01 August 2010

Asimov's Science Fiction (Feb. 2010)


Time to get back on track with my reading and study of Asimov's Science Fiction for 2010. This will be a single entry, with shorter comments on the individual stories than previously. Ratings are out of four stars.

1. Caroline M. Yoachim, "Stone Wall Truth" (pg. 10-22)  ***
The most attractive aspect of this story, for me, is the setting. In a world of tribal warfare, the king can sentence people to the wall, a strange artifact of the past with the seemingly magical power to expose the true colours of a person's soul, particularly the blackness of sin. Njeri, the main character, is the surgeon who cuts such people open on the wall, sews them back together, and returns them to life. This is a world in which morality is made manifest: the wall is the place of judgement; the sewing permanently marks individuals, making them outcasts. Yet, as Njeri discovers, the wall's function has changed drastically from its original purpose, when the Ancients actually used it for "love," exposing "their shadows" to each other and taking "knowledge from the wall" (21). Yoachim closes the story effectively, at the point of Njeri awakening (literally and figuratively) in order to change her society, her world. Overall, a good, well focussed, and engaging story: a kind of allegory about the marring of original intentions, about moral conflict and readjustment; a dextrous slipping from the impression of fantasy to the realisation of SF.

2. Damien Broderick, "Dead Air" (pg. 24-33)  * 1/2
An unsuccessful piece on many levels, even after two careful readings. I see how the story works as a dystopian vision of our contemporary world -- racism, television, a consumerist culture that forgets its past for the immediacy of now, environmental breakdown, distrust of scientific authority, and so forth. I see that Broderick provides a basically unlikeable main character and focalizer, Jive Bolen, to express the frantic and disintegrating nature of this nearish future, and to hone in on the disbeliever who eventually has his convictions challenged. I understand these things; I am aware of the satirical tone. What proves unsuccessful is the execution. Jive is distinctly unlikeable, offering little reason for identification or sympathy, and little context is provided for why he is so unseemly as a person. Where I get stuck, however, is the prose. Along with the odd new terms that feel odd solely for the sake of being clever ("pape" for newspaper, "truckee," "petacomp," "thays," "waitron," and more), and with the discordant German phrases, the prose is . . . obfuscating, choppy, crusty, deliberately difficult. Moreover, the central conflict for Jive -- whether the dead appearing on television are truly the dead or an elaborate propaganda hoax -- remains effectively unresolved. The editors' introduction calls the story "a decidedly Dickian meditation" (24), but I see the story as more Van Vogtian than Dickian, such as the Van Vogt of "The Weapon Shop," just without a payoff for the crusty and difficult prose.

3. Bruce McAllister, "The Woman Who Waited Forever" (pg. 34-52)  ***
A fairy tale of sorts, set in Italy post-WW2, during the Cold War, about how a trauma of the past can linger in the present, tied a specific place that may or may not be haunted by a benevolent ghost. McAllister reinforces a sense of the exotic by making the narrator, Brad, a son of an American naval officer stationed in Italy -- as Brad learns Italian and to negotiate the class prejudices and cultural traditions of where he lives and goes to school. McAllister also effectively establishes a tangible sense of nostalgia through Brad's voice, especially in Brad's reflections upon his friendship at the time with a local boy named Marco and how the two of them came to learn the story of the abandoned German hospital from Paolo Pastore, the owner of the hospital and the man whose father died there and mother worked there as a nurse near the end of WW2.
        The trauma is how Paolo's father, an Italian soldier, was left to die in front of the hospital from his wounds because the Germans officers would permit treatment only for Germans, and so Paolo's mother was not even allowed to help her husband. Moreover, the trauma seemed to live on in Paolo's sister, Gianna, who was close to their mother and spent most of her days at the hospital. Thus, a meditation on the continuing presence of the traumas of history and what can happen if we forget or disrespect their significance, with a very concrete evocation of place. Occasionally, though, the narrative gives way to catalogues of questions as Brad speculates on who Gianna is and what really happened in the hospital when the nurse pulled the arrow out of Marco's neck, sections that felt a bit forced compared to the ease and assuredness of the rest of the story.

4. David Erik Nelson, "The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond" (pg. 53-57)  **
Another basically unsuccessful story, in my view, though it offers a bit more than the Broderick with a setting that appears rather intriguing (a steampunkish alternate America, with clockwork soldiers, called "clockies"; the tone of a Western, with spots such as Two-Ton Sadie's Dancehall). I appreciate Nelson's choice to make the narrative a story overheard by the narrator, Seth Everett, who secretively listens in on the drunken ramblings of Dickie Tucker about a "squid" that put together a "clockwork diving engine" and aimed to explore the world beyond the sea (53). This choice allows Nelson to play with the uncertainty of whether Dickie's story is true or a delusion, and so to leave matters open ended, even regarding Dickie's final fate after being picked up from the church steps by some clockies: "I really can't say," finishes Seth. This choice also allows Nelson to give most of the narrative over to Dickie's voice and its particular rhythm, phrasings, and personality. Yet all of these individually intriguing parts don't fit into a convincing whole, particularly because the reader has almost no context for Dickie's story, for such context is provided neither by Seth nor by Dickie. Are there truly squids in this setting that could devise an "engine" so they could walk on land? Are there truly intelligent squirrels, opossums, and whistlepigs in this setting? The reader cannot be sure at any point. I recognize that Nelson to an extent makes the story about such uncertainty, about the challenge to test and believe in what seems like a delusional fantasy. However, I could not overcome a persistent feeling of dislocation; I couldn't get comfortably situated in the story's world, which prevented me from trusting what I was reading.

5. Aliette de Bodard, "The Wind-Blown Man" (pg. 58-70)  ***
A poignant SF fairy tale (of sorts) set in a future China where ancient philosophical and cultural beliefs remain, but shifted to and affected by advanced technology. Shinxie is abbess of White Horse Monastery, where the empire's troublesome dreamers are sent and trained eventually to transcend to Penlai Station, removed from the desires and emotions of daily, earth-bound existence. Gao Tieguai, one such Transcendent, returns from Penlai Station to the monastery, rather unexpectedly and seemingly against the unspoken rules. As a Transcendent, he has achieved nonattachment and the perfect balance of the five "humours" of fire, wood, earth, water, and metal -- a state that has led him not to a detachment from the world, but to a "compassion" (70) and love for the world, which represents a potentially subversive change of outlook for the empire. De Bodard's story resonates with Yoachim's and McAllister's in this respect, turning SF (and fantasy) toward posing questions about history, nostalgia, truth, and the point at which the perception of the world can alter fundamentally. Her prose deftly taps into the atmosphere, rhythm, and thoughtfulness of Chinese tales (Buddhist, Taoist, myths): it is measured, unhurried, soothing; it suggests a depth just tantalizingly out of reach. As well, the setting is one I would like to see more of.

6. Stephen Baxter, "The Ice Line" (pg. 72-105)  ****
The centrepiece of this issue, and far and away the best story here. I suspect this novella could appear on awards ballots next year. It's alternate history SF, set in the early 19th century at the time of Napolean's invasion of England; it's also something of an engineer-saves-the-world story, in the tradition of late 19th-century scientific romances and pulps; it's also an alien invasion story and a romance. Baxter expertly weaves each of these strands of SF together into a tale that can be read, on one hand, as an exploration of science's effects upon history and how science makes history, and on the other hand as a kind of homage to early SF and to the naive excitement of early modern science. The main character, Ben Hobbes, is also the narrator. He is an engineer, a rogue, a scoundrel, a man of (dubious) principles, and ultimately a man of honour who understands the significance of the historical moment and the necessity of certain sacrifices. Baxter gives Hobbes a distinct and attractive voice, and he sticks to it throughout, revealing Hobbes' foibles as well as his better qualities.
        Where the story really succeeds for me, however, is the way in which Baxter unfolds the peculiarities of his alternate early 19th century, especially the introduction of the alien Phoebans and the steady unveiling of their longtime involvement in certain historical events (i.e., the Stuart rebellion of 1745) from America to Canada to England to Russia and so forth. Baxter captures the cadence, tone, perspective, and voice of Romantic-era novels and travelogues and diaries, so that Hobbes and other characters react to and treat the Phoebans in a manner wholly plausible for that time. Moreover, the scientific reaction to the Phoebans feels spot on, for Baxter presents it strictly in the terms of the knowledge, attitudes, practices, and materials available to scientists of the early 1800s -- whether engineering, astronomy, physics, and the like.
        In this respect, "The Ice Line" expertly hooks the reader by offering a relatively familiar history and then, relying on that familiarity, ever so slightly adjusting matters to make that history refreshingly unexpected and new. I've been thinking of this technique as "readerly dramatic irony" (for lack of a better term). At base, of course, dramatic irony involves the difference between what the audience knows and the characters don't know. It is an excellent technique for generating narrative tension, between characters and between the audience and the characters. With alternate history such as crafted by Baxter in "The Ice Line," the dramatic irony operates at, well, an historical level: i.e., the reader, ostensibly, knows the history and how it is being adjusted, and thus can recognise the consequence and ingenuity of the author's adjustments to the familiar and accepted timeline of real-world events. Thus, the reader is aware of a great deal more than the characters and so can see their naivety about, say, travelling to and through space to get from Earth to Mars and can enjoy the creativity with they solve and overcome problems such as navigation or propulsion or breathing or recycling human waste. This sort of dramatic irony I think of as "readerly," for the kind of dramatic irony at work relies not so much on narrative tension, as on, let's say, historical tension(s) recognised and appreciated by the reader. SF can do this sort of dramatic irony especially well, which Baxter demonstrates in "The Ice Line" -- a story that becomes, finally, about heroic martyrdom very much in the mold of those caught up in the storm of Napoleon's imperialist ambitions 200 years ago.
        A truly finely crafted novella that shows off the literary heights to which the best SF can ascend.

Final Thoughts
• The Feb. 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is good overall, with one standout story (Baxter), three fairly strong stories (Yoachim, McAllister, de Bodard), one average story (Nelson), and one poor story (Broderick). Baxter's piece, for my money, saves the issue from being merely satisfactory.

• The pieces by Yoachim, McAllister, and de Bodard show how to focus a short work on a single, key idea or point of transition/change, with each story, really, being about transition/change. Yoachim and de Bodard close their stories with their main characters awakening to a new insight that could have profound effects upon their worlds; McAllister traces back to an important experience that altered the main character's understanding of his world and history. Their settings are also intriguing places, suggestively sketched and tantalizing for the wider possibilities they contain -- I particularly wouldn't mind reading further efforts by Yoachim and de Bodard in their settings. As well, each of these stories carefully situates the reader in their worlds, through tone/mood and context.

• Nelson's and Broderick's pieces prove unsuccessful for the opposite reasons, especially in the difficulty they create for the reader to get situated in their worlds, on the one hand to trust the conditions of the world (Nelson) and on the other hand to develop an attachment to or interest in the world (Broderick). Thematically, their stories are also somewhat murky. I can work out the ideas at stake, but they are obfuscated by uncertainty about the reliability of the narrator (Nelson) and by awkward style (Broderick).

• Baxter's piece shows it's done. I rank it ahead of Allen M. Steele's "The Jekyll Island Horror" from the Jan. 2010 issue, though the Steele is superb as well. I find that both stories remake history through an alien invasion (or, infiltration) to be an intriguing connection, for they are each sophisticated meditations on and evocative echoes of the times in which they are set (early 1800s Britain for Baxter, mid-1930s America for Steele) -- and they are each rather self-reflexive about their status as SF. There is real craftsmanship in Baxter: the consistency of Ben Hobbes' voice and point of view; the interweaving of different kinds of SF subgenres, along with a romance; a plausible alternate history; and a deft attention to a kind of dramatic irony relying upon the reader's awareness of early 19th-century history.

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