Asimov’s, August 2009

I’ll just jump right in to a run-down of the stories in this month’s Asimov’s:

First is “The Qualia Engine”, by Damien Broderick. A group of a half-dozen or so genetically enhanced hyper-intelligent high school kids are working on various world-changing projects. Our narrator, Saul, is building a “qualia engine”, a machine that essentially records human feelings, and can play them back into another person’s mind. Meanwhile he and his crowd survive their ordinary teenaged romantic issues. Its an okay story, but not really outstanding. Saul’s enhanced intelligence is laid on so thick, and in such a smug voice, that I thought for a while this story might be an attempt to justify the mob violence against “mutants” that’s typically seen in stories on this theme.

Next, Robert Reed gives us “Creatures of Well-Defined Habits”. Again we have genetically modified humans, in great variety, created by mixing in genetic material from many other species; but now the modified people are the bulk of the population, and unmodified humans, or “Olds”, are a novelty or curiosity. When the oldest of the Olds dies, his mechanical replacement doesn’t satisfy his friends, and they have to take drastic measures to…well, I’m not really sure what. Maybe they’re trying to break the robot replacement out of its pattern of just repeating what the original did and give it an individual personality; or maybe they’re just acting randomly. I couldn’t really follow the motivation of the narrator here, and that made the story hard to appreciate.

Derek Zumsteg‘s “Blue”, however, was very easy to appreciate. From a science crew sent on a multi-year mission to study a black hole, only two members survive. Even worse, the black hole has some unexpected features that probably mean they’ll never make it home. And, after years alone together, they’ve understandably gotten on each others nerves. This is a fascinating character study on scientific personalities gone stir-crazy, and it reflects a lot of what I’ve heard from colleagues who did the nearest thing to this on earth—wintering over at the South Pole research station.

“The Conciousness Problem”, by hot new writer Mary Robinette Kowal, is another strong character study, this time on a scientist who’s suffered brain damage due to an accident. But, her research was on “cloning”, in the sense of making perfect duplicates of a person, including memories up to the time of duplication; so she can’t be sure if she was really injured, or if she’s actually a failed experiment, an imperfect duplicate of the “real” researcher. The story does a good job of bringing together the potential personal implications of the duplicating technology, without getting bogged down in cliche cloning issues.

Steven Popkes‘ “Two Boys” covers two generations in a world where Neanderthal man has been brought back from extinction by Jurassic Park-like techniques. The similarity to anything by Michael Crichton pretty much stops there. Popkes does a good job of imagining how another species could be similar to us, and yet have strikingly different personalities; and how their different personalities could give them an important place in our world.

“Turbulence”, by Asimov’s regular Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a short look at fate in a modern setting. An okay story, very short, but I never felt any real empathy for the main character.

The fiction in the magazine wraps up with “California Burning”, by Michael Blumlein, about a man who finds out about his father’s lifelong secret only after his death. The writing is engaging, and the protagonist is sympathetic, making this an enjoyable story. What’s more, the central question, of whether every secret truly needs to be discovered, is surely worth pondering.

So, yet another quite good issue from Asimov’s. All of the stories are worth reading, though I’d especially recommend the Zumsteg and the Blumlein as highights, with the Kowal and the Popkes very close behind.

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