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Stories in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction, December 2010 issue

Stories reviewed:

Kelly: Plus or Minus
Swanwick: Libertarian Russia
Genge: Sins of the Father
Bossert: Freia in the Sunlight
Werkheiser: Variations
Reed: Excellence
Creasey: The Prize Beyond Gold
Emswhiller: Uncle E
Purdom: Warfriends

Kelly: Plus or Minus

Mariska is 15, and is the clone of the famous astronaut Natalya Volochkova, who is soon to become an insterstellar traveller. Like most teenage girls, Mariska has mother issues, exacerbated by the fact that she's a gene-engineered clone of her mother who was "designed" for duty on a starship so she could accompany her mother. As we join her story, she's run away from home and her mother more than a year ago to crew on an asteroid ship that shuttles cargo between the asteroid belt and planets farther in-system. In addition to facing all the usual teen issues about sex, identity, and belonging, she faces the barriers of being the ship's rookie (thus, she gets all the dirty jobs and no respect) and having a supervisor, Beep, who combines the worst aspects of a creepy boss and the father figure she never had.

The crewmembers refer to themselves as "monkeys", a reference back to the early-Apollo days when NASA engineers considered astronauts to be little more than lab animals. Given the automated nature of the ship and the crew's menial duties, it's an appropriately pejorative name, though Mariska notes (with surprising insight given how much she hates her job) that they're really more like remoras; that is, harmless symbiotes who can care for the ship in an emergency. Given that she's never lived on Earth, it seems unlikely she'd know about this obscure aspect of terrestrial biology, but the metaphor is good even if it's out of character. Adding to the complications are the fact that Beep was rejected for joining the starship crews by Mariska's "mother", thereby adding a layer of resentment to his supervision, and the fact that he's been spying on the younger crewmembers. Although it's his job to keep an eye on the crew's mental health, this appropriately disturbs Mariska, and things take an even creepier turn when he reveals that one of the young men, Richard, has apparently been running porn simulations of Mariska on the ship's computer. It's not clear whether this is true, and Beep is simply following up on his responsibility to warn her, or whether the sims are really Beep's.

Kelly nails most details of living in space in a ship with way-before-Star-Trek technology: velcro slippers to hang onto the deck, sponge-bath showers, a creaking hull (from thermal expansion and contraction), and the eternal battle against mold. The Trek reference is amusingly hinted at when Kelly describes a vid Mariska is watching of what is clearly an old Trek episode. He's set the story in 2163, and I'd hope for better space tech by then, but I didn't have any trouble believing we won't yet have conquered mold. (I've studied microbiology; I know whereat I speak.) Best of all, he does a nice job with the personalities of his characters in the story context; they're mostly distinct, interesting, and adequately fleshed out for their roles in the story. Mariska's conflicted relationship with her mother is bang-on based on several other mother–daughter relationships I've known, right down to her contradictory feeling of betrayal when she learns that her mother will be leaving her to travel to another star—even though all along, she's claimed that her greatest desire was to never see her mother again. It's also nice that she completely misses the reason Beep makes her shadow him to learn chores instead of relying solely on her computer to learn the ropes: he knows better than she does that in a crisis, you'll need hands-on muscle memory, not book learning.

[Spoilers] Unfortunately, the details of the technology and situation haven't been fully thought through, and become either inconsistent or unlikely. The smallest elephant in the room is the statement that Beep has "one of the two override cards" that presumably let a senior crewmember override the ship's automated systems in a crisis, yet we never learn who has the other one. The cards seem an unlikely and inappropriately antique technology, particularly since you don't want to be scrambling to find one in an emergency; you want anyone with appropriate rank to be able to override the computer. The second card also suggests that there should be a second crew, which is supported by the fact that the five crewmembers don't seem to stand watches. If overrides might conceivably be necessary, this means that someone trustworthy would be minding the ship around the clock, override card in hand, since emergencies don't arise solely during the dayshift.

The accident that drives the plot once the characters have been established is moderately implausible as described. For plot reasons, the crew must lose just enough ice in the accident to find themselves rehashing Tom Godwin's famous 1954 story The Cold Equations: it becomes necessary for one crew member to die so the others will have enough oxygen to survive until a rescue ship can reach them. Here, Beep sacrifices himself to ensure there will be enough oxygen left for the remaining crew (provided that Mariska uses her genetic starship crewmember's ability to hibernate, thereby further reducing demand for oxygen), but only after revealing that *he* was the source of the porn. It seems he'd created it to test Mariska's ability to get her past her emotional response and still behave professionally; she passes the test, and he hands over command to her.

Having the ice they need to create reaction mass and oxygen escape its storage due to negligence on the part of one crewmember is certainly plausible, but not as described. After removing the amount of ice currently needed to replenish the ship's oxygen and reaction mass, standard protocol should be to lock down the remaining ice, and even in Microsoft Ship v0.9, you'd expect the tiedown system to warn the crew if this isn't done. It also seems unlikely the unsecured ice wouldn't immediately trigger an alarm on the bridge, or that the loss of the ice would be undetected by the ship's automated systems. For that matter, why wouldn't the ship do the lockdown itself? If you give a damn about the crew, it would also be sensible to build in excess capacity to account for accidents, which the ship's designers apparently haven't done. To create a convincing accident, it would have been simpler to have Glint, the crewmember responsible, knock the ice free right from the start, since we've been told she's not good at her job. In addition, the kind of design you'd hope the engineers developed after 150 years of experience in space would ensure that either of the two levels of lockdown would hold the ice in place, even with the ship decelerating rapidly to arrive at its destination. (Engineers fetishize redundancy.)

For the lost ice to be a problem in the first place, it's necessary to invoke a long string of unlikely technological assumptions. Using water ice to generate both oxygen for the crew and hydrogen as reaction mass is a clever touch, but hydrogen is a poor choice for reaction mass (it's too lightweight). Moreover, no ship 150 years into the future would require significant ongoing replacement of oxygen just because the designers chose to discard carbon dioxide instead of recycling it into oxygen and food (which would be easily done using gene-engineered plants; we already know genetics tech in the story universe is up to the task). Kelly tells us the ship is not a closed system, but if that's the case, they'd also be losing nitrogen and other gases they couldn't replace using the ice. Far more sensible to carry auxiliary air tanks. Moreover, even if you assume that it's necessary to discard the carbon dioxide, it would be more effectively discarded as reaction mass because it's significantly heavier than hydrogen.

It's always a questionable choice to pin down the year, because this leads tech-heads like me to second-guess the rate of technological innovation; this only works well when we agree with the author's extrapolation (such as Kelly's sly positioning of the Russians and the Chinese as seemingly the only primary forces in future space exploration). It fails when we don't. The computer technology (full-time networking via brain implants, communal VR "dreams") is an example of failed extrapolation; it's a nice description in its own right, but too familiar by far given how fast computers are evolving and how far in the future this story is set. Similarly, having the crew scrub mold and wrangle cargo with teleoperated robots adds nice texture to the narrative, but makes no sense technologically. The mold would be better handled by a 150-years-evolved Roomba, and we already have robots that are nearly capable of handling cargo without human supervision. The description of Beep's spacesuit, "customized" to fit him, is simply wrong; it seems no more advanced than a modern space suit. Kelly tells us the suit is a low-pressure model (so that Beep has to worry about getting the bends)—a nice touch for a suit 10 to 20 years in the future—but the requirement that Beep retrieve the cooling underwear used to regulate his temperature while spacewalking from his room makes no sense. In 150 years, suits will integrate this tech, particularly in a customized suit and particularly for a long-duration mission; as described, the suits would be useless in an emergency (e.g., a meteor puncture, which is a high risk in the asteroid belt) because they're stored too far from the crew and you couldn't get into one fast enough if your cooling suit were stored back in your room. Based on these points, I'd set the story technology level no more than 50 years in the future.

Taken as a whole, the technical details don't really work, and become a way to artificially generate a plot rather than evolving one naturally from the technological situation. The result compares unfavorably with The Cold Equations, which has its own flaws. The "plus or minus" of the title is about how narrow the margin for survival becomes, and it's simply not a convincing setup, particularly given that everyone but Mariska dies. Where the story shines is in its human heart, particularly in how well Kelly captures Mariska's teenage character. Lastly, I would rather have seen the story end with a sense of closure, with Mariska at least confronting her mom when the older woman comes to rescue her daughter rather than failing to interact with her in any significant way. Leaving the relationship unresolved is a defensible place to end the story if Mariska has explicitly told her mother to piss off, particularly if we'll see a sequel that picks up where this one left off, but that doesn't happen. I hope that the putative sequel will retain its strengths of character, but fix the plot and technical weaknesses.

Swanwick: Libertarian Russia

"Libertarian" is not a word that belongs comfortably in the same sentence as "Russia", but Swanwick is usually working on something clever. Here, he's created an interesting hybrid of Easy Rider and Mad Max, set in a post-"Depopulation" Russia with strong central authority still remaining only in the cities, where there's enough population to support the necessary infrastructure. Elsewhere, there's only as much "civilization" as people are willing to tolerate.

We're introduced to this world by Victor Pelevin, who has seemingly chosen his family name as an hommage to a famous but secretive Russian writer, who he refers to as his spiritual grandfather. (This and the technology level seem to set the story about two generations into our future, though Swanwick wisely doesn't pin down the date.) Victor is fleeing Moscow, hoping to cross the continent on his motorcycle and seek his fortune somewhere with a less oppressive government structure. In a surprising (for Swanwick) infodump, Victor explains the story context, emphasizing the Libertarian angle of living free, far from the remaining big cities. Swanwick clearly doesn't share Victor's optimism. In this story, not to mention the real world, libertarianism and its scruffier cousin, anarchy, only work if everyone is willing to let them work. Sadly, people generally aren't willing.

Victor's joined in his road trip by Svetlana, who offers us no last name—or more correctly, no "patronymic", since Russian does things differently from English when it comes to names. This wording is both linguistically correct and a deliberate statement by Svetlana that she belongs to no man. More accurately, she belongs to no man who can't afford the rent, since she's a prostitute and makes no bones about it. She conveys sufficient toughness that, hooker clichés notwithstanding, you can buy this image as a real, organic part of her personality rather than a purely authorial flourish. When told of Victor's love for his authorial namesake, she counters with The Master and Margarita as her favorite; this is Mikhail Bulgakov's satire about suffocating bureaucracies, and reveals her as a kindred spirit for Victor. Clearly she's got a brain, and one that thinks along similar lines to Victor's.

Svetlana's a freelance prostitute who trades sex for travel with Victor until she can move far enough from the authorities to set up her own brothel, an interesting parallel to Victor's libertarian dreams. Also interestingly, the only sex she'll trade is oral; other forms come (you should pardon the word choice) at a price Victor can't afford. I found this interesting precisely because intercourse is often considered far more intimate than other forms of sexuality, and the ever-pragmatic Svetlana clearly distinguishes between companionship and intimacy. The two strike up a companionable relationship during their travel, but Victor finds himself wanting more than the purely business relationship Svetlana is prepared to offer—a natural development for someone who's clearly a dreamer.

Soon enough, trouble begins. They stop for dinner at a roadside restaurant—not a common thing, for the obvious Mad Max reasons—and miss the clear warning signs (a Mercedes parked in front; a lack of bulletholes in the walls). Entering, they are immediately taken prisoner by three former Russian special ops cops, who prepare to rape and kill Svetlana (and threaten Victor with the same fate). Victor has a gun, but the cops (unsurprisingly) have technology that disarms civilian guns.

[Spoilers] It should come as no surprise that Svetlana lives up to her tough appearance, though how she does it is more surprising: before leaving her former city, she paid to have herself "weaponized", effectively becoming one of Gibson's iconic "razorgirls". She makes short work of the three cops, divides their possessions equally with Victor, then (true to her completely pragmatic character if not to the expectations of a Mad Max film) takes her leave of him, wishing him well. Victor gets the best lines of the story in the closing moments: "He turned his back on the money. It was an incredibly stupid thing to do, and one he knew he would regret a thousand times in the days to come. But he couldn't resist. Maybe he was a lousy libertarian. But he was still a Russian. He understood the value of a good gesture."

The story has many strengths, including Swanwick's smooth and economical writing style, clever lines such as Victor's gesture, and Victor's sweetly naïve character. Svetlana doesn't rise far above the hooker cliché, but therein lies a significant flaw. I can accept Victor naïvely missing the clues and walking into the restaurant, but it seems unlikely Svetlana would make such a mistake; she's far too streetwise, and would therefore be too knowledgeable about how cops operate. For this to not be an error on Swanwick's part, we must assume she knew what was going to happen and went into the situation with both eyes wide open. That gives a bit more depth to her character, but I'm not confident this was Swanwick's intent. A larger flaw is that the merciless deconstruction of libertarian philosophy is simply too blunt. It's not that I disagree with what Swanwick is saying; rather, I know he's capable of doing this much more acerbically and subtly, but chose not to do so. That and a certain predictability of plot makes the story one of his more minor works.

Genge: Sins of the Father

Sins is the tale of an un-named merman, exiled to the land by his mother (the ruler of the merfolk) with his tail split into legs, for an initially undescribed sin. In the story's narrowly circumscribed world, set in a peasant village in Spain, the merfolk rule the seas, and have imposed their rule upon the humans, limiting technological progress and forcing humans to revert to old, almost pre-technological ways. There are clues (e.g., old generators and electric lights that are still functional) the story is set only two or three generations in the future, but the cause of the situation isn't clear: Has greenhouse warming expanded faster than expected, turning Spain into an archipelago as the seas rose andfreeing the merfolk to return, or have they imposed this situation through some sort of magic in revenge for contamination of their environment by humans?

The plot that drives the story is how the merman narrator falls in love with Rosita, a village girl, and eventually, after a brief courtship that is heavily circumscribed by the misogynist and highly conservative customs of her small village (with everyone spying on everyone else, and the old women keeping a wary eye on everyone and each other), he marries her. The courtship is described simply and evocatively, but with admirable restraint. In short order, Rosita becomes pregnant, and all seems well until bad weather destroys the village's crops. Already living hand-to-mouth, the villagers have no surplus food, and starvation descends upon them, leaving even the pregnant Rosita forced to consume grass to survive. (It would seem logical for the village to turn to the sea in search of fish and other marine foods, but the merfolk undoubtedly prevent this.)

[Spoilers] With no other alternative, the narrator must return to the sea, knowing he'll be executed by his kin as soon as they sense his return. But he hopes that because his wife and son are innocent of any crime, they will be spared punishment for the sins of the father and will be allowed to undergo a proverbial "sea change" to become merfolk themselves. To ensure this is so, he uses his voice (presumably some form of sonar) to "write" their story upon his wife's bones for all to see. In this simple ending, Genge accomplishes a startling number of things simultaneously: we're reminded that the merfolk communicate and sense their environment using something like sonar, we learn that they are genetically engineered humans who took to the sea to survive the climate catastrophe, and we learn that they enhanced the catastrophe to revenge themselves upon the parents who caused the problem (echoing the narrator's flight from the sea in rebellion against his mother).

We also learn the narrator's sin: that he tried to turn his people from vindictive oppressors of the land-bound humans into their allies. The story ends before we learn the fate of the key protagonists, but the narrator seems likely to achieve a telling moral victory over his mother: it seems unlikely she'll kill his wife and child (her grandson), but by sparing them, she will leave her son's final words and final act of rebellion clear to anyone who "sees" the wife, making the rebellion live on long after the son's death. It's a subtle and clever denouement, and so understated you might miss its subtlety if you're not paying close attention.

Genge tells us in the introduction to her story that she is half-American, half-Spanish, and therefore finds herself no longer fully in either world. That's a powerful feeling that drives her story, leaving the merman narrator both literally and metaphorically a fish out of water. The prose that sustains this mood is rich but restrained, with subtle rhythms and an eye for the telling detail, such as the black-clad widows keeping an eye on everyone. It's lovely work, and like the best prose, it gets efficiently out of the way and leaves only resonance.

Bossert: Freia in the Sunlight

This one's an interesting shift from typical Asimov's fare, almost Analog in style. "Freia" is a cruise missile, equipped with an onboard artificial intelligence system that lets her analyze her situation and adapt her responses on the fly so she can accomplish her mission. It's a necessary innovation given the modern electronic warfare environment, in which remote-controlled weapons are no longer sufficient; their command signals can be jammed, or worse yet, can be spoofed to permit hijacking of the weapon. On its surface level, the story is nothing more than a description of Freia's mission, packed with technical jargon and military acronyms, and almost falls into the category of military porn. In this sense, it's a well-crafted tale: the jargon is just enough to convince, without overwhelming the story, and the chase scene and mission description that frame the plot are skillfully handled.

But there's much more here than meets the casual eye. For one thing, it's clear that Freia has evolved beyond the minimum intelligence necessary to analyze the tactical situation; she contemplates terms such as "beauty", and begins wondering what it means to her creator and the implications for his opinion of her. She even dithers and "resets" herself when the situation becomes confusing and no longer matches her perception of the mission or the mission parameters that underlie those perceptions. The tradeoff of allowing an artificial intelligence to evolve rather than hard-coding the software instructions is that it may evolve in directions you hadn't intended. Here, Freia not only achieves more than the minimum sentience required to perform her missions; she achieves something akin to true personhood and free will.

The consequences, hinted at rather than stated, are that the device may decide to do things you didn't want it to do and that once it becomes a person, sending it on what amounts to a suicide mission raises some thorny ethical issues. I'd love to see these issues explored at greater length. What's particularly interesting in this context, and a nice example of giving personality to a minor character, is how Freia's creator understands the concept of beauty and how it differs from Freia's understanding: to him, it's nothing more than military porn, a device that elegantly accomplishes its task and demonstrates his engineering brilliance, but to her, it's sunlight, fog, nature, and the sheer joy of flying. In short, he's completely missed that his "child" has grown up, achieved sentience, and even developed an esthetic sense.

The writing is, despite the technobabble, crisp, compelling, and generally clear, with two notable exceptions. First, describing the removal of Freia's "Intelligence Package" before the mission initially made no sense; it took me several tries to realize that this referred to military intelligence (i.e., spy data) rather than artificial intelligence, and I couldn't figure out how Freia was thinking through her mission without her intelligence module. Second and more seriously, there is the use of "TM" as an exclamation by Freia. To her creator, TM is a verbal tick that indicates the trademarks he's applied to all his many acronyms, and a form of self-admiration for his own cleverness. But to Freia, it's something far more profound: starting her analysis from the religious imagery of sunlight streaming into a church, and the congregation responding to the officiant's statements with a reverent "amen", she associates the word/symbol with a form of reverence or awe, and begins using it herself to express importance, awe, and reverence for her existence. It's a difficult concept, and therefore difficult to extract from the writing. But once you do, it adds depth and resonance to a well-told and thought-provoking story.

If you enjoyed this story, you might enjoy my own (ultrashort) take on the subject, Cogito Ergo Nihil.

Werkheiser: Variations

Variations is the story of Joe Novak, son of the famous pianist Benjamin Novak and seemingly being groomed from an early age to follow in his father's footsteps. But Joe largely dropped out of his old life (including school and playing piano) 10 years back when his father died. He's taken to drinking and smoking. Like two previous stories in this issue, he has issues with a parent, but this time it's his father. (Is this the family-issues issue of Asimov's? *G*) The story begins when he's brought to a lab run by people who are trying to develop a method for recreating music performed by great musicians, using advanced medical imaging and computer technology to create a 3D experience that is more real than being there and better than any remastering of old recordings could possibly achieve. The long-term goal is to recreate music that was never recorded, and possibly even music the artists never wrote or performed while they were alive. (Work is ongoing right now in this area, with promising results.)

Joe's reluctant, but can't resist the money being offered. Initially passive-aggressive (he takes a 10-day bus trip rather than the offered plane ticket just to make his prospective employer wait), he gradually becomes enthusiastic about and emotionally involved in the effort. The experience of remembering and reliving his father's performances as he experienced them, complete with the attached memories, becomes a way of reconnecting with his father and possibly even with his own feelings about music. It makes him feel good enough that he stops drinking and cuts down his smoking.

There's an interesting implicit assumption, very typical of SF, that anything (here, the essence of human creativity) can be captured perfectly if only you obtain enough accurate measurements. I have some sympathy for the notion ("Geoff's a recovering scientist", he reminded his audience), but it will be interesting to see whether the assumption's true. I suspect that given our lack of success understanding animal consciousness, let alone human consciousness, despite millennia of trying, we'll end up creating a credible facsimile rather than the real thing without ever really understanding what it is we've captured. I think of this as a kind of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle of the mind: human observers can't fully grasp the human mind without perturbing the system and measuring something other than what they aimed for.

[Spoilers] By the end of the story, the software has advanced sufficiently to become a literal "ghost in the machine". When Joe hears this software play the piano, it hits him hard, which his employer mistakes for mere fatigue. But for Joe, this is equivalent to having his father reborn, however virtually, and Joe badly needs to flee the situation. Fortified by alcoholic courage, he wanders back to his father's studio, and sits at the old piano that has been instrumented to both play his father's music and record input from the keyboard. Within moments, Joe finds himself playing a duet with something that, though software, is recognizably his father—it has all of his father's signature style and personal flourishes, and like his father would have done, it pushes him hard to regain and demonstrate his former musical skill. Though this completes the dialog with his father that stopped abruptly when his father died, it also brings the painful realization that the only way Joe and the rest of the family connected with Novak senior was through music; Joe's only memories of his father relate to their sharing of music.

Variations is a cleanly told tale with a strong and credible emotional center, and though it ended a bit abruptly with Joe's realization but no resolution of whether he will take up his virtual father's challenge and return to music, it's still a strong piece. I'll be interested to see what other *ahem* variations Werkheiser can work on this theme in his future work.

Reed: Excellence

Excellence is the story of Larry Voss, a mostly idle layabout who spends his life playing virtual-reality (VR) games through the guise of "doppels". These are artificial intelligences (AIs) that he has created and that share much of his personality and looks, but that act as somewhat independent agents in the VR worlds. He's able to be a layabout thanks to his inheritance, but his native intelligence and the resulting excellence at managing these doppels have let him play a dominant role in nearly a dozen VR worlds. All is well until his favorite doppel is approached by one Gilchrist Lambbone—but this Gilchrist is no mere doppel; he's present in the game as a genuine avatar (an "essence"), with Gilchrist present in the (virtual) flesh rather than being represented solely by his doppel, something that's expensive beyond the reach of most people. Gilchrist claims to be a "champion" of Voss and wants to meet him in person. As best Voss can determine, Gilchrist is a representative of the Green Arrow biotech firm's Green Light subdivision, which is charged with identifying prodigies and giving them "genius grants" to reward and encourage their endeavors.

The writing is in Reed's "breezy and cynical" mode, with many examples of clever and subtle wordplay. Two favorites: When Gilchrist puts Voss firmly in his place, both complimenting him on his doppel skills and informing him of his failure to live up to his true potential, Voss notes: "Two coolly delivered sentences, and I was both thoroughly stroked and utterly bitch-slapped." Then, when Voss stops himself from coming right out and asking whether he's being evaluated to receive a genius grant, worried that the answer might dash his hopes, he observes: "So I left that cat in the box, half-alive and half-happy." You don't often see Schrödinger's cat invoked as a metaphor for fragile hope, but Reed manages it with his usual panache.

Gilchrist is a skilled liar and manipulator, and his behavior perfectly suits the story's bantering tone. The plot hinges on him visiting Voss and trying to manipulate him into some form of behavior, only it's not clear what that behavior might be. He has the gift of combining just enough honesty to seem trustworthy, without ever telling the full truth, and the willingness to listen so intently that he pampers Voss' ego and keeps him talking. It's noteworthy that we never learn anything about Gilchrist unless it's something that enhances his credibility. This and his completely imperturbable nature are strong clues; should you ever meet such a person in the real world, keep one hand on your wallet and one eye on the nearest exit.

[Spoilers] Reed sucker-punches us three times, each more cleverly than the last. The initial interview process seems to be leading up to a genius grant, something Voss is eagerly looking forward to—as much for the ego boost as for the money, since he seems very comfortable (complacent, even) in his life. But Gilchrist drops the bombshell that the real genius here is King Abalone, Voss' most successful and interesting doppel. This raises a whole host of possibilities that we (and Voss) are just beginning to ponder when Reed abruptly switches direction, hinting strongly that the real goal is to develop the skill and intelligence of doppels to the point that Green Arrow can use its biotech smarts to incarnate the doppels in human flesh.

We've been told via a few dropped hints earlier in the story that there are "Oligarchs" in this world, and that they play some kind of conspiracy-theory role in running things, and we're led to the inevitable conclusion that the real goal is to bring Abalone, a ruthless and clever schemer who has conquered his virtual world, into their service. It's an act about as amoral as you'd expect from a corporation that is flourishing in this impoverished world, with Abalone implicitly being prepped to join the ranks of the Oligarchs. Suspecting this, and not liking the feeling of being manipulated, Voss slips into the VR game and kills Abalone before Gilchrist and colleagues can use him for their presumabily nefarious purposes. (It seems unlikely this would solve anything, since one assumes Gilchrist could recover Abalone from backups, but that's a minor quibble.)

But just as that theory is beginning to feel comfortable, Reed changes direction for a final time. Gilchrist reveals that he's not really working for Green Light, but rather for an unnamed secret organization. The juxtaposition of this revelation with the mention of a documentary on how the Oligarchs are stabilizing and rebuilding the world, mentioned only a few paragraphs earlier, is unlikely to be coincidence: it's a way to prime us to think things through and conclude that Gilchrist himself is working for the Oligarchs. "Gilchrist Lambbone" is an unusual name, and its combination of "Christ" and "lamb" also seems unlikely to be coincidence. Indeed, he becomes Voss's saviour in an entirely unexpected way: by having his agents bankrupt Voss and eliminate all his money while the two converse over dinner. Gilchrist remarks that Voss has been squandering his talents on VR games, and that rather than taking vengeance for thwarting his plans, he has given Voss a precious gift: "And like any charity, its value relies on whatever the recipient gains in the end." Rather than the money Voss had hoped for, he instead receives a wakeup call. Penniless and with no other resources save his native wit, he must choose what to make of that gift. It's a profound point and perfectly suited to ending this chapter of the story and starting an entirely new one.

Excellence reads like a cross between the writing styles and agendas of two authors who enjoy dealing with virtual worlds: In the aspects related to VR gameplaying, not to mention the multiple layers of scheming and reality, it reminded me a lot of Walter Jon Williams' recent work. In the technological aspects, it reminded me of Rudy Rucker writing while on valium and with one typing hand tied behind his back; that is, there's a ton of cool technology being described here, starting with the doppels and continuing with AI agents for things such as security, research, and "biography" (like a more useful hybrid of Facebook, Twitter, blog software, and a personal information manager), and continuing with effective telepresence technology, allowing you to meet friends from halfway around the world in a bar while you're present in the flesh and they're present (presumably) as holograms. Unlike Williams, the story isn't a potboiler; unlike recent Rucker stories, you're never overwhelmed by the technological details, and the tech is just overt enough to create a clear and intriguing story world. This is typical of the way Reed enters into dialogue with other writers, past and present, without ever falling into simple imitation, and it's typical of how Reed takes old themes and makes them interesting again.

Really nice work that combines an interesting story with much to think about.

Creasey: The Prize Beyond Gold

Creasey takes us into the world of Delroy, an Olympic gold medallist sprinter who is contemplating an upcoming race in which he has a chance to beat the world record. That's far more significant than it is today, because Creasey has placed us at some unspecified future date when, despite all technological and psychological and nutritional and training advances, unmodified humans ("Standards") have reached the limits of what the unmodified human body can achieve. As a result, all athletic performance has been increasingly slowly "approaching the asymptote" (Creasey's original working title for the story)—the point at which no further improvement is possible. Here, it's been 70 years since the record was broken for Delroy's event, the 100-m run, with a time nearly 1.5 seconds faster than Usain Bolt's astounding run in 2009. That doesn't seem like much, but for a sprinter, it's an eternity.

Creasey's writing is only serviceable, since he's reserved his attention for the human implications of this situation. Like the modern Olympic champion, only infinitely more so, Delroy's life is regimented and disciplined by his training regimen and his skills are so computer-modeled and quantified that it's easy for his coach and observers to predict he'll break the record this time. The modern codependent partnership of coach and athlete has evolved into a true symbiosis; Delroy's coach is modified to perfectly sense his charge's emotions and other needs so he can minutely adjust Delroy's regimen to optimize the chances of success. But the flip side of this is that Delroy and his competitors have become little more than "lab rats", living under precisely controlled conditions and controlling themselves precisely according to instructions from computer simulations that tell them how to modify their life from moment to moment to guarantee maximum performance. Delroy's "dop" (doppleganger) is a perfect computer simulation of him that is used for this purpose. But the dop's intelligence has been removed because of ethical concerns over enslaving an artificial intelligence. That's a particularly incisive touch, since it's an open question whether Delroy himself differs from his dop in any significant way: he can think, but is so constrained by his willing submission to his training regimen that thinking does him little good.

On top of this is layered the tension between Standard humans and Enhanced humans, who aren't quite post-human but who could easily go in that direction. Creasey tells us, through Yarah, a woman who became Enhanced (to take on the form of a bird) after her own moment of Olympic glory, that the Enhanced are currently going through an experimental period in which they are relishing their new freedom to modify and enhance their bodies in myriad ways—but discovering that this cannot last. Already, people have begun to realize that the deeply human need for shared human identity and the need to associate with others who have like minds and like bodies will become more powerful than any desire for unconstrained individuality. There's freedom, and then there's going too far. That's a wise and profoundly human take on the notion of the Singularity.

[Spoilers] Despite the restrained writing style, Creasey builds considerable tension as Delroy reaches his own personal crisis point: What will happen when (if!) he breaks the world record? Since his current running is described in completely joyless terms, as little more than the exercise in mental discipline required to follow the script and perform as programmed, and since we have reason to believe he will have achieved the asymptote (a record that can never be broken by an unmodified human) by the end of the story, what lies beyond what will likely be his final run? Freedom beckons, but after a lifetime of strict regimentation and subordinated free will, what will he do with that freedom? Creasey wisely provides no answers, not even telling us whether Delroy actually breaks the record, though that can be taken as a given from the build-up. The story's climax has been reached, and whether or not he wins the race is not the point anymore.

The "price beyond gold" is freedom, but what will Delroy do with that freedom? Creasey has written (intentionally or otherwise) a response to the Niven and Barnes novel Achilles' Choice, but comes at the problem from a very different angle. Where Niven and Barnes ask what price is worth paying to achieve glory (i.e., to make Achilles's choice), Creasey asks what glory really means and what we should do once we attain it. That contrast creates an interesting and thought-provoking literary dialogue, and by deliberately not providing pat answers, Creasey leaves us free to seek our own answers. That will undoubtedly inspire future authors to additional exploration of this issue, and I look forward to that exploration.

Emswhiller: Uncle E

This is the story of four children, ranging from Elliot (the youngest) to Sarah oldest (at only 12), with Howard and Maggie in between. They've lost their mom to some unspecified long illness, and she's died at home; in a rather macabre touch, Sarah simply covered her over with her bed sheets and left her in her room to decompose. The children's only protection against a cruel world is their dog Ralphy, and the only thing keeping them from starvation is the fact that Sarah somehow knows the password to her mother's ATM card.

Sarah is coping surprisingly well, and manages to keep the kids together and coping with the situation by stepping into her mother's role. She holds herself together for the rest of the summer, despite an escalating series of crises: money starts to run out, then the ATM card is frozen, then the toilet backs up, and finally, she's forced to resort to begging in the streets to provide income for food. In the middle of all this, a well-dressed, balding, oddly familiar man shows up at the door with a bag of groceries, claiming to be their "Uncle E". Having been well-versed in "stranger danger", and warned by how Ralphy goes into a crazy barking frenzy at the sight of the man, the children won't let him in and won't accept his food, fearing poison. They know how badly this can turn out, and their fears prove to be real when a thief breaks into the seemingly abandoned house and the children (who have prepared for this eventuality) kill him with a baseball bat and any other weapons that come to hand. They then throw the corpse into their mother's room.

[Spoilers] Towards the end, Ralphy escapes the house during one of Uncle E's visits, and the joy with which he greets the older man reassures the kids that their uncle can be trusted. Uncle E comes in to deal with the bodies, finds an older woman who will be able to watch over the children, then leaves, telling Sarah it may not be possible for him to return. It's not hard to guess who he is, and what the science fictional hook is that lets him help the children, but I enjoyed the sudden "click!" as all the clues fell into place. In case you missed that satori moment, Emshwiller provides additional closing hints to ensure that you'll figure out "E" is "Elliott", many years down the road, having returned via time travel to save his family. (The metaphysical implications of the implied causality violation are left as an exercise for the reader.)

There are some inconsistencies. It's not clear how a parent could die, even during the summer when nobody would miss the kids at school, without the adult world noticing. That kind of thing doesn't happen, at least not without invoking some complicated explanations. Even if the kids and their mother had no other family (let alone their absentee father), it's likely that bankers, employers, or the mother's friends or parents of the children's school friends, would surely inquire. Sarah's competence and self-assurance raise a larger and harder to swallow inconsistency: the children show little evidence of any trauma over the loss of their mother. Their lack of emotional "affect", combined with the ability of the kids to fly below the radar for as long as they do, can be explained if we assume their mother was some kind of financially independent recluse, whose underlying illness affected how she raised her children. There's enough evidence to support this hypothesis, but I kept having the sense that I was missing clues to something more disturbing.

Those caveats notwithstanding, the emotional and character details are handled well. Sarah's growing desperation at being so far out of her depth is clear, Maggie's obsessive piano practice (something she hated but now insists on because she knows her mother would want her to do it), and Elliott losing his night fears as soon as his "uncle" arrives are all convincing. The story reminded me somewhat of the mostly dreadful Home Alone films, but more so of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, most familiar through the Jodie Foster movie version. I'm not sure this is one of Emshwiller's stronger works, but it still has a kick to it, and left some unanswered questions I'll be pondering for a while.

Purdom: Warfriends

The editor's introduction to this story tells us Purdom wrote an original novel set in the story world nearly 40 years ago, and it shows: there's a lot of backstory to get through without indulging in excessive infodumps. Unfortunately, Purdom takes neither the infodump approach nor does he provide a foreword that would get us comfortably settled before he dives into the story. As a result, we're left to assemble the context from a series of well-delivered clues. It's effective writing, and the full picture does gradually emerge, but it's I found myself initially a bit intimidated by the fuzziness of the picture, and suspect that Purdom would lose many inexperienced genre readers.

Once you've persisted long enough to gather the requisite clues, you find yourself dropped in the middle of an interesting situation. The framing story revolves around a marriage of necessity between two formerly hostile alien races. The Warriors of Imeten (Imeten presumably being their goddess) are tree-dwellers, and described essentially as some form of advanced great ape, primarily herbivorous. They are tool users and tool builders, with iron swords and dart-casters and an intensely hierarchical society. Until recently, they had enslaved the itiji, the other sentient race on this planet. The itiji are an unspecified combination of pack and herd animals, like a cross between great hunting cats and beasts of burden like horses, but they are emphatically carnivorous. They're a society that operates largely by debate and consensus—possibly the species name, itiji, is not capitalized because it is a collective or descriptive noun, not a proper noun—though they do have five great leaders who coordinate their tribe's efforts. Unlike the Warriors, they have no gods; their morality evolves organically from the herd or pack mentality that lies at the heart of their nature and they value belonging and harmony above all else. They are not tool creators, since they lack the hands to do the job, but they're clearly smart; most have mastered many languages, including that of their former masters, and typical conversations are chaotic free-for-alls in which many voices speak at once and a shared picture of the world gradually emerges from the verbal melee; our viewpoint character, Vigdal, describes it as like seeing the world through eight pairs of eyes when members of his warband communicate with each other during a raid.

The wildcard in the deck is "Harold the Human", who apparently arrived during the prequel, and then armed and armored the itiji so they could rebel against their arboreal masters. (We never meet Harold, but his presence is everywhere in the background.) He subsequently defeated the champion of the Imeten in single combat, and used his newfound authority to force the Imeten to release the itiji from their slavery. Now, he's trying to encourage the two races to work together in a gradually evolving alliance. The whole notion of this story is straight from 1960s science fiction (complete with the colonialism notion of benevolent intervention to overthrow an existing social order), and shares all the starting assumptions of its genesis. There's also a heavy overlay of evolutionary predeterminism that seems somewhat antiquated in its straightforward determinism. But Purdom's been writing for a long time, and I was eager to see whether his assumptions had changed.

The core of the story is the clash of cultures, made explicit through the relationship between Jila-Jen (an Imeten) and Vigdal (an itiji), who come together to raid a rival band of Warriors from Drovil, who are invading Imeten to gain control of their iron mine. The itiji goal in the raid is to free some of their people who are being held hostage; the Imeten goal is to give the more numerous Drovil a bloody nose and force them to disperse their larger forces so the Imeten can pick them apart via guerilla warfare instead of having to face them in pitched battles. There are many interesting things going on here: cultural assumptions blind each species to certain things, such as when the Drovil sentries in the trees ignore the itiji commandos who slip beneath them at the start of a raid; the Drovil, like the Itemen, are still struggling to "think outside the trees". The itiji are more intellectually flexible, and are beginning to learn to think three-dimensionally, and as natural strategists, become an invaluable ally to the Imeten.

But there is still far to go before the two cultures truly understand each other. Jila-Jen and Vigdal are clearly beginning to establish a bond, and working hard to sustain it, with Jila-Jen going to great lengths to understand and emulate the very different culture of his new ally and communicate that to his war leader, while Vigdal tries to walk the edge between his newly freed people, with their more freeform culture, and the rigidities of the Imeten culture. On top of this, very different goals for the alliance (protecting the iron for the Imeten, rescuing the hostages for the itiji) may tear them apart or at least sabotage their cooperation.

[spoilers] Jila-Jen understands the itiji increasingly well, and cares enough about them that he goes to literally heroic lengths to help them. When his warleader chooses to attack the Drovil caravan carrying iron from the mine, ignoring the increasingly strongly stated wishes of the itiji to free the hostages first, he offers to personally rescue the captives while the main body of the war party attacks the caravan. But he still requires a quid pro quo rather than simply doing the right thing for his allies: Jila-Jen wants the itiji to give up some of their share of the loot from the caravan to compensate the three warriors who will attempt the rescue mission, thereby losing their chance to gain any loot during the raid on the caravan, and a double share if he can free the captives. Vigdal agrees, even though his people need the iron so that Harold can continue building them weapons and other useful tools.

The raid on the caravan initially works well because of the joint tactics of the two races, providing a simple and clear illustration of how combining the strengths of different species can compensate for their individual weaknesses. But there are lingering wounds; many of the captured itiji in the caravan have had their spirits crushed, and those who were raised in captivity believe themselves to be inferior slaves, with no hope of freedom. Some must therefore be left behind because they lack the will or courage to flee with their rescuers. When Drovil reinforcements arrive, a running battle ensues, with significant losses on both sides. Neither of the allies emerges unscathed or truly satisfied with the results of their raid.

The final resolutions are not happy, but they are deeply appropriate: Vigdal has adopted enough of the mindset of his Imeten allies that he takes command of his embattled comrades as they drag the iron-laden sleds away from the fight, in an unprecedented individualism that displeases his comrades. Jila-Jen has killed the captives to end their suffering rather than freeing them, and it's not clear how much of this was simple pragmatism (there were far too many Drovil guards for any hope of rescue) and how much was a lack of understanding of how important the lives of the hostages were to the Itemen's former slaves. In the end, Vigdal agrees to provide full payment even though Jila-Jen technically did not fulfill his bargain. To the itiji, the nascent alliance with the Imeten is far more important than achieving what the itiji might consider justice.

Purdom doesn't really engage with the cultural assumptions underlying his 40-year-older story, leaving my initial questions unanswered. But in grappling with the core differences between his cultures and emerging with an honest solution, he does a nice job of illustrating the cultural differences and how they both sustain and undermine the alliance. The two protagonists, Vigdal and Jila-Jen, are nicely characterized and provide good proxies for their larger cultures, which seem well-considered and worthy of further exploration. Subsequent stories that show the consequences of the alliance, and that challenge the underlying assumptions that gave rise to the original story, will be welcome.

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