REVIEW: “The Last Dance” by Jack McDevitt

Review of Jack McDevitt, “The Last Dance”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 68-74 – Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

The Last Dance refers to contemporary technology and social developments such as Facebook pages as memorials for those who have died, or chat bots created from data from text conversations had while a person was alive.

Ethan’s wife, Olivia, died in a car accident and as part of his grieving process he orders a replacement AI program from a company called Celestial. AI “Olivia” has her voice, mannerisms and memories and allows Ethan to live with her makes it as if she never left. Almost.

The story premise is a bit “Black Mirror” but not quite so grim. It explores grief, the difficulties of letting someone go, how the echoes of people we love and miss haunt us, and how this can handled in ways that are both healthy… and not.

I found the core idea and themes were expanded on well, if a little overtly. Ethan’s unwillingness to move on was honest and Olivia’s actions in the end fitted with her motivations through the story, (though I found the final beat a bit flippant). Ethan’s daughter’s reaction to the whole thing was a particularly nice touch.

REVIEW: “And No Torment Shall Touch Them” by James Patrick Kelly

Review of James Patrick Kelly, “And No Torment Shall Touch Them”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 75-85 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

What happens when a loved one uploads themselves after death and hang around the family affairs afterwards like a bad smell?

We open with Carli’s Nonno interrupting his own, very formal and religious, funeral. Carli’s Nonno’s consciousness from just before he died has been uploaded and is able to manifest as a hologram at will to continue to observe and comment on his family’s lives and decisions. After a lifetime of running the family, Nonno’s uploaded ghost continues on to continue commenting. And he’s not restricted to observing only when he’s visible. He’s there, always, omnipotent – in some ways more controlling and present than in life.

The perspective shifts in this keep the pacing quick and allow the constraints that having Nonno around in perpetuity as they apply to each family member contrast and reveal themselves slowly. This is a story driven by layered internal conflicts – interpersonal, inter-generational, and individual. The religious and family themes here are deliberate and used effectively. The idea of consciousness uploading after death is not new, but the angle Kelly has chosen here of inter-generational family bonds and restrictions prevented from progressing in the natural order – some emerging and some breaking down – is very clever and took a second read for me to really appreciate.

REVIEW: “In Dublin, Fair City” by Rick Wilbur

Review of Rick Wilbur, “In Dublin, Fair City”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 48-67 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

The third in a series of historical fiction novelettes by Rick Wilbur following the adventures of Moe Berg, a real-life baseball player and spy during the second world war.

Moe and his frequent collaborator – known by many names, but most often referred to simply as ‘the woman’ – heard to Dublin where the English government and royals have taken refuge from the German bombings of London, much to the irritation of the Irish.

Moe and the woman are involved in fights on trains, secretive meetings in pubs, bombings, running along beaches while being strafed by the Luftwaffe, all in the hopes of convincing the Irish not to defect to the German side and to help the German scientist, Heisenberg, to escape to the safety of America along with all his important plans and research for a ‘super bomb’ that could end the war.

The details of the time and place are lovely in this piece and Wilbur spends a lot of time with Moe wandering through Dublin and experiencing it all.

The necessary world and character information was mostly clearly conveyed, but as someone who hasn’t read the previous two stories I found some contextual information was not made clear – do they time travel? Forget their missions afterward? Or is this somehow sequential or running alongside the other stories?

I found the pace a bit slow for all of the explosions and guns in this, especially the start. The chemistry between Moe and the woman was also a little flat for me, perhaps it was developed more in previous stories and just hearkened back to here.

Overall this was a good historical story with some great action towards the end.

REVIEW: “Confessions of a Con Girl” by Nick Wolven

Review of Nick Wolven, “Confessions of a Con Girl”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 35-47 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

Imposter syndrome turned up to 11.

What if your merit and social worth was not just reliant on your work and outputs, but on how everyone else sees you? Wolven presents a world where all social interaction is managed via Pro/Con votes on your holoscore – visible to everyone. It has resulted in a world of carefully managed interpersonal and online personas and interactions. These are judged and influence your world and professional opportunities as much as your college grades do.

Sophie is in a counselling session at college after she has fallen too far into the red (too many ‘Con’ votes). Wolven uses Sophie’s account of how she got there to discuss the ramification of the Pro/Con system taken to the extreme and how seemingly minor stumbles at different points can ripple outward and elicit negative responses. It also considers what good deeds count and whether the only things that matter are those that are seen and acknowledged by others.

We find out that Sophie has been allowed entry into a select college based on her excellent green holoscore and perceived potential. However this potential is increasingly questioned by herself and fellow students. Does she deserve to be there? Is she a good enough person? Is she capable of it?

I found this story conceptually compelling, but the narrative device of Sophie telling her professor a bit dry and created distance between the reader and the story. An interesting idea, but the story around it could have been more compelling.

REVIEW: “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine” by Greg Egan

Review of Greg Egan, “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 14-34 — Read Excerpt Online or Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

“…surely the planet still needed more than one person with the same skills?” (p.21).

Increasing automation and issues of basic income are contemporary big ticket speculative fiction fodder. Writers are looking at what effects these changes will have and what society will look like after the changes have taken place – what comes next?

Egan takes a refreshingly close and human angle to these themes in this novelette, focusing on the time period just as the situation begins to tip away from meaningful employment for everyone, but just before good solutions have been found. It’s a transitional period and nothing is quite working right.

The novelette’s protagonist, Dan, is made redundant from his job at a debt purchasing and consolidation firm, despite being good at his work. He begins to suspect that the company has outsourced his job to a machine.

The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine is less about Dan’s situation, though, and more a thoughtful exploration of how people would be affected by mass automation and related changes in various labour markets. How do you respond to large-scale change in a labour market when there are no viable alternatives yet and the old responses don’t work the way they used to? What happens if the services aren’t as good as they were previously, but are good enough? What employment prospects are left and how do you get them? What changes do you have to make to your lifestyle to cope with your new situation? What’s your least bad outcome? And how would corporations plan for and respond to the inevitable fallout of their ultimate end game?

Egan considers these questions through glimpses into the lives and experiences of different people in contact with Dan and going through similar employment problems. Seeing how these people respond to the circumstances – conspiracy theories, self-disillusionment, seeking frustrated justice – gives depth to the complexity of the situation at play. Policy makers often talk about a ‘primordial soup’ of solutions to a problem – this piece is all about showing that soup before the answers have been lifted out of it. The problems and solutions move around and opportunities are there to be taken, but not everything is necessarily viable and no-one knows what will work long-term.

The pacing is steady rather than quick, taking the time to consider all the elements of the premise being explored. I found the opening sequence a bit disorienting as well, but the narrative stabilised fairly quickly.

Importantly, the piece ends on a hopeful note, presenting the only sane path through uncertainty – focusing on what one person can do to help themselves.