate station labeling'" (69) method as more efficient, while Gliden objects that "'You can't remove the names'" (69) of stations because they bear historical and cultural relevance -- the names, he says, are "'parts of the history of our city'" (70). As this debate continues, Zumsteg steadily increases the crowd of people who get interested in the conversation, supporting and emboldening Gliden.
        The hyperbole of the title pays off at the story's end, for Zumsteg, I think, keys into how small or seemingly innocuous things can quickly take on exaggerated importance, for either side in a debate. A ticketing system confusing to an outsider forms the spark of a cultural contest: alien notions of efficiency and control versus human notions of historical meaning and familiarity. To manage this contest and its increasing tension, Zumsteg strikes a good balance between a light tone and the darker seriousness of the battleground at stake.

5. Will Ludwigsen, "The Speed of Dreams" (pg. 72-76)  *** 1/2
The best piece in this issue. The form of the story is intriguing: the draft of an 8th-grade science fair paper, by one Paige Sumner (72). The subject of Paige's science fair project is creative, even fascinating: how to measure the relationship between "time in a dream" and "time in real life" (72). The logic with which Paige approaches the problem is in equal measure plausible, amusing, striking, and heartbreaking: her dog Patti, a greyhound, is her test subject, whom she assumes runs races in her dreams; her "Nannah" (74), suffering perhaps from Alzheimer's, is like the proof of her conclusions from the data collected in her study of Patti.
        Two elements in particular make this story so successful and engaging. One is how Ludwigsen captures the perspective and voice of an 8th grader who is "only thirteen" (73), especially the literalness of Paige's assumptions, experiments, conclusions, and application. Ludwigsen relies upon the honesty of Paige's literalness, not just with how she collects and interprets her data but also with how she sees herself and her world, and then everything (science project, self, world) as connected together. For instance, in "Experiment Nine," Paige records that Patti ran in her dream for "6.34 seconds," which is "about the same amount of time that Austin bothered to look at me at the dance while he was all over Lisa" (74). These touches of Paige's life experiences enhance the importance of her science project by giving it a wider context.
        The second element is how the literalness of Paige's scientific investigation produces a surprising, maybe shocking, but wholly logical -- or even proper -- application of its results by the end. Paige's data leads her to conclude, "We get 4.5 seconds of dream time for every second of real time" (76). So, if her Nannah is slowly dying and spending more of her days in dream time, then she gets "4.5 times as much life sleeping as . . . being awake," allowing her to do more as she is "stretching out her life" (76). In "Experiment Eleven," Paige acts on these insights, believing dreams will let her "Live four cooler lives" and do a bunch of "big courageous things" -- she need only take "Nannah's pills" (76). I like when a story catches me off guard in this way, leaves me wide-eyed with horror and nearly ready to shout at the character not to do it. I appreciate when a story stays true to its voice as well as its logic, the latter made distressing at the end by a form of dramatic irony: I know that the pills are a bad idea, but Paige sees only a chance to be "with Nannah" (76) and get more out of life, which is utterly understandable.

6. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, "The Tower" (pg. 78-106)  ** 1/2
Meant to be the signature piece of the issue, I suspect, but in the end a disappointment for me. Rusch sets up a rather intriguing premise in the corporatization of time travel and the resulting retrieval and confirmation of historical knowledge (here, whether bones found in the Tower of London were really those of the princes supposedly murdered by Richard III), which of course produces opportunities for espionage. Thomas is a thief whose employer wants him to steal one of the Crown Jewels, and he needs to go back in time to pull of his heist; Neyla Kendrick is the historian and anthropologist hired by Portals to go to June of 1674 to examine the bones of the Princes. Thomas has infiltrated Portals and gets put on Neyla's team at the last minute, with which she disagrees heatedly.
        Up to the point of Neyla's team entering the Tower of today and readying for their jump back in time, Rusch, I feel, handled effectively the shifting between Thomas's and Neyla's points of view, which filled in details of the setting as well as generated an engaging tension between these characters' motivations and positions. I found especially plausible Rusch's framing of time travel as a primarily corporate pursuit, complete with project proposals, a costume department, food safety experts, researchers for various historical periods, industry competition, and so forth. Also, Thomas proves the more intriguing of the characters, for he reveals one wider consequence of such corporatized time travel: the shadowy world of collectors and dealers and enthusiasts who have the opportunity to acquire real historical artifacts, at the right price.
        Once Neyla's team makes its jump and Thomas dashes off to do his deed, however, the story veered away from the more tantalizing aspects of its setting and instead turned into what amounted to a chase scene. Rusch certainly pays attention to the difference of the past, having the characters deal with its "foul air" (94) and "odors" (95), for instance, which causes them tangible physical difficulties. Yet the prose in this second half of the story loses the energy and sense of discovery of the first half; it sacrifices a bit of atmosphere and mood for a focus on action that always seemed predictable. Also, I thought that at times Neyla's characterisation shifted into exaggeration, her emotional reactions to Thomas's thievery somewhat out of proportion to the mission at hand.
        Finally, while Rusch uses the time travel mission to represent a point of development and change for Neyla, in which she realises some of the implications of humanity's "base nature" (106) in her own actions but also for the history that supports her career, I ended the story thinking that this aspect seemed forced. Neyla's revelation about herself and history arrives without the force of the organic, surprising logic of Paige's conclusions in Ludwigsen's story. As a whole, then, "The Tower" aims perhaps more for the satisfaction of narrative and character tensions resolved, with the bad guy defeated and the good guy (or, woman) vindicated, than it does for searching out the more compelling features of its setting. Not a bad or unsuccessful story by any means, but there is a promise unfulfilled.

Final Thoughts
• The March 2010 issue of Asmov's Science Fiction is average overall, with one very good story (Ludwigsen), a couple of quite decent stories (Jablokov, Zumsteg), and a few average stories (Preston, Crowell, Rusch). Ludwigsen's story is the standout piece, and deservedly so.

• In a way, I am surprised at the unevenness of pieces across the first three issues of Asimov's 2010 run. There are certainly a variety of subjects, subgenres, and styles throughout the stories, which demonstrates Asimov's flexibility regarding what constitutes SF, and which shows the breadth of formal ground that SF covers and explores. I would say that at least one connection between all the stories in the January, February, and March issues (maybe excepting Broderick's "Dead Air" in the February issue) is attention to telling a complete story: i.e., a definite point of crisis as the catalyst for the plot; clear or challenging or surprising resolutions; characters changed in some way by their experience in the story. Maybe obviously, but this attention to a complete story appears to be a baseline quality that brings a work into the pages of Asimov's.

• What separate the stories by Jablokov, Zumsteg, and Ludwigsen from those by Preston, Crowell, and Rusch are, for me, substance and style. The former group have a kind of depth of meaning or greater metaphorical range than encountered in the latter group, and the writing in the former group shows not just attention to structure but to moments of poetry or ingenuity that are maybe absent from or not as strong in the latter group.

• Ludwigsen's piece succeeds in every respect. It finishes on a haunting note that left me partly horrified at Paige's rationale for the benefits of a dreaming life and partly quite impressed at Ludwigsen's willingness to take the story in this disturbing yet plausible direction -- for its logic cannot be refuted, as much as one might recoil from its consequences.

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