REVIEW: “Sea of Dreams” by Cixin Liu

Review of Cixin Liu (Translated by John Chu), “Sea of Dreams”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 75-93 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

This is a beautiful, strange story.

An alien being interrupts an ice and snow art exhibition and wants to create its own work on earth, using the earth’s seas as its medium. Yan Dong, the artist whose work the alien liked most out of the exhibition, strikes up a connection with the alien which changes as the alien’s artistic vision is realised and the earth has to live with the aftermath of its creation.

This is really a story about art and the place art has in a society. Through conversations between the alien and Yan Dong, Cixin Liu considers whether art is the most important thing for a society to be doing, whether society exists solely for the purposes of allowing art to be created, and whether sometimes there are more important things than art.

The alien’s artwork and the challenges it poses for the earth are original and compelling. This novelette covers a lot of ground in the short amount of words it’s working with – space travel, planet-wide experiences, and events that take place over decades. I liked Yan Dong as an emotional voice for humanity, too – his reactions and decisions felt satisfying and correct and happened in the right way at the right times. The science elements of the story are smart, too, and support the fictional story rather than driving it.

There’s a lot to think about here and it’s wonderfully told with images I’m certain will stick with me.

REVIEW: “The Rescue of the Renegat” by Kristine Katherine Rusch

Review of Kristine Katherine Rusch, “The Rescue of the Renegat”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 154-192 — Read Excerpt Online or Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

This was a fun read and a highlight for me this issue. I read it in one sitting because I didn’t want to put it down. It’s like a solid episode of a sci-fi TV show you didn’t know you wanted to be watching.

The crew of the Aizsargs are in charge of closing off a Sector Base no longer in use by the Fleet – a giant flotilla of ships traversing space together (“always forward”). The Fleet takes 500 years to pass over any given point from start to finish, so they often occupy or associate with bases for a long time before shutting them down. Mid-closure, however, a strange ship – the Renegat – appears out of foldspace in distress. It looks to be over a hundred years old with questionable signs of life on board and the crew of the Aizsargs sets up a rescue mission, despite not knowing where or when the Renegat came from, who’s on board, or even how to conduct the rescue mission on a ship that old.

This novella is set in Rusch’s established Diving Universe, but even for someone not familiar with it Rusch sets up a world that feels full and established despite the short word length.

Despite the simple premise of the story, the pacing is fast and Rusch manages to give it a lot of character and emotional depth. There were multiple perspective characters throughout and each one, despite some of them only getting two or so scenes, had an arc and a place in the story. The cast felt full, with histories and futures that extended beyond the edges of the story told here. Fantastic stuff.

REVIEW: “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” by Connie Willis

Review of Connie Willis, “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 168-197 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

I have to find Ozymandias’s first. It’s here someplace, on one of these endless, look-alike streets. It has to be.
Because otherwise all those endless shelves of books – all those histories and plays and adventures and sentimental novels and textbooks and teen star biographies are gone. And whatever fascinating or affecting or profound things were in them are as lost to us as that vanished kingdom of Ozymandias’s. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair indeed.

Jim is on a book publicity tour, based on his successful blog “Gone for Good” where he advocates for an end to nostalgia for things that no longer have a use disappearing: VHS tapes, payphones, telegrams. In Jim’s view, things being surpassed by better things and therefore being lost is part of the natural order of things. That is, until he stumbles into Ozymandius Books. Describing beyond this point would be giving away what makes this story special. This is a classic story of a protagonist falling into a strange world and then returning, not the same as they were when they started. Describing that world is the story and it’s done wonderfully here.

This novella was probably my favourite story this issue. It’s a lovely read for its own sake, but I enjoyed pausing while I read this to think about the questions it was raising: about the inherent value of books, whether updated knowledge invalidates the usefulness of the previous, and whether a book or a story loses its value when society moves away from it. At it’s core though, I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land asks two questions: Where does the last copy go? And does anyone care about it?

This story is necessarily a bit literary in tone and theme – being a meta-consideration of books and literature and their importance – but Willis’ narrative pacing and descriptions of Ozymandius were great and kept it from becoming too navel-gazey.

REVIEW: “The Nanny Bubble” by Norman Spinrad

Review of Norman Spinrad, “The Nanny Bubble”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 160-166 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

Aunty Nanny knows when you are creeping

She knows when you’re a snake

She’ll keep you in her Bubble

Never gonna let you escape

Ted – who does not like being called Teddy – loves playing baseball and he’s pretty good at it. Or so he thinks. See, he’s only ever played structured Little League games in real time – everything else is simulations. He lives in a Nanny Bubble – a complete smartphone, 3D audio and Heads-Up Glasses system that monitors where he is and keeps him confined to a four-block radius. This doesn’t seem like such a constraint to Ted – he can go wherever he wants in virtual reality, unlike the poor kids. Except one day, when he accidentally ends up on the wrong side of the park he sees the poor kids playing a type of baseball he’s never seen before, played in real time. Ted sees an opportunity to test out whether he’s really good at baseball, if he could ever really think about playing the Major Leagues, and hatches a plan to find out.

This is a pretty simple story speculating on one idea – what if kids were so monitored that they couldn’t wander off, meet other kids, stay out close to dusk and make their own fun? Does that experience still have value in a technology-driven world? And if we don’t watch our kids every second of the day, what’s the worst that could happen?

I enjoyed this one. It’s got a nice nostalgia to it, despite the 20 minutes into the future setting. Spinrad really manages to capture that ‘late-summer hanging out at the park with your friends’ atmosphere. There’s also some nice food for thought about independence and the importance of being given room to figure things out for yourself. The parental villains fell a bit flat for me, but that element didn’t overly get in the way of a light, fun read.

REVIEW: “Nine Lattices of Sargasso” by Jason Sanford

Review of Jason Sanford, “Nine Lattices of Sargasso”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 126-149 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

I now know, my maybe on-day love, that memories aren’t reality. But I still hope the memories I’ve shared hold true. If only for a little while.

I really enjoyed this one. Told in a series of nine ‘Lattices’ – memory experiences that are able to be live-streamed or uploaded to the greater mind web – Sanford tells the story of Amali, her family, and Mareena a girl who washes up on their home Lifeboat Merkosa – a massive floating island for refugees of a technological crash caused by a rogue AI.

This has one tough opening sequence. I struggled with the first two ‘Lattices’ – the world-building, the technology, who my main character was and generally what was going on was all dense difficult to grasp. But Lattice 3 gives the world and characters context and it romps home from there. I went back and re-read the first two Lattices after finishing the piece and they made much more sense after the fact. Readers should stick with this one to at least Lattice 3 to give this novelette a proper chance.

Though it takes a while for all of it to become comprehensible, readers are rewarded with a story that includes issues of refugees and nationless-ness, piracy and exploitation of the vulnerable, and characters who are morally ambiguous at best all tied up into an action story set in a surreal post-apocalypse with smaller, human moments at its heart.

REVIEW: “Love and Dearth and the Star that Shall Not Be Named: Kom’s Story” by James Gunn

Review of James Gunn, “Love and Dearth and the Star that Shall Not Be Named: Kom’s Story”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 118-125 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

This story is part of a series of tie-in pieces for James Gunn’s Transcendental trilogy of novels. Each tells the backstory of one character in the novels and how they came to seek the Transcendental Machine central to the novels.

A nice angle on a first contact story. Kom, a Sirian, encounters a human named Sam floating in an escape capsule near the star that his people hold to be the place where paradise for the dead is located. In learning to communicate with Sam, Kom describes the history, creation myths, culture and procreating practices of his planet and species. These conversations with Sam prompt Kom to think differently about these things and reconsider his life trajectory.

I really liked the mythology of this piece. Kom’s tales of the star that shall not be named and the beliefs attached to it by his people – the Ranians – are beautiful. I also enjoyed Kom and Sam’s conversations and the internal revelations this invoked in Kom. The shifts between recollections, current events, and creation myths are handled well, too.

However, as someone not familiar with the Transcendental novels I found the turn the story takes at the end to tie-in to the novel universe a bit abrupt. Where Kom was being sent to, why this was important, and Kom’s motivations for his quest for transcendence and the Transcendental Machine happened fast – within paragraphs – and weren’t clear to me. This left me unsatisfied with the ending. I suspect this is unlikely to be the case for a reader familiar with Gunn’s novels, but it did detract from this piece’s ability to stand on its own for me.

REVIEW: “Afloat Above a Floor of Stars” by Tom Purdom

Review of Tom Purdom, “Afloat Above a Floor of Stars”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 106-117 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley. 

You’ve been selecting women with the traits you like, whether you know it or not… Independent legacy women join our branch. Legacy men keep joining the male branch. You belong to a dying species. 

A strange story that considers gender and long-distance space travel. Revali and Kemen are to be the sole human occupants on a voyage outside the galaxy. Along the way they will undertake their own research projects and participate in a long-term research project that seeks to answer one of humanity’s most pressing questions: is the splintering of the human race inevitable with the ability to create companions with genetics and personalities compatible to the other gender? Can men only cohabit successfully with women who have been designed to please them? And vice versa? Will ‘legacy’ humans die out because they are unable to coexist successfully long-term with other genders, or because they keep ‘defecting’ to cohabit with the kind of gender partners designed for them? Will the two legacy genders just give up trying to work out relationships with their legacy counterparts as just too hard?

The trip will take them thirty-six years and involve periods of hibernation and waking, as well as gender swaps for both of them across the journey. At the end Kemen and Revali have committed to undertake a ceremony in one last ditch attempt to show humanity that, from outside the galaxy their differences are minuscule and that unity between the two factions is possible. 

The approach to gender here is an interesting one – essentially considering the question of whether men and women can ever really understand each other or cohabit for long periods of time, or if there are fundamental personality differences and tendencies that both work together and don’t. But I found it a bit binary and limited. While there is gender changing here the gender roles being considered are between ‘legacy’ men who want compliant women and legacy women who are not suitable to work with legacy men long term and have instead also created partners they can work with. In short, I would have liked a more nuanced look at gender and cross-gender relations that the premise could have provided than was covered here. Despite this, the stated conflict has been fully thought through and Purdom explores it well, using the length of the trip and the discussions between Kemen and Revali as they move through their different physical bodies to cover the problem’s intricacies.  

REVIEW: “Skipped” by Emily Taylor

Review of Emily Taylor, “Skipped”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 100-105 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley. 

“This is awkward,” I said. “But one of us has skipped.” 

Sometimes the transport architects get it wrong and you bounce through a space-time pocket in transit and swap places with another you in the multiverse. You have to sign a waiver to travel accepting the risk. It’s not common, but it’s the situation Taylor’s protagonist finds herself in and one she must live with until she reaches the transport station and is swapped back in to her own life and universe again. 

I really enjoyed this one – it’s a great example of a simple, punchy idea thought all the way through. The real story here is less about how the protagonist gets back and more about her considering the contrasts between her own universe and the life she has left behind, and the one she has found herself in. Children she did and didn’t have, partners and life trajectories, and how the moon she lives on differs to the one she finds herself in. The way the memories of the past and the experience of the present, which isn’t really ‘real’ alternate give the piece a dreamy feel, too. The reveal of the protagonist’s change in perspective and what she’s bringing back to her own universe is developed really well despite the short length of the piece and lands on a satisfying end point. 

REVIEW: “Timewalking” by Michael Cassutt

Review of Michael Cassutt, “Timewalking”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 86-99 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley. 

He, James this year, this month, this week, is not only signalling 1962 and 1974 and possibly 1988 James… he is signalling James This Week. 

A different take on a time travel story. James has begun to sleepwalk and, in an attempt to figure out what’s going on contacts an experimental company called Ikelos who attempt to cure him. Instead, they tell him that he is not in fact sleepwalking, but walking through time. This allows James to send future information back to his past self and access information in the past that his future self has left for him there. James’ future self is trying to tell him something about the decisions he makes about his start up company May Cay and their ramifications for the future. 

I enjoyed how the two intertwined storylines echoed one another thematically – the timewalking web and the ‘vineware’ plant-machine hybrid product James is creating with his start up – and how both deal with changing up current methods of passing information along. Watching the information pass between the two as the story progressed was compelling and a good use of both ideas. 

I found James’ final decision a little unsatisfying, though, it didn’t quite derive from his previous thinking and experiences enough to follow on logically for me. 

REVIEW: “Operators” by Joel Richards

Review of Joel Richards, “Operators”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 150-159 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

I really love people thinking about technology disrupting different industries and what happens when people don’t think through the implementation ahead of time. Autonomous vehicles are a big deal contemporary speculative topic, but it’s mostly been focused on cars. Operators looks instead at trucks and logistics, a big deal economy and enterprise across the world and particularly in America where long-haul trucking of various goods is ingrained.

I loved how the protagonist had to balance competing interests in this – hired by the big trucking companies to spy on his fellows, but somehow trying not to be the bad guy either. The conflict wasn’t overwhelming, but it drove the character and story well. I found the tone really made this piece. It was down-to-earth and personable, which suited the setting and characters being portrayed. You don’t want fancy metaphors in a piece that deal with people down on their luck and out of work in the middle of nowhere. The ending was nifty and smart, staying true to the viewpoint character and managing to be a bit surprising as well.