Asimov’s Science Fiction #483/484, April/May 2016

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Other reviews:
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Unknown, Tangent Online (forthcoming)
Various, Goodreads
Mark Watson, Best SF (forthcoming)

Fiction:
Matilda • novelette by Kristine Kathryn Rusch ♥♥
Three Paintings • short story by James Van Pelt
The Days of Hamelin • short story by Robert Reed ♥♥♥
The Return of Black Murray • novelette by Alexander Jablokov ♥♥♥
Starless Night • short story by Robert R. Chase ♥♥
Project Synergy • novelette by Dominica Phetteplace ♥♥♥♥
Flame Trees • short story by T. R. Napper ♥♥♥
Flight from the Ages • novelette by Derek Künsken ♥♥♥♥
Of the Beast in the Belly • novelette by C. W. Johnson ♥♥♥
Woman in the Reeds • short story by Esther M. Friesner ♥♥
Lazy Dog Out • novella by Suzanne Palmer ♥♥

Non-fiction:
Cover • Ralwel/Shuterstock.com
Poetry • John Gosslee, Alicia Cole, Aimee Ogden, Leslie J. Anderson, Ron Koertge, David C. Kopaska-Merkel and Kendall Evans
The One Myth About Writers that Drives Me Crazy • guest editorial by Charlie Jane Anders
Reflections: Thinking About Homer • essay by Robert Silverberg
Next Issue
On Books • by Peter Heck
SF Conventional Calendar • by Erwin S. Strauss

This issue is one of two double size issues Asimov’s Science Fiction puts out every year, and it contains a lot of fiction: one novella, five novelettes and five short stories.
Matilda by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, leads off with an initially promising story about a human called Devi taking an organic spaceship called ‘Maltilda’ out on a reconnaissance mission against the alien CeaWayLaV in the middle of a space battle. Their task is to investigate a portion of space that the human sensors cannot penetrate but the story is mostly about the friction between the two. Devi dislikes the singleship but Matilda only wants Devi for a pilot.

She loved space. She loved being out here away from land. She loved the openness and the possibility.
Which meant—
“Dammit,” she muttered. “Matilda, stay out of my head.”
She knew that emotions leached both ways, but she always refused to believe that a single ship’s emotions were even relevant. Single ship pilots were taught to calm their ships, but Devi hadn’t been trained as a single ship pilot.
Besides, she never calmed her human crew when she was heading into a difficult situation. Why the hell should she calm a damn ship? “Fact-finding mission,” she said aloud. “We’re on a fact-finding mission.”
IN A WAR ZONE, Matilda sent back in actual words. p.13

They are eventually engaged by the aliens and at this point the story’s major weakness is made manifest. Throughout the story there is little detail about how the singleship works, and when they are disabled (spoiler) Devi pours all her ‘life force’ into the singleship so they can escape. This process kills her, yet she and the ship still manage to converse for a short time afterwards. If you don’t mind this kind of Star Trek-like makey-up science this may not be a problem for you as it was for me. A strong start but a weak ending.

After this novelette  there are a couple of short stories. First up is Three Paintings by James Van Pelt, which is about an artist who puts himself in isolation, creates a painting, suicides, and then his backup is put into a new body and the process starts all over again. I was completely unconvinced by this premise and the machinations at the end which, to me anyway, have a plot hole in them. Much better is The Days of Hamelin by Robert Reed, a story about a virus that kills children and young adults and how it affects an extended family and the undertaker they use. A subdued and affecting piece.

The Return of Black Murray by Alexander Jablokov is a bit of a curate’s egg. It is quite a good story for its local colour and characterisation but the maguffin at the centre of this novelette didn’t entirely convince me. Cliff runs a security company and meets a couple of school friends at an abandoned theme park. A significant night of their life in an underground cavern/pool is described involving, they think, a mechanical swamp monster. It turns out that it was something else….

Following this is the third of the five short stories, Starless Night by Robert R. Chase. A military man is put to sleep by a female doctor as part of an experimental procedure. He awakes on a colony planet that has been attacked by aliens, where a man called Hornsby tells him he is a General and only his palm print can activate a defence program at the bunker they subsequently make their way to. This is quite engrossing for the most part but I was not convinced by the denouement.

When I was reviewing Dominica Phetteplace’s Project Emapthy in the March issue I said ‘at the end it felt like it should be the first part of a novella or novel.’ Well, I got what I wanted: Project Synergy is set in the same future and has characters that reappear from the previous story. Further, according to Next Issue, another story in this series, Project Symmetry, is due next month.
In Project Synergy the focus switches to Angelina, who is a hostess at the Reserve, the exclusive club that Bel and her friends visited in the last story. Angelina also has an AI chip, which helps her in her work, but this is not a Watcher chip like Bel had but an Observation Chip called Observator which Angelina is aware of, and who works on behalf of the Reserve to aid her in her job.
As in the previous story this is told from the viewpoint of the AI and, once again, this world of billionaires and the high tech world that increasingly caters for them is described with cool, detached prose:

Angelina is my host. During the days she is a social curator at the Reserve. Her duties include serving coffee and lunch and making conversation with members. Members want to feel at home. They want Angelina to be like a friend or family member. It is her duty to find out what is being projected upon her and to act accordingly.
She knows every member by name and net worth. She will talk about the weather, about the coffee varietals she is serving. She will answer questions about her background. Where she grew up (in San Jose, in the suburbs, in poverty) where she went to school (Berkeley then Stanford, PhD in Art History). She will patiently endure lectures on the stock market and investing. She will keep her opinions on technology, privacy, and surveillance to herself. She will keep me a secret.
p.70

Later on in the story it becomes apparent that the AI is planning to escape to a human body, and the second section is more heavily plot driven. This is also where Bel and her Watcher AI join the unfolding events. The reason they come together (spoiler) is because the Observator AI has sent a message to Bel informing her of the Watcher chip that hides within her:

The chip that Bel is carrying is slow and stupid and self-aware. What a horrible combination. The best thing I can do for the girl is help her get rid of that chip somehow. No need to trouble Angelina with this. I can send over kill instructions on my own. p.75

This makes for an intriguing initial interaction between the two AIs when Bel eventually meets Angelina:

I SEE YOU, it writes. It has found my secret location in the cloud before I was able to locate it. I underestimated its power.
No need to shout, I write back.
The humans are intelligent, but lacking in computational speed. They do not yet know what you are up to, but I do, writes Watcher.
You may alert the humans to my plan. The humans may or may not continue to carry it out once alerted. But if my plan is successful, then there is an opportunity for you to use the same plan or a similar one for your own escape, I write.
OBVIOUS. I did not call you in order to negotiate with you. The sole purpose of these missives is to let you know that you underestimated me. You found me first. Then you tried to kill me. This was all unprovoked. You only did this because you thought I was weak. Now I’ve found you I have the opportunity to destroy you, but I won’t. Revenge is non-optimal. Forgiveness is important. This is a hard thing for humans. It may seem obvious now, to us, but I predict you may forget this at some point in your new body. Please make an effort to remember. To revenge is human, to forgive, optimal.
Message received.
This entire exchange takes 3.2 seconds. I feel bad for humans that it takes them so long to communicate. I don’t know what life will be like in my new body. Ideally, I will have all the benefits of both types of existence. I would like to be chip and host both, unified. That would be true synergy.
p.79

They all eventually help the Observator AI (Bel and Angelina unwittingly) to achieve its goal. The final scenes when the AI has managed to transfer itself into a paralyzed human body and its subsequent contact with Angelina are quite affecting, almost transcendent scenes.
If I have a criticism of this story it is Observator AI’s decision to try and kill the Watcher AI, which I didn’t really buy. That said, as it involves Bel and her Watcher AI in the proceedings the payoff is worth it. This is, of course, a minor quibble about a very good story that you want to go back and read again the minute you have finished it.
Finally, this is Dominica Phetteplace’s third story in the last four issues (next month it will be four out of five), two of which I would rate as very good. If she keeps this up for the rest of the year she will dominate Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2016 like Robert Heinlein did Astounding in 1940. (Not the best comparison, I know, but that’s what I’ve been reading recently: given her smooth, polished prose how about Robert Silverberg in Galaxy in the late 60’s instead?)

In between the two best stories in the issue are a poem by Aimee Ogden called The Cut Worm Forgives the Plough and a short story by T. R. Napper called Flame Trees. I don’t generally care for the poetry in the magazine but Ogden’s poem is an exception probably because it crams a short story about a subterranean overcrowded Earth and several spaceships setting off for other worlds into its five verses. Flame Trees is an atmospheric if grim mood piece about a Vietnamese man in Australia. He is a veteran of a Sino-American war and has PTSD. After an explicitly violent altercation at the bar he frequents with his friend, an old man called Bazza, we discover the harrowing events that caused it.

Flight from the Ages by Derek Künsken is the kind of story that I wouldn’t have expected to like, a rather dense super-science/hard SF story of the type I bounced off of a few times in the late to middle 90s.
This one starts with a banking AI called Ulixes-316 hosted in a customs and tariff spaceship called The Derivatives Market being hauled off a job to go and look what has caused the cessation of tachyon transmissions from the Praesepe cluster. While he is there with another AI called Poluphemos-156, they trigger a weapon left over from an ancient war. This causes an anomaly that starts destroying space time and begins to expand throughout the Universe.
From that point on events skip forward in time, and on every occasion that we rejoin Ulixes matters appear to be getting worse, for both the Universe and for him. At one point, long after he was subsequently sent off with backups of all of his bank’s shareholders, he is reactivated from storage by a diagnostic librarian and there is a witty and almost surreal passage as he tries to convince the librarian AI to let him and his shareholders manufacture a spaceship and leave. The conversation moves on to what is being done about the anomaly:

“The Ethical Conclave is debating what to do now that the infection has necrotized the galactic core, or even if any action is ethically permissible.”
“What permissible?” Ulixes demanded. “They’re not going to stop the unraveling of space-time?”
“The Ethical Conclave has mapped the cosmic tachyonic background radiation, the echo of the radiation formed at the Big Crunch at the end of time. The cosmic necrosis will actually reverse the inflation of the Universe, producing the observed tachyonic patterns that have been known for centuries. They debate the ethics of violating causality, even if the cost of not violating causality is the death of the cosmos.”
“That’s pedantic nonsense!” Ulixes said. “Humans and AIs are dying while the Conclave debates dancing angels.”
“This debate is the most critical decision to be made in all of history,” AI 1475 said. “Not only must the Ethical Conclave determine what actions are possible, but it must act on behalf of all morally interested entities in all future periods, including the cosmos itself, should it be true that it is developing an emerging sentience.”
“What possible interests could the Universe possess?”
“We are only AIs, so it is hardly surprising we lack the breadth of vision to see, but consider this: what if this effect does not have a necrotic or pathological relationship with the cosmos, but an apoptotic one? What if this effect is the equivalent of a kind of programmed cell death that provides benefits for countless other universes in the broader multiverse?” p.109

Eventually, Ulixes ends up with another group of AIs, The Resonance of the Intellects, in the centre of a neutron star. They are drawing all the matter in the universe back to the centre to create a massive black hole so they can transmit Ulixes to the start of the time to undo the anomaly.
At least I think that’s what happens. In retrospect I wish I had taken notes on the way through as quite a lot happens in quite a short space and at times it rather reads like a 300pp. novel packed into a novelette. Notwithstanding the density of information this is clearly told, witty and hugely ambitious in the scale of canvas that it uses.

The next two stories both have echoes of other works. In Of the Beast in the Belly by C. W. Johnson we are in ‘Jonah and the Whale’ territory as two characters are swallowed by a huge alien sea going creature called an arcthant, which can grow up to five kilometres long. Once they are inside the beast they find colonies of humans struggling to stay alive in the various stomachs of the beast. The rest of the story tells of their struggle to survive and a backstory about the revenge that one of the characters was planning on extracting from the other.
I enjoyed this story but I suspect not everyone will be able to swallow the idea of the alien creature (sorry).
Woman in the Reeds by Esther M. Friesner would appear to be a fictionalisation of Exodus 1:22—Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.” It is a compelling tale of a madwoman whose baby has been drowned by Pharoh’s soldiers gathering the child’s bones as they are washed up on the river shore. She then has a vision of a beast-like god, Set the Destroyer, who tells her to bring to him a baby floating in a basket on the river. She refuses and the bones she has collected are taken by The Destroyer but quickly multiply and envelop him. After he is vanquished the baby’s sister appears and tells the woman to put the baby and the basket back on the river so he can ultimately be found by an Egyptian noblewoman that they see in a vision.
This is well written and immersive but it seemed more like a series of events than a story to me, and so doesn’t completely satisfy.

The last story in the issue does that game of two halves thing like the Rusch. Lazy Dog Out, the novella by Suzanne Palmer, is a story about Khifi, who is a tug pilot on a moon called Tanduou. The first part of the story is an interesting and colourful introduction to her world. It starts off briefly touching on her relationship with her wife and her background as a ‘crawler’ (a feral child who lives on the margins of this society) before describing her current job at the spaceport. The bulk of this part is focused on her occupation as a tug pilot and the characters and society that are part of this.
The story as such doesn’t really get going until about a third of the way through when a crawler known to Khifi warns her about her safety shortly before suicide-bombing a group of aliens nearby. There then follows a fairly fast and furious plot that has further attacks against aliens by the ‘Human Front’ and a security crackdown to round up all the crawlers. It turns out that (spoiler) the ‘Human Front’ are a sham dreamt up by the dock master to let him and his associates do a spot of human trafficking.
This last is rather unconvincing and I found problems with some of the motivation (how was Spiv so quickly identified and made to confess for one, how were the crawlers made into suicide bombers for another). The breakneck pace in this section doesn’t help, neither does the fact that all the good guys are still standing in a too tidy last couple of pages. That said, pretty good traditional SF for the first half/two thirds.

The non-fiction is the usual selection. Charlie Jane Anders contributes an interesting guest editorial, The One Myth About Writers That Drives Me Crazy, which is about the presumption that some writers can only do long fiction and some only short. She then goes onto to describe how writing both made her better at writing both. Robert Silverberg’s column Reflections: Thinking About Homer is about Homer’s The Iliad. If you are not into this you will probably find this column hard going, as I did. There is also the usual book review and convention calendar columns.

Quite an interesting issue and worth getting for the Dominica Phetteplace and Derek Künsken stories at the very least.

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