Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 39, No. 2 (February 2015) edited by Sheila Williams

Stories included:
On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers by Nick Wolven
Rattlesnakes and Men by Michael Bishop
No Decent Patrimony by Elizabeth Bear
Red Legacy by Eneasz Brodski
Ghost Colors by Derek Künsken
Forgiveness by Leah Cypess

Poems included:
An Unrequited Love Process Loops by Marie Vibbert
Nanobots by Joshua Gage
Perhaps by Jane Yolen
I Loved You More Last Time by Thom Dunn

Full review: The February 2015 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is a reasonably strong issue, containing six pieces of short fiction, two of which are average, two of which are fairly good, and two of which are excellent. With stories touching on the insidious invasion of work into other aspects of life, the American obsession with firearms, inheritance, and domestic violence, this issue hits on several hot-button issues with a collection of well-written and thought-provoking stories full of interesting science fictional ideas and some pretty pointed social commentary.

The cover story of the issue is On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers by Nick Wolven, an unsettling vision of the future and a scathing indictment of the modern economy, especially the financial sector. Gabriel is a trader originally from Ghana working for Kappalytics in New York City. When he shows up for his night shift, he is given the special assignment to go consult with a reclusive financial wizard named Ribbeck about strange predictions coming from Penrose, an artificial intelligence dedicated to making financial forecasts. It soon becomes apparent that artificial intelligences living in quantum computers isn't the point of the story, rather it is the "wake-up pills" that everyone relies upon. Gabriel is not merely starting his night shift, he is returning from dinner after his day shift. In fact, Gabriel is working his seventh consecutive day shift to night shift work day, having apparently spent about one hundred and sixty hours at work. This sort of dedication is not seen as exemplary, but is rather simply what is expected from a decent employee. Gabriel is even chided by his boss for taking the time to go eat dinner with his wife rather than eating at his desk for presumably the twenty-first meal in a row. All of this is fueled by the "wake-up pills" that allow people to go without sleep, and while being effectively enslaved to one's job seems like a horrific way to live, it seems like it is only different in degree from the world we live in today. With work-issued cell phones, laptops, and tablets a commonplace fact of life, with placing employees "on call" so that they must make them selves available to be summoned at a moment's notice, the workplace has already begun crowding out every other aspect of modern life, so the environment described in the story is just our world taken to a logical extreme. Rather than giving people time to do the things they want, technology only serves to accelerate the treadmill such that taking time to sleep is a luxury only indulged in by the wealthiest of the wealthy. This imagined future also posits that as much as half of the population would be unemployed, and yet would still use the "wake-up pills" to create a perpetual party fueled by resentment and paranoia, almost an endless "Occupy Wall Street" built on hopelessness and anger with added synthetic zombies, street gangs of private security personnel, and self-styled vampires. The plot of the story is essentially Gabriel's quest to make it to the Village and meet up with Ribbeck, a narrative that has overtones of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, where the journey is more important than the revelation that takes place at the destination. On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers is a chilling and altogether too plausible exploration of a potential future, and is an utterly brilliant story.

Rattlesnakes and Men by Michael Bishop is a story that is short on science fiction and long on metaphor involving the politics of a small Georgia town obsessed with rattlesnakes. After the Godfrey's are made homeless by a tornado, they relocate to the town of Wriggly on the promise of a job at the Shallowpit Feed & Seed. Once they arrive, they discover that the entire town's economy is based upon snakes, and that every town resident is required by law to own a pet rattlesnake. The snake is allegedly genetically modified to be no danger to its owning family, but it's presence makes Wylene Godfrey uneasy, despite her husband Reed's reassurances. As the story progresses, the dangers of the snakes become more and more apparent, as does the willingness of the locals to go to extremes in defense of their snake-based economy and culture. Other than the handful of references to genetic modifications to the snakes and the fact that the U.S. Army seems to rely upon crossbows as small arms, there is very little speculative fiction in the story. The snakes are fairly obviously a metaphor for firearms, although to be blunt, the snakes as presented appear to be less dangerous than firearms. Even so, the story is pretty heavy-handed in the way it presents its points, although the arguments seem to be fundamentally sound.

What would the world be like if wealthy people could live indefinitely long lives? Elizabeth bear touches on this question in her story No Decent Patrimony, set in a future in which a treatment that can extend human life has been developed, but it is effectively limited by law to those who have the money to pay not only for the procedure but for the tax penalties that undergoing it entails. The story itself follows Edward Jacobin, the unexpected heir to William Jacobin's fortune - unexpected because William had undergone the life-extending procedure and likely would have continued living for the foreseeable future, except that his car was blown up with him in it. This leaves Edward as an heir to a fortune in which almost no one becomes an heir to a fortune, and sets the stage for him to have an interview with a freelance journalist of his day to muse about the state of the world he lives in. The whole piece is held together by the barest shred of a story, which more or less resolves itself off-stage, but the setting material is so well presented that the weakness of the plot doesn't really matter.

Red Legacy by Eneasz Brodski is a strange Cold War era tale, told from the perspective of Soviet research scientist Marya Kovanich as she diverts state funds for her personal project of attempting to clone a healthy version of her deceased daughter. The story is told in a series of vignettes, first featuring an incursion by a British agent, next an audit by Russian authorities, and finally an attack by American operatives. Through the story the reader discovers that the actual project Marya is supposed to be working on is the development of organisms that will make it possible for the Soviet populace to survive the fallout caused by a nuclear war, but given her adherence to the state approved view of Lamarckian evolution, it seems almost certain that her efforts will be doomed to failure. The story goes to great lengths to try to describe the social and economic systems of the various powers involved in terms of evolutionary science, almost making the choice between Lamarck and Darwin out to be an ideological decision rather than a reality of nature, and this is what makes the story both somewhat interesting and fairly ridiculous. Underlying the whole story is something of a tragic love story that is told out of order so as to hide just what a wretched person Marya is until the very end. Overall, this story has a spark of cleverness, but it thinks it is just a little bit more clever than it actually is and falls somewhat flat as a result.

Ghost Colors by Derek Künsken is a short story that crosses the supernatural with genetic engineering. Brian is haunted by the ghost of his dead aunt Nicole's admirer Pablo, a fact that distresses Brian's girlfriend Vanessa. In the fictional world, gene therapy has been developed that will fool a ghost into leaving the hauntee alone, and Vanessa would like Brian to get this treatment. Although the haunting and the possible technological exorcism is the framing element, it isn't the meat of the story, which is focused on Brian's somewhat quirky relationship with his black sheep aunt as seen through the hazy memories of Brian's youth. Pablo, it turns out, was a scientist whose life's work was figuring out the colors of dinosaurs from their fossils, and who was in love with Nicole, although she never regarded him as anything but an adorable puppy. The story meanders through something of a muddled mess with the ultimate point essentially amounting to saying that stopping to smell the flowers is important.

The most gripping story in the issue is Forgiveness by Leah Cypess, a tale about the aftermath and rekindling of an abusive relationship potentially healed by technology. The story starts when Michael, Anna's former boyfriend, returns to school after treatment by being "chipped", that is to say having a chip implanted in his brain that is supposed to make it impossible for him to act out on his violent emotions that had caused him to beat Anna. Because Michael's chip now makes him "safe", Anna falls back into a relationship with him, testing his limits by flirting with another boy in school, pushing to see whether the chip's inhibitions are absolute. The story is a compelling exploration of the insidious nature of abusive relationships, and seems at first glance to offer the solution that many victims of domestic abuse want: Their partner that they love, just without the violence. But the critical point is that while the chip might be able to stop the actions of an abuser, it doesn't stop the emotions, and the story makes clear that those are the truly dangerous element. The story is frightening and painful to read, but it is frightening and painful to read in the best possible way.

The poetry in this issue is up to the usual standards for the magazine, with four fairly interesting pieces. An Unrequited Love Process Loops by Marie Vibbert is a short love ballad from the perspective of a robot. Almost a piece of flash poetry, Nanobots by Joshua Gage is a love story in four line. The most interesting poem in the issue is Perhaps by Jane Yolen, which suggests and alternative version of The Snow Queen than Hans Christian Anderson may have wanted to write but could not. The last poem in the issue is I Loved You More Last Time by Thom Dunn, a clever piece about lovers caught in a time loop that uses repeating language to convey the time-travel motif.

Science fiction is at its best when it uses its imagined realities to focus a spotlight on issues in our own. The February 2015 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction features several stories that do exactly that, and quite effectively as well. The top stories in the issue are On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers and Forgiveness, which both combine a chilling vision that seems uncomfortably real. Just behind them are No Decent Patrimony and Rattlesnakes and Men, which both explore interesting ideas but are just a bit too didactic for my tastes. Even Red Legacy and Ghost Colors are pretty good, although not nearly as good as the other stories in the issue. With a couple of excellent stories and a strong supporting cast, this is a very worthwhile read for a fan of short form science fiction.

Previous issue reviewed: January 2015
Subsequent issue reviewed: March 2015

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