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

Stories reviewed:

Kessel: Clean
Barrett: Where?
Creasey: “I was nearly your mother”
Owomoyela: God in the Sky
Fulda: Movement
Bein: The Most Important Thing in the World
Wolven: Lost in the Memory Palace, I Found You
Reed: Purple

Kessel: Clean

Clean is the story of what happens to a family, both individually and collectively, when Alzheimer’s strikes. As a result, it’s not an easy story to read (particularly if you’ve watched dementia claim a loved one), but there are some grace notes that repay your effort.

Daniel McClendon is a professor of electronics, and is suffering from Alzheimer’s, to the horror of his daughter Jinny. The impact is somewhat lessened for Dan’s wife Elizabeth, since their marriage has been failing for many years—to the point that when Jinny returns home for the holidays, her parents pass messages to each other through her. Kessel shows us the many aspects of this family triangle from a third-person omniscient POV that makes it seem as if we’re watching a painter roughing in the shape of a portrait, then deftly creating the details through judicious dabs of color. Particular highlights are the father–daughter bonding that occurs as Dan teaches his young daughter the elements of electronics through the antique radios he loves repairing, entertaining her along the way with poems and songs that delight a young girl’s heart. It’s heartwarming without being the least bit manipulative, particularly since so few fathers of Dan’s generation would have bothered trying to teach a daughter electronics when such things were properly reserved for sons. It’s the kind of effective parenting that gives a child future confidence—enough so that Jinny chooses a very different path through life than her parents (a PhD in sociolinguistics). The sadly common rivalry between mother and daughter over a father’s affections is poignantly revealed through keen observation rather than relying on Freudian psychobabble. This kind of thing is all the more tragic because so few parents seem to have learned the lesson Spider Robinson evangelized so well, namely that love is not a zero-sum game, and grows stronger the more people you share it with.

The title, Clean, has at least two meanings. First, it is the antithesis of what happens during Alzheimer’s, which is anything but a clean death as it cleans out your mind and everything about who you are, leaving (if you’re lucky) just a shell behind; if you’re unlucky, it leaves something very nasty indeed. The more overt meaning, and the one on which the plot hinges, is a new neurological technique that can potentially save Dan—or at least let him choose the manner of his own “death”. The technique, originally developed to erase traumatic memories for those who have no other way to cope, can also apparently reverse Alzheimer’s, but at a high cost: the more of your memories you’re willing to have “cleaned out”, the greater the likelihood of defeating this terrible disease. This echoes the dilemma faced by those who choose suicide (assisted or otherwise) rather than letting a disease slowly destroy who they are, and is every bit as painful for their loved ones. I had a ton of empathy for Dan’s logic, namely that if you’re going to lose your mind anyway, shouldn’t you be given a chance to choose the terms under which it will happen, particularly if those terms give hope of survival afterwards?

All of this is seen through the lens of the three family members: To Dan, this choice is his last chance to save his mind, even if he will no longer be the same person after the procedure; to Elizabeth, aiding him in this choice is a way to spare herself the terrible burden of caring for a man she no longer loves as he slips into dementia; and to Jinny, this is her mother acting purely from selfishness to save herself from that burden at the cost of stealing her beloved father from her.

[Spoilers] The procedure works, and Dan’s choices of what memories to retain are revealing: he chooses his beloved electronics knowledge and his skill at repairing antique radios—not his memories of his early love for his wife and subsequent love for his daughter, which is true to Elizabeth’s observation that he was always better with things than with people. In the end, it’s clear that Dan is no longer who he was: though he retains the memories he’s chosen, those memories are not what defined the man he was after more than 60 years of life or the man Elizabeth and Jinny knew when he was younger. But not all is lost. When Jinny finally gets past her anger at her mother for having facilitated Dan’s choice, she can also bring herself to revisit her father for the first time since the procedure. She finds him working on his beloved radios, and when she offers to help him, he only accepts because she knows what she’s doing—not because she’s his daughter. In a lovely but heartwrenching inversion, Jinny teaches him one of the poems he taught her while they worked together on radios—a key memory for her, but something he chose to forget. Most of us will go through this process of becoming parents to our parents at some point, and it’s both deeply touching and deeply painful.

Kessel does many things well. His choice of POV creates a much more powerful punch than the alternatives would have, and like a painter, he provides enough subtle details that we can infer the rest. His choice of poem (Service’s The Cremation of Same McGee) is not the throwaway choice it might seems; though seen and intended by Service as an amusing shaggy dog story, in the context of Clean it acquires deeper meaning when seen as a parable about destruction of the self to save that self. Wisely, Kessel doesn’t propose a technobabble description of the memory erasure technique, which would be irrelevant to the heart of this story. But those details he chooses to portray are telling, such as naming enough of the key brain areas involved in memory that we’re confident he’s done his homework and telling us just how prized the vacuum tubes in antique radios are. (For extreme audiophiles, nothing creates a purer, warmer tone, and this is why vintage Russian vacuum tubes sometimes sell for more than some modern radios.) Then there are the human details, like Elizabeth vindictively ensuring that a photo of the happy young family remains in the house, so it can disturb Dan by its presence, and the description of the obstetrician showing Dan his newborn daughter’s pinky finger and remarking “that’s the finger she is going to have you wrapped around”.

Clean isn’t a comfortable story, but it’s a deeply affecting one, and raises difficult philosophical issues about what makes us who we are, the role of memory in creating that identity, and the ethics of memory erasure, even when it’s a final attempt to preserve something of ourselves against the inevitable fading of the light. Lovely, if painful, writing.

Barrett: Where?

Barrett begins Where with a short foreword that demonstrates his recognition of how much readers bring to any story. It’s an important point for any writer to understand, since we must strive to strike a balance between telling readers what we want them to know and leaving enough room for the imagination that they never feel controlled. That being the case, his goal in the present tale must be to engage us as readers and let us create our own sense of meaning by leaving just enough implicit that primate curiosity forces us to fill in the gaps.

Where clearly falls into the “new weird” subgenre. To create a story this weird and still make it succeed as a story, an author must do three things: First, they must provide enough hooks and correspondences that readers can relate the events and the stage dressing to something familiar, and the author must do this without merely changing the names of things; there must be real weirdness. Second, they must “spin” those familiar elements enough to make them unusual or even outright weird. Third, they must give the story enough of a human heart that we care enough about the characters to be willing to invest the effort to impose order on the weirdness. How does Barrett accomplish this?

[spoilers] You can see how skillfully this is done by considering the three primary characters we meet: tom and perry and jimmie are all names, but lower-cased rather than capped, indicating either an outbreak of the e.e. cummings virus or their use as generic nouns rather than proper nouns. (The latter proves to be correct.) They are therefore clearly intended to be roles as much as to be people. Other correspondences come in the form of mangled spellings of familiar words, such as “mawl” for “mall”, “musum of tim and spayce” for “museum of time and space”, and “bhug” for “bug”. As the story progresses, we move from an initial sense that these are three buddies off to the mall on a Bradbury-esque adventure, and begin to see tom and perry emerging as adults shepherding the youngster, jimmie, to a carnival full of wonders. But there is spin aplently: tom seems clearly to be playing the father role in this trio, perry (short for “parent” or for “Perilandra” or some other female name?) adopts a maternal role but is subsequently revealed to be male, and jimmie turns out to be a “khid” they’ve rented for the day. And the aforementioned “musum”? What kind of world are we reading about when the museum presents photons captured from the past that show carpets, tables, and chairs as things that are unrecognizable to the three protagonists, and that shows living flowers and a defecating dawwg and a jar of fruit as marvels and wonders? What kind of world has a stampede of larger-than-humans bhugs that sweeps through, killing and eating people—all of whom are replaced the next day by a delivery truck, though not all arrive in working order?

Finally, the human details are impeccable, and inextricably tangled with the weird. After they return jimmie to the rental store, tom and perry discuss how they enjoyed having a kid for a day and how maybe they’ll want to do it again, just like parents who have overcome their memories of the stresses involved in raising a first young child and are beginning (with some excitement) to consider a second child. This notion makes tom interested in “having a sex”. But perry, annoyed by tom earlier in the tale, will have nothing to do with that notion, so tom goes to the local brothel-equivalent instead in search of solace, a sufficiently disturbing description that I’ll leave it for you to discover rather than spoiling it here. Meanwhile, jimmie is the perpetual wide-eyed kid, enjoying the adventure right down to the simple pleasures of popcorn (here, “popweed”), losing a tooth to a popcorn kernel (“a bright silver nub flew out of his mouth”), just like any child, and experiencing the eternal childhood fear that, having been returned to the rental shop, he will be replaced by a newer and younger model (by analogy, by a new baby in the house).

Where resembles a fever dream, in which everything is both familiar and weirdly distorted—like Bradbury on LSD. The weirdness quotient is cranked right up to 11 on the dial, yet in the end, everything fits into place, creating a poignant reflection on the familiar image of a family visiting the state fair, with all the tensions of family life backgrounded but unmistakably there—wherever that “where” may be. Barrett cleverly delivers all three essential aspects of a story in a very weird wrapper indeed. Is this a post-singularity tale of cyborgs, a virtual reality environment, or something even stranger? I suspect Barrett would answer that question with a devilish smile and a single word: “Yes!” If you’re a student of writing, it’s well worth your time to return to the story and examine the details of how he did it. If you approach this dissection with the right attitude, it’s like watching Penn and Teller explain how they did a trick and then managing to surprise you anyway: a way to feed your sense of wonder without ever deromanticizing the story. There’s a reason Barrett is SFWA’s author emeritus.

Creasey: “I was nearly your mother”

Marian is 15, her mom dead 4 years earlier in a car accident and her father in prison for dealing drugs. She lives with her grandparents and she’s not a happy camper: bitter, cynical, and smugly superior to the tourists and the New Age suckers (my word, but her sentiment) who buy crystals and anonymous weeds packaged as mystical herbs from her grandparents, who seemingly have no qualms conning these people out of their money. The story begins with Marian on her way home, thinking about trying to arrange a house party since her grandparents are away for the weekend, when she notices a familiar-looking stranger hanging about. It turns out to be her mom—sort of.

In Creasey’s story world, a near-future England, alternate universes are sufficiently familiar that they’ve escaped the physics journals and become fodder for the tabloids, complete with sordid tales of celebrities importing their alt-universe selves for orgies. The technology is not yet cheap, but is sufficiently inexpensive that it’s freely available to anyone who can pay. Thus it is that Marian’s mom (“Della”) can afford to come in search of her alt-daughter. We quickly learn Della’s a mess: formerly a party girl, drug abuser, and drug dealer, she became pregnant at age 19 with what might have become alt-Marian. But with the father in prison and no prospect of raising a child on her own, she chose an abortion so she could finish university. Subsequently, she became sterile from a dose of chlamydia she caught while partying around, unable to overcome her learned habit of filling her empty life with drugs and casual sex. Now, many years later she regrets this and the lost opportunity to have a child of her own, and has come across the universes in search of a way to make things right.

[Spoilers] Marian finds herself on the horns of a dilemma. On the one horn, she misses her mom, and unlike some of her friends, didn’t pass through the too-ubiquitous and dismayingly bleak stage of resenting and being embarrassed by her parents as she began passing through adolescence, since her parents weren’t around to rebel against. (She’s turned some of this attitude against her grandparents, but it seems an unsatisfying solution for her.) On the other horn, she quickly recognizes how desperately needy Della is, and how messed up; she’s willing to forgive Della for aborting her alt-self, which is a remarkably mature act for a teen who still carries some resentment over being abandoned by both parents, and she’s smart enough to discern that the real problem is not earning Marian’s forgiveness, but rather Della’s unwillingness to forgive herself and detox so she can get on with her life. We learn that this failure has already ruined several previous attempts by Della to establish a bond with other alt-Marians. This time, forced to confront the truth (that Marian can’t save Della if Della isn’t willing to do what’s necessary to save herself), Della commits suicide with a drug overdose, leaving Marian her computer and money enough to go skipping through the universes should she choose to do so.

Marian proves wiser than that, recognizing from her mother’s *ahem* parallel example the futility of haring off across the multiverse in search of the one perfect world where she would find her perfect mother still alive and missing a recently deceased daughter who she could replace. Instead, Marian chooses to accept what she has and to take responsibility for her own choices. Marian’s a likeable character, despite her anger and cynicism, and she’s a survivor. In particular, she’s far more mature than her alt-mother, and though mistakes inevitably lie in her future, she’s willing to accept responsibility for them rather than fleeing to another universe each time things don’t work out. Based on many small clues, the story’s heart is clearly how Marian, on the emotional cusp of leaving childhood behind, reaches a key decision point in her life—one from which many parallel universes will diverge—and making the right choice, one that will lead to a positive, if not necessarily utopian, future. Unlike many adults, she accepts responsibility for her future decisions and for making her life instead of letting circumstances make it for her.

There are a few flaws in the story. The notion of the alt universes doesn’t feel fully thought out, despite nice touches such as importing eggs of endangered bird species to restore their populations. Would such technology really be left in the hands of the public given the horrible mischief psychopaths and bored celebs could wreak, secure in the knowledge they could hop to random adjacent universes and never be caught? It seems unlikely. It’s also not clear where Della stays when she’s not spending time with Marian, or how she’s acquired money that will work in her new universe;  there are suggestions the universe is sufficiently close to the one she left that the currency is similar, or that Della carries enough drugs with her that she can sell them to pay for her travels. But either universe-hopping is so inexpensive that universe-hoppers would be ubiquitous (something not hinted at) or Della carries far more more money  with her than seems likely for someone in her state. It seems even more unlikely that she happens to discover the ingredients for what basically sounds like LSD lying around the grandparents’ kitchen and knows how to cook them into something saleable. Creasey also fell out of Marian’s point of view into his own as she muses about parallel universes. The metaphor starts well, with the notion of myriad universes with peaks of good outcomes beside equally many universes with valleys of bad outcomes, leading to the problem of choosing among them: “But how, when you couldn’t see the landscape of probability?” The concept is profound and true to the character, but the words weren’t Marian’s. Most seriously, things simply happen too fast. There’s insufficient time for Marian and Della to grow into their relationship, and the resulting dialogue seemed choppy and in need of more room to evolve naturally. In the foreword, Creasey admits he had a much longer story in mind that he abandoned to write the present version, and it shows; in this story, the characters needed considerably more time and space to breathe and adjust to their situation.

[A look back: Tom Purdom criticized these nitpicks as being beside the point, which is true; see my concluding comments below. However, I still feel the criticism is valid. As I responded to Tom: "If you invoke a technology, you have to think through its consequences; if you don't want to do that, don't invoke the technology. Don't even explain it at all: present it as a simple fact, and leave it to the reader to figure out how it happened. The implementation of the alternative universe concept could have been done much more simply while remaining true to Della's character by having the mechanism for her travel between universes something that Della herself alludes to: if memory serves, she's been dating or sleeping with theoretical physicists, and that would provide the simplest mechanism for travel between universes (i.e., asking a favor from a boyfriend) while removing the problems that arise if this travel is so inexpensive that someone like Della can afford it (i.e., it would become ubiquitous and ubiquitously abused). That's an obvious "one step from the basic premise" extrapolation, and not (I feel) too much to ask even from a short story."]

Quibbles aside, Marian’s an interesting character and her victory, taking responsibility for her future instead of relying on a technological gimmick (universe-hopping in search of better alternatives), seems a natural and courageous evolution of her character. It’s also a powerful reminder to other authors that whatever the gee-whiz technology, the most important stories always revolve around the human choice about how to use it.

Owomoyela: God in the Sky

Katrina (“Katri”) is the child of Egyptians who emigrated to the U.S. two generations back. Her beloved grandfather was a businessman, her father is a history professor, and she’s in graduate school working on a postgrad science degree (of unspecified subject). Though her family was originally Muslim, they became entirely secular after moving to the U.S., despite her grandfather’s early dabbling with assimilation into American culture by means of Christianity. She’s also a lesbian, partnered with a much bigger woman (Josey). This and her “non-white” heritage are introduced simply for what they are—aspects of her character rather than “hey look at me!” callouts—in an authorial voice I can only describe as “fresh”, like a draught of fresh air after spending all day in a stuffy office. (I edit journal manuscripts by ESL authors for a living, see...) Owomoyela is the kind of writer you can just sit back and enjoy as (she?) works her magic.

This isn’t a story that hinges on resolution of a central plot; instead, the focus is on the characters and their response to a dramatic change in their world view. That change is the sudden and unprecedented appearance of a spreading patch of light in the sky. Nobody quite knows what this light is, but it’s clearly huge beyond human imagining—so big that astronomers have seen distant galaxies passing in front of it. (Pause a moment to remind yourself just how big a galaxy is so you can admire that notion: As Katri notes, “I’d never had a sense of agoraphobia until taking astronomy classes in undergrad.” Amen to that: I still get shivers remembering a film that dramatizes the progression from the scale of Earth to cosmic superstructures. See, for example, the Youtube video "The Known Universe by AMNH". If that doesn’t inspire your sense of wonder, check for a pulse. *G*)

To make matters worse, the light is expanding visibly. For the expansion to be visible at that distance, this implies an unimaginably rapid rate of expansion and possibly a need to rethink our whole notion of relativity. My immediate sense was something like a supernova, only occuring at the scale of a galaxy rather than a stellar scale, but what the light actually represents doesn’t bear on the crux of the story, namely how people respond to it. As Katri’s grandfather notes, “If God gives you a reason to remember what’s important in life, take it. That’s all. And if everyone else takes it, that’s wonderful.”

Needless to say, even though whatever the light represents is so far away it will be decades (if not multiple millennia) before its effects reach Earth, the survivalist instinct kicks in: people begin hoarding supplies and buying emergency generators, and religious proclamations about the light’s meaning (the eponymous “god in the sky”) begin spreading. But more importantly, people suddenly begin to focus on what is truly important to them; Katri’s divorced father casts aside his many other responsibilities to fly to his ex-wife in Monrovia, her grandfather begins reconsidering his decades of estrangement from Islam, and Katri’s girlfriend Josey leaves to visit her parents. In short, people are forced to focus on the things they consider important: survival, patching up old rifts, and spending time with family. For Katri, it’s a chance to spend time with her grandfather, examine whether her scientist’s perspective is only a coping mechanism for dealing with what might be disaster or something more interesting, and start to come to terms with her relationship with her scientific outlook and her buried cultural heritage (even if she doesn’t actually find a solution within the limits of the story).

I couldn’t resist throwing in one last quote: “We head to the kitchen to commit what my mother called atrocities against American cuisine.” Owomoyela does many things well beyond the lucidity and playfulness of (her?) writing. (She?) humanizes someone of Islamic heritage—seemingly a dangerous thing in modern times—and focuses her story on someone who is openly queer, and who is accepted by her family. Both should be things we take for granted; the fact that we can’t do so, even within the SF/F community, is telling, and more people should write this clearly and warmly about “the Other”. The human relationships at the heart of the story are portrayed simply, clearly, and endearingly. I liked all the characters, and found myself disappointed we probably won’t see them again, at least not wearing their current skins. But reading this story is also a reminder of just how shallow our understanding of the universe is, and how sad it is that it takes a cosmic event for most of us to remember what is truly important in our lives. Lovely work, and I look forward to seeing more from this relatively new author.

Fulda: Movement

Hannah is an autistic teenager, and her parents are facing a difficult decision: Thus far, they’ve been relying on standard forms of psychological therapy to try to give Hannah “normal” functioning, but with little success. Now, they have the option of trying a new, largely non-invasive but still radical intervention that will retrain her neurons into more typical patterns, thereby giving her the hope of a more “normal” life. This choice is played out both overtly and implicitly. It’s there in the dichotomy between how Hannah’s parents interact with their world, with Hannah’s father the technophile, to the point of owning a shoulder-mounted laser that tracks and zaps mosquitos before they can bite him, whereas her mother is less interventionist, preferring to slap the bugs. But this disagreement goes far deeper than mere technological preference, permeating how they interact over dealing with Hannah. As she notes, “Disputed phrases have died out of our family vocabulary, and my parents must constantly invent new ones to fill the gaps.” Although this particular quote appears late in the story, it echoes one of several profundities in the story: how words and perceptions of the world evolve to meet new needs, in this case the need for the ongoing negotiations that are required for domestic harmony in the face of a difficult situation.

[spoilers] But there’s far more going on here than just wordplay, and there’s a subtle but not hidden message. We learn right from the start that Hannah, like most autistic children, sees her world very differently from the rest of us: she savors the flow of form and the evolving colors of sunset clouds, the infinitely slow creep of cold window glass, and the texture of pebbles and other fragments that she’s collected. More importantly, her autism is “temporal”, reflected in how the flow of time is integral to her perception of the world in a way the rest of us can imagine (particularly given Fulda’s lucid description), but probably can’t feel. It’s a profound and awe-inspiring way to see the world, and it explains why Hannah is nearly mute: words simply don’t matter to her as they do to the rest of us: “Words are such fleeting, indefinite things”. More important things are constantly vying for her attention. As she notes while observing the sunset clouds through a window, “But the window is there, and I feel trapped.” That’s a lovely and nuanced phrase that, like much of what is going on in this story, echoes on many levels; the one I’ll choose to focus on here is that the window metaphor provides an insight into how the restless, constantly evolving changes in Hannah’s world irresistably capture her attention and her priorities. Were the window not there, she might focus more on the dynamics of the human interactions around her, but because it is there, it traps her attention.

Hannah also feels “slow time”, and is able to capture the stillness between moments. An extreme example is how she is able to feel herself poised on the edge of a moment when she dances ballet and rises en pointe. If I might be permitted an obscure but telling pun, this is a subtle merging of the concepts of imminence (“something is about to happen, but no one knows exactly what”, Hannah says) with immanence (an almost rapturous sense of the divine, permeating the world yet experienced entirely within one’s mind). This is how Hannah experiences reality, and although it’s in one way completely alien to most of us, it’s also fundamentally human.

The phrase “differently abled” is often used as a form of verbal cowardice to avoid dealing directly with the difficult issue of disability, but in Hannah’s case, it’s precisely the right phrase: like many autistic folk, she truly does see the world in a different way, and one that is beautiful and profound. Without preaching, Fulda makes it clear that she’s asking us to consider whether it is right to force autistic folk into our definition of normality if doing so causes them to lose something this beautiful in their lives. Hannah’s response leaves us in no doubt as to her opinion: “I do not want to live small. I do not want to be like everyone else, ignorant of the great rush of time, trapped in frantic racing sentences. I want something else, something that I cannot find a word for.” It’s a profound philosophical point, and one that is not raised nearly often enough when doctors and families ponder interventions intended to “cure” autistic folk by making them “normal”. (Of course, those who cannot function in the world the rest of us live in require an intensity of monitoring and caregiving that few of us can afford and that society is reluctant to provide. So this isn’t a simple matter of autism being something to simply accept just because it’s different. Sometimes “different” has severe consequences.)

This sense of the importance of “the Other” and our failure to understand it even when the Other superficially resembles us permeates the story, even through mundane examples of misunderstandings between the generations. For example, Hannah’s brother spends hours in “the Vastness”, a form of Internet of minds rather than of computers, connecting him with countless other humans around the world in ways we can hardly imagine given our currently primitive technology and limited understanding of how the mind works. Yet her grandparents see this as a mindless and isolated state, radically different from the communal videogaming that was the preferred form of bonding in their generation. I suspect Theodore Sturgeon would instantly recognize a kindred spirit in Fulda through her recognition of just how alien we are to each other. As Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” character once remarked, “We have met the enemy and they is us”. If Hannah is this different, one can only imagine the difficulty of understanding a true alien that shares neither genes nor assumptions with us. If science fiction is about exploration of the Other, Fulda does so more deeply than most.

Fulda raises many profound points for us to ponder, and they interweave in ways too complex to describe easily without writing a review far longer than the story itself. Yet she manages to capture this complexity eloquently and movingly in the space of only a few pages. It’s a marvelous piece of work, and one I hope we’ll see her return to again to explore from different angles.

Bein: The Most Important Thing in the World

Ernie’s a self-employed Boston cabbie—not stupid or uneducated (in particular, he’s got a love for books), but a fairly simple man; not lazy, but not motivated to work any harder than he needs to, and willing to take time out for the really important things, like reading books. (If that doesn’t endear him to an Asimov’s reader...) Currently he’s on the outs with his wife Janine, unwilling to work sufficiently hard to reliably keep bringing in enough money that she can stop having to unexpectedly work a second shift just to pay the bills. Ernie’s the kind of guy who gets angry quick, then it’s over; Janine gradually accumulates wounds and bears a grudge that can take a long time to depressurize, so she’s moved out and is living with her sister until the current grudge dissipates.

On the whole, Ernie’s an honest and ethical man; people have forgotten a great many things in the back of his cab, and he’s never failed to return those things until one day, a surprisingly skinny kid heading to a physics conference at Harvard leaves his luggage in the back seat. Intrigued, Ernie can’t resist the temptation to steal a look, and when he does, he’s hooked: the suitcase contains a suit that looks like “something you’d wear if you wanted to get in a fistfight with Spiderman”. Unable to resist, Ernie tries on the suit when he gets home, and discovers that he can use it to stop time for as long as he chooses—but that subsequently, he has to pay back that time. This is the first sign that Bein is the kind of author who sweats the details: unlike many time travel stories, which treat the technology as magic, there’s no free lunch with real physics, and we’ll learn more about other “conservation laws” shortly.

[spoilers] Ernie, like most people suddenly presented with the equivalent of a comic-book superpower, finds himself tempted to rationalize ways to use it. So he tries out a few small robberies, just to prove that he’s done it, but also hoping that once he works out the kinks, he may be able to bring in enough money on the side to win back Janine. She’s the most important thing in the world to him (or so it seems at first), and he’s willing to pay any price to get her back, even if that price is his ethics. Initially, Ernie doesn’t think through the consequences of his acts: he’s self-employed, so he has no boss to turn over his earnings to at the end of the day, and it’s a little while before he realizes that the clerks he’s robbed while time was stopped are going to have to explain to their boss what happened to the money at the end of the day, and to pay it back out of their own pocket. When he realizes that physics isn’t the only thing that offers no free lunch, he’s forced to begin rethinking what he’s doing, though initially, he can still rationalize his actions as not doing much harm and being justified by the need to regain Janine.

Ernie soon decides he needs to learn more about the suit he’s stolen, so he tracks down the inventor at the Harvard conference and follows him to a bar. Plying the inventor with beer, he eventually learns the full story of the suit: it really does have consequences, and ones that aren’t trivial. The more time you borrow, the more you have to pay back at some point in the future, but the repayment carries a heavy interest rate. The inventor reveals that he’s been stealing enough time to let himself complete a double-doctorate by working an extra 8 hours daily while his wife and young child sleep, all the while subsisting on epinephrine (adrenaline) and sleeping pills to keep his life in balance. His dilemma is that he’s borrowed so much time that when the bill comes due, he’ll give up a full year of his life—thereby losing his wife, his young child’s memory of who he is, and possibly his career.

Bein strikes an interesting balance between hard SFnal exposition and alerting us to things we need to know. When the inventor explains that his time machine is based on the recognition that time is all about cause and effect, and therefore involves energy transfers that can be manipulated if only we can figure out how, he’s being scientifically rigorous and doing what has been parodied as an Analog-style “this idea is so important I have to tell you all about it” blurt. (Is this science plausible? It seems that way, but more importantly, having established the operating principles, Bein rigorously follows through the consequences, thereby giving his story an inherent plausibility that is vital for fictional purposes.) But more importantly, this explanation is a way of using the technological shorthand of SF to prime us for a concept that may be less familiar to many readers and that is more important to the heart of the story, namely that the laws of karma also revolve around cause and effect, and may be harder to circumvent than the laws of physics. (Humans are more complicated.)

Specifically, “wrong action” has consequences, and as in physics, some of those consquences are irreversible. Ernie learns the hard way that some of the crimes he’s committed can’t be undone; for example, one clerk he robbed loses her job and can’t hold down the replacement job he helps her find in repayment. He could possibly solve that problem by turning himself in, taking responsibility for the thefts, and doing jail time, but that’s a larger sacrifice than he can contemplate. Later, when he realizes the slippery slope he’s begun sliding down, he does the right thing and tells the truth of what’s going on to Janine, who quite properly won’t believe him. Although this honesty creates an opening for them to try to get back together, it does not miraculously heal the old wounds caused by his failure to understand her desire for him to be a stable and reliable partner in meeting their joint financial needs. That process will (ironically) take some time to work out.

One thing that may strike most readers as hard to swallow is the notion that the inventor also turns out to be named Ernest. Too much of a coincidence? Nope. Many years ago, a fellow named Geoff Hart spent an uncomfortable night sleeping in a Montana airport because the researcher who’d come to pick me up at the airport around midnight (quite reasonably) failed to realize that for several weeks, he’d been talking to two entirely different Geoff Harts who were arriving within 15 minutes of each other around midnight at the same airport and both expecting a ride back to the same research station. I imagine he thought we/I were/was crazy spending two weeks constantly calling him to change the pickup plans. (Thanks for the midnight ride and your remarkable patience, Jim, if you’re reading this. *G*) Another seeming flaw is that the obvious solution to Ernest’s problem is to spill the beans and tell his wife and his thesis supervisor everything that has happened. But how easy is it to tell the truth and destroy your image as someone honest and reliable? How easy will it be to rebuild that image once you’ve lost it? As Ernie’s example shows, even good intentions can’t erase past wrongs.

There are many strengths in Bein’s writing, starting with his simple and effective prose: he never loses sight of Ernie’s humble, unaffected voice and way of thinking. From an authorial standpoint, Bein thinks through the details more rigorously than all but a few authors, ensuring that any plot point late in the story is clearly foreshadowed by something introduced earlier (yet slipped into the narration with nary a ripple) that hints at and subsequently confirms that aspect of the plot. (For example, Ernest is scary-thin because he’s an adrenaline junkie.) But Bein also makes Ernie and Janine and Ernest more than just stereotypes by treating them with respect, as fully realized characters; that’s a crucial difference that separates what would have become a lesser author’s stereotype from something more archetypal and real. What Ernie learns in the end is that the really important thing is not the time travel suit, money, or Janine’s love: it’s being true to himself and reminding himself about the importance of “right action”, and thereby earning its karmic consequences (possibilities, money, and eventually Janine). It’s a lovely ending, a moral delivered without moralizing and with an interesting SFnal twist, and that makes Most Important one of the strongest stories in recent issues of Asimov’s.

Wolven: Lost in the Memory Palace, I Found You

Have you ever felt this sense that the world was changing so fast that it was slipping away from you? That you couldn’t keep up with what’s going on in your own field, let alone in all those other peripheral things you’re interested in? You’re not alone. Many years back, I remember feeling a sense of tremendours relief when I read Richard Saul Wurman’s classic Information Anxiety and learned that it wasn’t just me feeling this sense of being swept away by an accelerating stream of knowledge. It’s a real and serious problem, and one that we’re all facing with varying degrees of success. Being an SF/F reader prepares us intellectually for such changes, but doesn’t necessarily prepare us practically or emotionally for their consequences.

In Lost, Wolven follows the time-honored SFnal tradition of pursuing a trend to its logical conclusion to permit an exploration of those consequences, exaggerating just enough for dramatic effect and to fit the message within the constraints of the short story medium. In Wolven’s future world, things are changing so fast that street names change overnight, cafés literally remodel and rebrand themselves while you’re still sitting in them (through smart nanotech), and cities become increasingly unrecognizable as autonomous “construction bots” tear down old buildings to replace them with new ones. Fads come in an out of fashion with ever-greater frequency, and pervasive computing has become such a part of everyday life that the people of Lost simply rely on their computers for most daily functions without giving it a second thought. (That’s nicely done: it’s all show and no tell, yet mostly without leaving us grasping at explanations. We all know we’re supposed to do this when we write, but many of us forget.)

Wolven’s world is built around what seems to be the metastatic and evil progeny of some unhallowed hybrid of FaceBook, Twitter, “pseuds” (the online aliases we use in different communities and different social contexts), and online calendaring. This solution seems necessary just so you can keep up with your own schedule and who you are on a given day—let alone so you can keep others apprised of who you are and what you’re doing. Mergers and acquisitions occur so fast that the company you dealt with yesterday may be an entirely new company tomorrow, with no corporate memory of the person you dealt with when you first signed a contract. The human consequences are far more sinister: most people seem to have entirely lost their ability to remember things from their past. Hence the need for the aforementioned metastatic social networking software to keep track of who you are and what you’re doing.

When things change this fast, you can try to fight the change, or you can simply surrender yourself to the flow when it proves irresistable; humans can only endure so long, after all. Most people surrender, leading to a world in which neither personal nor business relationships endure more than a few days; sex is casual because it’s impossible to sustain relationships in the long term, and drug abuse becomes ubiquitous, both to replace the stable human relationships that are impossible in such a context and to numb yourself to the inability to find any stable island to cling to. (I can imagine growing numbers of future Amish-like individuals withdrawing entirely from society and living in isolated enclaves of stability, like lost Tanelorn amidst the sea of Chaos in one of Moorcock’s brilliantly evocative tales of the Eternal Champion.)

We’re thrown into this disorienting world when our protagonist flashes back to a memory of a girl he feels is somehow important to him—only he can’t remember why, other than that she somehow gave him hope. To learn who she is, the protagonist bribes a government datajock (a practice so much an operating assumption in this society that it’s factored into the wage structure of these workers) to help him recover the memories using a “lim” (subliminal stimulation as a memory recovery technique). We learn that our protagonist may be named Ray, or perhaps Simon; his memory is progressively failing him, to the point that he’s forgetting his name in mid-conversation and by the end, not even motivated to look it up online. Thus, it’s never quite clear what aspects of Ray’s experiences are real and what are constructed by his mind’s desprerate but doomed attempts to find plausible explanations for an increasingly incomprehensible world.

[Spoilers] As Ray’s world progressively collapses around him, he does eventually discover the identity of the woman from his recovered memories. Jeanine did indeed give him hope, long ago, when the two of them set out to find something real by seeking together to recover their memories and thereby achieve some stability. Yet in the end they failed, and Jeanine, rather than trying again, abandons herself to the flow of modern life and is swept away from Ray. Lost is not an optimistic tale in any way I can imagine. Nor is it simply a satire; it’s too tragic for that. Wolven borrows from the long dystopian tradition of stories in which doomed lovers rebel against their world and seek something real and stable, going back at least as far as 1984 and most familiarly (if poorly) done in series such as Logan’s Run and in several Star Trek episodes. In a hallucinatory coda, Jeanine changes form right before Ray’s eyes, just before she leaves him and throws herself back into the flow. It’s not clear whether this is a true physical transformation (high biotech seemingly making this kind of change possible) or simply Ray’s mind finally failing and losing the ability to distinguish between reality and his invented perceptions thereof.

Wolven neatly captures the essence of his tale, namely the horrible sense of deracination and disorientation that occurs when everything changes around you faster than you can cope. Many neophyte writers adopt a tense and narrative voice purely because it feels comfortable (I’m as guilty of this as the next writer), forgetting that such things must be deliberate choices. Wolven’s choice of present tense narration is no accident nor is it mere convenience; on the contrary, it’s the perfect choice and integral to the central point of the story: If memory relies on the past, and the future is unknowable and unpredictable, people are forced to live in the present moment and abandon any hope that their memory will prove useful. What makes Lost so chilling is how plausible it becomes once you allow for the exaggeration required to deal with such complex notions in the space of a short story rather than exploring them at length in a novel. I know I’d be lost without my computer’s appointment calendar and reminders program. Each of us will increasingly need to rely on such“external” memory, probably soon in the form of intelligent software agents that collate data and present us with an ongoing update to our rapidly changing world and self. It’s nicely done, thought-provoking, and more than a little bit scary—like all the best SF.

Reed: Purple

Tito is a small, blind, one-armed man, maimed in some way we won’t learn about for some time. On his own, he would probably have died from his injuries, but he’s been rescued by an alien he refers to as “the master”, who apparently has a soft spot for rescuing dying aliens who could not be saved by their own people, and who often cannot be returned to their own people after they have recovered from their wounds. The master is a godlike force compared to the humans, but nonetheless, is clearly limited in his powers; he can’t restore lost sight or limbs, and the habitats where he keeps the wounded aliens he’s rescued are strictly limited (a few hundred at most, with no room for new residents until former ones die). In a preface, Reed tells us this story was inspired by the people who rescue wounded raptors and other animals and keep them in animal shelters, and Purple becomes a potent commentary on the desire to do good by sheltering these animals.

Life in the menagerie (a word I’m borrowing with malice aforethought from the title of an ancient Trek episode) is generally peaceful and comfortable, but it’s static. Most residents have memories of their origins, though as Reed notes, memory is imperfect: “To hold what it can, the mind invents stories that are practiced and told to others and told to the teller, polished by hard use until it all feels smooth and familiar. Yet in subtle ways, the wrong creeps into the right.” This is scientifically accurate, a humane description of a deeply human characteristic, and a reminder that in literature as in life, not all is what it seems. The residents still dream, and one of Tito’s dreams revolves around an incident when he was six years old and being raised by a strict and severely emotionally damaged woman who was not his real mother; he recalls being taken to wait for a city bus, when an archetypal yellow schoolbus stops, filled with children going on a field trip to a museum. He wants to go with them, but his foster mother forbids it. Given Tito’s name, I speculate that he’s a war orphan produced by the conflicts that broke Yugoslavia into Serbia, Croatia, and several smaller states, and that the woman who raised him survived a massacre, probably one in which she lost her own children.

The two other human residents who feature in the story are Adola, a gentle soul (seemingly a survivor of one of the recent series of African genocides) who Tito eventually came to love and who is eventually taken from him, not to be seen again, and Brenda, a deeply scarred survivor of child abuse who is not a remotely likeable person. A large woman and prone to violence, she recently hurt Tito so badly that the master threatened to never let her see him again, yet despite that warning, she’s full of petty cruelties during his visits, such as stealing the blind man’s spoon so he can’t complete his meal.

[Spoilers] We learn that the least-damaged of the residents are occasionally returned to their place of origin, with enough help from the master that they’ll have a chance to thrive there. Adola is one such, and having worked hard to earn the right to return, she leaves even though Tito is horrified and wants her to stay. But the lure of escaping this prison, however pleasant, is too strong and she chooses a new life over Tito. [A look back: this may also have been a misplaced act of what Adola sees as kindness, which would be thematically consistent with the overall tone of the story.—GH] We also learn the source of the title: the word “purple” appeared on a sign on the schoolbus, presumably one of those group identifiers that help kids find the right bus at the end of the day. Although Tito desperately wanted to join the other children, his foster mother would not allow that. When he subsequently flees her home in an attempt to join the other children, she catches and blinds him, possibly in the hope that he’ll then be unable to leave her. But her past traumas catch up with her, and when she cuts a gas line in their home, the resulting explosion costs Tito his arm. Evidence of Tito’s desperation to leave—and his great courage—comes in how he either blackmails or guilt-trips the master into rehabilitating him and sending him back to Earth, giving him a chance to track down Adola. It’s not precisely a “happy” ending, but it’s one that gives some faint hope. (Adola’s unwillingness to ask to take Tito with her, and her current location in Lagos, don’t bode well.)

Though Reed’s style usually just gets out of the way of the story, he’s never a dull writer. There are occasional restrained flourishes (if one can really say such a thing), such as his description of the master’s voice: “This is how stone would sound, given the capacity for conversation.” And the details are impeccable, such as Tito noting that he’s been in the menagerie for something on the order of 5000 says (roughly 15 years)—thereby telling us implicitly that he’s been counting his days, like any archetypal prisoner. Tito’s view of his world is tinged by a subtle and pervasive melancholy; he’s deeply unhappy, and not just because Adola is gone. His view of the master is correspondingly jaundiced; he feels the master may be a misery junkie, who rescues only victims that will satisfy his taste for the misery of others and subsequently atones for that voyeurism by healing them and keeping them safe. Tito threatens to share this hypothesis to the others unless the master either isolates him from all future human contact, or frees him.

Reed, as always thinks deeply and with nuance about his characters. Is the master truly benevolent, helping the helpless, or only soothing some inner need? There’s evidence to support both readings; the master seems to honestly care about the happiness of his adoptees, but the way he isolates them from each other, only allowing occasional visits, and the way he sterilizes them before they can breed, suggest a certain “convenience” to his attitude. The master also profoundly misunderstands the residents in one crucial way, despite his otherwise high level of empathy: they’re all intelligent beings, yet he gives them none of the freedoms and challenges any intelligent being requires to thrive. It’s the same kind of benevolent but patronizing cluelessness that characterizes how we treat our own “pets”, be they as simple as dogs or as potentially intelligent as dolphins and chimps, and it raises disturbing questions about how we treat such “animals”, even when our intentions are pure. Yet in the end, the master does the right thing by Tito, freeing him to pursue Adola, and it’s not purely a case of giving in to blackmail; were it so, it would have been easier to simply isolate Tito or euthanize him. Guilt may have played a role, but I choose the more optimistic interpretation that this is an honest desire to do what’s best for the residents. In part, that idea occurred to be because whatever the master’s motives, it’s clearly kinder to its adoptees than we are to ourselves and to each other; Reed’s descriptions of man’s inhumanity to man are horrific, and not even Adola is completely laudable.

The schoolbus with the non-human driver has that dreamlike fluidity in which two meanings coexist uncomfortably. On the one hand, it represents Tito’s past and present yearning to be part of normal human society instead of isolated; on the other, it reminds us of how his foster mother’s solicitude imprisoned him every bit as painfully as the master’s solicitude, and how both deprive him of the mixture of freedom and human company we all need to survive. These and the aforementioned characteristics make Purple one of Reed’s more complex and nuanced character studies.



©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved