Asimov’s Science Fiction March-April 2017, #494-495

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Other reviews:
Kevin P. Hallett, Tangent Online
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Various, Goodreads

Editor, Sheila Williams; Assistant Editor, Emily Hockaday

Fiction: • novelette by Will McIntosh ♥♥♥♥
Number Thirty-Nine Skink • short story by Suzanne Palmer ♥♥
Three Can Keep a Secret. . . • novelette by Bill Johnson and Gregory Frost ♥♥♥
The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going • short story by Sarah Pinsker ♥♥
Invasion of the Saucer-Men • short story by Dale Bailey ♥♥
Kitty Hawk • novelette by Alan Smale ♥♥♥♥
Cupido • short story by Rich Larson ♥♥♥+
A Singular Event in the Fourth Dimension • short story by Andrea M. Pawley ♥♥♥
The Wisdom of the Group • novelette by Ian R. MacLeod ♥♥♥
After the Atrocity • short story by Ian Creasey ♥♥
Goner • short story by Gregory Norman Bossert ♥♥♥
We Regret the Error • short story by Terry Bisson ♥♥
Tao Zero • novella by Damien Broderick

Cover • by Tomislav Tikulin
Things Change • guest editorial by James Patrick Kelly
Forty Years! • essay by Robert Silverberg
Screen Dreams • essay by James Patrick Kelly
Poems • by Marge Simon, Sara Polsky, Jarod K. Anderson, Bruce Boston, Robert Frazier, Robert Borski
Next Issue
On Books (Asimov’s, March-April 2017) • by Peter Heck
SF Conventional Calendar • by Erwin S. Strauss

There are a couple of particularly good stories in this issue and I’ll comment on them first. by Will McIntosh gets the fiction off to an outstanding start with a story about a postgrad student who (spoiler) is catfished on a dating site by an AI program. It is only after several video dates that he discovers what he is dealing with and, when he does, he reports it to the FBI.
This has some good lines, and amusing exchanges between him and his would-be girlfriend:

I spoke over her. I wasn’t about to be interrupted by a computer program. “I so wanted to meet you, to hold your hand, to kiss you. I get it now. What was it about me that made me a likely target? Did something about my profile suggest I was lonely?” I waved my hand in the air. “Oh, look, a beautiful woman wrote to me! How can I resist ponying up a hundred bucks for a full membership? Well, you got my hundred bucks, and left me more cynical in the process. Now why don’t you get lost?” I looked toward the sky. “Why am I even talking to you? You’re not real. You’re just a string of symbols typed into a computer.”
Winnie stiffened. She glared at me with such bald rage and hurt that I had to remind myself she—it—was all computer-generated. It was incredible, how real she looked. Her voice shaking with rage, she said, “Adenine. Thymine. Guanine. Cytosine.”
“You’re nothing but a string of chemical compounds. The only thing that makes you different from other people is the order of that string.”
“Chemical compounds are real things. They have weight and mass.”
“And the films you stream aren’t real things?”
“Not in the same way the actors who made them are, no.” I closed my eyes, tried to calm myself. This was ridiculous. I was having an existential debate with a computer program. And I was barely holding my own—that was the pathetic part.
p. 22-23

Later, their fighting starts to spin out of control and some of his accounts are hacked or deleted: offensive comments left for friends and colleagues, important job offers are declined, he can’t use his credit cards, etc. The he finds out the FBI are after him. . . .
I don’t know if it was my aviation background that made me appreciate Kitty Hawk by Alan Smale so much, or whether it is just a really good story. The story is set in a parallel world where Wilbur Wright, the aviation pioneer, has died in a glider crash. Orville, the surviving brother, is joined at Kitty Hawk by their sister Katherine. Rather than going home to bury their brother the two continue the project.
There may be a problem here for some readers in that the events of the story (spoiler) are essentially a feminist reimagining of that famous powered flight: that may or may not stretch historical credulity. Having said that, there is mention of Katherine’s suffrage work to counterbalance the prejudice exhibited by the locals in the story (and, in our timeline, there were other famous female aviation pioneers: Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson, etc.1). In any event I liked this a lot, although it could have done without the superfluous half page epilogue (a parallel world data-dump). For a relatively quiet, low-key story it has an, ah, asymmetrically exciting climax.
A story which falls between the two above and the merely good is Cupido by Rich Larson. We have seen in some of his previous stories how he can, almost effortlessly it seems, combine SFnal ideas with intensely human situations (Water Scorpions, Asimov’s SF, October-November 2016). He does it again here.
Cupido starts in an elevator with Chelo releasing a pheromone to make the woman alongside him physically attracted to a man who is waiting on the ground floor. After this, Chelo heads back home and begins work on another client’s job, this one to ensure a woman’s daughter is attracted to a lawyer the mother deems suitable marriage material. Chelo manufactures the pheromone using a process that first requires him to get near to the target so he can sample their DNA.

He sees her. Unslinging a satchel from her shoulder, dressed all in black except for a pair of bright red sneakers. She’s not beautiful. Not in the way Marcel understands beauty, in aggregate symmetry and hip-to-waist ratio and neoteny. Her face is pinched. Her dark hair is drawn back too tight and then frizzes out at the back of her head. She sits down on a bench next to an old man in a blue coverall, gives him a brief business-like nod. Plucks one earbud out to exchange remarks about the heat she doesn’t seem to feel.
Her fingers whir all the while, peeling her orange in one perfect spiral, and when she laughs at something Marcel can’t hear, head tilted backward with the sunlight shredded onto her cheek, he feels his pulse speed up. He feels his chest go tight.
p. 107-108

The rest of the tale details his production of the pheromone and an increasing infatuation with her. At the end of the story we find out what he decides to do. It is impressive how much Larson manages to pack into a story that is less than four thousand words.

There is a large group of good stories in this issue: Three Can Keep a Secret. . . by Bill Johnson and Gregory Frost is an amusing piece, as you can probably guess from this eyeball-grabbing beginning:

“I am naked!”
Slowly, in the center of the surveillance center, I turned about on almost dainty feet (well, compared to my equatorial zone), arms raised over my head. My chins thrust up and out while my immense belly shook and quivered and essentially hid all the essentials—by which I do not mean the wedding tackle Prospero the Great had likely not viewed with his own eyes in at least a decade.
The technician behind the scanner said, “Sir, this is really—”
“I hope you are recording this. Can you all see me?” A ridiculous question, I grant you. “I am NAKED!”
You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? quipped Leroy, his voice as dry and sarcastic as my real Uncle Leroy’s had been when he was alive.
And let’s be fair. I was.
Uncle Leroy, who taught me the Three-Card Monte for my fifth birthday, had also invested me with the wisdom of the true gaffler. Among those gems: When you want to be invisible, make the loudest, biggest scene imaginable. Everyone will watch, transfixed by shock and their own inability to disengage, as you scar them for life.
Of course, what they remember will be what you wanted them to see, which they’ll work terribly hard not to revisit. Bravo, Uncle Leroy.
“Prospero the Great has nothing to hide. Nothing to be ashamed of. Bring on your frigid medical instruments. Pull on your cold nitrile gloves. Prospero will not blanch. Prospero will never lose his dignity!”
And now for the jewel in the crown. I faced the female security officer who had ordered me to strip in the first place. She wore the kind of grim smile that usually accompanies an impending attack of dyspepsia.
“You!” I turned and bent, hands upon thighs like a sumo wrestler, and thrust my naked backside at her. “Inspect me now!” The officer yanked her head away as if a snake had lunged at it.
The scanner technician interjected a strangled cry, “He’s clean!”
I drew myself up stiffly. “Of course I am clean. Prospero bathes daily.”
The officer pointed behind herself. “Get the hell out of here,” she said, exhibiting remarkable control.
The plasteel exit wall swiveled open and I jiggled proudly out. I leered at her as I went past.
p. 48-49

It later materialises that Prospero the Great has hijacked an assassin’s identity to visit this off-world colony. Here there is (a) a scientist who has invented slippery muons, (b) a crime syndicate who owns him and the lucrative manufacturing process, and (c) a girlfriend who is a threat to their control. Hence the requirement for an assassin. The plot is, to be honest, rather contrived and not entirely convincing, but the writers set off so many grenades along the way (mostly in the form of technological devices that Prospero deploys to deceive the various actors involved) that it makes for an entertaining enough story.
A Singular Event in the Fourth Dimension by Andrea M. Pawley is set on an orbital elevator (one of those technological Jack and the Beanstalk things) and concerns a couple who work half way up it, and Olive, their surrogate daughter android. Since getting Olive, the mother has become pregnant, and the android is now a point of contention between her and ‘second grandma,’ who is visiting.
This is all narrated from Olive’s point of view and reads like half hard SF/half fairy story, although the latter is due to Olive’s perception rather than any actuality:

On the other side of the habitat shield wall, light flared in the vacuum of space. The debris being targeted by mid-point station lasers wasn’t visible. Not like twenty-eight days before, when Olive and Mama had watched thousands of laser flashes break the last of the abandoned Space Station Agarwal into pieces small enough that the elevator and its habitats wouldn’t be compromised. Since then, sparkling metal dust had been osmosing through the habitat shield wall and sprinkling everything.
Mama said it was fairy dust and it had magical powers. At lights-out on the day the fairy dust came, Mama told a new bedtime story about an android engineer princess who lived at the top of the elevator. All the android engineer princess’s friends were fairies, and the princess talked with them all day long, especially when the king and queen were away working at mid-point station, where they kept passengers and cargo safe.
p. 113

Although this is an unusual mix, I enjoyed this one, and its sentimental ending probably helped.
The Wisdom of the Group by Ian R. MacLeod is about a man called Samuel, a ‘super-predictor’ who works as part of a team with similar skills—which are further enhanced with futuristic technology. They use their abilities to make money on the financial markets. At the beginning of the story the group make what will turn out to be a problematical investment and, just after they complete their purchase, Samuel has an uneasy premonition.
The rest of the piece details his wealthy lifestyle, his deteriorating relationship with a lover, Luke, and his temporary exclusion from the group after the investment fails.
At the end (spoiler) he finds himself alone in the woods (Luke has left their picnic after an argument) with a penetrating leg fracture. The couple’s dogs, who have killed a deer earlier in the story, are ominously circling . . . .
This is all slickly done, as you would expect from MacLeod, but I wondered if this is really anything more than a ‘bash the bankers’ story, with its unsympathetic and obnoxious millionaire protagonist getting his comeuppance.
Goner by Gregory Norman Bossert starts off with a slightly confusing scene (the writer mentions an image he had some time ago in the introduction) that involves a number of kids arriving at one of their houses to find an altered-looking man at the end of an orange tether:

A man floated below the cathedral ceiling, just under the skylight, anchored by an orange cable that ran from his chest down into the machines. A sketch of a man, rather, a scribbled web of lines in charcoal black against the white wall. Like the software they had in class, the Visible Man, when you toggled off everything but the nervous system. Like the tube documentaries, the protest memes, the sims.
“Crap on a crutch. It’s a—” Nok said.
“He,” Char said. “He’s Colin R. Clark.”
Drum walked across the room, still looking up, and put his hand on the orange cable. Char could see it vibrating under the tension. Drum mouthed a syllable, airless, but Char knew what it was: “Dad.”
p. 144

The man is Drum’s father, a nanomodified Pilot who is one of the crew of a spaceship that has been out to the periphery of the solar system.
The story subsequently centres on one of Drum’s friends called Char, who has an obsession with Pilots, and his home life (he recently lost his father). Char acquires some of the nano-material that Drum’s father’s body is made of and inserts a splinter of it into his finger. . . .
This has a rather inconclusive ending which, with the opening scene, makes it a slightly flawed if nonetheless interesting story.

The other stories include Number Thirty-Nine Skink by Suzanne Palmer, which is about a bio-manufacturing robot left on an alien planet. As it roves around the planet it makes various creatures, such as the titular one, and samples and investigates the local life. Its human technician/operator is dead, and the machine appears to be alone in this alien ecology. Then one morning it wakes from standby mode and finds scratches on its body. . . .
As the rest of the story unfolds (spoiler), we discover what caused this and why the machine was left on the planet. It finds another machine that has been gutted and, when it finds the native species responsible in its inner compartments the next morning, develops a number of biological predators to kill them. At this point a copy of Mike, its dead technician, gets it to desist and together they depart. This isn’t an entirely convincing ending.
The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going by Sarah Pinsker has an mistreated child creeping out of a normally locked basement room and climbing the stairs into the sunlight, and so, initially at least, it reminded me of Richard Matheson’s Born of Man and Woman (F&SF, Summer 1950). Once the young girl is on the landing she remembers a man coming to visit her mother the night before she was imprisoned. Moreover, she then recalls that the happiness of the city is dependent on a child suffering. She (spoiler) goes back down the stairs to save anyone else having to replace her and suffer the same fate. If this is an allegory then I’ve missed the point but, whatever, it is a dark and effective piece; there’s just not that much to it.
Invasion of the Saucer-Men by Dale Bailey is another of his stories that involves serious treatment of a B-movie trope (see, for instance, his superior novelette from the March 2016 issue, I Married a Monster from Outer Space). This one takes the idea of teenagers making out when another arrives with reports of a flying saucer that has landed nearby.
After a reconnaissance that goes wrong they use one of the girls to lure the aliens to them.
The denouement involves the males of the group (spoiler) attacking the aliens, and the particularly savage killing of one of them by the narrator, an arrogant, bullying high school jock. We later find that the aliens have come in peace.
The characterisation of the lead character is quite well done but making this kind of character the focus of a story was always going to make for an unpleasant ending, which makes the whole thing a somewhat pointless ‘bad people do bad things’ piece.
After the Atrocity by Ian Creasey is about a woman scientist running a duplicating machine that is producing copies of a terrorist responsible for the ‘Atrocity’ so he can repeatedly be interrogated. She starts having qualms about this, and ends up arguing with her original self (she is also a duplicate, produced to speed up the duplicating process). I think this is essentially a story about enhanced interrogation.
We Regret the Error by Terry Bisson is told through the medium of four pages worth or so of newspaper corrections:

A misspelling in a press release last week led our writers to incorrectly interpret as parody the revision of the Turing Protocols to include “refusal to be tested” as an identifier of consciousness. The press release was not from
The Onion but The Ynion, a publication of Singularity Watch. The Turing Protocol revision was auto-implemented by a security subsection of Internetpol in response to certain undisclosed anomalies in the military sector of the Cloud. p. 156

In amongst the detail there are hints that an AI may be loose in the cloud.

The last of the fiction in this issue is Tao Zero, a novella by Damien Broderick (presumably the title is a play on Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero but I don’t know if there is any other connection). For the first third or so this story is narrated from the point of view of Ship, who was born shortly after two genius teenagers won the lottery—his mother promptly fell pregnant after they ’celebrated,’ and he was later adopted. This section tells of an energy attack on New York and Ship’s extraction through a multi-dimensional tesseract. This portal is manned by what seems to be an advanced version of a robot AI called BandAid that Ship had as a child. There are various other matters touched on in this section, partially summed up by this passage:

I realize that I have left any readers of this brief memoir dangling absurdly between my tesseract adventure, the fall of the Infinite Corridor, the tale of Bandaid my excellent robot dog, and my parents’ passage into the Tao, like some twenty-first century Tristram Shandy (but look, at least I did better than Laurence Sterne: I managed to get myself conceived and born fairly early on).

Up until this point I thought that it was an OK-goodish piece, albeit some of it was over my head (there is a tendency to throw science concepts and vocabulary at the reader like gravel: I still don’t understand this sentence: ‘I was privileged to immerse myself in these records, captured in the antique cellphones they carried everywhere, as everyone did back then, before the gallop of technology immanentized the eschaton . . .’ My Italics.)
Unfortunately, the viewpoint character changes about half way through to Ship’s girlfriend Felicity, and the story rapidly heads downhill. Part of problem is that we know from the first section that Felicity is going to turn up and save Ship so there is no dramatic tension. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if there was something else of interest going on but all that Felicity and the other characters seem to do before the rescue is rush around pointlessly and chatter endlessly about the Tao and various other scientific matters—in between, that is, stopping for a couple of meals and picking up a classic car for their journey through the Tao. This passage perhaps will give you a flavour:

Mariah Essington was bipolar in a extremely disturbing way. When she was good, she was very very good, and when she was bad she was horrid and sad and suicidal and had to be tucked away for whatever the latest treatment turned out to be. But I loved her when I was little, loved her exuberance and flashing intelligence. I remember her explanation of the dyadic bond between her and my papa. “You must understand, Felicity, that there is an eternal tension between natural kinds and what we think the world is built out of, which is mostly nonsense we make up.”
I grinned up at her and kicked the wooden horse I’d tumbled off. “I kicked it, Mommy. It’s there, for sure.”
“My little empiricist! Come here for a hug and a big kiss.” She wrapped her arms around me tightly and gave me a big smooch on the cheek. “If the world has an autonomous structure, and if the organ of thought is largely pre-set by evolution to the constraints of nature, then at some probably inaccessible level, there might after all be powerful imperatives that shape and limit cognition, so we may learn to carve the world at its joints. And that structure is the Tao.”
Of course I didn’t memorize her words on the spot, but I know her style of thinking, and that captures it pretty well.
She said, “This is how your father and I mesh so well together.” I wasn’t so sure of that; he seemed to be gone a lot of the time. “I’m emic and he’s etic. Do you remember those words, sugar?”
“Sure. Emic is warm-blooded and poetic, while etic is, uh, reductive and scientistic. Idiographic versus nomothetic.”
“Don’t show off, pet.”
p. 184

I’d lost my patience with this long before the passage above and had started skimming, something that won’t have added to my appreciation of the piece. (And I may not have been the only one skimming: shouldn’t it be ‘an extremely’ and ‘very, very’?2) In retrospect I should have given up on it. Zero points for Tau Zero.

As for the non-fiction this issue, the cover, for Suzanne Palmer’s story, is by Tomislav Tikulin. I’m not sure whether I like this one or not: part of me thinks that it looks like something from National Geographic, and that there isn’t much there apart from the lizards (the background is pretty nondescript); on the other hand it is rather eye-catching.
James Patrick Kelley (Things Change) and Robert Silverberg (Forty Years!) both contribute pleasant but anodyne accounts of their decades long involvement with the magazine; Kelley also contributes an ‘On the Net’ column called Screen Dreams that covers SF stories and books that have been made into movies.
There are Poems by Marge Simon, Sara Polsky, Jarod K. Anderson, Bruce Boston, Robert Frazier, and Robert Borski. None of these did anything for me but I thought the Polsky was OK.
Next Issue states that the May-June magazine will have a ‘short novel’ by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and, I see, a story by Peter Wood (author of the smart and amusing Academic Circles in the September issue).
On Books by Peter Heck gives the impression that his favourites are at the start of the essay (of the novels anyway, there is a review of Michael Swanwick’s new collection at the end), which would suggest that Crosstalk by Connie Willis, The Cold Eye by Laura Anne Gilman, and Fallout by Harry Turtledove are worth looking out for. “Not So Much,” Said the Cat is the title of the collection by Michael Swanwick.
SF Conventional Calendar by Erwin S. Strauss brings up the rear with its SASEs and landline answering machine. No email, no webpage. Is this a 40th anniversary tribute?
Talking of 40th anniversary tributes, I should also add that, again, several of the stories have autobiographical notes from the writers. Although they mostly follow the same template, there are two or three that are of some interest: I just wish they would put them at the end—buried in the middle of the story text they are very distracting.

Overall a fairly good, but very mixed, issue.

  1. There is a list of ten female aviation pioneers here.
  2. I admit that I should be the last person to pontificate about grammatical or orthographical matters: my commas litter my blog posts like confetti on a church path after a wedding. . . .

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