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Asimov's Science Fiction, December 2000

Asimov's SF, December 2000
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A review by Nick Gevers

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This is a particularly fine and well-balanced issue of Asimov's: of its six stories, three are rousing adventure narratives, and three are quiet, sober meditations on time and chance. The tales of action assert that justice can and must be seized, effected; the philosophical pieces suggest that justice comes randomly if at all. In his December selection, Gardner Dozois allows these opposite views of destiny to express themselves resonantly, in compelling and articulate debate.

The most substantial offering here is "Path of the Dragon," a novella by George R.R. Martin. It's somewhat misleading of the story's blurb to state that it is simply set in the same world as Martin's ongoing grand fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire; "Path" is in fact a more-or-less self-contained excerpt from that series' recently-published third volume, A Storm of Swords. But Martin is by far the ablest author of Big Commercial Fantasy currently active, so never mind "Path"'s origin: he is in superb form here, indulging to the fullest his taste for exotic entertainment in the manner of Jack Vance. His Princess Daenerys Targaryen is in exile from the realm of Westeros, to the throne of which she is rightfully heir; she is seeking a means to enforce her dynastic claims, and to this end arrives in the slave-dealing city of Astapor, a sort of combination of the worst of Ancient Carthage and Pharaonic Egypt. Much scheming and some hilarious dickering take place as Daenerys attempts to purchase a legion of Janissary-style eunuch soldier-slaves; but her dilemma is not truly how to outwit their merchant owners, but rather how to deal with the sheer moral horror of the institution of slavery. The answer Daenerys finds is bloodily appropriate to the time she inhabits; but at least she is striving to be just, to deserve the name of queen.

The only disagreeable aspect of "Path of the Dragon" is the pair of artists' interpretations accompanying it. Bob Eggelton's cover has Daenerys resembling nobody so much as the ditsy secretary in Ally McBeal; and Darryl Elliott's interior illustration makes of her a sort of sultry Southern slut, her heaving bosom awaiting the inspection of some barbaric Rhett Butler. Perhaps it's unwise to argue with how others visualise a text, but these artists seem to have lost the plot, to a serious degree.

Another action tale is "I Love Paree," a nifty collaboration by Cory Doctorow and Michael Skeet. With a fine line in post-modern cultural humour after the manner of Bruce Sterling, this novelette examines how the patriotic extremists of near-future Paris, alarmed by the submergence of their culture under Euro-Disney and American fast food franchises, commence a violent revolution dedicated to the rebuilding of the old metropolis, the place of baguettes, cafes, and Edith Piaf. Two Canadians, including the rather jaundiced narrator, are kidnapped by the Communards and conscripted into the struggle for Gallic purification. Personal and political outrage fume beneath the wisecracking; again, justice is at stake, and without it, patriotism is meaningless. But such as the Communards will never heed such lessons.

Justice with a capital J is the preoccupation of Mike Resnick in another novelette, "Redchapel," featuring a young Teddy Roosevelt investigating the killings by Jack the Ripper. Unfortunately, Resnick employs little irony in his description of Roosevelt, who in these alternate-history yarns is the heroic caricature of Bull Moose propaganda, the indefatigable optimist and activist of myth, not Roosevelt as he really -- ambiguously -- must have been. And so he stomps into England, and shows them how it's done in the proper old frontier way, and so on, and so on. Roosevelt's amateur detective routine is without suspense, and historical errors -- such as Roosevelt somehow believing that the new President would be inaugurated in November, not March as was then the case -- compromise a story already thin on logic and even thinner in its evocation of place. December's only turkey.

After the action, the meditations. "The God of Children" by Richard Parks is an ingenious ghost story, as rich with detail of the spiritual life of Japan as Resnick's Whitechapel is descriptively poor. A scientific investigator of the supernatural must explain the presence of a paradoxically frightening child's ghost in an old Shinto shrine; and his answer bears tellingly on questions of historical justice and personal responsibility. In "Merry Christmas from Navarro Lodge, 1928," Kage Baker, expert as always in the presentation of time travel, slips two contemporary people into that lodge at that time, and asks a chilling question about the cost of being who we are: by existing, are we all multiple murderers? In that case, what meaning can justice possibly possess? And "Balance Due" by M. Shayne Bell, a somber look at the fate of a man cryogenically frozen and revived centuries from now, demonstrates how worthless wealth and good fortune can be in the face of the levelling obduracies of law and custom. Parks, Baker, and Bell all write with a quiet power, all the more forceful for its lack of hyperkinetic heroism, for its refusal of easy solutions.

The December Asimov's is neatly divided between action and reflection, deeds and thought. That contemporary SF can thus argue agendas for urgent action alongside protocols for careful meditation is yet another sign of its potent versatility, its continued necessity and force; for illustrating this so usefully, all credit to the last issue of the Millennium.

Copyright © 2001 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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