13 September 2010

Asimov's Science Fiction (Apr./May 2010)


This double issue is overall a rather strong one, offering a variety of themes/subjects and styles, as well as a few real surprises. I count one truly excellent story and three extremely good stories, with the rest being average to quite decent. With nine stories, I won't comment extensively on all of them -- just the ones for which I have something to say. Ratings are out of four stars.

1. Gregory Norman Bossert, "The Union of Soil and Sky" (pg. 10-39)  ** 1/2
This one is an "alien archaeology" story, a subgenre that I tend to like as the archaeologist and/or archaeological dig on an alien planet affords an effective frame through which to present alien cultures and histories. Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "The Spires of Denon" from the April/May 2009 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction and Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space are good examples of this subgenre for me. Here, Bossert creates an intriguing world in Aulis and alien people in the Aulans, who are represented by Henry (on the dig team) and who communicate through metaphor and simile by a series of hand and finger gestures. The revelation of what Winnifred and her team actually discover deep underground proves intriguing, as Bossert has ancient Aulan history literally come alive in a definitely alien way.
        Yet I found myself unsurprised, in the end, for as a whole the narrative feels too familiar and predictable, particularly in the plotting. Also, the writing is noticeably awkward in places, with some odd grammar hiccups at times. For example, "'[...] Like biology. And physics; the varitropes move, and that means a source of energy. [...]'" (15): this is inattentive proofreading and unwieldy grammar, especially the mixing of the sentence fragment "And physics" with the semicolon and then a complete sentence following, this entire clause already coming after a sentence fragment (though an appropriate one in the context of the dialogue). Such moments are distracting and reduce the quality of the story.

2. Molly Gloss, "Unforeseen" (pg. 40-48)  *** 1/2
A wickedly biting satire of the insurance/benefits industry, narrated by Forbes Kipfer, a claims investigator for Remediable Death Insurance -- in a future when people can be revivified/restored after dying, but only if the insurance claim is not denied. Gloss metes out the details of this future carefully, using the case of the recent death of Madison Truesdale's mother as the window into Kipfer's job and so the politics and economics that govern remediable death claims.
        Kipfer's voice and perspective are distinct and consistent throughout: edgy, jaded, expert, intelligent, exhausted, punchy. He equally well rants cuttingly about the foolishness of people in making their claims ("You have to wonder what in hell people are thinking when they file a claim for their eighty-nine year old grandpa with a history of emphysema or congestive heart failure ..." [41]), and reaches moments of existentialist insight ("What you're left with is people minding their own business and the sky falls on their head" [43]). He can also adjust his preconceptions if necessary, as Madison Truesdale consistently does not fit into what he expects of her situation, in that her mother's death truly was an accident.
        What Goss communicates most engagingly through Kipfer is a sort of postmodern ennui and cynicism, a coldness formed by too much experience of a cynical word but with faint hints of a warmth that might make it to the surface if perhaps not for the industry in which Kipfer works. Kipfer appears to be developing not quite a death wish, but certainly an apathy about death: "[...] I began to think of taking up smoking. Smoking plus living in Thousand Oaks under that cloud of dirty air might take some randomness out of the equation. Anyway, that's what I was thinking" (48). In the end, then, this story is fundamentally one of horror. It affords no happy ending or clear resolution, and the consequences of the literal control over life (or, resurrection) by insurance companies take to a logical extreme the situation we see today, particularly with medical insurance in the US.

3. Eugene Fischer, "Adrift" (pg. 50-61)  ***
A good, solid story throughout: intriguing main character (Janet, far away from and in the process of divorcing her husband Caxton, and head of Platform Beryl); a situation encouraging empathy from the reader (Laurent, Therese, and Nagaila, escaping from the Congo, mistakenly end up at Janet's platform, apparent victims of human smuggling gone wrong); a plausible, if undesirable, conclusion (Laurent and his sisters are returned to the Congo). Fischer effectively communicates Janet's mood and mindset, regarding both her husband and Laurent. As well, Fischer's willingness not to give a decisively happy ending lends the story a bit of weight, for the key resolution is with Janet and her sense of quiet optimism about the uncertainty of her life.

4. Tim McDaniel, "They Laughed at Me in Vienna and Again in Prague, and Then in Belfast, and Don't Forget Hanoi! But I'll Show Them! I'll Show Them All, I Tell You!" (pg. 62-69)  ** 1/2
McDaniel's piece provides an energetic, humourous take on the classic mad scientist trope/figure, managing to work in a romance and seemingly outrageous technology that actually functions, despite the derision of Dr. Clive Crawley's colleagues. Crawley bestows his "Anti-Senectitude Ray" (64) upon those attending his lecture at the 1954 World Science Conference in Vienna, and then verbally jousts with the same people in 1976 (Prague), 1996 (Belfast), and Hanoi (2034) -- none of them aging a bit. Quietly, the world changes owing to Crawley's inventions, with his career managed by his daughter and son-in-law (via the CIA), though he seems never to receive the recognition he feels he deserves. At least, Crawley retires to "'heaven'" (69), meaning a personal lab/retirement home with "'brains, and even a Van de Graaff generator'" (69). The narrative expresses a clear attachment to and sympathy for Crawley, and McDaniel maintains the up-tempo mood and voice of the story throughout, reinforcing the humour.

5. Pamela Sargent, "Mindband" (pg. 70-103)  *** 1/2
Sargent constructs a highly engaging, X-Files like scenario in this novella primarily through her handling of narrative structure and point of view. In a structure that echoes the way a film or TV show might shift between different but overlapping perspectives and timelines, centred around a particular place and/or series of related events, the story moves between a group of characters either visiting or living in Westview as they pass each other on the street, meet in the local café known as the Cozy Corner, or converge at a birthday party at the Westview Bed and Breakfast. Four years ago, in a nearby town called Hannaford, several people died when a bridge collapsed due to their rioting and stamping, caused supposedly by "mass hysteria" (72). Chris Szekely, who survived the collapse and reported on the event, has returned to Westview, and she believes the somewhat mysterious local company, MindData Associates, was involved.
        Chris' quest for resolution, for MindData to admit its culpability, forms the primary narrative drive of the story. Yet Sargent skillfully incorporates other characters into Chris' quest: Marc, retired and divorced, touring America on his own time, maybe looking for a new town in which to settle; Ceci, recently moved to Westview/Hannaford, to help her sister Reine look after their mother, who suffers depression after the sudden death of her husband from a "stray bullet" (77) in Philadelphia; Catherine, Ceci and Reine's mother, slowly working her way out of her depression. These various characters reveal the history of Westview and move the narrative about the town. More importantly, however, they also serve to generate tension and intrigue related to MindData Associates, which has proven to be a lifesaver for the local economy, but which remains a mystery: Reine, like all the locals, knows only "'that they're some kind of communications company'" (83). Chris knows otherwise, or at least harbours strong suspicions to the contrary. She seeks to confront MindData's "President and Founder" (70), Matthew Bigelow Elmendorf, and get answers about the bridge collapse, which has left her with post-traumatic stress symptoms.
        Sargent carefully measures out details and hints that confirm Chris' suspicions, yet she leaves enough shadows to keep matters just a tad uncertain until the story's final stages. Chris' point of view steadily takes over the narrative, and thus the mildly Gothic atmosphere suggested in the opening stages intensifies, especially once Chris enters MindData's offices and converses with Elmendorf. The narrative structure employed by Sargent becomes crucial to Chris' increasingly harried and uncertain state of mind, as Sargent switches between Chris' possibly fallible perspective and how other characters view Chris' odd actions and accusations, focussed in Elmendorf's attendance at Ceci's birthday party at the Westview Bed and Breakfast.
        Like the best X-Files episodes, Sargent's story closes on an unhappy, brooding, tragic note, showing the consequences of the fear and psychological disintegration that come of mysteries unsolved, questions unanswered, traumas unrelieved. Was MindData responsible for the bridge collapse? Chris is certain of it, and her memories unlock the proof. Yet how reliable are Chris' memories, how much can her point of view be trusted? The truth is out there, so to speak, in the cost of people's lives.
        The only off note of the story for me, actually, is the ending. I'm unsure that it fits Chris and what the narrative establishes regarding her personality. I feel that it takes something of the easy way out, even as I appreciate the uncertainties it leaves for the reader.
        Still, this story offers an excellent example of how to handle different points of view with a clear purpose -- here, to communicate and reinforce mood and atmosphere, to generate tension, to suggest answers while raising more questions. How frustrating it must be to know you are right but that no one will ever know what you know and so can never believe you . . . .

6. Sara Genge, "Malick Pan" (pg. 104-114)  ****
Here's a story that puts style and voice securely in the service of the personality and state-of-mind of its main character, and by doing so draws the reader into a strange post-apocalyptic future in which ironic allusions to old narratives such as Peter Pan give those old narratives new, darker, literalised meanings.
        Much of the strangeness of the setting, a desolate area somewhere outside Paris, resides in the language Malick knows and uses: "nanners" (104); "big-hungries" (104); "black-stone" (104); "hunter" and "clan(s)" (105). It is a childlike language, direct and simple, which transfers to his dialogue with others, such as members of the Rodriguez clan: "'If I tell you, I go with you. I become Rodriguez! . . . Rodriguez! Rodriguez! Rodriguez!'" (108). Also, Malick's language reflects his perception of his world, which consists of basic needs such as satisfying hunger, becoming part of a clan, protecting Nelly, and staying small to avoid the depravations of big-hungries. From the first to the final word in the story, Genge maintains the style and voice that express Malick's character and thoughts, as well as the nature of the setting, such that each word feels purposeful, necessary, weighted with meaning.
        A great deal of meaning resides in Malick's relationship with the "nanners" that inhabit his body and mind, allowing him to survive harsh conditions, educating him in the correct terms for things (i.e., "black-stone" is "'CALLED CONCRETE'" [104]), and urging him to return to Paris, from where he escaped some time ago. This relationship, in fact, forms the narrative's central tension, as the "nanners" are Malick's secret in several ways.
        Specifically, the "nanners" become the space through which allusions to and the literalising of Peter Pan enter the narrative, widening its field of meaning by engaging the reader with a form of dramatic irony -- i.e., a knowledge not possessed by Malick, even as he echoes the character whose surname he shares. Accosted by Nestor, Nelly's pre-arranged husband and the one person suspicious of Malick's perpetual childhood, Malick admits, "'I'm a boy! I decided not to grow up. . . . I just made me stay small'" (110). With the help of the "nanners," Malick has indeed stayed small, resisting adults who want children to "'grow up too soon'" (110) in a violent, poor, ravaged world.  In this respect, Genge takes full advantage of SF's ability to repurpose older narratives (fairy tales, even) through the lens of technoscience while asserting their continued relevance for describing human experience.
        When the "nanners" leave Malick's body and gain independence, dramatic irony shifts also into postmodern irony, a kind of winking acknowledgement within the world of the narrative to an awareness of how Malick echoes Peter Pan. "'What are you?'" Malick asks the new nanner-entity, and they reply, "'You can call us Tinkerbell. It's appropriate,'" at which they "chortle and zip off into the night" (112). Quite literally appropriate, for Malick Pan. As he bargains with Tinkerbell to keep Nelly "small forever" and then leaves to head "toward the city," Malick begins a relationship with a new group of "nanners," determined "he can convince them to keep him small" (114). Thus, Genge turns a modern fable about the resistance to leaving childhood behind into a literalised, perhaps "appropriate" refusal to become part of a deadly, frightening, threatening, post-industrial adult world.
        Who can truly make human life better? Maybe a perpetual boy such as Malick: "About growing up -- he'll have to see about that. He is Malick! He has a thousand ideas a second" (114). Direct and simple, but subversively so. For, who represents a problem more than someone unwilling to participate in the sociocultural roles and paths expected of, if not predetermined for, him?

7. Barry B. Longyear, "Alten Kameraden" (pg. 115-133)  ** 1/2
Overall, Longyear delivers a decent narrative, constructing an intriguingly mysterious main character in Kurt Wolff, whose fate becomes entwined with Hitler when he saves the future Führer's life in WW1 and when he meets him again in WW2 as the Allies move into Berlin. I suggest the story is alternate history, though just barely, owing to a twist of the supernatural at its end. Yet that twist does not, ultimately, feel earned by the rest of the narrative, particularly because it falls into the category of it-was-a-dream-all-along (think of The Sixth Sense, only without the shock of realization for reader or character). An odd piece for inclusion in Asimov's, to be honest: not really SF; and, compared, say, to the Sargent and Genge pieces, it does nothing spectacular or inventive, with narrative or style or subject matter.

8. Robert Reed, "Pretty to Think So" (pg. 134-143)  ***
The story begins in medias res, as Cory is woken up by his father, Jim, at 3:33am, who tries to explain that "'There's an emergency'" (134) -- and must resort to the white lie of "'an emergency trip to Disneyland'" (134) to get Cory out of bed and ready for the road. Reed moves between a few point-of-view characters in order to establish dramatic irony as reporting on and the truth about the impending end of the world heighten the narrative tension. Cory and Jim represent the ignorant, common person, believing what they hear from the President on the radio; Joan is the Secret Service agent at the White House, who knows what is really happening and how the government strives to keep people such as Cory and Jim ignorant.
        No comet or asteroid is actually hurtling toward Earth; aliens are not invading. Rather, Joan learns about dark matter from an "astronomer" (140) involved with a project called the "Hilo Experiment" (141): not just any dark matter, mind you, but "mirror matter" that has gone "'baryonic'" in a one-way "'cascade'" that cannot be contained, thus possibly allowing an "'alternate realm'" to seep into and consume our world (141). When Reed switches to a conversation between a father and son who are natives of the alternate realm, he injects some ironic humour into the narrative, for the son let his younger brother "REACH INTO THE SHADOWS" (142) and cause the crisis on Earth -- therefore, the younger brother is "A LITTLE BRAT" (143). Yet instead of devastation, transformation occurs, and Cory accepts "the new world" immediately and excitedly, unlike "the cowering reborn entities beside him" (143). This is a punchy, sly, deftly crafted apocalypse narrative that remembers "apocalypse" means "to reveal or uncover" in the original Greek. What might science accidentally uncover in its experiments that  could completely reshape human existence . . . for the "'better'" (143)?

9. Steven Popkes, "Jackie's-Boy" (pg. 144-180)  *** 1/2
In a post-plague America, where the entire country's ecology is radically changing and reorganising itself, Michael accompanies the talking, intelligent elephant Jackie south from Missouri to Florida to find a rumoured herd of elephants. This story is something of a beast fable, but with scientific grounding: "Human scientists . . . gave her the power of speech" (148); "'We all learned to speak quickly enough but we hid it from the Keepers. . . . They taught us to read'" (164). With Michael as the main character and predominant point of view, Popkes skillfully depicts the world much as an eleven-year-old orphaned boy might, in a mixture of naivety and street smarts and growing-up-fast. Most importantly, the relationship that evolves between Michael and Jackie feels plausible -- their attachment to and love for each other solidifies through their experiences, and turns into an affirmation of the incredible bonds that can develop between humans and animals owing to such affection and love.
        What also feels plausible is the post-plague America that Popkes presents. This is an empty, silent, almost primitive America of broken bridges, deserted towns and cities, and surprising ecological arrangements (komodo dragons harrying travellers on the road into Kentucky; Indian and African elephants roaming in the wilds of Florida). As Jackie says, this new America is "'Evolution in action'" (163). Moreover, "'It's a mistake to think this ecology is complete. Humans left it very recently'" (178). Everything adapts to the changed conditions (people, animals, plants) as America remakes itself socially and environmentally, its eventual form uncertain, in embryo.
        Popkes sets that uncertainty mostly in the background, and strikes a matter-of-fact tone regarding it throughout, in the sense that the "evolution in action" is not inherently dystopian but rather simply is and so must be adapted to. More importantly, Popkes keeps the focus on Michael and Jackie's journey and relationship, giving the reader the satisfaction of the hoped-for happy ending: Jackie finds and becomes accepted into the herd of Florida elephants; Michael becomes accepted, too, by his elephant family and by a group of people dedicated to protecting the elephants from hunters and poachers; they stay together. The successes of the new America and its rearranged ecologies will be local and gradual, but the willingness to adapt of both humans and animals -- separately and together -- offers hope.
        Thus, this story is not only well told from beginning to end, its setting evocative and its characters intriguing, but it also produces the catharsis of resolution and optimism. Put another way, it allows for the wish fulfillment of the reader, as Michael and Jackie achieve what they desire in a world that orphaned them in different ways. The uncertainty of an America in ecological and social flux ("We don't know exactly what's going on," Michael writes to his long dead mother [180]) is tempered by the certainty of Michael and Jackie's happiness, solidified at the end by Michael feeling "like singing" and heading off to find Jackie "with a grin" (180). One needs to appreciate a story such as this: a story that satisfies the reader's hopes for its characters, and does so intelligently, carefully, affectionately.

Final Thoughts
• The April/May 2010 double issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is very strong overall, with one excellent story (Genge), three extremely good stories (Gloss, Sargent, Popkes), a couple of quite decent stories (Fischer, Reed), and three average stories (Bossert, McDaniel, Longyear). Genge's story is definitely the highlight of the issue, while the pieces by Gloss, Sargent, and Popkes all do something captivating with narrative craft and their subject matter.

• For this issue, I find that I am in disagreement with Jason Sanford regarding the quality of Bossert's story. Sanford includes Bossert's story in his list of favourite novellas of 2010 so far, alongside, for instance, Ted Chiang's The Life Cycle of Software Objects. I do, though, agree with Sanford that Asimov's is providing some great novellas this year, making me suspect we'll see a fair number of them appearing on awards lists and ballots next year. My exchange with Sanford about Bossert's piece proved instructive to me for how readers can value different elements of a single story and stories more generally, from personal investments to technical expectations. As I read through and think about the stories in Asimov's this year, I'm finding my attention focussed mostly on technical matters (narrative structure, voice, style, and the like), as well as on looking for poetry in the writing. The best stories, for me, are strong in both areas consistently. With each issue of Asimov's, I believe more strongly that objective measures of quality for SF narrative fiction can definitely separate one story from another, within a single issue and across all the issues together.

• The stories by Gloss, Sargent, Genge, and Popkes each present fabulous examples of the effectiveness of various technical elements when handled skillfully and with purpose -- shifting points of view to create dramatic irony and tension, diction to establish a distinct perspective or atmosphere, style and tone to fashion a tangible voice or attitude or personality, and so forth. Also, significantly, each of these stories wears the science of its fiction without ostentation, instead devoting energy to complex characters and narratives that reach compelling and satisfying resolutions. They challenge the reader with their intelligence and their craft.

• Genge's piece was the unexpected gem of this issue. I did not like Genge's "As Women Fight" from the December 2009 issue of Asimov's, so I was wary of "Malick Pan." While "As Women Fight" felt heavy-handed and lacking in artistry, "Malick Pan" is subtle, accomplished, allusive, evocative. I would not be surprised to see the story garnering some awards nominations next year.

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