Asimov’s, September 2009

“Away from here”, Lisa Goldstein. A young woman works in her parents’ motel, bored with the tiny town and repetitive work. When dramatic and fantastical guests, some sort of traveling performers, visit, it may be an opportunity to move on without even waiting to graduate from high school. The characters are believable, even if the setup is somewhat commonplace. The visitors turn out to be something more than just entertainers, and Goldstein presents their fantastic character with just the right amount of clarity, not giving away too much detail to dispel the fantasy, then draws the story to an extremely fine point, showing that fairy visitors might be more sinister than auspicious.

“Camera obscured”, Ferrett Steinmetz. The story is set up with a gimmick: Victor Pino is obsessed with online rankings, but doesn’t have the skill or patience to rate better than 138,212th in any of the hobbies he tries. Then he meets Rosalie, a classmate who shows him there’s more to life than competing for rankings in obscure hobbies. The technical premise, the idea that constant internet monitoring of anything could rank everything down to the 4-billionth best spaghetti in the world, is just silly. But on the other hand the characters are certainly real. Both Victor and Rosalie could easily have been drawn from fragments of certain of my high school classmates.

“Soulmates”, Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn. Gary is grieving at the death of his wife and working as a night watchment while succumbing to alcoholism, when he is befriended by a robot coworker. The presentation of artificial intelligence is utterly hackneyed, combining Asimovian obedience to humans with Star Trek-style ignorance of real life played for amusement (“Your eye is leaking, Gary”). The plot is also rather predictable. The bright spot in this story is the characterization of the protagonist, who draws out extreme pathos without, at least for me, stepping over the line into the ridiculous.

“In their garden”, Brenda Cooper. Paulette is a rebellious teen who’s been raised at the Oregon Botanical Gardens, one of the last bastions of civilization in a world disrupted by climate change. She’s run away from the gardens so many times that she’s issued an ultimatum: after the next time, she won’t be allowed to return. Last bastions of civilization and rebellious teens are certainly well-used SF tropes, but Cooper stirs them up nicely to give us something new, and the story is short enough for well-used themes to work. And in the end she delivers a resolution that I can’t recall seeing before, thought it seems like an obvious one, if only in hindsight.

“The day before the day before”, Steve Rasnic Tem. This is a carefully constructed time travel story that more-or-less works backwards in the narrators perception, from his circumstances hiding out in the woods of Colorado some years before his own birth, to the central event that led to his ditching his former responsibilities. While there’s curiously no resolution to the protagonist’s circumstance, the story nonetheless holds together well. The core of the story resolves to a well-presented and interesting philosophical dilemma.

“Tear-down”, Benjamin Crowell. Like the Resnick-Robyn piece, this one retreads fairly well-worn AI story ground, but works better because it doesn’t try to also cover heavy-weight emotional territory. The basic story is that an AI house must convince its owners not to have it demolished and replaced with a newer model. Something about the tone of this story calls to mind certain stories I remember from very early in my reading life. Maybe Damon Knight stories from the ’60s or ’70s. Possibly its the way the protagonist AI is basically struggling against the banality of the human society that will decide its fate, which could fit in thematically with some ’60s-’70s SF. Which isn’t to say the story feels dated. Its quite contemporary and it may very well be time to bring back some pointed opposition to banality in SF.

“Her heart’s desire”, Jerry Oltion. Contemporary fantasy in which our p.o.v. character is caught in the cross-fire of someone else’s wish-fulfillment. Well-played and quite clever.

“Broken windchimes”, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A powerful alien race develops strange and demanding taste in human music. So strange, in fact, that the music itself becomes no longer human, though it can only be produced by human voices. This is probably my favorite Rusch story to appear since I started the blog. The premise is interesting and explored well. What’s more, the action here meshes better with the development of the speculative elements than in other recent stories such as “Diving into the wreck” or “The spires of Denon”.

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