Asimov’s, July 2009

This month’s Asimov’s featured three really strong stories by R. Garcia y Robertson, Ian McHugh, and Sara Genge. Stories by Michael Cassutt and Stephen Baxter were entertaining but not outstanding. The one remaining story in, by Kit Reed, really failed for me as I couldn’t work out what the author was trying to do with it. Let’s take them in order:

“The Last Apostle”, by Michael Cassutt, imagines that NASA’s Apollo astronauts might have found something really unusual on the moon, and where that might lead in the next few decades. For NASA buffs there’s probably a lot of interest in picking out the historical figures behind the characters here, as much of the story is spent developing the personalities of 12 (presumably lightly) fictionalized astronauts. In particular, the story centers on an astronaut who spent his career as the supporting character behind a more prominent lead pilot, making an interesting character study. Unfortunately, the tone of the piece leans largely toward the kind of hero worship we expect from 40-year old NASA promotional material, and the stronger parts of the story never reached past that to really capture my attention.

Next up, Kit Reed‘s “Camp Nowhere” is even more challenging. Its hard to tell what the author is going for here. It might be a polemic against psychiatry. It might be invective against people who think that wealth can replace human relationships. But its hard to figure out because the main character, Chazz, a teen who’s dragged to a therapy retreat summer camp by his parents, keeps moving from situation to situation, either through her own actions or forced by others, without any believable narrative motivation. One source of my difficulty might be that Chazz’s gender isn’t explicitly revealed until late in the story, but the tone of the first-person narration had led me to conceptualize him as a girl rather than a boy. Even after he’s finally referred to by a third person pronoun, I continued to think of him as a girl, and this made some of his personality unbelievable, and his relationship with a middle-aged male camper somewhat creepy.

R. Garcia y Robertson’s “SinBad the Sand Sailor”, though, starts to turn the magazine around after two stories that I couldn’t really get in to. SinBad is a smuggler on a Mars-like world called Barsoom. Threatened by his gangster employers, slave hunters, flying men, and genetically engineered “greenies” who hold the real power on Barsoom, SinBad and the beautiful “air hostess” escapee of the airships he rescues early on, are driven from encounter to encounter with various Barsoom figures. Along with the planet’s name, we have various colors of Barsoomians, and a “Skylark” class of spaceship to fill in the homage to the golden age. Lots of fun, and a well done adventure story in Golden Age style.

“Sleepless in the House of Ye”, by Ian McHugh, has a simple plot that enables a deep exploration of a truly alien culture. The females of the House of Ye are the aliens, preparing for a winter sleep from which they’ll never awake, though their spawn will swim away from their bodies in the spring floods and complete the circle of life. A crisis in this nursery setting brings out various implications of the imaginatively developed biology of Ye, and also shows the dramatic potential of these incredibly unhuman people.

Sara Genge‘s “Shoes to Run” presents another well-developed alien society, this time here on Earth, in the shadow of a future Paris, in fact. Here, environmental disaster has made it impossible for European natives to survive in the open, and even the ethnic Africans who lived in the Paris suburbs required genetic modification for protection from the elements and radiation. Among the descendents of these former immigrants, we meet Shai-Shai, a boy on the brink of manhood, but born in a girl’s body. From this, Genge develops a strong human story about Shai-Shai’s struggle to be accepted as a hunter, and of the survival of humanity by a return to its earliest customs.

The magazine wraps up with “Earth II”, by Steven Baxter. This story is apparently tied to Baxter’s recent novels, though it stands up fairly well for itself and its not obvious if the characters we see here appear in those books or not. Xaia Windru is the commander of an armada of sailing ships on a mission of conquest. Driven onward by her ambition, and not anxious to return to a less authoritative role at home, she leads her crew to the unpopulated ends of the planet searching for secrets of the Founder colonists of Earth II and of the planet’s previous inhabitants. Throughout the story I was vaguely bothered by the character’s description of the features of Earth II by comparison with the original Earth, generations in their path. In the end, this anomaly is revealed to have been a deliberate plot point all along, but perhaps it was laid on a bit too thick. While this is a decent read, there weren’t really enough new ideas behind it to justify the 33-page novella length given to it.

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