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

Stories reviewed:

Beckett: Two Thieves
Bear: Dolly
Rasnic Tem: Visitors
McHugh: Interloper
Clare: Ashes on the Water
Rusch: Killer Advice

Beckett: Two Thieves

This is the story of Pennyworth (Penitence Worthiness Gestas II) and Shoe (Surefaith Solicitude Dismas III), two cynical and hardened thieves living on a far-future Earth after the “Old Empire” has collapsed. Much of the old technology (e.g., guns, PA systems) remains intact, but not the really cool stuff that you’d expect a civilization of starfarers to have left behind. After a botched robbery, in which most of their colleagues were killed by the police, the two are sentenced to imprisonment on a distant island named “Last Resort”. Think of it as Alcatraz, but with a humanist “reform the prisoners” agenda. For these two shady characters, it’s Hell on Earth.

There aren’t any interesting opportunities on the island for unreformed thieves, so the duo choose to work on an archeological dig, hoping they’ll find something they can steal and subsequently sell. On their first day of work, clearing rubble from a well, they discover an Old Empire artefact: what appears to be a gateway to somewhere else. Heedless of the radiation warnings from their dosimeters, and so desperate they ignore the fact they can’t see anything down the hole, they leap in. Indeed, it’s a gateway, but their destination doesn’t seem any more promising: it’s a desert world, and clearly dead (no plants, no animals, no humans).

[Spoilers] The fugitives explore the ruins they’ve arrived in, seeking another gateway that will let them leave. They find one, but before they reach it, they’re distracted by a doorway. Exploring it leads them to a storeroom containing boxes of diamonds. That seem an odd thing for the former inhabitants to leave behind, given that there are no other portable artefacts in evidence, but from context, this seems a message that the Old Empire was so wealthy diamonds weren’t worth taking when the inhabitants left. But for the thieves, this is a treasure house. Shoe, the wiser of the two, takes only as much as he can easily carry, but Pennyworth’s greed gets the better of him. Not only does he stuff his pockets and make a bag out of his shirt, he also swallows a handful and (*shudder*) stuffs a bunch up his anus. Then he grabs a box too heavy to easily carry, and urges Shoe to do the same.

Shoe, uncharacteristically, is intrigued and wants to explore. Pennyworth refuses to go along, by now being in considerable pain from his unconventional diet–suppository combination, and instead chooses to wait for Shoe to return. When Shoe is gone too long, Pennyworth goes looking for him and finds Shoe in a peaceful room with a pool, seemingly spellbound. Indeed, Shoe emerges from the room shaken, and a changed man. Stumbling as if he’s just woken from a pleasant dream, he follows his companion’s bidding and carries boxes of diamonds to the gateway, though his heart clearly isn’t in it. The two throw the boxes through the gateway, though Pennyworth is clearly flagging (severe internal bleeding, casting serious doubt upon his future). When they follow, the find the boxes have burst open amidst a crowd, and in the ensuing riot, the two flee before they’re torn apart by the desperately greedy inhabitants of this new world. Pennyworth’s clearly in dire straits. Though Shoe’s eager to escape and find a new gate, his reasons have changed: the romance of new worlds has hold of his imagination, and he wants the chance to explore new worlds.

The story’s told well enough, but there are several problems. Shoe and Pennyworth aren’t particularly likeable characters—not even the kinds of rogues you guiltily admire, though by the end, Show has become someone I wanted to learn more about. Most seriously, the story proceeds too quickly, with no time spent watching the characters grow sufficiently desperate to jump into the unknown; for all they know, the supposed “gate” they discovered might have been an Old Empire trash disintegrator. Also hard to swallow (you should pardon the choice of words) are the diamonds and the transformative room that makes Shoe into a new man. Both are too-overt plot devices. These flaws undermine a story that otherwise has much going for it: an interesting premise and exotic locations that have the potential to reveal much about these characters as they continue their journey to some as-yet unknown final destination.

[A look back: In response to my review, William Preston noted that the two thieves are almost certainly allusions to the two thieves of the Gospel of Luke, of whom one became Saint Dismas when he repented on the cross. That makes good sense, and transforms the transformative room from a plot device into a literary allusion, and one that would have been more successful if my readings of the gospels weren't nearly 30 years old.—GH]

Bear: Dolly

I always enjoy Bear’s novels, but I savor her short stories. (The difference would justify a future long essay, since I haven’t quite figured out the difference.) She’s one of the finest stylists working today, but her style, though often lyrical, is always in the service of the story and almost never intrudes. It’s the difference between flying first class and flying in coach: you get to the same place in the end, but the journey is so much more pleasant in first class. Here, Bear is telling a classic police procedural, with tongue firmly in cheek but in a loving way, without disrespecting the genre. Throughout this story, she’s slyly self-referential and clearly having a ton of fun with language, without ever ignoring her story.

The eponymous “Dolly” is a sexbot (i.e., a “doll”) found at the scene of a hideous murder: billionaire Clive Steele (“and try to say that without sounding like a comic book”) has been found messily disemboweled—internal organs scattered all over the place, rather than neatly piled in his lap—and Dolly, when “her program ran out”, is found standing over him, clearly the murder weapon. But given that she’s something like an advanced artificial intelligence that is capable of skillfully emulating a human companion, we’re clearly in for an interesting exercise in the ethics of artificial intelligence. An additional complication arises when Bear reveals the possibility that Dolly was “cracked” and infected with a Trojan program that caused the murder then erased itself. (Bear is immaculately careful in her word choice: a “hacker” is someone who enjoys the intellectual challenge of playing with and modifying computers and their software; a “cracker” is someone who does this for malicious purposes. And the supposed software responsible for the murder is a Trojan program, not a virus; one has to assume that in the case of a sexbot, Bear couldn’t resist punning on the condom manufacturer’s name.)

Our human protagonists are Rosamund Kirkbride (Roz), an out-of-shape, homely, 40-something detective who wishes that more guys would like smart women, and Peter King, a software forensics expert who is younger, Black, and apparently a real hottie. (I was reminded of the Old Spice “I’m on a horse” guy. *g*) Right from the start, this is a nice inversion of tropes: the modern female detective (e.g., Kate Becket, as delightfully portrayed by Stana Katic, in the Castle TV series) is supposed to be lithe and fit, and aren’t software guys supposed to be all flabby from too much time spent before the computer? Dolly herself is an interesting character: though able to discuss advances in DNA sequencing with Peter, and literature and poetry with her former owner, she also plays the goodhearted hooker role, calmly cleaning gunk out from under her fingernails as she sits patiently beside Peter. (You’ve seen this or a thousand similar images in just about every TV cop show.)

[Spoilers] Peter, who should know such things, makes it clear right from the start that he doesn’t believe Dolly is sentient; through him, Bear notes that Asimov’s positronic brains are fiction at this point in time, and that unlike Dolly, would be self-aware and would therefore need the laws of robotics to constrain their behavior. Bear also alludes to the famous internet joke about “if cars were built like computers”, noting that Dolly’s failure, if failure it is, would no more be a cause for damning the technology than it is when cars crash; shit happens even with well-designed products. But Peter and Roz are the best kind of detective, since neither is blinded by assumptions; they both instantly pick up on clues that someone running a little more on automatic would miss. For example, during questioning, Dolly evades a question in a way that detectives and psychologists are trained to notice, and reports that she listens to music for enjoyment  (experimental jazz, which will be very different from the more mathematically predictable type of music you’d expect a stereotypical robot to enjoy).

Interestingly, Dolly has clearly crossed the tipping point into full sentience. Indeed, rather than sitting around like a machine as we’ve been lead to believe, she’s been carefully observing the police and trying to figure out how to extricate herself from the situation. It’s an open question whether Roz and Peter are really such decent human beings that they want to extend membership in the sapience club to Dolly purely for ethical reasons (though they do seem to be that decent), or whether Dolly’s clearly superior companion skills have let her manipulate the police into treating her as a human. Homicide detectives are famously jaded, having “seen it all”, so on the face of it, even sympathetic characters like these two are unlikely to discard that cynicism and leap to Dolly’s defence. It’s a cliché, but founded in good reasons. This hints strongly that Dolly has had some role to play in their final decisions.

There are so many interesting things going on here, despite the short length, that it’s hard to know where to begin. Dolly is clearly an intelligent being, with self-determination and self-awareness, but she also isn’t human and Bear never makes the mistake of treating her as such. The ethical issues are clearly presented, without proposing any firm answers: If Dolly is not self-aware or is treated as nothing more than a machine, she’ll be wiped and reset to factory settings by the justice system. Is that cruel to something that must be at least as intelligent as a dog or cat, or nothing more significant than rebooting a computer? On the other hand, if she is sentient, will she be wiped anyway because the justice system won’t recognize her sentience, will she be considered human and allowed to escape the murder charge based on established jurisprudence for domestic abuse (e.g., serial rape), or possibly even plea-bargain to get a lesser sentence? Dolly chooses the latter, providing final proof that she’s sentient. But in each case, a precedent will be set, and it will be an important one. This is one thing the best SF does brilliantly: it gets us thinking about such problems before we need to actually deal with them, so maybe by the time the problem does arise, we’ll have thought it through and have a good first draft of an answer.

In addition to the simple beauty and fluidity of her writing, and the intense empathy with which she treats her characters, Bear does a better job of integrating technology with the story than most authors. Unlike modern software, which is designed to meet technical specs rather than to help us do our jobs or live our lives, Roz’s car helpfully starts up and opens the door as she approaches; it phones home to put her domestic servant (Sven, an older model of robot) to work cooking her dinner. Yet never are we outright told that this is how the technology works; we learn it from observing, not from attending a lecture. Speaking of Sven, he’s a comfortable companion for Roz, possibly even a lover, but unquestionably far more to her than just a home appliance. But he’s an older-generation AI and clearly not even remotely in Dolly’s league. He even interacts with Roz following the time-honored script used by the Eliza software, created in the mid-1960s but still going strong. The only hint of infodump is when Bear reveals a few details of how companion robots work, but in each case, we learn only the key details: the human heart of the story remains predominant, and everywhere the technology simply does what is designed to do, without tedious explanation.

Another gem of a story from Bear.

Rasnic Tem: Visitors

Marie and Walt are visiting the Phoenix “Sanctuary”, a compelling choice of name because of the feelings of comfort and security it evokes. We soon learn this is a facility that caters to people who have been “frozen” until science can find a cure for whatever is killing them. It’s a familiar SFnal notion, but here it’s become a central part of society, not just a gimmicky thing that’s being used by a few fringe folk; in a more traditional SF tale, only the ultra-rich can afford this treatment, but in Rasnic Tem’s tale, the cost is now low enough that seemingly anyone can take advantage of it, and some can even afford to freeze favorite pets. Marie and Walt are visiting their son Tommy during one of the periodic (every 5 years) visits they’re allowed, when the frozen are woken briefly so their caretakers can repair the damage that has been done during storage.

This isn’t a story in which much happens, but it compensates through a strong emotional core that supports an incisive re-examination of some of the things we’ve come to take for granted about cryopreservation—that is, it’s a typical Rasnic Tem story with a strong (if somewhat painful) human heart, and an extrapolation beyond what we might be comfortable with. Marie and Walt are characterized well: they have the ring of truth of a couple that’s been together for decades, complete with the loving patience one develops for a spouse’s quirks as the years go by and some of the resulting frustrations accumulate. (“Walt wasn’t as good at whispering as he thought he was.”) The poignancy of their son’s situation is equally well handled: cryopreservation is not a glamorous Sleeping Beauty experience, but rather like one of those times you wake with the flu, aching in every muscle, disoriented, and not sure whether you’re dreaming or awake. Though the caretakers reassure Tommy’s parents that the frozen don’t dream, Tommy begs to differ; his wakings are clearly nightmarish. This is possibly a unique and uniquely deromanticizing take on the cryopreservation experience.

[spoilers] We gradually learn that Tommy hasn’t been frozen to save his life from some nasty disease: he’s been frozen because he’s a violent criminal and a repeat offender. Indeed, the bright and Disneyfied yet comforting and reassuring world of the Sanctuary for the frozen sick people is an entirely different world from the bleak, grey, inhospitable world of the prison. The visit with Tommy gives Marie and Walt a chance to vent their rage and despair over what they see as the injustice done to their son, possibly achieving some kind of catharsis and helping them retain some faint hope for the future. But it’s been 20 years since their son was *ahem* sent up the freezer, and there’s no sign anyone is even bothering to seek a cure for whatever was wrong with him.

The larger issues Rasnic Tem raises are thought-provoking and disturbing—a good, if uncomfortable, thing. It’s an open question whether long-term imprisonment is more humane than execution: on the one hand, it leaves open the possibility of reformation and eventual release (that’s the “penitent” part of the word “penitentiary”); on the other, a prison for lifers is more like the Oz of the recent TV series about a prison (a “pen” for dangerous animals). Modern prisons have become, implicitly, a place for punishment rather than reform, and a place for warehousing people we’d rather just forget about. What, Rasnic Tem asks us, does it say about a society if their cryo-penitentiary is a place for storing criminals safely out of sight, where we can forget about them and not even pretend we hope to reform them? Are these future people recognizably different from us, or uncomfortably similar?

Visitors works on both a human level, making us feel the pain of parents who have no hope for their child, and on the SFnal level of extrapolating from a technology and our current situation to consider the future human costs. Like all the best SF, it disturbs our complacency rather than offering us comfort.

McHugh: Interloper

Interloper starts out a bit like one’s first-ever visit to an Indian restaurant: an exotic menu with a bunch of weird spices, and it takes a few moments to sort out all the sensory impressions. But after a while, you start to really enjoy the taste of the food. (Or perhaps it just turns you off. More about that anon...)

Here, the spices are the many characters who are thrown at us in the guise of a traveling circus and freakshow: The outright “freaks” include Monkey, Goat Boy, and Turtle (the latter a strongman with a turtle’s exoskeleton, sort of, who reminded me strikingly of Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four). The less-obvious freaks include Rhone, a psionic who can seemingly read people and broadcast what she feels; the Tinas, a troupe of clone sisters who serve as the circus’ acrobats; and Murph, an outwardly normal woman who serves as the troupe’s knife-thrower and swordmaster, but whose abnormally dense bones and strong muscles make her a cousin to Gibson’s “razorgirls”. There are also “troodons”, reptiles that can detect “interlopers” but that are immune to them. The ringmaster, Barnestable, initially seems the most normal of the lot, so you immediately have to wonder what he’s hiding. Initially, it’s also not clear what proportion of the group is simple mutants and which ones have been genetically engineered; by the end of the story, the mix seems to be about 50:50.

Like a well-done Indian meal, the spices eventually come together into a tasty blend. The story’s Australia has echoes of Mad Max, but the decline seems more of a slow fading as oil supplies dwindle and there are no silly chase-scene set pieces or punk bandits. On its way into the town where the action occurs, the circus passes by an abandoned facility in the deserts near the western coast of Australia. It was clearly once something special, and as Barnestable scopes it out in passing, it’s clear he’s looking at it with the eyes of someone who is no mere circus employee. We soon learn that the story world has experienced an incident in which “the Veil was torn”, an allusion to the veil that separates the worlds of the multiverse; this event was sufficiently catastrophic that the Australian government (not a nuclear power, last I checked) was forced to have many areas neutron-bombed to control what McHugh calls “interlopers”. We also learn that Barnestable and most of his crew are government agents, hunting down the interlopers and killing as many civilians as necessary to contain the as-yet-unspecified menace these aliens pose.

[spoilers] We eventually learn that some humans (“candidates”) are born with a vulnerability to the interlopers, and that an interloper can sometimes pierce the Veil to gain control of the candidate’s mind and use their new body to spread the contagion, taking over more and more minds. Once possessed, the victim can only be killed: there’s no going back. If enough people are possessed, an entire area must be nuked to stop the problem from spreading. When Barnestable and his team discover multiple “candidates” for control by the interlopers, they set out to rescue them and move them to where they can be stored for their own safety or remade (as Rhone has been) to prevent their nervous systems from being used against them. But they’re too late; one candidate is possessed, and possesses the two Tinas who are along on the raid. Barnestable’s team is forced to kill them, as well as their sisters, who share a telepathic connection with them.

The death of a half dozen team-mates is bad enough, but we’ve learned that Turtle has a daughter (with a woman, who has since died, that he met while he was stationed at the mysterious nearby base; was he remade into an armored tank at this base?). His daughter is a candidate, but he’s unwilling to bring her in for protective isolation for the rest of her life or to risk the surgery required to remake her. Barnestable, Rhone, and Murph track him down as he flees into the desert with the girl and her grandparents: will they kill him and take his child if he resists? But Barnestable has already experienced too much loss, and can’t bring himself to do this. Instead, in an act of mercy, he lets Turtle flee with his daughter, despite the risk that she’ll be suborned at some future point. It’s a nice humanizing touch for our POV character. We also learn why Barnestable is so much shorter than the women he’s traveling with: he repeatedly refers to himself as “piggy”, suggesting he’s been born or remade into a piglike person and explaining his name (barn, stable).

It took me longer than was strictly necessary for plot reasons to get a sense of what was going on with the characters: too much “spice” is thrown at the reader too fast, without enough clues or time to assemble them into meaning. The troodons exemplify this; initially, I was misled into believing they were the aliens at the heart of the story rather than genetically engineered dinosaurs (part of the problem was nicknaming them “troods”, which I read as “trudes” rather than the correct pronunciation, “troh-odds”). Similarly, McHugh waits too long to give us a clear idea of what the interlopers are and why they’re a threat. It’s a judgment call whether this is a severe flaw in the story: it’s legitimate to keep readers guessing to make the eventual payoff stronger. For me, the wait was simply too long, but the result was still a rich feast of exotic ingredients, with an interesting POV character at its heart.

Clare: Ashes on the Water

Ashes is another in a long series of semi-apocalyptic tales, this time set in India. Global warming has exacerbated the monsoon–drought dichotomy, and the current water shortages have become even more severe. The situation is bad enough that water is strictly rationed—there’s not even enough remaining to even let mourners bathe the corpses of their dead—and the few remaining rivers are walled off to keep people from looting their water. This, sadly, is an all-too-real scenario for India based on current climate trends, and Ian McDonald has captured the scenario and its impacts in his often-brilliant series of India stories. Here, the story that drives the plot is how Riti is desperately seeking a way to return the ashes of her sister Priya to the sea by releasing them into a river. (Apart from this being a Hindu custom, Priya also loved the sea and chose it as her field of study, so it’s appropriate as her final resting place.) Unfortunately, the water situation has grown sufficiently dire that not even the standard approach (bribery) can persuade the officials to look the other way and let her use the local river.

Instead, Riti enlists the aid of her shady cousin Ranjeet to obtain forged papers that will let her travel to a neighboring state, where she hopes the restrictions will be less severe. She successfully makes it across the border. [Spoilers] Things are looking good for her prospects of reaching a river, except that Riti has internalized the same misleading notion that affects people throughout her travels: that things are somehow better elsewhere. When she finally reaches the Yamuna River that was her destination (as it is part of the same river system as the sacred Ganges), she finds it and all other nearby rivers to be dry. But she is not defeated, and courageously continues her travels until she reaches the sea, where she finally releases the ashes. This is a small victory, but a far larger victory (and one that is a pleasant change from the abundance of recent dystopian fiction) is that Riti comes to understand from her travels that while the sea was Priya’s love, her love will be the desert that increasingly covers much of India. It’s a lovely grace note and a hopeful ending to the story.

The writing is simple but remains both effective and affecting, with what seems to me (based on my associations with many Indian colleagues) to be an excellent grasp of Indian culture; Clare captures the quintessential warm humanity of the Indians I’ve known. She also gets most of the key details right, such as Riti’s horror at the notion of burying her sister’s ashes, her need to meet Ranjeet without her father knowing (India remains a strongly patriarchal society), and the use of English rather than Hindi as the lingua franca (because the official language, Hindi, is not well loved in the south). The only misstep comes in a single throway sentence, “The Hindus consider the Yamuna River sacred...”, which suggests (in the absence of any other evidence) that Riti is not Hindu; instead, this seems a rare case of the author expressing something from the author’s perspective (a minor infodump to bring readers up to speed) rather than something seen from the perspective of an Indian character.

Riti’s description of her sister’s presence enduring long after death is letter-perfect; two years after my own father’s death, I can still feel him in my life. (It’s not a ghost thing, as such... more like an intense and comforting memory of his effect on my thoughts while he was alive.) Other details, such as the smog, sand covering neglected highways, and the widespread use of electric scooters and motorcycles, are convincing and lend atmosphere. (The electric vehicles, in particular, reminded me intensely of a recent visit to China, where they’re ubiquitous. I suspect they’re in our future too here in North America.) All in all, Ashes is a lovely piece of work.

Rusch: Killer Advice

Killer Advice is a variant on the classic “everyone locked away in a remote house” murder mystery, only here, the house starts out as a small spaceship and ends in a decrepit space station that can only be considered a “resort” because it has a hotel and casino. Nobody would come here voluntarily for recreation.

As in her other recent work, Rusch gets only some of the details right. The quintessential nature of unmodified humans doesn’t seem likely to change in the future, and here, that nature takes various predictable forms. For example, despite the availability of long-distance communication, nobody notifies Hunsaker (the hotel’s owner) until the last possible instant that an inbound ship has experienced disastrous system failures and will need rooms for its passengers until repairs are complete. But Vaadum has so little ship traffic—other than the unconvincing detail of a few regulars who come to play cards purely so they can see his bare-breasted card dealer—so Hunsaker doesn’t much bother with upkeep. As a result, the rooms lack functional door locks, and the few staff must scramble to ensure not only that the rooms have clean sheets, but that they have oxygen. It’s a nice detail, and Rusch also nails her description of how badly many travelers treat service staff.

In a classic murder mystery, it’s necessary to do a few things right. First, if you’re playing fairly with your readers, you need to scatter some clues so readers have a chance to figure things out before you reveal the solution; looking back, that solution must be seen as inevitable. Second, you need to portray the characters at the heart of the story sufficiently well that most, possibly all, are cast sufficiently in doubt that they’re potential suspects. The rest of the story then becomes an exercise in leading readers past enough hints that they can solve the mystery. It’s here that Rusch fails. Let’s look at her large cast first, in order of increasing importance [thus, spoilers follow]:

We learn nothing of Janet Potsworth except that she has buck teeth, is bored enough to drink to excess, and may be a bit of a slut. Anne Marie Devlin is the station’s doctor, who still keeps her license in good order, despite being a depressed alcoholic. We never learn what dark incident in the past has ruined her life or why it led her to this station. Bill Bunting, jack of all trades based on his database entries, is good enough at whatever he does to have ample money, and is remarkably (surprisingly) strong. Combined with his vague past, there are suggestions he may be a spy or criminal of some sort. Before the ship arrived at the station, he tore a strip out of another passenger verbally when she got too annoying, and he has a technical background that makes him a suspect. But these characters are cardboard, and exist purely to play roles (respectively: stage dressing, confirmation of murder, and suspect) rather than emerging as distinct people.

Agatha Kantswinkle is the diva who annoys everyone beyond their limits of tolerance, but also does good charity work with orphans. We learn that most of her annoyance factor arises from the clichéd cry of a lonely person for attention. But we don’t see her enough to develop any empathy for her as a person. As the first person at the scene of the murders that occurred offstage, before the ship arrives at the station, she’s a suspect up to the point where she’s found dead. We learn she was suffocated when someone played with the environmental controls in her room to generate an atmosphere she couldn’t breathe (an unbelievable design flaw in a system that must be 100% reliable and safe against tampering).

Susan Carmichael, a vice-admiral’s daughter, is one of three main POV characters. She’s competent and self-reliant, and is fleeing her family for reasons that are never quite clear and thus remain unconvincing, but now, scared she might be the next victim, she calls Dad for a rescue. Her alibi is that she’s a minor POV character with no thoughts about the murders other than fear; given this is SF, she could conceivably have been the killer in her sleep or subconsciously if you wave your hands a bit—but it’s a bit of a stretch, and then we learn she would’ve been the next victim if Hunsaker hadn’t moved her to a new room. But Susan lacks any depth, and could disappear from the story with no significant impact on the plot.

Hunsaker, the proprietor, is clearly too well-educated and trained to be in this dive. He’s surprisingly good at investigating people using a suspiciously complete database that he stole from a former resident (far more so than you’d expect form a hotel manager) and unrealistically experienced with identifying the cause of death, despite several previous deaths in his hotel. We eventually learn that he’s an exceptionally clever embezzler, who was working his way up to progressively more responsible roles at real resorts until he finally became so senior he became inextricably entangled with the resort’s reputation and had nowhere further to go. Had he been prosecuted when his employers eventually caught him, it would have damaged the resort’s reputation, so his employers found a better punishment: banishing him to this remote area. He tells us he was too embarrassed to work with his professional colleagues ever again, and that is why he stayed.

Richard Ilykova, junior crewmember on the ship and working for passage to somewhere better, is our final POV character. Hunsaker discovers he has at least two false identities, and is suspected of multiple murders. (If this information is available to Hunsaker in a public database, it seems inconceivable the authorities aren’t actively pursuing him.) We learn that he’s the only survivor of a massacre on a cruise ship while he was a child. The odds of someone smuggling a weapon onto a ship would seem low (presumably they’ll have better security than we have today), so this is a large false note that establishes a highly artificial background. We eventually learn his mother was a famous spy and assassin, and trained him to follow in her footsteps. Despite having committed potentially dozens of murders, he feels oddly dissatisfied: to him, it’s just a job, and he feels that there should be some passion in his work. Though he’s clearly capable of the current batch of murders, he has no motive, and as a main POV character, he has an alibi. Also, he becomes the de facto detective. When Carmichael’s father arrives to rescue his daughter, Ilykova chooses to remain on the station, though there is nothing plausible for him to do there and he has previously told us he needs to keep moving on. Hunsaker hires him as station security, but there’s little reason for us to believe he would accept such a job.

Lysa Lamphore, the last of the characters, exists only as the stereotypical dumb blonde bombshell. We learn nothing else about her until Ilykova tracks down enough details (from Hunsaker’s database, not from any plot or character insights) to prove that she’s the murderer.

On the one hand, Rusch pulls off a rarely done trick quite well: the characters, seen from the perspective of other characters, differ from how they see themselves from their own POV, and we have a chance to develop our understanding of who they are through this powerful technique. Choosing this approach is an excellent insight and something more writers (myself included) should try more often. On the other hand, and eliminating any insights that this technique could provide, none of the characters evolve beyond plot elements to develop true personalities. As I noted in my review of a previous Rusch story, the charitable view would be that it takes more room than a long short story to let the characters come into focus. But since we’re discussing detective work here, the evidence suggests this is nothing more than clumsy and ill-considered characterisation. None of the characters or their motives really gel; Hunsaker comes closest, but it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have taken his money and immediately fled somewhere nobody would know him and started over. Lysa is the most egregious example: looking back, we have not a single clue that would point to her as the murderer, and nothing that would compel us to believe she became one, until the end, when Ilykova explains her motive. But this explanation is nothing more than the author’s plot outline; it is in no way something that evolves from the character, largely because there is no character.

The context for the murders is interesting and a clever twist on some standard mystery tropes. First, the room locks don’t work, so this is the inverse of the classic locked-room mystery. Second, it’s set in what my wife calls a “Winchester” motel, after the kinds of remote and seedy places the protagonists of Supernatural tend to end up during their adventures; that’s a suitable creepy set for the story. But again, the details don’t cohere. A space station must have a certain minimum size to be viable, simply because you need enough people to handle all the various roles (e.g., ongoing maintenance, traffic control). This is implied, but in far too little detail to create the image of a functional system; indeed, the station conveniently expands when necessary to create a new set (e.g., the repair bay). The ship on which the murders began is unlikely. A ship with only four crewmembers won’t work; running three 8-hour bridge watches is reasonable, but who does all the other work for the week or more the ship is in space? We’re told that Ilykova handles this job, but that would mean he’s on duty close to 24 hours daily. It just don’t work. The concept of Hunsaker’s database also doesn’t work (who would carry an up-to-date database of all possible people in large sector of space in an iPad equivalent?). Even if you swallow that, the database becomes a clumsy plot device that lets Ilyakov find the murderer without ever actually having to talk to any of the suspects.

On the whole, Killer Advice is a disappointing story—one that would not have been published if it had been submitted by anyone other than a name-brand author.

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