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

Stories reviewed:

Crowell: Centaurs
Preston: Helping them take the old man down
Jablokov: Blind cat dance
Zumsteg: Ticket Inspector Gliden...
Ludwigsen: Speed of Dreams
Rusch: The Tower

Crowell: Centaurs

On the whole, I enjoyed this story. The characters are generally well-done, in a "Heinlein juvenile "way (and I mean that as a compliment). I like that Ginny is more libidinous than Serge: girls got glands too, and not all teenage boys rely exclusively on their auxiliary brain. <g> The parents are nicely familiar in their behavior, which establishes a common thread with us moderns. (Some aspects of human psychology don't change much, and parenting behavior is one of them.) Only Ginny is truly three-dimensional (the others are more like sketched background details), but given that the story is told from her POV, and how narcissistic most teenagers are, that's acceptable. I got enough of a feeling of the supporting cast to feel comfortable with them.

Some details are handled very well. Describing a type of space suit as having a case of "alligator head" instantly gave me a picture of the type of suit the author meant. (Was this from Space:1999 or 2001? Don't recall.) Adding a description of "only 20 cm of regolith" over a shelter and criticizing this is a convincing detail; even teens in this culture would understand why that's wrong (it provides insufficient protection against radiation and micrometeorites). Some expressions took me a while to figure out: "had her tubes valved" made no sense whatsoever until I worked it through, at which point it became clear. I blame PCB (pre-coffee brain) for that one.

Overall, the story environment worked; I never felt thrown out of the story by an extraneous or jarring details. The father handing his daughter the keys to the family car works well from a literary sense; it establishes a tone you couldn't establish any other way. I doubt they'd rely on such things, however, since keys are too easy too lose (loose objects tend to float away), and there's no AAA in Neptune's orbit. I would expect implanted chips, or no keys at all; it's not like it's an area with a high risk of auto theft.

Other details simply didn't work for me. As long ago as the colonial west of North America, people understood the need to socialize in person, and doubly so for their kids—hence the church social, barn dance, and other excuses to escape the isolation of the farm and get together in groups. (Not incidentally, also to marry off one's children.) Surely there'd be a youth center to let kids get togther periodically? A date that involved a trip to an abandoned mine seems unlikely; it's dangerous, and unlikely to be much fun. Given that Serge is a word person and Ginny a musician, a songwriting date seems more likely.

I don't buy that Ginny's parents would let her loose on her own if she weren't fully trained in the use of her suit; her father's prosthetic arm suggests he's amply familiar with the perils of living in space. Even in a couple hundred years, it will be dangerous and difficult, particularly in the context of asteroid mining, where there'd be a ton of junk whizzing around waiting to rip a hole in a suit or ship. A suit that couldn't automatically seal a 1-mm hole? Unlikely. (Possibly the author was thinking 1 cm? Many American authors don't "get" the metric system.) Even if you accept that suits won't self-repair, one of the first things kids would learn is how to find and patch a hole without even thinking about it. Simple survival rules, like the way scuba divers are trained.

Summary: Well-told story that kept me reading, but some of the details needed to be thought through more closely.

Preston: Helping them take the old man down

This one pressed all the right buttons, starting with an instant flash of nostalgic recognition that this was a historical postscript (70 years later!) to the dozen or so Doc Savage novels I read as an early teen—now I want to return and read them! <g> I confess, though, that I don't expect them to have aged well.

* Is anyone else old enough to remember Doc Savage? <g>

Preston's writing is clear, straightforward, and both a nostalgic hommage to the old (highly simplistic and formulaic) tales and a rigorous modern response to the notion of the 1930s superhero. He manages to romanticize the old pulp adventures without losing the ability to question them. But despite the deceptively simple narrative style, there are some lovely grace notes such as the line "and we proceeded in search of a passageway to a world we never did find". That's one of those literary tricks (pointing at the message of the whole story) that is excruciatingly difficult to do well—perhaps why it's not usually done at all, or is done so badly, in most fiction.

I'd like to see more such stories in Asimov's. Sadly, I see too many stories that seem to have been published solely because of the author's name, not because of any literary or storytelling merit. (In Sheila's defense, this is less common than it used to be under Gardner Dozois.) I hope to have time to comment on most stories in coming days as time permits.

Jablokov: Blind cat dance

I found this story interesting on many levels. First and most obvious, it presses a few of my buttons in entirely the wrong way: the author writes in simple present tense, which I find difficult both to write and to read, and he's writing a Phildickian tale, which I tend to dislike on general principle. Yet despite this, the writing compels, in part because the Phildickian part is done so much better (imho) than Dick does it*: it's neither misogynist nor paranoid, but Jablokov instead actually enjoys his female characters and creates an air of half-sinister mystery. Who's doing the manipulating? The answer turns out to be both considerably creepier and considerably more profound than I expected.

* Caveat: In defence of Dick, it's been a great many years since I read any of his novels, so I suspect my memories make me an unreliable narrator. My primary memory was that I disliked his writing enough to give up on him after a couple novels. Where others saw genius and insight, I remember seeing misanthropy and possibly severely unaddressed psychological problems.

The notion of multiple levels of seeing is brilliantly handled, and distinguishes this story from most others I've read recently. I loved that Paolo's unrequited love goes unnoticed by everyone, even though it's plain to see: yet another variation on the blindness theme. It's also fun that Maria is so caught up in herself that she barely sees anyone else at all, in contrast with Paolo who sees only Berenika right up to the end, when he meets the narrator. Lots of fun playing with these multiple levels of seeing, to profound effect.

The mechanics of having all those animals wandering around blind to the existence of humans may not bear overly close examination from a scientific perspective, but it makes for a lovely unifying metaphor, and overall, I found myself liking the kind of world in which people would bother to make such an effort to recreate nature and reintegrate it with the human world. It's also a refreshingly different and optimistic response to the "the world's going to hell in a handbasket and we're all gonna die" kind of fiction that has become so prevalent of late. (I know where that's coming from—I work in ecological science, after all—but if I want to be depressed, I buy a newspaper.) It's also profoundly consistent with the overall theme that nobody except the "trainers" can see what underlies the world, both in terms of the good things (re-establishing a shattered ecology) and the creepy ones (where meat comes from).

Berenika (the Greek pronunciation of Berenice) means "bearer of victory", which is perhaps an unintended irony. It's not clear what victory she's won, other than perhaps establishing some personal power. Instead, I suspect Berenika's name is an allusion to the Greek priestess of Demeter, therefore making her a servant of the Greek goddess of the Earth, which is very relevant to the story. The notion that Mark is both enlightened (wanting his wife to be co-equal) and creepy (using that as a way to manipulate and capture her) is intriguing; even though Mark never really takes center stage anywhere, he still becomes far more rounded by this deft stroke of the brush than would otherwise be the case.

I'm never quite sure how I feel about such allusions. On the one hand, it's a commonly accepted literary device to name a character based on what they represent; on the other, it's a potentially clumsy intrusion by the author into the world of the story. Here, it works because the symbolism isn't heavy-handed. Zelazny used to layer his allusions so richly you needed an encyclopedia to suss them all out, and it's nice to see someone pick up that mantle without overdoing it.


Zumsteg: Ticket Inspector Gliden...

This one is a lovely confection—not in the sense of something substanceless that you swallow in a bite and then forget, but rather something that is elegantly crafted and that makes a pleasing mouthful when you don't have time or appetite for something longer. (I'm working through an Ian Banks novel right now... 'nuff said. <g>)

The story established and maintained a simple, clear tone that immediately made me part of the Berlin milieu, even though I've never been to Berlin. The notion of the historical importance of names is something that strikes me whenever I travel on a city's metropolitan transport network, and it's a deep and powerful attachment with history that few seem to recognize. The story nicely reminds us of the importance and relevance of these names.

There are no stylistic flashes, and the story arc never reaches high altitudes—it's not space opera, after all. Yet that's just on the surface; on the human level the arc is much more profound. It's a particularly nice irony that the bureaucratic functionary Gliden, who would more conventionally be seen as the reactionary guardian of the status quo, instead becomes someone who will perhaps overturn the post-alien-conquest status quo, not with an act of rebellion but rather with an act of conformity.

Naming, again, always make me pause: "Gliden" would be the German for "glide", and the protagonist's name is apt, because he glides through the events of the story with stately grace, and a very bureaucratic imperturbability. Using symbolic names always gives me pause; my response about whether this is an author intrusion is entirely subjective, not in any way objective. I imagine I'd react strongly against naming him Herr Hermann Hauptfigur, but "Gliden" didn't trigger my intrusion alert.

Very nicely done.

Ludwigsen: Speed of Dreams

In this story, the author nicely captures all the melodrama of being a teen. Not having been a teenage girl <g>, but having grown up with two sisters and having survived a teenage daughter, it all rang very true to me, right down to the protagonist having to downgrade their schooling to "the dummy version of science" to manage the stresses of academic overload. Dealing with a dying, aged relative and reminiscing over their past, and wishing there'd be more of a present, was intimately familiar to me; I've reached that stage of life with many elderly relatives.

The background story ties nicely into the overall premise and gives it emotional depth rather than just being another "Analog story". The sfnal premise is intriguing: trying to figure out the subjective duration of dreams would be a thorny research problem indeed. Watching the protagonist try to quantify it and control it through the mechanisms of scientific inquiry provides a fascinating parallel between what could be exaggerated or parodied as the "we can quantify and therefore control anything" attitude of science, and the "OMG WTF we can't control anything and nobody except us understands that" of adolescent emotional turmoil.

[Spoiler alert: don't read the last part of this paragraph before finishing the story!] The protagonist's near-denial of her emotional life, seemingly sublimated into her scientific experiment, sets us up nicely for the punchline—as in "punch in the stomach" line—when all those emotional pigeons come home to roost. When the protagonist takes all her grandmother's pills, it's easy to see her rationalizing this as nothing more than the logical corollary to her original research project. But it's simultaneously an intensely emotional response to her dying grandmother, and what every parent fears: teen suicide as something rationalized as a way to control the uncontrollable. That gives the conclusion a double emotional kick.

Footnote: Yes, greyhounds are awesome. I remember an old girlfriend coming to visit, bringing her greyhound, and my son trying to keep up with it. The greyhound was barely moving, flowing along like water running downslope, and with about as much effort, while my son was running flat out just trying to keep up.

Rusch: The Tower

Sadly, I found little to like in this story—despite enjoying Rusch's previous work. (Her "wreck diver" tales remind me how much teenage me enjoyed Andre Norton's YA work about exploring alien ruins.)

The stage setting establishes place (reminding me of my visit to The Tower), but the unnecessary cloak and dagger took me out of the story. There are many easier ways to send "we must meet" messages; this felt like cliché, not a knowing wink to readers. The challenge–response is unlikely; good ones should evoke responses that never occur in normal conversation. This scene should have been cut or condensed drastically. More effectively, show Thomas walking past The Tower, "casing the joint" with his recruiter. That also provides contrast with the later visit.

The technical details don't convince. Ex: Pneumocystis carinii won't cause any harm unless your immune system is compromised; that's why it damages mostly AIDS patients. Better to say "pneumonia" and leave it there. You can hand-wave this as the Big Boss not caring enough to tell a convincing lie, but that rings false. As an "attention reader, the Big Boss is lying" call-out, it's probably too subtle.

Not all of the miscellaneous details that background the story are poor. The notion of the past's ground level being much lower than the modern surface is brilliant; most authors wouldn't know this. Until I visited Montreal's Pointe-à-Callière museum, I had a purely intellectual feel for this, but walking 10 feet underground at the surface of the world that existed 200 years earlier provides a visceral understanding. A telling and thoughtful detail.

The world of the past is competently done, but we see too little to be drawn in: most details are "tell, not show", and are front-loaded, before our time travelers ever leave the present, setting up unfulfilled expectations. This story cries out to become a novella or novel, with room to establish the past and dig into the characters and their relationships—and into the past. The last half of the story felt rushed, more a detailed outline than a fully realized story.

The supporting characters were wallpaper: flat, and present for visual interest rather than functional reasons. "Ruggedly handsome" male protagonists annoy me on principle, but Thomas is almost enough of a person I can accept that. But the Thomas who starts the story isn't the Thomas who ends the story, and not because he's grown or changed; instead, he's pushed aside to make room for Nelya. I don't buy Thomas as an experienced thief, even allowing for the "unreliable narrator" technique. He's unprepared (no thief would forget a lock pick), and mostly reactive rather than proactive. Rusch is enough of a pro not to turn this into a romance, but if she's not going there, why keep mentioning how attractive Thomas finds Neyla and vice versa? It's a distraction, not a telling personality detail.

Hanging over all time travel stories is the spectre of Bradbury's Sound of Thunder: what changes in the past might change the time stream and prevent you from returning to the future you left? Rusch hints at this; some people never returned. But it's hard to buy that. If you want to retrieve time travellers who didn't return on schedule, send someone back to retrieve them less than an hour after they left. You can do that, after all. You'd equip everyone with small transmitters (implanted so they couldn't be lost) to make them easy to find. You wouldn't risk these people staying behind and irreversibly changing your present. More importantly, why frame The Tower as a time travel story if time travel is essentially irrelevant to the story?

Not one of Rusch's finer works. But the concept is strong. I'd be interested to see a patch-up of this story at novel length.

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