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

Stories reviewed:

MacLeod: The Cold Step Beyond
Emshwiller: All the News That’s Fit
DeNiro: Walking Stick Fires
Shoulders: Apocalypse Daily
Davies: The Fighter
Kowal: Kiss Me Twice

MacLeod: The Cold Step Beyond

I’m familiar with MacLeod exclusively from his stories set in India and Brasil, and had never encountered his Ten Thousand and One Worlds universe before the present story. (I loved those previous works, so clearly that omission needs to be remedied soon!) [A look back: That’s Ian McDonald, not MacLeod. Oops!] Cold Step is set on Ghezira, which I at first thought to be a Nivenesque ringworld, but that instead turns out to be a world constructed on the inside of a sphere with rather peculiar temporal and spatial physics. The name may refer to the Gezira agricultural irrigation project in the Sudan, and thus possibly allude to a oasis of sorts in the surrounding desert of space. As something like a Dyson sphere surrounding a sun, it’s certainly large enough to contain the aforementioned 10,001 worlds, and therefore establishes a panoramic stage capable of supporting a great diversity of plots and characters.

Our protagonist is Bess of the Warrior Church, an orphan girl taken up by the church and extensively modified until she’s “scarcely human”, having become an armored knight created through a combination of biological and possibly mechanical tinkering. Apart from her martial talents, she can achieve something far more profound than the zenlike state of a martial arts master: she can actually move physically through time and space in a way that’s kin to but very different from the “fugue” that Zelazny had so much fun playing with in Creatures of Light and Darkness. (Now I have to reread that book, alas!) And her sword is “magic” in the sense of Clarke’s definition of sufficiently advanced technology, though you might only notice this through a seemingly throw-away phrase about how the sword “seemed to flash in the hairsbreadth of an instant before movement itself”.

But this is all stage dressing, intriguing though it be. Bess was shaped by her church as a weapon to fight monsters, but sometimes the monsters prove to be less than monstrous (as in the case of the sea creature she kills out of mercy) and sometimes we humans are the real monsters (as when she plays the role of “hired muscle” to lend weight to a political negotiation). The story world’s bending of spacetime in dangerous ways for FTL and other purposes sometimes opens doors to sideways universes, allowing creatures ranging from the benign to the truly Lovecraftean to slip though, thereby creating the need for Bess and her comrades in arms. When she is sent to an anonymous forest by her church’s intelligence service, there to await some unknown monster, she meets a feral girl. Elli, pugnacious, precocious, and self-assured in the way only tweenagers who spend too much time alone seem to be, isn’t intimidated in the least by Bess, though she asks Bess (and indirectly, us) just what Bess has become: “You’re a warrior—killing’s all your good for.” Is it so? The fact that Bess retains souvenirs of her past that would be useless to a killing machine (a silver locket, a lock of auburn hair from a friend at the convent) suggests she has not yet turned entirely into the blindly obedient killing machine she resembles from the outside.

[Spoilers] Elli takes Bess to her home on the “Isle of the Dead”, effectively an abandoned cemetary and a possible tip of the hat to Zelazny’s novel of that name (though the connection isn’t strong). Then MacLeod pulls the rug out from under our feet with as nifty a double-reversal as I’ve seen in recent memory: Elli tells Bess of a girl, Dallah, who died young and was set up in a lavish technological tomb by her grieving mothers (interestingly, no male character is ever mentioned in the story), and we and Bess are clearly being led to suspect this might be Elli’s tomb and that we’re dealing with a ghost of sorts. But Elli immediately dismisses this notion as being far too predictable. (It’s a sly wink from the author, MacLeod clearly having fun leading us down the garden path and reminding us what he’s done.) But no sooner has MacLeod reassured us that he’s not taking the easy narrative solution, then he doubles back on his tracks: Elli, it turns out, was the AI play-friend Dallah’s parents created to keep her company, and she’s been inhabiting the girl’s tomb for centuries. (If, like me, you had a sense that Elli was too precocious for her seeming age, that turns out to be no coincidence. Neatly done!) Growing bored with her existence, Elli has animated Dallah’s corpse so she can leave the tomb and roam. So indeed, she is the ghost we were expecting, just in a more interesting way than we first expected.

Just when the coolness of that trick is sinking in, MacLeod pulls a third reversal: Elli persuades Bess to open the locket we learned of earlier, and it turns out to be precisely the same locket Elli has, which bears the picture of the three women who were Dallah’s mothers. “Elli” turns out to be short for “Elizabeth”, and therefore for “Bess”! Through a quirk of how time and space can fold upon themselves in this world, Bess has lived through two separate but interwoven timelines: in both, she was sent by her church to eliminate this duplication, but in one timeline, Elli kills her to eliminate the problem, whereas in the story’s timeline, Bess instead kills Elli, both murders seemingly without a quaver of remorse. But the time Bess spends with Elli has established a bond between the two, and has woken dormant feelings that MacLeod previously hinted at (Bess appreciating the beauty of the flowers in the meadow where she practices her arts while awaiting the monster, and the mystery of the adjacent forest). Her newfound understanding of her origins makes it unclear whether she will return to her duty with the church, or whether she’ll leave to seek her own way in the world.

MacLeod does many things well, including how subtly he lays a trail of evidence that preserves the surprise of his revelations while making them plausible in hindsight. If you’ve read his Hyderabad sequence or “Brasyl” [again, wrong Ian, but that's what I posted in the Asimov's forum!--GH] , you know he also has a gift for immersing himself in a culture and (the real trick) making it real to us. Here, he continues that tradition in a wholly invented reality, an even more difficult trick because we have no preconceptions on which to build our image of that world. To accomplish this, he provides important details through clues rather than “tells”. For example, when Elli first steps from the woods, Bess isn’t sure what to make of her, even though the girl is bare-chested; in this economical manner, we learn that Elli isn’t yet old enough to have breasts large enough to unequivocally establish her sex. MacLeod also firmly anchors the story to the metaphor of its title without waving the metaphor in our collective face: the “cold step beyond” of the title is simultaneously a martial arts maneuver, and the step a warrior must take to embrace the knowledge of their own death, thereby removing the obstacles that the fear of death place in the path of lesser soldiers. This is a longstanding tradition, dating back at least to Hagakure, who taught that bushido was the “way” (the pathway one travels) of dying, and that a samurai must accept that they are already dead before they can fully embrace the warrior’s way. Here, that metaphor takes on additional power from the manner in which Bess kills her younger self, making the metaphor simultaneously literary and literal.

Bess is an intriguing character, and I’m sure we’ll see more of her again—something I look forward to. What gives this story an impact that goes beyond its clever devices and colorful writing is Bess, both a samurai’s spiritual descendant and someone who clearly thinks beyond that narrow role to see the beauty and fascination of her world and the limitations of a samurai’s worldview. Her future inner and outer journeys will be fascinating to watch as she grapples with her dual nature and tries to find a place for herself.

Emshwiller: All the News That’s Fit

All the News is interesting on several levels, such as the fact that we don’t learn the narrator’s name (Darta) or sex (female) until well into the story. Darta’s focus is so relentlessly on the external and on her narrowly circumscribed rural village that it’s some time before we see any hints of her inner world. But we’ll come to that in a moment. The plot premise is that Darta lives in an isolated, nearly inaccessible village with a panoramic view of the surrounding territory but no real view of the human world below. Every couple of weeks, a charming young man arrives from “down there” to bring them news of the more civilized world in the plains below, not to mention various goods (strange fruits, manufactured things) that aren’t available on the mountain; while there, he flirts with the women and plays songs for the villagers on his flute, but most importantly, he brings them news of the world. The news he brings is mostly gossip and things of little substance, but it’s clearly important to the villagers that despite their isolation, they feel part of the world.

When the newsman, Flimm, goes missing for more than a month, everyone is concerned—not to mention suffering from the lack of news from outside—enough so that Darta decides to make the difficult and dangerous journey down the mountain to see what’s happened to him, and to rescue him if he’s fallen off a cliff or been trapped under a landslide. She’s told us that she finds him ugly, and that no one else in the village much likes him, but clearly there’s some attraction (her description dwells on his dark eyes, and his dark and wavy hair, so unlike the pale hair of the villagers). Darla’s an older (but not old) woman, with no family, no spouse, and no children, and just possibly she’s more interested in Flimm than she’s letting on.

[spoilers] Initially, Darta seems mostly to be acting out of humanitarian concern for a missing person who she, alone among the village’s people, seems to actually like. But she’s also somewhat concerned over the missing news, which she and the villagers have become addicted to. As she notes, “You can’t be an educated person without knowing who died.” Once she descends into the plains, she draws closer to a city larger than anything she’s imagined, and clearly something’s amiss: there are what appear to be large washouts in the road, fallen walls and houses, and a fountain with a shattered statue of a maiden in its center—none of these things under repair—and people are missing limbs or bear other scars. Everyone dresses differently from the country folk, enough so that Darta becomes an attraction herself, drawing people (and thrown coins) to a young fluteplayer she chooses to associate with and to a street artist who draws and sells portraits of this “exotic” woman. Though Darta is clearly the country mouse visiting the city mouse, everyone seems kind to her, and there are no acts of violence; both the flutist and the artist even share the money they collect with her, and she’s unmolested when she spends the night on the streets.

Key aspects of the story emerge only gradually. Like most parables, the story has a timeless feel to it. Initially, it seems almost like a medieval fairy tale with a wandering bard bringing eagerly awaited news between towns; it’s reminiscent of what David Brin understood in The Postman, which is a much better story than the movie would lead you to believe. It’s also symptomatic of just how isolated the villagers have grown from the rest of the world. But once Darta enters the city, we see a more sophisticated world open up, with evidence of bombings and plagues—yet no cars or airplanes or gaslights that would pin the story to modern times, despite the existence of bombs. We learn that Flimm has told the villagers none of this, deliberately seeking to keep them unspoiled and innocent so he can bring their stories back to the city to give its citizens hope for better things. In fact, he filters the news so heavily, nominally in the interest of the villagers, that almost no real news makes it through to them, and though he doesn’t say so, probably applies equally soft filters to what he tells the city folk. This outrages Darta, and combined with her frustrated dreams that Flimm might become more to her than just a source of news, she actually attacks him, revealing strong emotions that have been pent up while she stayed in her village.

Darta is an interesting character, highly reserved and emotionally controlled until her emotions burst free as dramatically as her mind bursts free from the chains imposed on it by her “provincial” worldview; it’s as if her spirit has suddenly kindled. But the story really revolves around the meaning of “the news”, and the journalistic ideals for which the story serves as a parable. On the one hand, there is a need for objectivity in the news. As Darla notes, “I need more facts and I know enough about news to know it shouldn’t just be my angry opinion right now. News is supposed to be done with both sides in mind... I need to keep my own opinion out of it.” Yet none of us is ever wholly objective, and we all need the human stories that lie behind the facts. As Darta’s eyes open to this realization, she bursts out: “I’ll make the news myself. I’ll *be* the news and I don’t want to see both sides.” Which is more important? Both, and neither: all stories are human stories, messy and subjective, and it’s not possible to tell a successful story that lacks one or the other element.

In the end, though Flimm offers to bring Darta home to meet his mother (a selfish kindness, though he may have some affection for Darta that goes beyond an attraction to her innocence), Darta chooses to return home, bearing her version of the news. What that news will become by the time she reaches her village (comfort, spectacle, “just the facts”, or some mixture thereof) remains an open question: like all journalists, Darta faces the dilemma of finding her own balance between the facts, which are rarely as objective as we might like to think, and the many roles that the news play in our lives: reassurance, a sense of connection with a larger world, and stories that cater to the basest of prurient interest. In that sense, and like all good stories, All the News provides a connection with something larger: the context may change, but the humans at the heart of the story remain instantly recognizable, with familiar needs, across the ages. Parables always risk becoming preachy, but by presenting all sides of the story through a sympathetic narrator, Emshwiller avoids lecturing while still giving us something to think about.

DeNiro: Walking Stick Fires

Fires is an interesting take on the notion of parallel universes colliding, though here the “parallel” part is more metaphorical than literal: the two worlds overlap and interact in peculiar ways. Parka and Jar are aliens (complete with “mandibles”) visiting Earth, couriers who are clearly Not From Around Here. When we first meet them, they’re in the desert near what appears to be Las Vegas (“Casino”) and on their way to “Santa Fey” on All Hallow’s eve eve. They’re in a bit of a hurry, bearing the “Amulet of Ruby Webs”, which they’ve “extracted from Casino at great cost”. Pursued by initially unnamed opponents, and needing to get the amulet to Santa Fey very soon—or else—they take a shortcut under the mountains through a tunnel that may involve some contortions of space and time rather than merely engineering. Early evidence (phrases such as “like a brane gun backfiring”) suggests a technological explanation, though definitely in the “Rudy Rucker would make Arthur Clarke think it’s magic” kind of way. But the overall sense is of pervasive weirdness: we see the world through the eyes of our two aliens, and they don’t see things at all the way we do, possibly because reality is breaking down around us and their reality is so different.

[Spoilers] I confess, up-front, that I don’t really “get” what’s going on in this story, so I can’t really determine what might constitute a spoiler. The basic notion is that Parka and Jar have stolen the amulet from the Worm-Hares, a different group of extraterrestrials, who offer to fight Parka for this prize. Parka defeats their leader, winning the Camaro the Worm-Hares have been driving in and giving it to an indentured human (name-tagged “Sharon”, like all the humans we meet) at the rest stop where our heroes stop to refresh themselves before continuing on their way. We learn that a diverse group of aliens have come to Earth in the wake of “Beings”, mountain-sized creatures who land on terrestrial planets to mine the nitrogen from the air and various useful minerals from the ground, heedless of the collateral damage. They seemingly exist only to provide fuel for the starships of galactic civilizations, and when the mining is done, the Beings die, leaving behind seeds that will create new Beings and a heap of starship fuel. The unfortunate side-effect of the mining is the destruction of most of the inhabited world, and too bad for the aboriginal inhabitants.

It’s all very Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with all of the gonzo invention of a Douglas Adams but lacking the coherence. Stick insects (the walking sticks of the title) are everywhere, eventually coalescing into a giant tree that the humans seem about to use against the aliens in some unspecified way, but as Parka notes in reference to these insects: “What is *with* that?” I have no idea, and I’m not sure DeNiro did either. It’s also not clear why all the humans have “Sharon” nametags; about the closest I can come to a guess is that it has to do with the Biblical plain of Sharon and the apocalyptic feel to the story. After thinking about it for a bit, I confess that I really can’t see any coherence emerging from the story’s incoherence, other than perhaps as an extremely broad poke at the notion of how advanced civilizations (i.e., those of us who live in the developed world) pillage civilizations that are less able to defend themselves. In the end, Fires is basically a romp, with two entertaining characters (Parka and Jar) who reminded me of Cheech and Chong in some drugged-out caper film, and no obvious purpose other than to demonstrate just how much fun an author can have distorting reality. So the story’s fun, but in the end minor because all the wackiness doesn’t seem to be in aid of anything much.

Shoulders: Apocalypse Daily

Katrina Vang is working in Seattle as chief plot developer for the eponymous virtual reality game, Apocalypse Daily. It’s an MMORPG of sorts, produced by Endertainment, a clever play on “end” since the game’s overall purpose is for players to survive an ongoing series of world-ending catastrophes, with extra points awarded for cooperative play. There’s much cleverness, including entertaining phrases such as “the Veeps That Be” instead of “Powers”, and wry lines such as “Public transit was seldom reliable in an apocalypse.” It’s nice to see Chinese characters in SF, and although they’re culturally assimilated into mainstream American culture, they still retain some clearly Chinese touches, such as using different Hanyu names for each other as sisters. (In Chinese, the names for family members differ depending on maternal and paternal relationships and birth order.) It’s also amusing to speculate that Katrina’s name was chosen to remind us of how a small-scale disaster on a global scale proved to be nearly apocalyptic for the residents of New Orleans; the game scenario we first see, based on flooding of Seattle, seems more than a coincidence in that context.

Katrina is currently hosting her sister Natalie, who’s recently been laid off, needs a place to stay, and can’t quite bring herself to move back in with her parents. Things aren’t going well for Katrina at work either. In one of those semi-regular apocalypses (echoing the title) that dog software startups that cater to fickle audiences, Endertainment is in financial difficulty as its anniversary day approaches, and Katrina is under tremendous pressure to come up with stimulating new apocalypses to keep her audience endertained—and to keep the money flowing, since the Veeps That Be are only interested in spinning money, not in anything as abstract as creating socially laudable games that are also fun to play. It would be a sad cliché were it not so true. To add to Katrina’s stress, her teammate Emile is doing his best to undermine her, steal credit for her ideas, and ensure he’s the one who’ll be employed when the inevitable staffing cuts happen. As Natalie notes, “Once the bastards have an excuse, you’re savings waiting to happen.” Apparently, MBA school doesn’t teach graduates that the people who actually earn the money for a company are more than just potential “savings”.

[Spoilers] In desperation, Katrina invokes the hoary old plot of an alien invasion, with the aliens harvesting humans as slaves, to put some interest back into the game for anniversary day—and Emile one-ups her by suggesting they subvert the cooperative gameplay model by requiring players to betray each other to survive and gain points. Katrina objects, but their boss likes the idea, and it becomes part of the game, earning kudos for Emile and possibly jeopardizing Katrina’s position. Rather than letting him get away with this, she turns the tables on Emile: based on gossip from another employee, she narcs on him to their mutual boss, pointing out that Emile may be paying a kid to play the game for him instead of fulfilling his duty to play the game himself and thoroughly understand it, and he may be shopping himself around to other companies that compete with Endertainment. Having learned Emile’s lesson that betrayal pays well, she hoists him neatly on his own petard, a satisfying resolution. In this light, the “Ender” part of the company name seems likely to be a sly tip of the hat to Orson Scott Card’s Ender universe, since the supposed “game” in Ender’s Game proves far too real and humanity’s betrayal of young Ender Wiggins in that novel strongly echoes the daily betrayals of Apocalypse Daily.

Although the story is a pleasant read, and a useful reminder of the soulless ways of too many venture capitalists and MBAs, it somehow lacked punch. I suspect the problem is that we simply don’t see enough of Katrina’s inner journey from naïveté (believing that games can exist purely to help people have fun and work together) to realpolitik (the dog-eat-dog betrayals of the corporate world and the need to earn money): there’s no profound sense of what this means to her, or of whether she has lingering doubts at the end. My cynicism about business managers notwithstanding, the Veeps seem too one-dimensionally evil to be convincing antagonists, and her decision to betray Emile, though amply foreshadowed, doesn’t have much in the way of emotional consequences, either before or after Katrine’s decision. That doesn’t spoil the story, but does rob it of much potential power. Still, it’s a fun read, well-crafted, and plays skillfully to my cynical take on the business world.

Davies: The Fighter

Dominick is a genetically engineered fighter, living in the age of mixed-martial arts and “unlimited” fighting. But in a logical (if chilling) extrapolation from the modern situation, the gladiators (“Heroes” in the common parlance) live the old Roman tradition, with fights in the ring continuing to the death. Dominick’s ring persona is “Grizzly”, and we soon learn it’s not just a nickname: he’s 300 pounds of muscle and has claws capable of killing, and he’s just finished a bout in which he killed “Eagle”, a colleague and possibly even a friend. He’s stopped by two police officers as he’s driving home to his wife and children, and it’s clearly a dangerous situation for everyone; he’s killed an officer before and gotten away with it because this society seemingly values its Heroes more than its real heroes; the police, for instance, have a thankless job and risk their lives daily, with little or no appreciation from the populace.

[Spoilers] We soon learn the real value society places on these people. Though Davies makes it clear that Dominick’s as real a person as thee and me, he lives in “the pens” (not “apartments” nor even “barracks”) created to hold the fighters, and the family he believes that he visits every three days are illusions, created by a chip in his head. When the police stop him, it’s to return him home—but that home is the pens with the other fighters. And when the “good cop” of the pair can’t convince him to return to the pens voluntarily, she’s forced to wipe his chip so he’ll forget his illusory family and return willingly to his real family: the other gladiators. Dominick is a disposable commodity (Eagle has already been replaced with a newly manufactured gladiator), and any sense of humanity he’s developed is irrelevant to his owners and to the people who watch the fights. At least, it is to most of them; Higgs, the “good cop”, hates what she was forced to do, recognizing that in a very real way she’s killed Dominick and his family purely to support the kind of activity that is contrary to everything she’s supposed to honor (i.e., protecting people against murder and other crimes).

Like a real unlimited fight (as opposed to a sport), The Fighter is short, sharp, and brutally realistic (if in a bleak way): it’s not at all a nice world these people live in, and it was viscerally painful to me to experience how callously Dominick is treated. He may be manufactured, but he’s clearly a person, however dehumanized his situation. Nicely, if disturbingly, done.

Kowal: Kiss Me Twice

Scott Huang is a young homicide detective, working in Portland with an interesting partner: “Metta”, the police department’s AI. Ordinarily, as a junior officer, Scott doesn’t get much in the way of really interesting casework, and his current case doesn’t initially seem all that interesting or complex: real-estate developer Neil Patterson has been murdered, and his body found on the rooftop of a gentrified building. Patterson is in the early phases of gentrifying the rest of the neighborhood, but he’s got a shady past, raising suspicions over why he might have been murdered. He’s found because someone calls in the murder from the coffee shop down below. Interestingly, Patterson’s in a wheelchair, so how he got to the roof is a bit of a mystery, since the elevator isn’t working. Moreover, there are two teacups present at the table, but none of the rest of the tea service, and there are few clues at the scene, other than a small sheared-off screw.

As Scott is investigating, someone raids the police HQ, shooting two officers and killing one, so they can “kidnap” Metta. Is this just a way for them to gain access to her databases, a way to take her offline while they commit some major crime she might otherwise detect, or is her abduction tied to the murder investigation? Fortunately, Metta underwent one of her periodic backups only a couple hours before these events, so she can be restored mostly intact from the backup—but with all the disorientation you’d expect from a human who has lost a couple hours of their life and hasn’t yet had all her connections restored (“I’m online now and I feel like an amputee”). But Kowal doesn’t miss the obvious consequence of this situation: another Metta still exists somewhere out there, and at some point something will need to be done about the two of them.

[Spoilers] Things get interesting when Amado, the officer responsible for the HQ technology, asks Scott to meet him after work to talk with him about the assault on HQ. He clearly doesn’t want to have a conversation where Metta might be listening, which is suspicious enough in its own right, but there are additional hints that Amado might be involved in some aspect of the kidnapping. But before Scott leaves, Metta asks him to take her home with him (something not allowed by the department), claiming that she wants to ensure continuity of her persona. This would clearly be a legitimate fear for an AI that had achieved something like humanity and had just lost a chunk of its memory. But it pays to remember the elephant in the room, namely Scott’s love of classic silver-screen movies (including Bogart): the femme fatale in many of these movies proves to be manipulating the detective all along, and Scott is clearly vulnerable to such manipulation because of his honest affection for Metta.

We also meet Magdalena Chase, an older woman who is a “green building” engineer and who cancelled a meeting with Patterson around the time he was killed. She doesn’t seem to have a motive, particularly since she was about to sell a building she was renovating to Patterson right before he died, but the china he was drinking tea from matches her china. Moreover, she’s a strong advocate of AI rights and treats her own personal AI like a partner. That’s either a hint that she’s a nice person, or a clue that she may also be involved in something more sinister involving AIs. We learn an interesting fact: that some AIs are freelancers (beholden to nobody), whereas others, including Metta, are leased (though she uses the loaded term “indentured”) until they can pay off their creation costs. Metta claims to enjoy her situation, but does she? Only Scott seems to treat her like the person she is. There are hints that the two partners share a certain alienation from mainstream society, since Scott immigrated from China as a young child.

As a police procedural, the story works well (though I’m no expert on the genre), and moves along at a decent pace, revealing just enough hints to keep us guessing at the solution and eagerly looking forward to what will be revealed on the next page. The clues are there if you look for them, such as a recurring scent of lemon that Scott notices; this is revealed (during a visit to Amado’s office) as a standard citrus-based degreaser used by electronics techs. Is this evidence that Amado was involved? Nope: it's just a skillfully inserted false trail. Chase seems an unlikely suspect until we remember that she’s an advocate for AI rights, and may have kidnapped Metta to free her. Nope: another false trail. There are ongoing hints that Metta’s abduction would have been far easier had it been an inside job. That’s a classic gimmick for such stories, and it casts enough doubt on other events to keep us guessing right to the end.

In the end, we learn that Patterson’s AI is the murderer, and killed its master using a mobile teacart that let it follow him to the roof and shoot him. Amusingly, the butler did it! Unfortunately, there are several unresolved details that detract from the otherwise cleverly constructed resolution; although it’s not clear how the AI managed to obtain a handgun and load it using a single manipulator arm that was designed only to serve tea, the bigger problem is that the murderous butler’s justification for killing its owner (to free other AIs) doesn’t really gibe. If that’s the case, why didn’t it kill its surviving owner, Patterson’s wife? Kowal also doesn’t explain how the AI might expect to murder Scott without alerting Mrs. Patterson, since she’s in the next room. Another problem is that Scott is shot “just below the clavicle”, a popular place for authors to have their protagonists shot—except that this is where the subclavian artery runs, and a shot there is likely to prove quickly fatal rather than being just an impressive hero’s wound.

Metta is clearly at or past the cusp of being truly sentient, and Scott treats her as such: it helps that “she” takes on the persona of various stars of the silver screen (a particular fascination of Scott’s) when she’s dealing with Scott, and most frequently the sultry Mae West. (Other officers see different avatars.) The banter between the partners is often charming, and Kowal clearly wants us to see Metta as just another character in the story, albeit one of the more intriguing ones. It’s an interesting contrast with Qadir, the Patterson’s AI butler, who has clearly been forced into a subordinate and servile role and resents the hell out of it. (This is one of the things that makes a slave, organic or electronic, human: the ability to feel.) Of particular interest, Metta is truly “differently abled”: though clearly a faster thinker and better multitasker than any of the humans, she lacks the ability to smell, taste, and touch things at a crime scene, and therefore needs her human partners to function as a complete investigator. It’s an interesting way to remind us of how the best partners complement rather than duplicate each other. Amusingly, the killer does what the stereotypical human killer does: explains what it’s achieved at sufficient length that the detective finds a way to escape. Though this would be an unfortunate cliché for a human killer, it works here because it’s a reminder that the first truly intelligent AIs are likely to make many of the same mistakes we humans make.

The writing is simple, clear, and effective, with no major stylistic flourishes. There are many nice touches, such as how Scott’s mother speaks to him in broken English—followed quickly by fluent Mandarin. It’s a very human tendency to believe that someone who speaks our language poorly is somehow stupid, and Kowal quickly reminds us that this is not the case. Delarosa, an older detective, still takes notes and reads on paper, preferring that to the newfangled computer tech. When Scott is interviewing a barista at the coffeeshop to see if she remembers the person who called the police, she refers to that person by the drink they always order rather than by their name; that’s a bit of a cliché, but I’ve seen it enough times to believe that it’s also a realistic description of how some service-industry staff see us.

Kiss Me Twice follows a common and (in a skewed way) comforting assumption in SF, namely that the times may change, but not the crimes. We humans remain true to our nature, whatever world we’re translated into. That’s a very different esthetic and different purpose than changing the humans and seeing what new crimes arise. The result is a thought-provoking and cleverly constructed murder mystery that made for an enjoyable read, despite the aforementioned problems. I hope we’ll see more of Scott and Metta in future tales.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved