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Stories in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction, February 2011 issue

Stories reviewed:

Cleary: Out of the Dream Closet
Genge: Waster Mercy
Carlson: Planet of the Sealies
De Bodard: Shipbirth
McDaniel: Brother Sleep
Pronzini and Malzberg: Eve of Beyond
McAuley: The Choice

Cleary: Out of the Dream Closet

Dream Closet begins with an initially bewildering array of striking images: Sasha, who prefers to call herself “Little Girl” even though she is 67 years old, is picking her way through Rust Canyon, a mile-deep canyon eroded through thousands of centuries of buried cities, the walls weeping rust and verdigris, in the wake of a “moodstorm”. It’s a striking image, and accompanied by many others, including the Peculiar Gash (a bottomless pit leading to the Earth’s core), the Dismal Columns (packed with archeological strata of souls, storage devices for the personalities of deceased humans), the Corridor of Heredity, and the Elderhaus. The result, aided and abetted by frequently clever and never intrusive wordplay, is strikingly Vancean (cf. the Dying Earth series), though with a very different esthetic.

As she picks through the waters of the stream, prospecting for dead souls the way a miner might poke through a placer deposit for gold nuggets, Sasha is accosted by the Living Will, a form of artificial intelligence in the physical form of an anthropomorphic automaton (initially seeming to be an independent entity but eventually revealed as a servant of Sasha’s father, “the Papa”), come to warn that her father will soon be dead. Still angry with her father about something that hasn’t yet been revealed, she dismisses the automaton. But when he leaves, Alistair Jones, the “cloudmind’s only son” and seemingly about Sasha’s age, comes visiting to see what she has been doing. Curioser and curioser, as another author might observe.

As the picture comes into focus, we learn that this isn’t a VR environment, at least not in a Gibsonian sense, but rather some kind of posthuman world, where humans exist in nearly indestructible form, living beneath a “cloudmind”, which seems to be a consciousness that circles the globe—possibly a simultaneously literal and metaphorical version of what we today call cloud computing. But the story world is more complex than the dichotomy between a constructed virtual reality and a Vancean end-of-times mix of science and fantasy: Here, dreams (memories and entire skill sets) can be stored in potions, and used to modify someone’s emotions or skills. This is not the common misuse of the term “mRNA” to mean “memory RNA” (propagated, in a rare scientific mis-step, by Larry Niven in his story The Fourth Profession), but rather a clever extrapolation of genetic technology in which RNA is used to encode information as “protein Turing tapes” (i.e., programs in chemical form). The memory potions may be metaphorical rather than literal, a hypothesis the absence of anything resembling books or computer systems can either support or undermine, depending on your tastes. It’s an intriguing ambiguity that enhances the story’s ambiance rather than detracting from it.

Sasha is alone at the time of the story because her mother, a researcher who was fascinated by the theological implications of souls and what could be done with them, is now dead; we learn that she was so distracted by her research that she fell into the Peculiar Gash while pondering these issues rather than watching where she placed her next step. Sasha’s father, another meddler with souls, is now dying because too much meddling with souls during his youth has led to the spiritual and physical equivalent of cancer; he’s become a giant, with bits and pieces of other beings protruding, seemingly at random, from his body. The accumulated damage having now caught up with him, he’s unwilling to fix it via a “deep flush” (basically, a reboot), as he fears this would destroy who and what he is. Sasha resists her father’s request to come see him and receive her inheritance because of the grudge she bears her father.

The plot that drives events involves Sasha’s desire to follow in her parents’ footsteps, mucking about with souls by blending them to create something new, and with the immediate goal of installing a newly blended soul in an automaton that resembles a sphinx. (It never really became clear to me why the sphinx was necessary from Sasha’s perspective, but it’s fascinating stage dressing.) To do so, she must first find a way to mix the souls she’s collected, which she does by drinking a memory potion that teaches her how to “pervert” souls (i.e., blend and alter them); having done so, and now possessed of the necessary knowledge, she breaks into her father’s workshop and crafts a new soul by mixing aspects of the ones she’s collected using a lab apparatus straight out of steampunk. Next, she must gain entry into the warehouse where sphinxes are stored, which she does with Alistair’s help. Along the way, we learn that Alistair is her stepbrother, since her father inspired the cloudmind to create him; one of her father’s self-appointed tasks has been to soothe the rages of the cloudmind (which produces the aforementioned moodstorms, which combine violent weather and intense emotions imposed upon those who must endure the storm) by sending her sweet dreams. One such dream led to the “birth” of Alistair.

More cleverness ensues. The warehouse that contains the sphinxes and many other things is huge (cubic miles in size), making the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark seem like a backyard shed. To lure the sphinxes closer and prevent them from bolting, Alistair soothes them with riddles—a lovely touch. Unfortunately, Sasha cuts herself on a splinter of metal, and her startled shout scares off all sphinxes but one who is trapped. The two rescue it, and install its new soul. The sphinx interacts with them in true sphinxlike form, by asking questions (e.g., “Am I Nestor?”). Sasha names the sphinx Nestor based on this question; there seems no intentional symbolism of the older, wiser mentor and advisor of that name from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Interestingly, Nestor clearly experienced sensory inputs before he received his soul, but only after this gift conferred self-awareness did the sensations take on meaning. That’s a subtle and interesting philosophical point.

[spoilers] The main conflict arises from the Living Will’s repeated efforts to get Sasha to accept her father’s bequest of all his possessions before he dies, but with two conditions she’s unwilling to obey: first, to never pervert or reincarnate souls using his lab equipment; second, to take his place as soother of the cloudmind. We soon learn that the distance between Sasha and Papa, and the reason she insists on being referred to as “Little Girl”, is because her father froze her physical age at 10 years, while allowing her mind to age, because he thought that was the age of perfect happiness. This echoes the ages-old conflict between parents and the children they want to always remain the same and never grow up and leave them, and the emotional tone is letter-perfect—and painfully familiar to me from occasional spats with my own daughter. (Though in my case, the cause is inverted: I’m just starting to enjoy her as a person and relish how she’s begun to flex her wings, and want her to leave home and enjoy the same independence I enjoyed at her age.) There’s a certain irony in Papa’s insistence that Sasha not mess about with souls, since he’s clearly messed about with hers by literally preventing her from ever growing up. This superbly captures how we older generations can be blind to the “do as I say, not as I do” contradictions we impose on our children.

The story ends with Papa being literally uploaded: after the Living Will scans Papa’s brain, he sends the resulting soul by rocket into the stratosphere to merge with the cloudmind. (This is the only significant slip in the story: the infodump describing the scanning process could have been omitted with no loss, and indeed, given the lack of such detail elsewhere, should have been omitted to maintain consistency of tone.) But Cleary reminds us of several important issues worthy of consideration, such the oft-neglected question of identity in most post-singularity fiction: Can we remain ourselves when we no longer retain our original physical structure? Cleary also nails the jarring contrast between what we understand intellectually (whether in a scientific or religious sense) about death and what it makes us feel emotionally, including the sense of being abandoned by our departed loved ones. Last and by no means least, Papa’s final decision to not share the secret of growth with his daughter, leaving her trapped in a 10-year-old’s body, is a sobering reminder of how our parenting choices shape our children’s future, sometimes long after our death.

The writing is consistently clever and subtle. One favorite is Sasha’s line as she prepares to insert a soul in the sphinx: “As always when looking inside someone’s head, Little Girl felt like a voyeur.” The (slightly forced) pun of using “by Gödel!” (after Kurt Gödel, mathematician and philosopher) to replace “by God!” as an exclamation is also amusing. The characters are distinct and interesting, and Sasha and Alistair are convincingly portrayed as pre-tween children, both willing to play with each other when necessary but simultaneously a bit dismayed by each other and attracted in a prepubescent way they don’t yet understand.

Alistair, the Living Will, the sphinx, the huge warehouse, and much of the set dressing are straight out of a Terry Gilliam film, just as the potions are straight out of Alice in Wonderland—by which I mean they share the sense of wonder, not that they’re derivative in any way. I’d love to see Cleary sell a treatment of this story to Gilliam. The results would be as wonderful as this story, in all senses of that word.

Genge: Waster Mercy

The “Wasters” of the title are the poor and forgotten of society who live outside a nanotech-shielded future Paris amidst wastes with a very Terminator-like esthetic: scattered tufts of defiant vegetation blasted by harsh ultraviolet light and surviving despite toxic levels of lead and other chemicals in the soil, amidst “petrified” trucks and other ruins of civilization. (Where the morning blast of gamma radiation comes from when the sun rises seems a trifle unclear.) Those who survive in the wastes do so by forming their own primitive bands, with the strongest leading and the others fighting for scraps.

Into the Waste comes Brother Beussy, a priest, seeking neither to preach nor to teach, but rather seeking to find his soul by living among the Wasters. Unfortunately, his adventure comes to a premature end when his vehicle crashes, pinning his leg beneath it. Beussy is seeking redemption in the waste, not martyrdom, but the accident may leave him no choice. The first Waster who finds him, a partially crippled child, offers him the mercy of a quick death, but that’s not what he seeks; rather, he begs the Waster to save him. By bribing the child with access to a lockbox containing goods the child would never otherwise have access to, Beussy buys his life—for a time.

Genge has some nice touches. Her description of Beussy provides a blunt critique of evangelical religion: “Brother Beussy had spent years studying the biological urges that underlined the impulse to convert others to one’s culture, or else. He’d been trained to recognize the signals, the way his mind would try to trick him into confusing his private morality with universal good; what was right, with righteousness.” That’s interesting both from a cultural critique perspective and because of what it reveals about the prevailing attitude towards religion among the SF/F community. More interesting still is the notion that the future Catholic church will have formed an order of brothers whose sole purpose is to atone for the sins of colonialism and conversion of heretics to Christianity. It’s a nice notion, but seems unlikely, despite Christianity’s long history of spawning a plethora of nominally heretical offshoots.

Beussy’s use of “Rabindragath Tagore” as the password to his lockbox is a revealing glimpse into the priest’s character, since the Indian (Bengali) poet was spiritualist but not a religious dogmatist. Similarly for Aquinas as the password to his vehicle; Aquinas was a scholar, ethicist and theologian. A more profound insight comes from Beussy’s ruminations as he lies awaiting death or rescue: “He had thought he understood confession. He had repented often enough. Now he saw that he’d been lying even as he intoned Mea Culpas. His sin was pride—but he’d always known, hadn’t he? His pride cracked like a nut and revealed a pale soul, blinking its eyes in the light.” Carefully crafted and potent wording: not “God knows, he had repented often enough”. And it’s clear that profoundly as he’s thought through his life, its sheltered nature prevented any such insights before now. That’s a more profound insight than Genge’s earlier critique of evangelism.

[spoilers] In the end, this story is mostly about exploring (through the character of Beussy, possibly named after the French city of Bussy, as Aquinas was named after his origins in Aquin) the notions of a reformist branch of Catholicism, and narrowly skirts becoming a didactic screed on the subject of Catholicism’s past sins. Beussy comes off as a likeable enough mouthpiece for these notions, but never quite convinces, although he establishes a believable and sometimes charming relationship with Patrice, the young Waster who eventually rescues him. The symbolism of the two exchanging clothes is subtle and appropriate.

The story is undermined by many details that don’t quite convince: for instance, it seems unlikely that Patrice could scare off a pack of hyenas simply by throwing stones at them, since hyenas will chase a lion off its kill. (Even if we assume that “hyena” is a misnomer for “feral dog”, it seems unlikely; dogs are smart enough to quickly realize that Patrice can’t really harm them.) Another example: I can accept that Patrice would have learned how to reduce a compound open fracture of the ankle (first aid being a survival skill), but Genge neglects the consequences for Beussy of spending a day in the open with such a wound: infection, shock, exposure, hunger (Beussy having told us he’s never missed a meal in his life up to this point), and the undoubtedly increasingly urgent need to urinate after a day spent pinned under a vehicle.

I enjoyed this story for the thoughts it provoked and the occasionally lovely stylistic flourishes, but because of the abovementioned problems, found that it didn’t live up to the standards set by Genge’s previous work.

Carlson: Planet of the Sealies

Joanna Andrea Löw is one of a "line" of clones. With several of her clone sisters, she's participating in an archeological dig, excavating the ruins of an alien civilization. The dig's on the bleak, windswept shore of a sea, and is the ground is vulnerable to collapse because of the decaying organic matter and other aspects of the site’s geology. It's dangerous enough that despite the clones’ advanced genetic modifications, there's still a serious risk of death from various toxins and pathogens buried at the site. Yet despite this risk, the Löws and several other lines of clones are willing to risk their lives because of the potential for what they may find.

There are immediately clues that things aren't as straightforward as they seem. First, the clones aren't interested in finding artefacts, as such; on the contrary, they've created a whole field chock full of mechanical artefacts that they aren't interested in, other than to mock them by making up nicknames such as "make me blind" or "10,000 pound paperweight". (Using imperial weight units seems out of place given that all other units of measure are metric—possibly one of those blind spots that strikes an American author occasionally?) When disaster strikes, and members of another clone line are buried by a collapse of the dig, everyone pitches in to save them; even though the trapped clones are members of another line, they're still fellow humans, and valuable for that reason alone.

Carlson does many things well: First, he immediately establishes a sense of place, with the clones maintaining a dig at a remote and uncomfortable location, under difficult conditions. The sense of alienness feels real, and there are no infodumps to spoil the mood—only skillfully chosen details that are natural for the characters to observe. Next, he establishes a clear sense of the empathy among the clones who belong to a line, and of their solidarity against a hostile world. They’re definitely a family, and immediately recognizable as such—yet also strangely different from us, and that's another clue to Carlson’s goals. There's a distinct tension between that solidarity (the line is everything to them) and Joanna's fear that she's gradually developing too much of an independent identity that might sacrifice her relationship with her sisters. Yet: "Could the deepening change in her be what the matriarch wanted? [She] must have anticipated the consequences of this environment..."

[Spoilers] The dig turns out to be in California, not on some alien world, but that’s not just the punchline for a joke: the Californians who lived at this site are truly alien to the clones. We learn the clones are the only survivors of some unspecified catastrophe that left only a few isolated outposts of humans alive, forced to reproduce a viable civilization by cloning—or having chosen to do so out of a sense that the "breeders" who destroyed the old world were inherently a wrong solution. (As there’s no evidence the clones are all homosexual by inclination, the choice of “breeder” initially misled me.) By the end of the story, we learn the meaning of the clues planted earlier: The diggers are ignoring technological artefacts in favor of biological materials because their technology is quite advanced, and the more urgent need is to refresh their genome with new genetic materials gleaned from the wastes of the old civilization. The "Sealies" of the title are not (as we're deliberately misled to believe) alien pinnipeds who once lived on the shores of this sea, but rather the hermetically *sealed* diapers that contain traces of ancient DNA that the clones will use to increase the genetic resources available to their civilizatoin. It's a lovely riff on the notion that one culture's garbage is another's treasure.

We also learn that the purpose of sending the clones out to forage is more than just a hunt for new genes: the goal is to cultivate some phenotypic diversity in the form of the different personalities who will emerge under the stress of being removed from their home and thrust into difficult and dangerous situations. There, for the first time, they can become individuals without jeopardizing their line through this otherwise selfish behavior, while developing the mental differences that will also be needed for their civilization to survive.

The genetics that underlie this story are a mixture of insightful and questionable. The insight that the clones will not be identical, though not new, is nice to see. It’s a logically handled consequence of the notion that the more similar their environment, the more similar the clones will be. Environmental influences are important, even for clones. But the notion of a culture with genetic technology far advanced beyond our own that must forage for diapers doesn't really stand up to inspection. First, as anyone from a large family knows, the same two parents can produce a bewildering variety of children. Imagine, then, how much more diversity a skilled geneticist could coax out of even a limited gene pool simply by deliberately blending genes from the surviving lines of clones. Second, sexual reproduction, even if only carried out under a microscope, would be a far more powerful tool for enhancing genetic diversity than any possible gains to be had from mining diapers.

That caveat notwithstanding, if you buy (or ignore) the underlying assumptions, Sealies is a wonderful story with a strong human heart, and an optimistic entry into the YAPA (yet another post-apocalyptic) subgenre. I feel sorely tempted to coin a new term for this subgenre of stories: genepunk. *G*

De Bodard: Shipbirth

Shipbirth is another installment in de Bodard's alternate future in which the Aztecs thrived and flourished, becoming a technological civilization with a flavor that’s unique in my SFnal experience. This episode’s initially set on an FTL spaceship traveling between stars via a form of hyperdrive that is acutely uncomfortable to the human mind. The ship also has a mind of its own, an AI that is very alien, though we don’t see much of that personality.

Acoimi is both a physician and a bit of a biological mystery at first—he’s someone who has changed bodies from female to male, though it's not initially clear how or what this means. When we meet him, he's being transferred to an "unborn" ship, apparently to help kindle it to life. To do so, he must work with Xoco, a midwife who assisted at the birth of a child who was intended to become the new ship’s Mind as the baby’s soul is transferred into the ship. He's here because something has gone badly wrong during the birth, and Huexotl, the mother who came to give her child to the ship, is nearly catatonic. Worse yet, her child’s spirit is missing and the ship remains dead. Such children are special in some mystical way, more than human babies, enough so that they're referred to as "Minds", and even when the birthing goes well, it takes something out of the mother permanently; sometimes it kills the mother outright. Huexotl's child was born, but was unable to detach itself from the mother and move into the ship; in making the effort, it seems to have lost both itself and its mother.

[Spoilers] Acoimi was indeed once a woman: now, though physically a man, she is still a woman in a body remade in the shape of a man. Her discomfort with what she's become is heartfelt and intense. To me, someone who's intransigently cis-gendered and can't imagine feeling otherwise, this is precisely how I imagine a transgendered person must feel, with one’s sense of self clearly divorced from what one’s body is conveying. Though Acoimi is clearly “he” from a narrative perspective, the woman he once was remains, and he hasn't yet crafted the two into a single comfortable self. It's a highly sensitive and empathetic treatment of the issue. The notion of two in one triggered a memory, and when I pursued where it led, it proved a productive diversion from this review. Many native American cultures saw beyond the Western concept of binary gender (i.e., that only male and female genders can exist) to acknowledge what has been called a "third gender" or someone with "two spirits": someone who, either by their own choice or by social consensus, chose to take a different path in which aspects of the two more familiar genders blend into something that is neither. (This is often simply conflated with homosexuality or cross-dressing in the West, but it's far more complex and nuanced than that. In many ways, it’s a saner attitude because it recognizes that people aren’t quite so easily pigeonholed as the binary view assumes, and it blends complex aspects of biology, psychology, and the roles that a culture assigns to each gender.)

The conflict in the story goes beyond Acoimi's internal conflict over who he or she is, though that’s never far from the surface. We learn that her own sister died some time ago, giving birth to a Mind, and that this was the triggering crisis that caused her to become a “him”. While grappling with those painful memories and his own uncertainty over who he's become, he must also try to save Huexotl. Yet he cannot; the damage was too great. And when he grants her the mercy she needs, injecting her with a quickly lethal poison that will ease her passing, she does not die as he expects; instead, she forces herself to the "heart room" where her child should have made the leap into the ship to quicken it, and with her last strength, brings the child back from wherever it had gone. Yet it's incomplete, and Acoimi must face both it and his dual nature: as a man, he feels the shame of having killed its mother, and as a woman, he feels he was made to create life or yield his own life, not to take life. His closing word, "upward", refers to the spreading of wings and soaring upward into the afterlife with the Aztec sun god, and his decision to stay and help the new child confirms his female part. My limited knowledge of Aztec beliefs related to death suggest that how you died (more than how you lived) is what determines your fate in the afterlife; as a result, Huexotl's death, bringing her child back to the hope of a future life as the ship's Mind, is a hopeful one. Acoimi still has not fully reconciled his dual female–male nature, but his encouragement of the nascent ship's Mind (and the story's title) give hope that he will at least encourage the unborn child to live as a new ship. In so doing, he may find a way to reach a better accommodation with his female self.

De Bodard has a grasp of the telling detail, such as describing the walls of the ship covered in what seem instantly recognizable as Aztec wall carvings that both tell a story and serve a mystical purpose as protective wards for the ship. Describing the goddess Jade Skirt seems more decoration until you realize that this is Chalchiutlicue (yes, I had to look that up *g*), goddess guardian of the newborn. More than mere stage dressing, such details seem an essential part of the characters who tell us of them—at once an unremarkable part of their world and something remarkable because it is important, not just a visual prop. (That's a lesson more writers could stand to learn.) Perhaps the best example of seamlessly merging Aztec culture with a future SFnal environment is how Acoimi performs his examination of Huexotl: On the one hand, he uses a mirror and a bowl of water in a way we might consider magic (because the Aztec gods and cosmology are real in this story world—or at least real enough that people describe and interpret their world through the filter of Aztec cosmology). Yet on the other, he carries what is effectively a hypospray for the lethal injection he uses to execute Huexotl when he can't save her, and he uses the equivalent of a sophisticated EKG device and brainwave scanner. It's a fascinating and delicately crafted mixture of culturally appropriate fantastic elements with some familiar SFnal technological props.

Moreover, De Bodard’s choice of details accomplishes another difficult feat: creating something sufficiently alien to be interesting, yet familiar enough for us to feel empathy and interest. This is supported continuously using simple but profound touches, such as when Xoco brews cups of spiced hot chocolate (a central American choice) rather than coffee or tea; De Bodard thinks through the consequences of her story environment both clearly and rigorously. She writes clearly, effectively, and strongly. This time, while reading, I looked for and did not find any traces of her (I assume) French linguistic origins, which is a remarkable achievement—not only to write this well, but to write like a native. (As a professional translator, I know how hard this can be; I manage reasonably well with nonfiction, but can't imagine trying this trick with fiction.)

My only complaint about this story is that we don’t learn enough of Acoimi, who deserves a novel (or at least a novella) to tell us her tale and reach a true resolution of her dual nature. Bravo!

McDaniel: Brother Sleep

Brother is set in Khon Khaen, a rural university town in Thailand. Like the rest of the young Thai characters (Sky, Influence, Cucumber, Bird, Fat), our narrator (Horse) goes by his nickname, not by a family or given name; adults still get the full name treatment. He’s the fortunate one in his family, which is sacrificing much to send him to university in hope of a better future; his brother Victory seems to be working in a foreign factory (presumably in China?), sending money home to keep the family alive and his younger brother in school. As Horse notes, you can’t say no to your parents—a very Asian attitude (certainly not a Western one).

The central SFnal concept of this story is that there’s been a medical breakthrough that lets those who take the treatment mostly eliminate their need for sleep: they can sleep only about 2 hours per day (a fact that’s introduced skillfully and naturally, through conversation rather than infodump). That’s clearly a huge boon to university students and (a bit less pleasantly) workers like Horse’s brother. But not everyone takes the treatment, and it doesn’t work for everyone, so people like Increase, Horse’s roommate, find themselves at a serious disadvantage in this hypercompetitive new world where everyone—even the traditionally laid-back Thai people—is perpetually on the go. Sky, Horse’s girlfriend, is fascinated with Increase: to her, it’s as if someone resurrected a Neandertal and brought it to the same school as the “normal” humans. But apart from this kind of patronizing deprecation of such “sleepers”, there’s initially no overtly nasty prejudice against them.

[Spoilers] There’s not a huge story arc here, since this story is mostly in the service of ruminations about the implications of the sleep technology. McDaniel does a nice job of illustrating (without coming right out and saying) how scientists often get the technology (here, the physiology) right, but neglect the psychology. In this case, they’ve missed or simply ignored the prejudice that can be expected when people have different access to genetic hacks; in this brave new world, sleepers have few prospects because they can’t compete with their improved colleagues, and end up doing mostly menial jobs. Though Sky may be most overt in her prejudice (treating Influence as a curiosity rather than as a person), the prejudice is there for others too. It’s an important, if understated, reminder to the genetic utopians that you can improve the body, but can’t ignore the consequences for the human heart and mind.

Equally significantly, the biological hack that lets the people of this world function on only 2 hours of sleep might be simple enough to achieve, but it seemingly eliminates dreaming and the therapeutic role of sleep, which serves as an escape and chance to heal from the traumas inflicted by everyday life. (Here, the up-front trauma is that Horse doesn’t see how Sky is using him as one of many boyfriend experiences, and doesn’t feel any of the attachment he feels for her. When he finally understands the situation, there’s no sleep he can retreat into while he heals, and the sleep hack apparently even keeps him from getting drunk (unless the two whiskey bottles he chugs down are really, really small bottles; drinking two standard bottles would kill a horse, let alone Horse). On a larger scale, the economists (I can’t bring myself to refer to them as “scientists”) also don’t get the point; the notion that Thailand could become as economically productive as the rest of the world if only Thais could simply work an additional 10 hours per day ignores the Thai culture. You can’t change who you are as a person or a culture simply by making a longer work day possible, and if your cultural conditioning is to be content with what you already have, that won’t change overnight.

McDaniel’s writing is mostly restrained and simple, but there are occasional flourishes. My favorite line shows both a keen understanding of class and a subtle prejudice towards the sleeper: “Increase had too much money to know his place.” Writers sweat it to come up with lines that good. Unfortunately, nothing much happens in the way of character description or character development; for instance, we never learn enough about any of the characters to understand the nicknames they’ve been given. Only Horse really comes clear as anything other than a name, and mostly what we see is someone ashamed of his peasant roots, adrift in a new world he doesn’t quite understand and at something of a loss to know what to do with all his time. Influence is portrayed only through hints, and not many of those; I admired his stubborn persistence in getting through school when he’s fighting the disadvantage of having 8 to 10 fewer hours per day to study and do homework, but never felt I’d come to know him.

I’d like to see this story done at longer length (novella or even novel) to explore some of the intriguing ideas raised but not done justice to in such a short space. In particular, the relationship between Influence and Horse is something that would be fascinating to see evolve over the course of a novel, hopefully with one or both achieving the victory of finding their place in this new world.

Pronzini and Malzberg: Eve of Beyond

“Eve of Beyond” is a couturier for the soon to be departed, selling disposable, inexpensive, yet respectful and elegant clothing for those who will soon die. The company’s goal—and the founder is the kind of ethical guy who clearly believes in this mission—is to help the dying save their money for important things, like passing it on to their loved ones. The notion of the gradual disappearance of compassion and ethics from the funeral and pre-funeral industry is a strong one, particularly given how commercialized the business has become since it stopped being family-run and was taken over by large conglomerates—and how it’s been redesigned to maximize the efficiency of extracting money from the most vulnerable (i.e., the dying and the bereaved). The notion of selling clothing that will only last a few months struck me as a not-quite-credible extrapolation of the modern businesses that rent suits and coffins at funeral homes so you won’t have to bury Grandpa in his $500 bespoke suit, but let’s take it as a given and see where the story goes.

Pronzini and Malberg have been around long enough that the prose isn’t the main attraction: its simple, unpretentious, and conveys you from point A to point B so smoothly you can focus on the heart of the story. Here, that heart is Chester Kampman, who finds himself in an unenviable position: as the founder and (now) minority shareholder in one of the largest clothing manufacturers in this business, he finds himself facing a hostile takeover from International Interests Corporation (IIC), a shadowy multinational that has already taken over most of Kampman’s competitors. IIC keeps upping their offers, but he won’t accept a buyout (being morally certain they’ll turn his beloved service into yet another heartless profit spinner). But they’ve already turned his son, who’s greedy and not in the family business because he has any sympathy for its ethical core. He forces a meeting of the board, and it’s clear that, principles be damned, Chester’s soon going to be out on his ass and there goes his company’s reputation.

[Spoilers] It comes as no surprise that Chester loses the vote. In fact, it’s clear he’s drifted out of touch with his colleagues on the board, since he seems to be the only one surprised by the outcome. In this age, even his friends on the board are more interested in taking the money and running than in keeping the business true to its founding principles. In short order, he’s given the bum’s rush. There are dark hints that IIC is “run by machines”, but as we see no hints of robots or artificial intelligence anywhere in the story, this seems more likely to be a veiled comment on how large capitalists think (if, indeed, there’s any thought involved beyond how to spin more money). You can see the punchline coming, but it’s doubly effective because of how the ground has been laid: shortly after Chester is pushed out, he receives a delivery of clothing from his old company—clothing only intended to last a few months.

The message is clear and important: in the absence of ethical men and women, the inevitable consequence of monopolization of any industry and blind obedience to market forces will be to develop vertically integrated industries, in which each segment generates business for the segment above it. It’s also clear that ethics are insufficient, and that even the ethical must understand how the game is played by the unethical. The family-run funeral business was never inhabited solely by angels, but Eve packs a powerful warning in a short but carefully crafted morality tale about society’s current “eat the poor!” business philosophy.

McAuley: The Choice

The Choice is set in McAuley’s future world after “the Spasm”, a time of political and environmental turmoil. Of particular relevance is the final collapse of the world’s ice sheets, drowning most coastlines, including the Norfolk coastline where the story is set. Aliens called the Jackaroo have arrived just in time to help humanity recover from decades of environmental sins by offering technology that will help us restore the Earth, in exchange for rights to the outer solar system. Opinion is divided over whether the Jackaroo are truly benevolent, or have ulterior motives. Given the quality of McAuley’s writing, I’d wager their motives are at best mixed, to be revealed in some future story.

At the heart of the story are two 16-year-olds, Lucas and Damian. Damian is more mainstream, having adapted to the new circumstances; he owns “Jesus shoes” that let him walk on water to reach his father’s offshore shrimp farm, and a hi-tech smartphone that adjusts automatically to fit one’s hand. Lucas is the main POV character, and his story is very different. He lives “off the grid” with a mother (Julia) who is crippled by an environmental allergy and restricted to bed, where she blogs, advises others, and agitates against the aliens. Lucas spends his days harvesting seaweed for use as compost, managing a small farm, and fishing to feed himself and his mother. He wears sandals he crafted from recycled tires, and fishes among the submerged human structures off the coast that provide habitat for fish and other seafood.

Lucas’s survival skills, the shrimp farms, and the windfarm just off the coast are all emblematic of an optimistic but not carefree story context: the environment has not degraded disastrously, and despite radical changes that are forcing humans to lower their expectations and get down to the dirty business of survival, people are generally coping. Bioengineered seaweed is solving the eutrophication problem by removing surplus nitrogen and phosphorus from the sea, while engineered mangroves are stabilizing the coast. All of these details are skillfully conveyed, with minimal infodump and small details handled nicely (such as Julia lying in bed, covered by “Oxfam” blankets—Oxfam being a well-respected global relief agency).

The plot starts moving when Damian arrives to tell Lucas that a “sea dragon”, a seagoing alien machine, has been trapped by the tide and stranded. Like young boys everywhere, the lure of adventure proves too strong and both set out to see what they can see. It’s a classic boy’s adventure tale, two kids off learning to become adults through adventure, but it’s skillfully told and has a new SFnal context. Lucas has built his own boat, except for some parts that were clearly “fabbed” (though McAuley leaves that implicit rather than name-dropping the jargon), and he’s as proud of it as Huck Finn is of his raft. Indeed, there are strong echoes of Twain, including Damian’s drunken and abusive father (like Huck), and Lucas’s rambles through his world (like a mature version of Tom Sawyer).

[Spoilers] After a few minor adventures, the boys reach the sea dragon in time for the story’s main events, and discover the kind of typical mob scene that accompanies whale strandings: kids are whacking it with sticks, scientists are trying to cut into it and learn what makes it tick before the government arrives to shut down the site, and neo-pagans are seemingly blessing it as if it’s a living thing. But it’s clearly a machine, about 15 metres long and 3 metres wide, resembling a cross between a torpedo and a leech. Its skin resists the best efforts of a cutting torch and grinding wheel—thus, it’s mighty tough stuff. (Other technical details are there for those who are looking, but not waved in your face. For example, there are clear dimples in the machine’s scales. Such dimples are used to reduce hydrodynamic drag, most familiarly on a golf ball but the approach is also being investigated for use in submarines.) The extrapolation of future computer technology is far better than most, with a logical use of the future Internet not just for social networking but also for organizing resistance movements against the aliens and monitoring what the government is doing behind closed doors.

The man who discovered the sea dragon tells Lucas that it beached itself at high speed, either suggesting it was malfunctioning or hinting it was being pursued by something even scarier (though we never learn which is the case). The official U.N. statement about these devices is that they do nothing more than skim garbage from the oceans, converting it into innocuous substances, but that seems questionable given how fast government soldiers arrive, push back the crowd, and try to blow up the device. They succeed, but not as intended: when their demolition charge cracks open the dragon, the crowd is flooded with heat and light and shrapnel, killing at least one bystander and wounding Damian with a shard the boys keep as a souvenir. When the machine’s power source subsequently melts down and explodes, the only thing that saves the boys is the fact they had fled far enough to be safely on the other side of a tall sandbar.

Though the technical and plot details are interesting in their own right, character isn’t shortchanged. Damian is truculent and seething with barely concealed anger and resentment at his life, and lets it out by teasing Lucas with more malice than Damian is willing to admit. When we meet his father, we see his suspicious (almost paranoid), controlling nature and can easily imagine how unpleasant Damian’s home life must be; when Damian returns to visit Lucas a few days later, he’s been badly beaten, and we no longer have to imagine. In contrast, Lucas is phlegmatic, largely content with his lot (surviving off the grid and tending his bedridden mother), but isn’t immune to the excitement of the situation, and he too dreams of getting away—but his responsibility to his mother keeps him there. They’re clearly friends, but there’s an ongoing tension in their relationship that Lucas can’t ignore and Damian can’t acknowledge. It’s a subtly presented (though painful) contrasting of the results of two strikingly different home environments.

After his most recent beating, Damian has finally had enough. He tells Lucas he defended himself this time and turned the tables on his abuser, and that he wants to sell the dragon shard for enough money to flee offworld. But Damian’s wound from the shard has been “infected” by alien nanotech or something stranger, and it’s modifying his body, making him stronger and faster than he’s ever been before. [A look back: It belatedly occurred to me that the reason the government blew up the machine was to prevent precisely this kind of problem.—GH] This newfound strength is what let him defeat his father, and he fears he’ll kill his father the next time a confrontation arises. Despite Damian’s desire to be better than his father, it’s clear from how he manhandles Lucas when Lucas tries to talk him out of leaving that he may travel down the same path (a common fate for abused children).

We subsequently learn from an employee of Damian’s father, who’s been trying to look out for Damian, that Damian picked the wrong buyers (gangsters) and ended up dead. Then the bad guys come looking for Lucas, lured to the remote area by Damian’s father, who leaked the rumor that Lucas might have more of the alien tech, hidden away somewhere. He’s looking for payback against the gangsters who killed his son. The fact that Damian’s father loved his son, despite having abused him for years, is compelling and rings true. Abusers aren’t always evil; often they’re weak men who have been pushed beyond their limits by life, with their worst side enabled by drugs. (This in no way excuses their behavior; it only makes it the more tragic.) When the confrontation comes, Lucas kills one of the gangsters with his slingshot and ends up in jail for manslaughter. (There are clear echoes of Tom Sawyer and Injun Joe here, but this is neither pastiche nor imitation.) While Lucas is away, his mother dies of a cancer she could potentially have treated but chooses not to, and their home is ransacked by looters hoping to find the alien tech. Damian’s father dies in prison, presumably killed by an associate of the gangsters. There are no convenient escapes here or anywhere else in this story.

There are many nice, often subtle, descriptive touches. I particularly enjoyed this one: “telling himself he was glad that Damian was gone, that he’d escaped”. Not that he was glad, but rather that he was telling himself that he was glad. The ending is similarly true to Lucas’s character: He discovers that when he buried the shard, he didn’t secure it properly and some of the alien technology has escaped and begun spreading. Though he briefly considers trying what Damian did and selling the technology for enough money to start a new life, he instead follows his mother’s advice: to make the right choice, even if it’s the hardest one available. He does his best to destroy the infection with fire, then leaves, off to start a new life elsewhere. This isn’t fear of suffering Damian’s fate; it’s the decision of a courageous young man we can hope will find his way and make a life for himself in this challenging new world.

I always try to nitpick the details in my reviews to prove that I’m paying attention. Here, the pickings are slim (i.e., McAuley gets the details right), but not absent. Some protesters create trenches large enough to be seen from orbit that spell out “ET go home!”, fill them with diesel fuel, and set it alight—but diesel burns poorly or not at all when left open to the air. (Usually it requires a wick or other device to generate sufficient vapor to burn, which is why it’s the fuel of choice for marine engines and military vehicles: it almost never generates enough vapor to explode.) The details of the sailing trip are generally well done, with two exceptions: McAuley says that the boat “gybes” when passing across the wind (that’s “tacking”; gybing only occurs when you change direction while moving downwind), and the 4-metre dinghy is described as having a keel (I’ve never seen a true keel on a boat that small; they use a moveable centerboard instead).

Overall, this is one of the best stories in Asimov’s in recent memory: it provides hard science whose implications are carefully considered, without annoying infodumps; it has no significant technical or character flaws that detract from its narrative power; and it creates convincing, distinct, interesting characters who, though distinct, have pleasing echoes of older archetypes. Best of all, McAuley provides an alternative to the doom and gloom stories that have become so popular of late: he gives hope without sugarcoating the very real problems we’re going to face, and that’s one of the things that the best SF does so well.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved