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Without Absolution
Amy Sterling Casil
Wildside Press, 181 pages

Without Absolution
Amy Sterling Casil
Amy Sterling Casil is a 1984 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop and has been the moderator of the America Online Science Fiction Writers Workshop since 1994. She received her MFA in creative writing from Chapman University, Orange, California, in 1999 and is teaching SF and Fantasy writing through the NovelAdvice site, Writers Club on the Web, Writers.Com and UC Riverside Extension.

Amy Sterling Casil Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Wildside Press

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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Without Absolution, the first collection of stories and poems from Amy Sterling Casil is the work of a good writer who is slowly but surely learning to be a good science fiction writer. As such, it is a solid example of what I believe to be a truism: that writing quality science fiction requires more skill on the part of the author than writing traditional mainstream fiction, not less.

The stories in Without Absolution are generally character studies that lead to an emotional resolution, and while the setting may be the near future or may feature a new technology in the background, that technology is not the centre of the story. For example, in "Jonny Punkinhead" a new virus has caused physical mutations in a number of children. The story builds up to a climax in which the main character slowly realizes that the centre of his emotional life has shifted. The story is focused on the lives of people who work with the children, and does not concern itself with the biology of the virus or how it works. Similarly, in "Motherwife," a man becomes emotionally trapped in a virtual reality of his own design, but the story is concerned entirely with the inner life of the character, and takes the technology that allows for virtual reality and a form of artificial intelligence for granted.

This approach brings with it all the traditional virtues of mainstream literature. Well-drawn characters and prose that works to bring us into their inner lives are the hallmarks here, and, in general, the results are quite satisfying. But science fiction also requires a greater attention to setting, and to ideas generated by the characters' interaction with the imagined world. Those qualities are not as apparent in Casil's stories, and that sometimes works to their detriment as science fiction.

"My Son, My Self" is the prime example. The technological background is human cloning, and the crux of the story is a father's emotional reaction to his impending death. The ending hits with a shock, but it is a shock that is dependent on two of the characters, a businessman and a doctor, completely ignoring the moral implications of what they are doing. The story avoids the moral issues by avoiding any in-depth examination of a society that practices human cloning. Somewhere in that society, moral questions that we would ask have been pushed aside, and because the background is not sufficiently explored, it feels like the reason is to assure the emotional climax of the story. "My Son, My Self" is science fiction that tries to get around the requirements of what makes good SF.

At their best, the stories in Without Absolution are intense psycho-dramas, the work of a skilled story-teller who likes to get inside her characters' skins. Her prose and poetry are compelling and should appeal to readers of the stories of Karen Joy Fowler and Laurel Winter. There is not much here yet for fans of hard SF, but as Casil better learns to integrate technological and scientific ideas into her stories, she could very well blossom as a science fiction writer. It's a path that Kim Stanley Robinson, for one, walked -- and there are worse examples to follow than his!

Copyright © 2001 Greg L. Johnson

The continuing winter has led reviewer Greg L. Johnson to observe that inward-directed psychological dramas play well against a barren, cold landscape. His reviews also appear in The New York Review of Science Fiction.


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