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Emshwhiller: The lovely ugly
Creasey: Crimes, follies, misfortunes, and love
Rentz: The battle of little big science
Jablokov: Warning label
Sidorova: The witch, the tinman, the flies
Wolven: On the horizon
Bossert: Slow boat
The title and premise use tachyon-based time travel as the McGuffin. (Such superluminal particles travel faster than light and thus, should travel backwards in time.) The science is questionable, tachyons having been neither proven nor disproven anywhere outside theory and having currently been sanitized by theoreticians to prevent causality violations such as time travel—a problem given that the premise depends on this technology. More seriously, why would anything so dangerous as a time machine be allowed to fall into the hands of bored civilians?
These two nits are symptomatic of broader flaws in this story, which uses (bad) science purely as stage dressing rather than as something integral to the plot or characters, with no consideration of broader implications. Take, for example, the notion that poetry and fiction would be illegal and largely nonexistent because of their unacceptably high social and ecological (i.e., paper production) costs; trees are actually regenerable sources, unlike (say) oil. Possibly the people of this far future lack knowledge of botany, eBooks, the Internet, oral history, or the unquenchable human need to create and share stories? If so, why?
Try to ignore the science. The real point is to portray a quintessentially dysfunctional relationship, and Wall gets that part right. Jack is a second-grade (and second rate) historian and a third-rate philanderer, in no way invested in his marriage or his extramarital affairs. Jenny, his partner, is even colder and less "there", and ignorant of too many things, leading to endless "as you know, Jim" exposition. (This could be justified if it were better done and didn't continue even when Jenny is absent.) When Jim stands in for Jenny at her pet grooming business, his dislike of dogs and the lack of any competence that would plausibly let him do her work causes him to shave a poodle bald instead of turning it into a "topiary" pet (clever!), thereby ruining it for an upcoming dog show and damaging Jenny's business prospects.
To punish Jack, Jenny insists he travel into the past to retrieve an antique (and therefore illegal) handbag—seen in an "ancient catalogue", though it seems odd such a thing would exist given how much history and printed matter have been suppressed. Jack accepts, though his relationship with Jenny is (ouch!) "a kind of loyalty between people which has much of affection in it" rather than anything like true affection. As a side effect of the technology, Jack is conveniently invisible so he can steal the handbag without having to confront language barriers, hostile reactions to his far-future attire, or a lack of period money—yet, far too conveniently, he can still steal things. This is pure authorial convenience—laziness, even. Jack's "hologram" remains in the present, a personality shadow who seemingly exists only to engage in dialogue with Jenny, who must press a button to return Jack to the present once his mission is complete. Would you trust yourself to such a (plot) device? Only if you're as oblivious to Jenny's feelings as Jack clearly is.
[Spoiler] You know where this is going, the punch being strongly telegraphed. Jenny may be ignorant of many things, but she's not stupid. She is, however, vengeful and malicious, despite her otherwise coldblooded lack of affect. When Jack's hologram describes himself as "a reflection of Jack", Jenny trenchantly observes that "I might have been a reflection of him [too]... Echo to the fellow's Narcissus." Jenny chooses not to bring Jack back, and in consequence, he travels ever farther into the past until he merges with the singularity that created our universe. Though Jenny is briefly tempted to feel emotion when she realizes she might have wanted Jack back after all, the emotion never takes hold.
There's an interesting, if chillingly bleak, relationship at the heart of this story, but the continuously clumsy and overtly manipulative touches rob the story of its potential. This one isn't even remotely up to Asimov's standards.
Nobody captures an alien's voice quite like Carol Emshwiller. I'm not sure how to describe how she does it without overanalyzing; as a first attempt, it reminds me of what you see when you look closely at a painting done with sharp, deft jabs of the paintbrush. An image forms from a series of carefully conjoined brushstrokes (here, words and phrases) that merge into something altogether lovely.
The story focuses on humans who have landed on a planet populated by aliens that resemble human-sized flying squirrels, but told from the perspective of one of the aliens. This permits a pointed, insightful criticism of human nature seen from the outside (which no other genre does as well as SF). The aliens aren't overtly technological, though the narrator carries a "chip" (undescribed, but computer-related?). They've done their wanderjahr and explored the universe around them, then abandoned spaceflight in favor of adapting themselves to their environment and vice versa.
Emshwiller's critique is often bluntly overt. The aliens know that they live in "the best of all possible worlds", and our narrator notes "there's hardly any world that couldn't be a paradise if the natives bothered to make it so". Yet there are subtler critiques, such as how the aliens easily fool the humans into believing them to be no more intelligent than their canine companions. (Why doesn't more SF include dogs?) As Carl Sagan wittily noted, "some dolphins are reported to have learned English—up to fifty words used in correct context—[but] no human being has... learned dolphinese." Our alien narrator lets himself be seen to have mastered "up to 50 words", despite having secretly mastered our language, suggesting Emshwiller knew of Sagan's remark.
If the story were nothing more than trenchant observations on the anthropocentric obliviousness of humans, it would still be entertaining and thought-provoking. But Emshwiller knows that mirrors both reflect what they see and reveal something of their own nature in those reflections. The aliens consider themselves gentle and benevolent, but this verdict comes solely from the narrator, who soon proves to be unreliable. Though they show the humans suitable foods, they are hardly selfless; instead, they reserve the best food for themselves and playfully direct the humans to food the aliens would rather not eat. Though they know that their anomalous moon will have some unspecified but disastrous effect on the human's ship in orbit and on the humans on their planet, they make no effort to warn the humans. Though they could easily reveal their intelligence and strike up a relationship of equals, they playfully disable the human landing craft so the humans cannot leave, then study the humans while deliberately manipulating them in countless ways. It's this additional complexity (aliens who aren't nearly so nice as they want us to think) that moves this story from merely good to truly excellent.
[Spoilers] A final demonstration of the aliens' nature comes when the narrator, increasingly attracted to one of the humans ("Donny", the eponymous "lovely ugly"), tests whether the two species are sexually compatible. Rather than asking, he forces herself upon her—rapes her—and is badly beaten when the human leader learns of this. The narrator belatedly realizes that his cultural conditioning—to see the positive in everything, the world as gentle joke—may not have been as funny to the humans as it seemed to him. Chastened, he reveals his intelligence to the humans and the peril the humans are in, then helps them repair their lander so they can return to orbit and save their ship.
This is the kind of story that could easily be told at novel length, yet Emshwiller conveys everything we need to know in a few short pages. It's a masterful piece of work and a lovely story to boot.
This story is set after the "Transition", global civilization's collapse when oil ran out. The choice of "Transition" instead of "collapse" or "apocalypse" (complete with "gigadeaths") is telling: 40 years later, people still can't decide whether to forgive their ancestors, who are both treasured heritage and the despised perpetrators of the collapse. Further evidence of unresolved issues: the foragers seeking valuables in the ruins call themselves "archeologists", but those who did this before them are "looters". It's an intriguingly human context, and sets up a critical dialogue with the apocalyptic themes that form the zeitgeist of so much modern SF.
Sonia, our protagonist, is a 40-year-old grandmother. Though her life is hard, everyone's surviving. Society is getting back on its feet—enough so that she has spare time to work as a historical researcher, mining electronic archives retrieved from the ruins, seeking nuggets that will help rebuild society. Creasey's writing is deliberately restrained; only the characters speak with passion about their psychological and physical worlds. They provide occasional lovely flourishes, such as Sonia's long-dead mother writing in her pre-Transition blog: "They say every snowflake is different, but has anyone examined them all? No, I think there are secret duplicates, snowflakes too lazy to make their own shapes, copying their neighbor's symmetries like schoolchildren copying their friends' homework... some of them have got to be cheaters, don't you think?" Without belaboring the point, this clearly echoes the fleeting lives of the billions who have died, leaving no trace. Very nicely done.
Sonia also notes, "The old civilization had collapsed under the weight of its own self-obsession, a billion bloggers fiddling while the world burned." A simple comment with a nasty punch. This and other criticism seems excessive at first, until you realize it's how the characters are dealing with their trauma: they aren't just puppets beating on Creasey's didactic drum. Lianne, leader of the woman's historical society, presents the story's other side. She's fed up with only mocking their ancestors: "Sure it's nice to poke fun at self-absorbed triviality. It's easy. It makes us feel superior. Yet what does it achieve other than helping us feel smug?" Sometimes you just have to move on.
The characters are distinct and vivid, though Sonia's a bit of a cypher: clearly mourning the loss of her father and tender towards her infant grandson, yet she never mentions her husband or daughter. (I emphatically DON'T mean that a woman is incomplete without her man. *g* But you'd expect these people to be present, mourned, or hated if they've been excommunicated by loved ones.) In contrast, we learn why Lianne's passionate about respecting the pre-Transition people: she loved and had a passionate affair with Sonia's father before he died. (Details seem vague: When did this end? Why didn't Sonia notice? Did Creasey err?)
The SFnal notion of archival material surviving the Transition mostly in electronic form (caches of blogs, digital photos, etc.) is new, fascinating, and well thought out. It leads to important reflections on the nature of what we choose to leave behind as our testament. [Spoilers] It also forms the basis for Sonia's crisis: when she learns her father had a recording device in his head (the title refers to a "performance art" project in which he and other artists recorded their lives), she yearns to retrieve that device and learn about her heritage, even if it means desecrating her father's grave and cracking open his skull to retrieve the device. But in the end, she chooses not to take this horrific step, and instead burns her own diary as physical renunciation of such trivialities and of her former smug superiority that she was better than they were. Instead, she embraces her now and her future.
Creasey brilliantly integrates the human heart of his story with its SFnal heart, while making important points without preaching. Beautifully done.
This is the story of Agnes Wilder, an American Indian scientist who's been developing a "time viewer" that lets her gaze back in time to see how historical events really unfolded. Like many scientists who are working on projects without immediate commercial (particularly military) applications, she faces the problem of a shoestring budget because nobody's willing to fund her research adequately. The problem's exacerbated by the fact that her funding comes exclusively from her local council of Indian elders, who are concerned with things that are more immediately important to them—like ensuring the local casino doesn't shut down their bingo game (a primary social event) in favor of more economically lucrative slot machines.
This story has many strengths. The writing is clear, simple, and unaffected. The portrayal of the scientist's never-ending scrabble for funding is spot on (in my experience). The characters are distinct and effectively drawn, and Rentz successfully tackles the difficult challenge of portraying non-White characters with all their warts and blemishes, but without either iconizing them or descending into unpleasant stereotypes. The simple, flat way one elder shuts down Agnes when she asks for more time to refine her research felt somehow ineffably Indian (based on the Indians I've known over the years); it's not the words themselves that made this work, but rather the cumulative effect of how she established the personalities of the characters up to that point. They're as crusty a bunch of curmudgeonly alterkackers as you'll ever meet, yet with good hearts and individual personalities despite that. Nicely done.
The casino's choice to close down the bingo game in favor of more lucrative options has obvious parallels with the threat to shut down Agnes' research because it's not producing sufficiently exciting results. In modern science, economic considerations often outweigh the human considerations, and scientists do a terrible job of making their research interesting to the public. This leads to the crisis that Agnes faces, providing the plot point that moves the story along: How can she persuade the elders to continue funding her research? Perhaps by the time-honored scientific practice of putting on a dog and pony show that pushes the science neatly aside in favor of a spectacle that will compel more funding.
[Spoilers] Given the title's obvious reference to Custer and the battle of Little Big Horn, I was expecting a set piece in which we are taken to the famous battle so we can see Custer get his just desserts. But instead, Agnes takes us to simple, slice-of-life scenes in the past of the local Indians, and in so doing, almost loses their interest entirely... right up to the point when one of the elders sees a place where her father used to fish, promised as a gift to her father by the government, then erased by a dam with only a small cheque provided for compensation. That insult provides powerful motivation for revenge.
Ignoring Agnes' protest that her device is only a viewer, the elders immediately start planning how to use her science for revenge—by sending back smallpox vaccine or killing Lewis and Clark, for instance. Agnes now faces the moral dilemma of whether to stick to her guns, and make it clear that her machine won't permit such interventions, or to string along the elders in the hope of getting more funding. Sadly, she opts for the latter approach, and that's both an emotionally honest choice for the character and a nice punchline about the compromises many scientists make.
There are no earth-shattering events here, and none of the traditional temporal paradox tomfoolery you might expect from such a story. Instead, you have a simple, understated, skillfully executed portrayal of a handful of people and of a very real problem facing modern scientists.
This one's about Wedge and Groom, two young adults in a world of "pervasive computing". People wear viewing devices (ogs = likely, "optical blog (readers)") that let them see tags applied to just about everything; your cereal can tell you whether it's still crunchy and the milk can tell you whether it's gone bad, for instance. Look at a store, and you'll see their advertising plus patron or competitor comments. Like spam, you can filter tags you don't want to see, but it takes skill if the tagger doesn't want to be filtered. People grow so used to their ogs that when Wedge removes his to escape the pressure of his virtual world, people run into him: he's no longer tagged, so they can't see him.
It sounds like cool tech if you don't think it through, and Jablokov is about to help us do that thinking—while having a ton of fun doing it. Alas, tags also permit invasive monitoring; when Wedge modifies the safety warnings on a ladder, it reports this tampering to the manufacturer, who upgrades the warnings. Tags can also notify their creator when they've been viewed or filtered. Groom earns a living hacking tags to find their source; Wedge brings back forgotten things he feels should be remembered. Thus far, it's an amusing, Rucker-esque romp—but with more restraint.
Wedge enlists Groom to remove some stubborn smear tags, years of accumulated graffiti and misinformation that obscure the virtual monument to a forgotten politician. Florina Vance, once a political superstar, was hounded from office by a clever and nasty smear campaign when her progressive agenda made party hacks uncomfortable. Groom knows the job will be risky, since those responsible for the disinformation will resent his interference. He soon discovers the monument has been skillfully erased, and this presses his anti-censorship button. He sets out to track down what happened and restore the monument.
Jablokov sweats the details and their consequences. Characters are vivid, distinct, and provide a comfortable sense of who they are; Wedge, for example, knows Groom well enough to feed him lemonade as Groom surfs down link trails, slowly dehydrating. Trivial "tweets" clutter the landscape, obscuring what lies beneath. In a world where people forget to look with unaided eyes, Jablokov reminds us why that's a problem.
[Spoilers] Sweating the details is also why Groom notices Chenda, a street noodle vendor, dogging his heels as he tries to uncover the monument and putting up increasingly sophisticated obstacles to his work. Wedge counterattacks though his social network, who mount "denial of service" attacks that target small but collectively crucial aspects of Chenda's food supply chain. Chenda, a worthy foe, turns these attacks back on Groom and friends, snowballing the the food chain interruptions and letting everyone know our heroes are responsible. The consequences worsen; Groom, for example, can't obtain the coffee he needs to fuel his work on restoring the monument; Wedge fears he'll "never drink coffee in this town again". (It's as amusing as Rucker, yet subtler and more skillful work.)
Why is a simple noodle vendor involved in such a deep-rooted conspiracy? It turns out that Chenda is one of the "black ops" operatives who helped to purge Vance, but once she succeeded, she was purged too. When she confronts Groom, they debate which one is the worse censor: each wants their version of history available for public viewing. Then both discover an even deeper level of manipulation, by a former Vance aide who grew disillusioned after being pushed out of the inner circle. She encourages both to step away from their passionate advocacy and (basically) "get a life".
Jablokov entertainingly and subtly uses a simple tale to provide deep insights into how much information is too much, and how much censorship is acceptable. In the end, it's the debate that's most important, yet never so important that it should distract us from deeper human issues.
This is a dark modern story, begun using fairy tale language ("once upon a time"), but continued in a grimly literal manner rather than portraying something larger and more mythical. The protagonist is Nina, an 8-year-old Russian girl living in Stalinist Moscow during World War II. Her heart defect makes her an outcast to the other kids, and like many fairy tale protagonists, she has an unpleasant family life; her stepfather is not so much wicked as he is drunk and crushed by his burdens, and Nina's mother copes badly. She clings to this man for what little support he provides but hates him for her dependency and his emotional absence. It's a depressing tale of life under grinding oppression; it has Cinderella overtones, but tells its own story.
Under these circumstances, Nina develops her own imaginary world that overlaps with the real one. She has difficulty understanding adult language, whose meaning is elusive because of how confusingly the words shift from literal truth to incomprehensible unspoken meanings embedded in larger contexts Nina cannot imagine. The abuse of language typical of Stalinist communism at this time particularly baffles her; children are very literal, and Sidorova captures this well. Describing the public broadcaster's recasting of The Wizard of Oz as communist metaphor is a brilliant authorial choice, simultaneously revealing how myths are subverted for political ends and giving Nina a role model: the Tinman, who copes heroically with his own defective heart.
The primary supporting character in this story is "The Wicked Witch of the West", the name given to an otherwise unnamed Jewish genetics researcher by the residents of Nina's tenement. She becomes a friend (not quite a stepmother) for Nina. The Witch is studying fruit flies to understand the role of genes in inherited characteristics. But this is the age of Lysenkoism (which portrayed genetics as bourgeois superstition instead of modifying communist dogma to account for the truth revealed by this science), and the Witch is doubly damned: she is Jewish, and she clings to her quest for truth rather than supporting Lysenko's nonsensical notions, which bore little resemblance to any objective reality. Lysenko contributed (along with collectivization and an unwillingness to admit failures and seek ways to correct them) to massive agricultural failures and the starvation of millions of Russians. As a result of her stubbornness, her tenement room is bugged by the NKVD (ancestors of the KGB) and she is purged from her university job. She nonetheless continues her research in her room, growing increasingly desperate as her supplies run out and as friends and students abandon her to save themselves.
[spoilers] This is a fairy tale in the Grimm tradition, not one of Disney's sanitized versions; it is scary, depressing, and ends badly. (The Witch commits suicide rather than letting the NKVD send her to a prison camp.) Sidorova subtly weaves allusions on many levels, illustrating how human it is to recast our myths in ways that comfort us in the face of (or that resign us to) a hostile world we can't control or fully understand. At the same time, it's a pointed reminder of how governments subvert science to political ends. It's not remotely a comfortable or pleasant story, but it's powerful and well-crafted, and has an important message that is spared from being pedantic by the child protagonist who transmits that message.
The Witch and Nina seemed familiar, though my Russian history is shamefully weak and my genetics history focused on Dead White Western Male geneticists, Barbara McClintock entering the pantheon only belatedly. Google suggests Nina may have become Russian geneticist Nina Lebedeva, but my Google-fu failed me today. Confirmations or corrections welcome!
This is the grindingly noir tale of Kocijansky, a formerly violent character who's been paroled in exchange for taking on a nasty job: a nanotech device inserted in his brain lets him monitor the thoughts and feelings of other violent parolees. Occasionally ("nine or ten or a hundred times"), the feds remove him from his "psycho-quarantine"—so called both because he's been labeled a psycho and because he can't stand being constantly bombarded by the thoughts of others. They use him as a bloodhound to hunt down other "psychos" who have broken parole. His despair is painful to read, and he quickly becomes a sympathetic character once you realize how he became what he is and how horrifically he's been—and is being—(ab)used.
Details are unclear, but there seems to have been a societal collapse that left the federal government still in charge of major tasks, such as federal law enforcement and maintaining highways, but with so little power that "warlords" have seized de facto control over cities such as L.A. and St. Louis. Mexico has also collapsed, leading to an inverted immigration barrier: the drug lords who run the country won't let migrant laborers in the U.S. return home, creating American labor camps filled with refugees. Wolven describes them as exploited and abused near-slave-labor, which isn't so different from their real-world situation today, particularly in states like Arizona, where "breathing while resembling a Mexican" is a de facto crime, punishable by search and seizure. But in Wolven's future world, the absence of federal oversight leads to worse abuses, such as deliberately breaking up families to prevent them from forming alliances, and dehumanizing the workers by giving them numbers instead of names. It's a particularly nasty variant of Sturgeon's "if this goes on..." class of story.
Kocijansky is set on the trail of a serial killer who's killed five children of these migrant laborers. [Spoilers] The killer turns out to be a family member of the slain. When the two unnamed feds who are using Kocijansky to pursue the murderer take him to a farm where the murderer is likely to be hiding, they find the barn on fire. Rather than trying to rescue anyone inside, they settle down to wait for the fire department and the "siege team". Things go badly wrong in a hurry. Both feds are killed messily; seen from where Kocijansky is hiding behind the barrier that protects the feds from their prisoner, "the front seat becomes a container of noise and blood, like a roast exploding in a microwave". The rest of the language is similarly brutal, if not quite so lavishly gorey.
Kocijansky escapes through the shattered window and confronts the murderer in the barn, where he's hiding with a female laborer—possibly his mother. Reading the man's mind, Kocijansky learns that he's been pushed so far by the abuses he's endured that the murders seem a kindness, sending people to a better place and freeing them from the world's horrors. As the psychological boundaries between Kocijansky and the murderer disappear, he sees himself in the murderer's face and fires "two bullets into my face". This is both a mercy killing, and possibly Kocijansky's final relinquishing of what we might call sanity under the pressures of his own abuse in a world that makes sanity meaningless. He rescues the woman from the barn, and flees with her into a world of chaos that, to him, is "more meaningful than order ever was".
The story's title refers to the closing line, in which Kocijansky stands "for a moment, right smack on the horizon, on that invisible wall that divides us among our many worlds". I'm not sure that line, despite its poetry, works as the punchline; only sentences earlier, Wolven suggests there is only one world, and nowhere else to run. But that quibble aside, Horizon is a powerful, painful, disturbing tale of a bleak future and what it really means to be sane in an insane world.
As the story begins, NaN, "Our Lady of Omissions", awakens in the dark, in an enclosed space, and with no memory of how she got there. Asimov's readers will quickly figure out from the title that she's in some kind of suspended animation "coffin": because she's on a "slow boat" taking a minimum-energy transit to somewhere unknown, it's uneconomical and psychologically difficult to keep passengers awake and sane for many months under those circumstances. Bossert handles the details well: the narration is a skillful description of what it's like to wake up with no memory of how you got there and fight past the initial terror until you can figure out your situation, and there are nice touches, such as the fact that her clothing is too big because she's shrunk due to malnutrition and a lack of exercise during the months she's been asleep.
(About the only narratively useful detail he omits is the bathroom facilities, or lack thereof, which you'd expect our delightfully acerbic narrator to comment on with some venom. I mention this only to pick nits; it's not a significant problem, pace those who like to criticize Star Trek for its failure to show any bathrooms on the Enterprise. Me, I *really* don't want to watch Shatner and Nimoy chatting in front of the urinals.)
NaN is a spunky, endearing character, with serious attitude and an attractive combination of courage and brains. In short order, she disconnects herself from the coffin (having woken prematurely because the sedative pump that should have kept her asleep failed) and sets about mastering her situation. As a first step, she retrieves her personal tablet computer, an AI device generically referred to as an AID but here namied A(i)da; that's a tip of the hat to Ada Lovelace (Byron), a computer pioneer and (significantly given her mid-19th century context) a kickass chick(TM). NaN sets A(i)da to hack into the ship's computer, and after a considerable time, succeeds.
The mystery is how NaN got onto this ship, and where she's going. [Spoilers] We learn (and it's perfectly consistent with what we've learned of NaN thus far) that NaN's a talented hacker, and that her nickname comes from her burning desire to hack into corporate and government databases and liberate personal information by "omitting" it—filling the data fields with rubbish or with the word "omission". At a conference of fellow hackers, ranging from White Hats to villains, she meets the wealthy scion of a Martian family, "Leco" Stirling, who hopes to toss out the old corrupt historical baggage and start afresh on Mars with a more enlightened society. He asks her to come to Mars to help him in this effort. When she refuses, he kidnaps her and ships her to Mars on the eponymous slow boat, which is delivering supplies to Mars.
Once she's figured out her situation and hacked into the ship's controls, she begins plotting her revenge—and given considerable time on her hands and her gifts at social engineering and hacking, she sets a clever and inescapable trap for her kidnapper. When Leco and his flunkies come to steal her from the transport before the Martian flight crew can arrive to guide the ship into Mars orbit, she neatly turns the tables on them, stealing their ship and stranding them to face the authorities. Leco, like many zealots, turns out to be no better than those he's criticizing. When he discovers NaN has escaped her coffin, he berates her, demanding to know whether she has ever "brought a company down, toppled a government, or eliminated just one of the assholes who dictate their own tastes and misguided morals on the masses?" Possibly not before, but she does so now, elegantly and with tasty irony.
Slow Boat is a pleasant, cleverly told story with a delightful protagonist. Leco is a bit of a cardboard villain, but I can live with that. And there's an important moral, delivered without preaching, about the danger of believing so deeply in a cause that we ignore the collateral damage.
©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved