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

Stories reviewed:

Kim: The other Graces
Purdom: Haggle chips
Mitenko: Eddie's ants
De Bodard, The jaguar house in shadow
Rusch: Amelia Pillar's etiquette for the space traveller
Reed: A history of terraforming

Kim: The other Graces

Even after letting this story sit for a bit and stewing over it, I'm still not sure what to make of it. On the one hand, it establishes and maintains a consistent tone of painfully stifled anger, and has many telling details of a world I'm not intimately familiar with. On the other hand, like many other slipstream stories, it's not at all clear that it's really SF/F.

The notion of "yellow trash" is one I've not encountered before, since I grew up almost exclusively in middle-class communities where the struggles of immigrant families were largely unknown to me. The Asian families I grew up with and the Asian kids I went to university with were mostly second-generation families, and all reasonably well established in the Canadian milieu. Though I lived fairly close to the poverty line for a few years after leaving home, I never really had any fears of my ability to survive and fit in; among other things, I'm a superficially mainstream white male, and that removes a large set of barriers. The Other Graces nicely reminded me how the other (more than) half lives.

Having worked with a refugee family from Guatemala, and gotten to know many first-generation immigrants over the years since university, Grace's stress and feeling of alienation rang very true. The awkwardness of adolescence was also well handled. The teenage girl social environ rang less true based on what I saw with my sisters and am seeing now with my daughter (who surrounded herself with Asian friends throughout high school and afterwards, including two Korean exchange students), but everyone's story differs; there are no one-size-fits-all "racial" tales for any given immigrant group, and I've heard enough horror stories from other teenage girls to understand where Kim's description is coming from. The situation she describes is both alien (not something I've experienced) and familiar.

The casual dismissal of Grace by the white girl who calls her (a Korean) a "chink" (an offensive Chinese epithet) is a deeply chilling and brilliant detail. It's bad enough being ostracized because of your race, but it can be even more hurtful if the racist doesn't even care enough to figure out what race you are. It deepens the dehumanization. (I've encountered an occasional version of that, but it's not nearly as scary when you're superficially part of the majority.) The account of a father slipping into madness was equally painful; I recently lost my father to Parkinson's disease, and his final-days dementia haunts me still.

The SFnal concept that Grace is flailing and only succeeds because of an alternate-reality handwaving in which other Graces from parallel universes coach her through her SAT tests and other exams is intriguing. It borrows from the longstanding tradition of immigrants supporting other members of their cultural group through the harrowing early stages of immersion in a new culture, and it's a relatively untrodden path in the field of alternate histories; more often, alternate versions of ourselves from another universe are portrayed as more interested in exploiting us than helping. Whether Grace's description is real is anyone's guess. Everything we see in this story can be explained in mundane terms if we recall that Grace is a science fiction fan and that some form of mental illness may run in her family; her narrative could easily be seen as a combination of Grace seeking a consistent narrative that helps her survive (a crucial stage for an adolescent) with schizophrenia or another mental disorder that involves hearing of "voices". That ambiguity is deliberate and is skillfully handled.

I really didn't "like" the story because of its unrelenting harshness, but that doesn't stop me from appreciating the craft that went into telling it and the author's recognition that we mustn't immerse ourselves exclusively in "comfort" tales. Good fiction should also challenge our assumptions strongly enough to make us uneasy, and The Other Graces succeeds well on that level.

Purdom: Haggle chips

Purdom establishes an interesting situation: an advanced civilization where psychological and medical modifications are readily available, and brain–computer interfaces exist but not artificial intelligences. People live thousands of years, barring accidents, if they live near the civilization's core. Those who live farther out must wait for travelers to bring them the latest technology, but still can live much longer than currently normal lifespans in superb health. Unfortunately, those who rise to power won't relinquish it, so there's little room for youngsters like Janip, our protagonist, to rise if they stay home. That's an unusual recognition and not often discussed in most stories that assume artificially extended lives.

Janip, our protagonist, adopts the life of an itinerant trader, abandoning friends and family so he can move from star to star, bringing trade goods from each previous world that the next world hasn't yet developed. The conflict that drives the story is simple: Janip arrives at the planet of Conalia to sell replacement eyes to Elisette, the wealthy and powerful owner of the planet's primary source of clean (hydroelectric) power. And she guards her power (in both senses of the word) jealously; when another group installs in-river turbines to create their own source of power, she builds an upstream dam to thwart them. Yet perhaps she isn't so ruthless after all; rather than dynamiting the turbines or hiring mercenaries to extract Janip when her rivals kidnap before him before he can deliver the eyes, she resorts to negotiation.

The commune that kidnaps Janip is a peaceful, vaguely Gaian group. In keeping with their philosophy, they use no weapons more lethal than stunners, and seem to be a peaceful agrarian community with some scientific interest in their colony world. Intriguingly, they resolve all disputes (by communal policy) in the manner of bonobo chimpanzees, via exchanges of sexual favors, men and women both, but in a clearly heteronormative context. It's a ludicrous notion (human psychology demonstrably not having changed in Purdom's future world), but it seems to work well if you don't look too close. But we soon learn that Sivmati, the commune's unofficial leader, is far more equal than the others, exerting an unhealthy degree of dominance. This is a cult, attractive and laudable though their motives and belief system seem, and even though Sivmati seems a largely benevolent dictator.

It's a promising setup, and it appears that we're going to be treated to a study of the uses of power and the darker side of human hierarchies. We even have no unadulterated villains or good guys. But the story soon runs off the rails.

Janip is not a likeable character. Farello, one of the female cult members, is manipulated by Sivmati into bonding with him to keep him resigned to his velvet cage. He calls this "a fantasy just as unlikely as simulations crowded with women driven by an inexplicable need to give him anything his imagination could conceive". Yet he goes along with that fantasy: he can "shut off his urges... [but he] had to force himself to make the effort. When he made it." That's ethically appalling, and Janip does nothing to make us sympathize with his perspective. Rather, he treats Farello as one of those fantasy women and he uses her. The fact that she apparently likes being treated this way doesn't really excuse his behavior.

Worse still, Purdom doesn't help us develop sympathy for Farello; initially, she's nothing more than an object to be manipulated, with no personality of her own, and she never fully emerges from that role. From the story's internal perspective, she's accepted this role; belonging to the commune is her only clear passion, and it's important enough that she'll accept any sacrifices, including the loss of free will, to achieve that sense of community. That's sufficiently true of many cults that it's fully believable. As a literary device, this also dramatizes how callously Sivmati and Janip treat her. But Purdom gives us no reason to believe that he, as author, is treating Farello any less callously. When Janip tries to leave her and she realizes he will try again as soon as possible, her desperation in clinging to him is painful to watch. But this is too little and too late, and never fully convincing; the story ends with Farello still clinging to Janip because of a supposed "real attraction", though Janip has shown no attractive qualities. We never develop any sense of Janip other than as an emotionally remote character unable to form real human attachments.

What finally threw me completely out of the story was the repeatedly clumsy and illogical plot, in part because the consequences of the technological setup were not thought through. Elisette tries to free Janip by smuggling in small snippets of a computer program via closely monitored e-mail so he can disable the "watchcats" who provide security (a ruse that is easily and predictably detected). But why would Janip drop from a third-story window to begin his escape when we have no evidence he's been confined to quarters? This may have been Purdom's attempt to remind us that he's genetically bioengineered and that the drop, which would seriously injure a modern human, doesn't give him a moment's hesitation, but if so, it's a clumsy way to remind us of what we already know. Why not simply have Janip go for his daily jog (we're told he does this to keep in shape), arousing no suspicions until the moment when he makes a break for freedom?

Trying to smuggle in a second program on a "wafer" makes no sense; in the story's context of ubiquitous connectivity through a global communication network, the smuggler could simply shake hands with him and transfer the program via short-range communication that the commune couldn't intercept. Even if you assume the wafer is necessary, planting it outdoors, where Farello must retrieve it, serves no purpose other than to remind us that Janip sees Farello as little more than a tool for escape rather than someone worthy of human consideration. Why not simply smuggle it into Janip's room when visitors come to confirm that he's being treated well? Last but not least, Elisette's final successful rescue attempt is completely unbelievable; she's long since shown us that she is too smart to rely on such a risky gamble, soarriving with a small army to cover Janip's rescue would make far more sense.

I never believed that the banks which control the world's highly secure communication network and access to resources that colonials such as Sivmati require would fail to aggressively challenge Janip's kidnapping. One can assume that this is because they're inherently cowards, but that explanation doesn't convince. Banks, whatever their ethical lacunae, are run by hard-eyed realists who would never allow kidnappings to interfere with the trade that sustains them: doing so establishes a clear precedent that would only encourage future crimes and further interference with trade. It's also hard to believe that Elisette, Janip's customer, is stupid enough to go along with the plot: it would have been simpler for her to accede to Sivmati's demands (i.e., demolish her dam), and then immediately rebuild the dam as soon as Janip delivers the goods.

Purdom has done much better in the past; this was not one of his finer efforts.

Mitenko: Eddie's ants

This one's a delightfully wicked comedy of manners, though here, the different social classes are humans and alien colony organisms that call themselves "the Specs". Matt, our protagonist narrator, has been ousted from his ménage à deux with the lovely Aleksa by one Edward, a Spec who has also dropped into Matt's university research group and displaced him as the (from Matt's perspective) alpha male. (I don't think it's a coincidence that Matt's snooty antagonist has an Oxford English accent.) The result is murderous hatred, with Matt setting out to eliminate his rival and win back his former position.

To Matt's surprise, Edward is basically okay with the initial failed attempt at murder: he tells us that competition between adjacent colonies of Specs routinely ends in attempts to murder and absorb the rival colony, and Edward confesses to feeling that something is missing from his life without the constant fear of imminent murder. Unfortunately for Matt, Edward proves to be pretty much unkillable: after millennia of inter-colony warfare, Specs have gotten pretty darned good at surviving just about anything you can throw at them.

Edward, being smarter than the average bear, eventually figures out the solution: look (amusingly, on Craig's List Eastern Milky Way) for another Spec willing to come room with him at the university. He's confident the newly arrived Spec will eliminate his rival as soon as it detects Edward's presence, and sure enough, when a Spec named Leslie arrives, events take their predictable course.

In its most basic form, the comedy of manners can be nothing more than just an amusing entertainment that makes us laugh at differences. But the better ones also have something to say about the relationships between the classes. Here, Mitenko uses the clash between the two male protagonists as a way to shed some light on basic human behaviors, as seen through the eyes of aliens who work under very different cultural assumptions. Edward and Matt are much more alike than either at first realizes, since their competition is really more about pride than it is about Matt's heartbreak over losing his girlfriend—a woman who, it turns out, he doesn't actually much like. And pride, amusingly, is something that gives humans and Specs common ground despite seemingly radical differences. Just possibly, as in Matt's case, we may have something to learn from each other.

The biology of the colony organism that is a Spec probably doesn't bear overly close examination, but it's an amusing mechanism for showing how the human social architecture, in which we don't murder each other simply to create more room for our own colony, is a thinner veneer than we care to admit over occasionally vicious games played under other guises—usually, as in Matt's case, while not being fully aware of what we're doing. It's not an overly profound message, but it adds considerable depth to what is otherwise an admirably entertaining tale of male rivalry.

De Bodard, The jaguar house in shadow

Why all this fuss over the Aztecs lately? This goes back at least to Dave Duncan's Jaguar Knights (2005). Possibly I missed some pop cultural moment? But it's an interesting new spice added to a familiar stew, and I'm all for it.

Here, that old stew is a hearty one. The meat? The ties that bind friends to the point of risking death for each other or that tear them apart when their beliefs diverge. The sauce? A time of chaos. Some, including two of our protagonists, Onalli and Xochitl, cling to their beliefs; others, such as the priest who tortures Xochitl (like a priest of the Spanish inquisition) only value temporal power. Though an old story, its worth retelling with new spices because the other ingredients are so tasty.

The technology is beyond our real-world present, with aircars, nanotech, and near-sentient computers. I'm not sure why the old Aztec religion would remain so powerful in the future Mexica of the story, but I don't know enough Aztec history to speculate whether they'd experience the same gradual marginalization of religion that the Christian West experienced. I quibble over warriors carrying obsidian blades for anything other than ceremonial purposes; obsidian is wicked sharp (sharper than surgical steel), but it's also brittle and useless against armor; Aztex macuahuitls (wooden swords with obsidian edges) fared poorly against Spanish armor. The Mexica warriors would prefer modern materials such as steel.

De Bodard's writing is visceral and heartfelt, against a background of blood—from the stench of the bloodstained priest to the "worship-thorns" Onalli carries on her mission to free Xochitl. The story emphatically isn't just a bunch of English knights wearing Aztec costumes; they're clearly different. But there's also familiarity here, in a humanity that spans cultures despite differences in how that humanity is expressed. Blood also achieves a literary connection across cultures: most cultures attribute magic to blood (including the Catholic Communion sacrement), and believe it provides power, and some people are more interested in that power than they are in its deeper meaning. But there's also strangeness: to the Aztecs, blood was a sacred gift from their gods, and the sacrifices that horrified Europeans were not simple savagery: the deeper meaning was returning blood to their world to sustain it, and some Aztecs embraced this form of self-sacrifice.

The framing context is a civil war among the Mexica, an "evil" emperor (the "Revered Speaker"), and war with rival nations. Amidst this, two of three old friends (Onalli and Xochitl) remain friends and true to the spirit of their eponymous Jaguar House, now fallen into shadow because the third friend (Tecipiani) believes her house must survive, no matter the cost.

The story relies on repeated flashbacks that step progressively farther into the past, elegantly and movingly revealing the tragedy of the three friends: originally inseparable, they are gradually torn apart as the Mexica empire descends into civil war. Onalli and Xochitl join the rebels; Tecipiani makes the compromises necessary to ensure that Jaguar House survives, including capturing Xochitl and letting her be tortured. When Onalli tries to free Xochitl, the friends (and their clashing ideologies) come into direct conflict.

The only problem I had with the structure was the page layout: headings were there for flashbacks, but not when the narrative returned to the present. This made it needlessly difficult to figure out when the timeframe shifted. The retelling nonetheless resolves the origin of the present situation and how it arose with perfect pacing; the story ends darkly and equivocally, with both groups certain they did the right thing and no clean resolution in sight.

I liked that all three primary actors in the story are women, with men all offstage or peripheral to the focus. That's a refreshing inversion of roles, without preaching. De Bodard has created a rich and complex world, and I hope we'll read more about it.

Rusch: Amelia Pillar's etiquette for the space traveller

This isn't really a story in the classical sense, sine Rusch's goal here is not to tell a story. Instead, she creates a parodic hybrid of Emily Post (hint: look at the name of the guidebook's author again) and the kind of instructions you find in the seatback pocket of a modern passenger airplane or (I assume, not having gone on a cruise) in cruise ship cabins. On the whole, she succeeds brilliantly*, and though it's not a story, there are some lessons for would-be storytellers.

* Though in a dry, restrained, ultimately civilized almost uber-British manner: think "Douglas Adams on valium". Heroically, she resists the urge to include a section entitled "Don't Panic!" I'm not sure I could have resisted that temptation.

First, Rusch spends enough time understanding her narrator to nail down the tone. It's letter-perfect and consistent throughout, providing precisely the kind of reassurance you want to receive when there's a reasonable chance you aren't actually going to make it to your destination. Yet there's also considerably more depth to that character, since our superficially polite narrator can't quite resist an occasional subtle and nasty flash of wit that shows they aren't in the least bit impressed with us readers, and possibly that they're having some malicious fun at our expense. I loved details such as the reassuring yet pointed reminder that "you are in a tube floating through a hostile environment, with only a thin membrane between you and the vacuum of space". Are we feeling reassured yet? Then there are helpful bits of advice, delivered in a reassuring but (subtly) patronizing tone: "... you will think that you have made a terrible mistake leaving the safety of Earth. At that time, remind yourself that you are an adventurer!"

Second, there is an unseen plot that guides you smoothly through the narration: Rusch starts by reassuring us how special we are, moves on to some unpleasant practicalities without completely scaring us away, and then leads us through to the safe end of the journey and how to handle our first encounter with aliens. As in the best stories, you never feel you've been seized by the arm and dragged along by the author to somewhere you hadn't intended to go. (That's the job of the cruise ship. Once you get on, there's no turning back, and "no amount of begging or pleading or bribery will allow you to disembark at the nearest space station and make a return trip". It's a neatly nasty touch that, along with many other clues, lends a certain sinister delight to the descriptions.) We proceed from one point to the next inevitably and naturally, without ever feeling that events were manipulated.

There are a few significant omissions, such as the lack of any discussion of lifeboat drills; presumably, the cruise line, having not learned the lesson of the Titanic, has provided none. There's no discussion of the etiquette of (ahem) fraternizing with the other passengers, and the perils of shipboard romance. But I point that out just to make it clear I was paying attention to the details. On the whole, it's a delightfully tart, tongue-in-cheek description of the perils of spaceflight on what will pass for a luxurious tourist ship in the early days of the space tourism business.

Reed: A history of terraforming

Reeds begins this tale with the early history of terraforming on Mars: Simon, a precocious 4-year-old, and his father are on the surface of Mars, ready to deploy a nanotech "seed" that will begin to transform Mars into something habitable by humans. Immediately, Reed is subtly at work sketching out the human details: Simon understands (mostly) the details of things such as how he would have a different chronological age on different planets (different orbits), yet is oblivious to mysteries a 4-year-old can't understand, such as what it means for Lilly to be his father's "very, very good friend". It's a tone-perfect portrayal of the child and his relationship with his father, and of a genetically engineered child who nonetheless remains quintessentially a child.

We are told Simon's mother worried about having her son "scarred" should something bad happen during his trip with his father. That initially seems a throwaway line, but events later prove that Lilly has indeed scarred Simon by teaching him about the soon-to-be-destroyed native Martian ecology and using him to manipulate his father into giving her time to complete her own work (saving the native microbes). That Simon subsequently enters his father's profession of terraforming is predictable, but what's less obvious is that his early life has left some lingering doubts. As he later observes when the first Martian terraforming effort fails: "His second century had brought with it a tidy and quite useful epiphany: everyone would eventually fail."

The contrast between the rogue bioengineer Earnest (not Ernest) McKall and Lilly represents an interesting and subtle touch. In most stories, the background society feels at least somewhat monolithic, and apart from the narrator or POV character, its as monolithic as a painted backdrop. Yet Lilly and Earnest both have very different agendas that disrupt this background. Unfortunately, McKall's planned biotech rebellion wasn't credible to me. It's not that the concept of the rebellion wasn't well justified and clearly described. Rather, the over-the-top Dr. Moreau nature of the rebellion was entirely out of place: what could have been a simple act of scientific rebellion (moving to somewhere McKall would have freedom to experiment) became a mad-scientist parody, in the absence of any other similar elements in the story. Why create monster dogs that need to be destroyed militarily when you could simply thumb your nose at society and flee before they could mount an effective military response? This seemed atypically clumsy for Reed.

Unlike his recent fiction (more like his novels), Reed grapples with considerable technological detail. On the whole it's well done. The pod-pool trees that create their own self-contained pools in which shrimp and other organisms can be raised is a nicely thought-through gimmick; this kind of aquaculture would be a natural approach to creating protein and maximizing the use of limited space. The uplifted African Gray parrot is another nice touch; these birds are already scary-intelligent, so they'd be a logical choice to "upgrade". Dismantling Mercury to produce an array of solar lasers that concentrate sunlight and pump energy to the distant colonies is a cool notion, and felt more convincing than Baxter's solar mirrors in Earth III. The subsequent slow progress towards creating a Dyson shell about the sun is well done, though I confess to a pang of guilt at doing such violence to Nature.

Which leads us to the heart of the story. Most SF portrays technology as proceeding inevitably from success to success, and assumes this progress is inherently a good thing. But here, the first Martian terraforming fails, killing millions, and despite the failure, those whose career it is to terraform remain blindly optimistic about their ability to overcome this failure and eventually succeed. There is no true mourning for the lives that have been lost. That's perhaps too shallow a caricature of certain types of scientist, but true to the hubris of those who would play God by terraforming. I don't recall reading another story this realistic about just how difficult terraforming would be, though I haven't yet managed to read Robinson's Mars trilogy; thus, I can't say whether Reed is dialoguing with Robinson here. It strikes me that the failure of Mars to establish a complex ecosystem after 4+ billion years hints strongly it won't be easy to create one artificially.

Better still, Reed is one of the few to explore the dubious ethics of terraforming: Are we really so important it's worth destroying an entire planetary ecosystem purely for our convenience? Choosing to describe Jupiter as "infested with life" leaves no doubt as to Reed's opinion, and the story's conclusion emphasizes this. We could more easily stay home and solve our ecological problems or create artificial worlds that would obviate the need to destroy natural ones, and Reed reminds us of these inconvenient points.

The rate of technological progress described in the story didn't quite convince me. (This problem perhaps arises from defining the elapsed times: I have a different sense of how fast things change. One of the lessons of true speculative fiction is this: never pin down the dates.) Hundreds of years in the future, we may not find ourselves in a Strossian story, but computers will be far more pervasive than they are by this stage of Reed's history. I'm also not convinced Earth can sustain "1 trillion sentient beings" despite advanced technology and clever tricks such as reducing most humans to 1/3 their adult size so they use less space and fewer calories. Earth's carrying capacity ultimately depends on the solar energy input captured by plants and converted into food. I won't geek out and do the math, but you can try this at home: start with the total solar energy received per unit area at Earth's surface per unit time, assume 100% energy-capture efficiency (impossible), then divide this by the basal metabolic requirements of a typical organism. Proof left to student, but the number is lower than you'd expect.

I'd never read Reed's that occasional unusually large influxes of matter falling into the black hole at the heart of a galaxy would produce enough radiation to periodically sterilize all planets within a huge distance of the center. But it makes an enormous amount of sense, and provides a uniquely satisfying explanation for Fermi's paradox (i.e., why we haven't already encountered evidence of aliens). It also makes for a poignant and uniquely chilling entry into the popular genre of stories in which humans are creeping around amongst the ruins of long-dead galactic civilizations.

The posthumans of the later stages of the story seem more realistic than the bizarrely evolved posthumans of some singularity fiction. I don't believe most humans will deliberately choose to become something truly alien (most of us are perfectly happy with our essential natures) or that we would be able to leave our personalities behind sufficiently to create something unrecognizably alien; that will come when our AIs choose to evolve to meet their own needs rather than ours. More thoughts on this at my blog and in the followup post. Being a sometimes misanthrope, I found it highly credible that we won't leave behind our worst character attributes, and the war towards the end of History that kills something like 90% of humanity and ruins most of the inner solar system doesn't strike me as unbelievable or unlikely. That's an unusually bleak outcome for a Reed story, but so be it. The four-armed Suricata (the Latin name for meerkats) were interesting near-aliens, though presumably humans in furry bodies based on their personalities.

The human heart is at the center of any Reed story, and Simon's heart is particularly complex. Some 600 years into his future, he's fallen in love with Jackie, the uplifted parrot who was his former workmate. We don't see enough of Jackie to get a good feel for her personality, so it's not clear whether she's really that lovable or whether Simon simply can't form close attachments to his fellow humans; we never hear of other girlfriends or boyfriends, suggesting the latter explanation, as does the fact that the older Simon sounds an awful lot like the 4-year-old boy we met at the start of the story. Unfortunately, this had a powerfully distancing effect, which made it hard for me to develop any empathy or liking for him until right at the end. When we hear that Jackie has died during food riots on Earth, I felt little sympathy for either character, largely because their relationship was presented to us as a narrative fact rather than shown developing over the course of years or centuries (all tell, no show).

When, late in the story, Simon is forced by his Suricata employers to execute Naomi, a manipulative colleague he last saw nearly 1000 years ago and who became a rebel who was potentially responsible for millions of deaths, this is the first time I actually felt that Simon was "there" (present in the story): the scar left by Lilly's manipulation of his 4-year-old self finally surfaces, we see how hurt he was, and we possibly see why Simon never had a human girlfriend. He could have fled the Suricata world rather than accepting their pressure to kill her as the price for staying. [Spoiler] It's pleasantly surprising to see him turn the tables on Lilly in the closing act (the manipulator being manipulated), manipulating her into serving his ends, and to see McKall hoist on his own revolutionary petard.

The final lines, in which Simon states that humanity will be ready to leave our solar system and begin exploring other worlds only when "we are children again... who know what they have in their hands and hold it with all the care they possess" is a touch preachy, but deeply true to Simon's matured character and a powerful thematic return to the start of the tale, with young Simon holding the first nanotech terraforming tool. There are echoes of and rebuttals to Clarke's 2001 and Childhood's End. It's a brilliantly set up resolution.

What Reed does well, he does very well. The writing is impeccable as always, and there are many nicely handled and consistent details. Characters are well-limned and distinct, despite the abovementioned flaws. But History isn't up to his usual standard. The problem is that it's nearly impossible to do justice in a novella to a human story that spans millennia; to do so, you need to devote less space to the "gosh wow" aspects and more to the characters. History felt like a condensed novel excerpt. Writing at greater length would have given Reed scope to explore the characters in more depth, building empathy for them and concern over their fates—and room to explore the more intriguing background elements. At novella length, there simply wasn't enough room, and the story suffers as a result. It's still a fine and entertaining piece of work, but I'd encourage Reed to see what he could do with this tale as a patch-up at novel length.

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