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

Stories reviewed:

Fulda: Backlash
Mirabelli: The palace in the clouds
Crowell: Wheat rust
Kowal: For want of a nail
Landis: The sultan of the clouds

Fulda: Backlash

Backlash is a time-travel action-adventure tale, featuring Eugene Gutierrez (former anti-terrorist agent) and Chen-Chi, a character from his future. I wanted to like this story: the writing is smooth and effective, drawing us pleasantly through the tale. But too many problems threw me out of the story. [Spoilers] The plot: Chen-Chi returns to "activate" Eugene's past self (prepare it to receive his future self's consciousness) so he can stop a group of terrorists who will destroy their city (and apparently American civilization) through mysterious SFnal technology gone astray. One of the terrorists turns out to be Eugene's daughter Clarise, making for a nastily tangled dilemma for our protagonist to unravel.

The characters mostly don't "work". Eugene is a familiar stereotype, though an interesting one, but Chen-Chi is a cipher, with little sense of who she is or why she's there, other than as a foil (and future love interest) for Eugene. Clarise, though her relationship with Dad is skillfully described, doesn't fully gel either; her motivations for becoming a terrorist make no sense. Her boyfriend, complete with scraggly appearance, is Terrorist Cliché Number 3.

Some details are intriguing and well-handled. The transfer of what are effectively personality ghosts ("sentience nets") into past selves, thereby permitting time travel, is a nice variant of an old genre trope. Other details are unconvincing but can be handwaved; tachyons, as noted in a previous review, aren't a likely choice for time travel, and the entirely unnecessary explanation of their role in time travel was ill-considered. This isn't an Analog story, so taking the technology as a given and getting on with the human story would suffice. And many details are downright clumsy. Clarise hooks up with an "underground mafia"—as opposed to the aboveground legitimate kind? Given standard Chinese names, Eugene's companion should probably be "Chen Chi" (two separate names), and referred to formally as "Chen" (the family name) or informally as "Chi" (given name).

Fulda makes several Hollywood-inspired mistakes that result from a lack of research. When she wounds her protagonist for dramatic effect, a fist-sized explosion fragment sticks in Eugene's thigh. That's going to be seriously disabling; at best, the fragment would keep sawing away at muscle tissue as he fights, doing increasing damage until removed, and if it reaches the femoral artery, he'll bleed out quickly. It's not something Eugene can ignore during the climactic fight scene. The kick in the groin he receives, even if weak, would disable him and blur his vision for a few moments, not be ignored. The fight scenes simply don't work; grab a couple friends and work through the scenes slowly, as described, and you'll see why. I'm not even remotely an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, but Eugene's PTSD lacked the ring of truth.

More seriously, the story is an example of an "idiot plot"—too many characters behave like idiots. Chen-Chi's incompetence is unbelievable; the people who sent her into the past had days and possibly weeks to prep her for her trip. The terrorists are worse; if they're affiliated with real mafia (which is how they get explosives), they wouldn't attack Eugene like clumsy amateurs; they'd send professionals to do the job. Where does Jo-Jo hide the assault rifle he provides late in the story? Even if he's mastered katana space (where Duncan hides his sword in Highlander), it's inconceivable that a trained agent like Eugene would walk unarmed into a room full of terrorists instead of taking the rifle and controlling the situation instantly. Most egregious? You can't do high-energy physics in a library basement; even if you could, once the terrorist leader is dead, you no longer need to blow up the library to destroy the device.

Serious editorial hand-holding could have turned Backlash into a good story; in it's current form, it simply didn't belong in Asimov's.

Mirabelli: The palace in the clouds

Palace starts out with a chunk of history related to the founding of Venice—possibly an offputting infodump if you're not a history fan or aren't willing to persevere to find out why it's relevant. We learn this story will be told as a series of historical flashbacks interwoven with a more modern tale, the life of one Vincenzo, a pilot. Vincenzo takes his nephew Jason flying in his antique airplane, dives into a large cloud—and lands on it, revealing it to be the eponymous palace in the clouds. Mirabelli then gradually reveals the mystery of how the palace got there and how Vincenzo learned of it.

Venice has had a checkered history: it begins inauspiciously, with Romans fleeing into the marshes to escape invading barbarians during the final fall of the western Roman empire, but achieves a glorious future as the dominant commercial and cultural empire of the Mediterranean. In real history, Venice was eventually forced to surrender its independence to the armies of Napolean. In this alternate history, one of its leading citizens, Giovanni Anafesto Pauli (a fictional character so far as I can tell, though Paolo Anafesto may have been the first doge of Venice), proposed that the city and its people take to the air; he'd seen the Montgolfiers demonstrate their balloons in France, and believed the Venetians could do so as well. Vincenzo's cloud landing gives us proof that Pauli's dreams were achieved.

Vincenzo has survived an adventurerous life as a handsome young fencing master and alpine guide, apparently something of a rake, followed by a career as a race car driver until a crash ends his career. He first encounters the floating city when, trying to escape a a dreary Boston November, he flees to Montreal in search of romance. He has nearly given up on this notion (my hometown of Montreal being somewhat dreary in November) when he literally runs into Lucia, a young woman who drops her earring; when he pursues her to return it, he follows her into an elevator that takes him to the floating palace. He meets the airborne Venetians, who seem almost to be stuck in a timeless space. Though nothing comes of this initial encounter, he is clearly smitten, and pursues Lucia through the years, never able to steal her heart. Possibly their disagreement over whether there'll be any future for the aerial palace is what keeps them apart: he wants her to come down to Earth before this last of the floating Venetian cities wears out and crashes, but she hopes to remain aloft forever.

Unfortunately, like all good things, her life in the sky must inevitably end. The older citizens have gradually aged and died, and the younger ones have abandoned their home for a life as "flatlanders"; only Lucia remains behind to steer her palace through the clouds, and clearly cannot continue to do so forever. [Spoiler] In the end, as it must, the final Venetian flying palace crashes to earth, and Lucia ends up in Montreal, where Vincenzo first met her. This time, with her dreams tied to the earth, he sweeps her off her feet and they live happily ever after, or at least until Vincenzo dies at a ripe old age, as in all the best fairy tales.

This is a simple contrafactual history that might have been (if we suspend disbelief and ignore a few *ahem* engineering challenges), and a pleasant retelling of the relationship between Vincenzo, last of a postwar generation of adventurers, and Lucia, last of a vanished Venetian civilization. It's a restrained (perhaps overly so) retelling of a romance about the dream of flying and escaping the world's mundane concerns, and a lesson about how such fantasies inevitably come to an end—but how, if we're lucky, the end can be as sweet and wistful as the one in this story.

Crowell: Wheat rust

Rui is trysting with Anu, a younger woman, when two spacesuited men plunge from the sky and into the nearby river. Both dive into the water to rescue them, and we learn that we're on a huge generation starship, amidst a Renaissance "Republic" that resembles Portuguese India, where Hindus (Rui) and Christians (Anu) coexist peacefully but fight with their Sinhal (Sri Lankan) and Viegh (Nordic?) neighbors. It's an intriguing mix of primitivism (archers on spaceships!) and sophistication (understanding their situation, but not details).

The two former projectiles, Hua and Szemnick (szem = eye in Hungarian, thus a watcher?), are ship crewmembers, who were shot down by the Sinhal while performing an aerial survey to follow up on an automated probe that discovered wheat rust (a serious pathogen of graminaceous crops) spreading through the fields of the neighboring Viegh. Crop plague would be a nasty problem in an enclosed artificial environment, leading to famine.

Do low-tech societies running loose in colossal starships make sense? Dealing with a generation ship's inhabitants is a thorny problem. At first glance, the best solution is business as usual: inform everyone of the reality, and provide access to all modern technology. But that might fail badly; human cultures tend to undergo massive upheavals after a century or two, and passengers who rebelled against the crew using modern tech might damage the ship beyond hope of repair or kill enough crew to stop the ship from slowing at the destination and disembarking colonists. So Crowell's solution of letting the ship's societies run their own low-tech lives is sensible, at least provisionally.

Crowell has a deft hand with language: the narration mostly just gets out of your way, but with nice flourishes that illuminate character; Rui's "navel gazing" turns out to be literally gazing at Anu's navel, confirming his self-image as a jovial lech. Details are not neglected, from delays imposed by computer translation to middle-aged presbyopia and an older male's perpetual fear he's pursuing a woman too young for him.

Crowell shares my jaundiced view of politics; the Republic's goons soon grab Rui and grill him to learn what the two crewmembers are up to. [Spoilers] Hua and Szemnik are here to prevent the wheat rust from spreading beyond the Viegh area, jeopardizing everyone's survival, but the Republic's shortsighted rulers would rather let their neighbors starve when their crops fail, providing a chance to take over. Hua has gone native, and no longer cares about his mission, and Szemnik, crippled by the wound that brought him to earth, can't perform the mission. Instead, he downloads his personality into a robot fly so he can convince Anu (an opera singer) and Rui (a violinist) to help; guided by the fly, they must avoid capture by Viegh border patrols (by traveling outside the ship) so the Szemnik robot can sample the rust and design a cure.

Our unlikely heroes overcome various hazards (opening an airlock under 10 feet of water and muck, the fly losing its memory when its battery runs down, escaping capture). Here, some details are less convincing: it's hard to see why an airlock that can pump water out and replace it with air couldn't fill with water so the door can open easily underwater, or why a fly robot would use volatile memory, thereby risking catastrophic failure if it runs out of energy. But these are small details. Anu and Rui carry the fly to the infected wheat, and return safely home. Rui realizes he's in love with Anu, not just in lust, and vice versa. The rationale is somewhat chauvinistically Heinleinian, but easy enough to swallow. The story ends with Anu captured by Republic goons, and with Rui and the fly breaking her out of prison so they can return to Viegh to cure the rust and (presumably) deepen their relationship.

Nothing earthshaking or deeply symbolic; just an unpretentious, thoroughly enjoyable adventure.

Kowal: For want of a nail

For want begins with Rava, a young woman, trying to repair her family's damaged portable AI, Cordelia—a tricky task. The starship setting exacerbates the problem: you can't visit Circuit City to buy a replacement part. This seemingly minor crisis has serious implications: Cordelia's onboard memory is limited, and if the broken part can't be can't be fixed or replaced, Cordelia can't update her memory or download overflows to mainframe storage; she also can't monitor and back up the family's memories. Rava considers this akin to dying slowly, but it struck me as a nasty (from Cordelia's perspective) form of Alzheimer's.

Problems snowball, as the allusive title foretells ("... the kingdom was lost"). Rava's brother Ludoviko, suffering from major sibling rivalry, is enraged by the fact of Cordelia's damage—possibly because the ship's fertility board just rejected his application, or because he wanted to be the one who would manage Cordelia (uncle Georgo, the former "wrangler", gave that responsibility to Rava). When Rava calls Georgo to ask where spare parts are stored, Georgo seems distraught: he's been crying, and doesn't recognize Rava. Suspicious something is badly wrong, Rava drags Ludoviko with her to visit Georgo in person. They find their uncle disheveled, disoriented, and in a bad way.

[spoilers] My Alzheimer's analogy proved prophetic: Georgo is suffering from dementia. That's more than usually unfortunate, because this isn't the generation ship of Crowell's story in this issue: here, resources are so tightly constrained that anyone who can no longer contribute to society is immediately "recycled". This creates new problems: Cordelia broke the law by protecting Georgo instead of turning him in for recycling, and, acting through Georgo, turned down Ludoviko's application to have children, powerfully motivating the youth to get Georgo recycled, thereby freeing up a slot for his own children.

The ship has a convenience store run by "Petro" that may help. It seems unlikely, given the aforementioned resource constraints, his shop would exist; if each family "brought only what they thought they'd need" aboard ship, you'd expect a more official solution. But it's not implausible that a limited barter economy would arise, requiring Petro's unofficial role. Rava finds a cable to plug Cordelia directly into the ship, solving her problem—but then the floor drops away, revealing more serious problems. Cordelia, now connected to her long-term memories, no longer remembers she's been protecting Georgo, who reprogrammed the AI long ago to conceal his dementia at all costs. Resetting Cordelia to a stage before the code modification would fix things, but she'd lose all memories since then; she could help her family recover these memories, but won't (can't?) do so if it means betraying Georgo. Cordelia may feel affection for Georgo beyond simple programming. How far will she, spiritual descendant of her namesake (Lear's good daughter), go to protect him? In the end, the family offers her a choice: a life without connection to the ship's computer, or death. Cordelia chooses death, and like Georgo, is quickly euthanized.

A minor structural problem initially had ripple effects that compromised the story's effectiveness. Kowal dropped me too quickly into the story; in media res is a powerful technique, but left me disoriented and working too hard to catch up. It also made Ludoviko one-dimensional until the end; his only personality traits were antagonism for his sister and unfocused rage. Yet once I caught up, the story became an intriguing and well executed meditation on what happens when a machine becomes conscious: Cordelia is so human that Rava and even Ludoviko care for her deeply; neither likes the obvious solution of simply replacing Cordelia with another stored AI.

A stimulating entry into the subgenre of AI stories.

Landis: The sultan of the clouds

Sultan is not the usual Asimov's tale: science and tech are front and center, in places almost (but never quite) obscuring the human story. Ships are so advanced that a shuttle from Earth to Venus makes the trip in days, not months, and is crewed by only three pilots—apparently, the tech is so advanced it doesn’t need even a single engineer in case of emergency, or the owner's so rich and powerful that the pilots and passengers are considered expendable. The ship's aerobraking maneuver upon arrival at Venus merits only a throwaway line, suggesting the former.

Mankind has exploded outwards from Earth to colonize the solar system. The richest and most daring billionaires gambled everything on an epic toss of the dice and won: they now own a solar system that was abandoned by governments not smart enough to make space pay for itself. (We've read this before, but it's worth reiterating.) Our solar system is a series of feudal empires, Venus being one of them. Oddly, the resulting family dynasties coexist without conflict, other than perhaps economic. That seems unlikely to last, but it's currently a stable state.

The primary plot device is Leah Hamakawa, a scientist who survived a traumatic past as an orphan, leaving emotional scars. She's accompanied by our protagonist, David Tinkerman (her technician, but also—clumsily—"someone who tinkers"), who loves her with adolescent passion and immaturity. He can't push past her reserve to learn whether she likes or only tolerates him; locking herself in a cabin for the Venus trip, and not interacting at all with David, suggests the latter. Leah is (despite her implied complexity), little more than an object: her only attributes are "scientist", "beautiful", "emotionally cold", and "plot device".

Sultan is dense with infodumps, which I enjoyed because they're generally well done. David, as narrator, is so clearly fascinated with his environment that his passion for description makes him (and the details) interesting. YMMV, but to me, the infodumps were more fun than not, though Sultan reads a bit like Charles Stross on qualudes. The story's set on the floating Venusian cloud city of Hypatia, named after the female Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher. Like Tinkerman's name, this is Landis trying too hard to show his cleverness rather than getting into his characters' heads; Hypatia may be a scientist's idol, but the city of a multiethnic but largely Arab sultan would more likely be named Baghdad (for its ancient glory), Scheherezade, or even Xanadu. Similar lapses intrude when Landis is carried away by enthusiasm over his inventions: "the elevator rose so smoothly it was difficult to believe it traversed two kilometers in a little under three minutes". David measured this, did he?

We never learn why Carlos, the eponymous prepubescent sultan, governs through regents. What happened to his parents? There are many other nice but flawed touches. For example, David meets what he chauvinistically takes to be the head of the family that hosts him, who he describes as a Chinese man named Truman Singh; Singh is a Sikh, not Chinese, name and what I at first thought an error is saved when we meet his wife, Triolet, who is "dark skinned". That suggests she's the source of the family name, yet the Sikhs I've known are fair-skinned, not dark. [A reconsideration some time later: Given the multigenerational braids that I describe later, this is nonetheless possible if an earlier relative had Black or southern Indian or other dark-skinned ancestors.]

[Spoilers] We soon learn that Carlos is courting Leah. Why would one of the richest men alive choose her, when he could have any woman he wanted or even have one designed to his specs? Plots within plots unfold: Carlos seems to want to terraform Venus, a task Leah believes impossible. David is shot out of the sky while "kayaking" in a human-propelled airship (a nice extrapolation of how airships would float and maneuver in the dense Venusian atmosphere) and captured by the "underground", a group that wants to stop Carlos from dominating the whole planet. These rebels give David high-tech sunglasses he can use as a clumsy communications device to inform them of how Carlos plots to suppress their rebellion. [I didn't have room to include more thoughts in the version of this review that appeared in the Asimov's online forum, but having to physically tap the glasses to type out a message strikes me as far too clumsy; it would be quickly detected by the habitat's security, who are keeping a wary eye on David. Modern eye-tracking technology is sufficiently advanced that its descendants 100+ years into the future would make a virtual keyboard, activated by eye movements, more logical. Among other things, the eye movements behind the sunglasses couldn't be seen by security.]

As we get to know Carlos, an accurate portrait emerges of an unusually bright (perhaps a genius) yet naïve budding adult—like many adolescents. We also learn why Carlos really wants Leah: she's a terraforming expert, but more importantly, she's unaffiliated. Landis foregrounds the world's science and tech, but doesn't neglect the human aspects. His interesting, well-considered concept of "braids" explains Carlos' goal. Braids are polyamorous families in which an older woman marries a young man, teaches him everything he needs to know about sex and marriage, but more importantly, about how to run the family business; when he's old enough, he in turn marries a younger woman and trains her similarly. The cycle repeats, with the resulting marriages lasting centuries as each senior member ages and is progressively replaced. The strategic unions between braids create complex interweaving relationships and mutual obligations. Leah's biggest attraction for Carlos is her outsider's lack of entanglements; if he marries her, he'll be free from the constraints that would fall upon him if he married into a Venusian braid. It's a nicely nuanced take on what might otherwise become a "Ming the Merciless rules Venus" story.

David is socially naïve—as he readily admits—but not stupid. He figures out that Carlos' former bride-elect, an older woman named Miranda Delacroix, won't want to let Carlos marry Leah; that would cost her future control of the sultanate (as the marriage's older, wiser member). This makes David and Miranda natural allies, though the alliance never gels. Before David can plan how to use Miranda to save Leah from Carlos, Carlos reveals he really does plan to convert the Venusian atmosphere (mostly carbon dioxide, at 70+ times Earth's surface pressure) into diamond using nanotech his father perfected. (Landis repeatedly mentions the use of cheap aerogel diamond, Chekhov's "gun on the mantlepiece in Act 1", so this doesn't come as a rabbit pulled out of a hat.) Carlos will use this technology to build a new Venusian surface so high above the original surface that the remaining pressure will be low enough to survive. Unfortunately, that won't work; Landis himself repeatedly notes that this would leave an atmosphere composed primarily of oxygen, which is far too dangerously reactive to sustain life at such a high concentration. Even if you assume that much of the oxygen would be trapped in the pores of the aerogel, it's a bit of a tough sell.

When David confronts Carlos, the sultan predictably insists that Leah and David remain on the floating city so they can't reveal his plan to the rebels. Fortunately, he doesn't bluster or twirl his (adolescent-thin) mustache like a Hollywood villain. David calls the rebels to the rescue, blows out the room's large window pane, then jumps through the opening with Leah, knowing his allies will catch them as they did when they stole him from his kayak earlier in the tale. But this is implausible: David noticing that the windows develop vibrational resonance if you prod them repeatedly in an appropriate manner (the way an army's marching feet famously resonates a bridge, potentially destroying it) is a clever gimmick, since David's "tinker" nature would logically let him figure this out—but it's not a remotely plausible gimmick. The engineers of a floating city would understand the risks of structural resonance, which would be inevitable in such a large structure even if only due to wind speed variations (hundreds of kilometers per hour in the Venusian atmosphere, with strong gusts), and would design accordingly. The windows would be redundantly engineered to prevent blowouts or leakage of the toxic Venusian atmosphere.

Leah remains a cipher, though she finally reveals a fondness (possibly more) for David, but despite showing some life later in the story, remains sketchily developed. She's an interesting enigma, but one that has little real depth, unlike David and Carlos. Sultan is nonetheless a fun, skillfully written tale with a huge idea density. Despite its flaws, it's an entertaining read and a refreshing change from more typical Asimov's fare.

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