REVIEW: “Dix” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Review of Kristine Kathryn Rusch, “Dix”, Asimov’s Science Fiction March/April (2018): 13-46 — Read Excerpt Online or Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

We’re trained to make the most of the situation we’re in, not to wish we were somewhere else.

Set in Rusch’s wider Diving universe, after an ill-fated rescue mission the crew of the Ivoire find themselves 5,000 years in the future far from the rest of the Fleet and everyone they’ve ever known or understands who they are, with no way of getting back. The crew are coping in different ways with the loss – both productive and destructive.

Without giving too much of the plot away, the story here is tightly told and, despite dealing with an established universe and technologies, Rusch leads those unfamiliar through the intricacies and risks being handled without bogging down in exposition.

I did find some of the more tense moments didn’t quite come across as stressful as they could have – for example, the threats, despite being tricky to diffuse, never really came across as particularly likely to me. Perhaps knowing where this piece sat between the other works in the series also made me feel the characters were less at risk.

Overall, though, this was a fun, self-contained adventure sci-fi story that didn’t require awareness of the related material to enjoy.

REVIEW: “Bury Me in the Rainbow” by Bill Johnson

Review of Bill Johnson, “Bury Me in the Rainbow”, Asimov’s Science Fiction March/April (2018): 140-196 — Read Excerpt Online or Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

The walls of the chapel, from top to bottom, on all sides, were made of thousands of little medicine bottles, test tubes, small glass containers. A rare few were clear, but most were red or rose or orange or yellow or green or blue or indigo or violet. Sunlight streamed through the windows, and through the bottles and into the chapel, in arcs and bands and mixtures and spilled across the floor and the altar and the pews and us.

Johnson returns to the world from his Hugo Award-winning novelette We Will Drink a Fish Together to present this sequel novella.

An unknown alien assassin dies in Summit, trying to kill the alien ambassador, Foremost. Tony, the new mayor, must manage the politics between the different lodges making up Summit to determine the fate of his people: how should they deal with the assassin’s body? How long can their way of life last? Should they take the ambassador’s offer and join the Ship? And will Summit and the individual lodges survive the transition if they do?

At the centre of this story is the idea and motif of the Rainbow – the central resting place a small piece of everyone who has ever died in Summit. Through this Johnson looks at history, ancestry and connection with a place and people over time, something which is valuable to everyone in Summit and challenged by the Ship’s arrival and offer.

The world is full and Johnson’s experiences from living on Lake Traverse Indian Reservation in South Dakota permeate the piece’s perceptions of community, independence and land.

This novella is small and thoughtful rather than action-packed. It spends a lot of time developing a sense of place and people, rather than pushing the narrative forward which made it feel like it ran a bit long in places. Where the story could have focused on the ambassadorial interactions happening between the ground and the Ship, Johnson instead looks at the different communities within Summit and Tony’s frustrated attempts and negotiations to get them all agreeing on the Ship issue.

REVIEW: “Mother Tongues” by S. Qiouyi Lu

Review of S. Qiouyi Lu, “Mother Tongues”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 147-153 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

“I bet she bought her Mandarin…”

What if you could buy and sell languages? Excise or implant the knowledge into your brain? Go in for day surgery and wake up fluent in a new language – lifted straight from a native speaker?

Jiawen Liu wants to sell her second language, English, to pay for her daughter’s education at Stanford. But when her English is assessed as less than top quality and she is unable to afford the necessary accent-reduction courses to improve the value of it she has to consider other, more drastic, options.

A beautiful and thought-provoking piece and a highlight of this issue. Lu’s piece does a beautiful job of depicting the bilingual experience and exploring the connection between languages and our sense of self.

There’s a lot going on in this quite short piece. There’s commentary on migrant experiences, assimilation, and how these differ between generations. Consideration of the large and small interactions and use of different languages to get through a day, including code switching.

There’s sly commentary here, too, about authenticity, appropriation and exploitation of minority groups. Is it ok to steal someone else’s authentic voice and use it yourself? Is your learned integration ever going to be as acceptable as everyone else’s and will it forever be worth less? And is something really a choice when other options are not realistically available to you? And is it worth giving up your own voice so that someone else can keep and train theirs?

Lu’s prose on the whole here is tight and lovely. They set up the characters fast and the interactions pack emotional wallops along the way. Their inclusion of multilingual text and other representative prose elements in particular do an excellent job showing the confusion and disorientation of not having the right words to hand – quite literally showing rather than telling the reader the experience.

 

 

REVIEW: “The Equalizers” by Ian Creasey

Review of Ian Creasey, “The Equalizers”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 66-74 —  Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

“If everyone wore the Equalizers, it wouldn’t matter what I looked like, Pamela thought. I could waltz back into the office in yesterday’s outfit, without any makeup, and no one would know.”

Pamela’s workplace is trialing Equalizers – glasses which augment what the wearer sees, hears and smells to remove personal characteristics from whomever they are interacting with. People instead look like humanoid shapes in colours reflective of their work unit, and labelled with their job title. No names. The rationale is that a fair environment improves employee morale… and saves on compensation claims. Pamela finds herself starving for real human contact after spending all day interacting with faceless, inhuman shapes and has been dating hard to get over a bad breakup. Her friend, Vonda, dares her to try the Equalizers as a kind of blind date. Could she be attracted to someone based on their intellect and conversation alone?

This piece hits on some hot-button themes. How far can or should we reasonably take anti-discrimination practices? What would we need to do to overcome our bodies’ natural snap-judgements based on social conditioning and personal, inherent bias? What happens to our interactions and instincts when you take away all of the cues we normally rely on to guide us?

As such, there’s a lot of speculative fodder in this one idea of technologically removing all bias indicators from interactions with others. I liked that the contrast between judgement calls and discriminatory behaviour in the workplace and in online dating, too, showing two different realms of interaction where first impressions matter. There’s an underlying theme here about what you can see of people – in Pamela’s workplace she can’t ‘see’ people at all, and in her dating she doesn’t really see the people beyond their features. It’s polar opposite ends of a spectrum.

However, I didn’t find Pamela’s character development particularly strong – she never really had to confront her own biases and perceptions, or make any particularly big choices. There didn’t seem to be anything at stake for her personally or professionally and I found this weakened the piece, the ending in particular.

Ultimately, a great premise and idea for technology, but I felt it could have had a stronger narrative to meet the concepts and themes it was playing with.

 

REVIEW: “The Final Commandment: Trey’s Story” by James Gunn

Review of James Gunn, “The Final Commandment: Trey’s Story”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 26-32 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

A cautionary tale and a twist on a rampaging AI story.

In Trey’s world – Ourworld – humans evolved along similar physical and technological lines as humans on Earth. This included the creation of increasingly intelligent machines, which eventually achieved sapience. Except, that access to this supreme intelligence does not guarantee human happiness or peace on land or in the sea.

This piece was more speculative than the previous stories in this series by Gunn. I particularly liked the machines’ co-dependent relationship with humans in this piece. Often AIs are depicted as free to run and be themselves as soon as they achieve sentience, with humans only an annoyance or something that’s getting in the way. Not the case here. Trey and the other machines have helped and been used by humans in different ways across their combined history.

The image of Trey with the two lovers coiled safe inside is a lovely one. There’s a nice symbology there about human-created machines carrying their creators, womb-like, into the stars.

The layered inevitable tragedies leading up to the conclusion also built quite well, though I found it slowed through the middle around the evolution of the sea people.

However, as with most of Gunn’s tie-in stories I find the lack of context around key elements of the world found in the novel, particularly what the Transcendental Machine is and why all of these species think it can do the things they want. Because of this I found the ending a little less satisfying and uplifting than it could have been for a stand-alone piece.

REVIEW: “The Seeds of Consciousness: 4107’s Story” by James Gunn

Review of James Gunn, “The Seeds of Consciousness: 4107’s Story”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 19-32 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

As a species, Floran dreams were rooted to the soil; their nightmares were filled with the dread of being separated from it. But their will was stronger than their fears…

Up there as my favourite of Gunn’s series of tie-in stories for his novel Transcendental.

4107 is a Floran, a sentient plant species. The Florans have evolved over generations, growing from blissful cycles of growing in the sun and dying back to the soil, to overcoming both native and insterstellar threats, and finally reaching out to the stars on their own.

I really enjoyed the mythological feel of this piece. It feels like a creation story, except it goes far beyond creation. The long, collective memories of the Florans, reaching back to the first sprouting, and the generally long cycles Floran history has taken allows for this gradual unfolding of the Floran’s evolution. And an evolution it is! Responding to different adverse circumstances which force them to adapt and respond in order to survive which, in turn, drives their advancement in thought, technology and perspective. All the while the Florans retain a unique perspective, intelligence and problem-solving approach built from their worldview and cultural priorities. This is an alternate evolution trajectory, in some ways familiar and in other ways quite alien to a human (‘meat’) perspective and it is fascinating to watch.

As this is a background story to an existing novel, universe and character this piece may be a bit “infodumpy” or lacking in story for some. It does have an alternate history feel to it and, while I didn’t find that this hindered my enjoyment of it, it might not work for some readers.

Novel tie-ins can be tough to pull off, I think in part because you don’t want to give away the novel’s trajectory, but there needs to be enough of a conclusion to be satisfying to the reader. This story achieved that, bringing us a full history of Floran civilisation up to a set point before showing them boldly heading towards their next era. I liked that the story wrapped up in the middle of the Floran’s full story, showing us where they wanted to go, but leaving it to the reader (perhaps in the novel) to find out whether they achieved this. The ending scene was a particular highlight for me, bringing us back to a familiar cultural perspective and environment with humour and hinting at the next steps for 4107 and the Florans’ journey in the universe.

 

REVIEW: “Barren Isle” by Allen M. Steele

Review of Allen M. Steele, “Barren Isle”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 130-146 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

A team of Corps of Exploration soliders are tasked with a search and rescue operation on the Barren Isle – a remote location on the planet Coyote inhabited by often dangerous native tribes and members of a fanatical religious cult. The team’s mission is to find and retrieve two children who are believed to have made their way to the Barren Isle while running away from New Salem and the Book and Candle cult.

This is a pretty fun military scifi short. The team have good banter and personalities. The setting and stakes are drawn up fast, mostly through conversation with a few necessary blocks of historical information and context.

I found the The Book and Candle and Fletcher a bit two-dimensional as villains, though, and the protagonists were straight-up ‘good guys’ saving misguided people back to where they belonged. It was a bit simplistic in morality and character depth for my tastes. I also never felt that the danger was particularly real – our heroes never seemed challenged or threatened, which I found undermined the stakes. On the whole, however, this story delivered what it said it would on the tin and came to a neat conclusion.