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Asimov's Science Fiction, September 2000

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

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Asimov's for September 2000 is an unusually generous issue, featuring no fewer than three novellas, all solid efforts by solid writers, as well as several short stories of considerable bite. A good starting point for discussion is Stephen Baxter's "Silver Ghost," which probably bites deepest.

"Silver Ghost" is a brief entry in the Xeelee sequence, a future history that already extends across five volumes and unimaginable reaches of space and time. Baxter is a master of grim cosmic irony, the sort of irony that shows us up as tiny primates chittering self-importantly in the endless dark; and his new crop of Xeelee tales, including most notably the recent novella "Reality Dust," carries this technique further, in a deeply interesting manner of deflation-by-expansion. Simply put, at this stage in Baxter's series the human race is expanding confidently into the Galaxy, having survived ages of oppression by sundry alien conquerors. The enterprise of empire appears to be prospering, but owing to the annihilation of almost all its historical records, the species has forgotten the lessons of its chastening past. The old hubristic errors are repeated again and again; and witnessing this infantile folly, the reader understands just how brief humanity's new glory will be. Deflating, yes, but "Silver Ghost"'s account of a military brat's strange meeting with a uniquely configured alien is fascinating and moving at the same time as it is a parable of some abstract force. And this mix of biological speculation and acute argument continues, more tellingly still, in "On the Orion Line," in the October/November Asimov's.

September's other (very) short stories are "Comp.Basilisk FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)," by David Langford, an agreeably savage vignette expressing the Dangers of Beholding the Unthinkable; and John Alfred Taylor's "Tinkerbell is Dying," an equally harsh take on the morality of coercing reality -- and human beings -- into showing an ideal face. With admirable succinctness, Baxter, Langford, and Taylor demonstrate just how deceiving appearances can be; and at much greater length, two novellas attempt much the same, but with rather more doubtful results...

Rick Wilber's "To Leuchars" commences as a memoir of regret. Its narrator is an activist disillusioned with his cause and, even more, with himself; he has led protests against the alien overlords of Earth, only to be spared ignominiously from the slaughter of his followers. Now, under a new name, and expecting restful tranquillity, he is a poet visiting humanity's only colony planet, a society desperately -- and perhaps redeemingly -- in need of his renounced skills. As a reflection on the mentality of political disengagement, and on the reawakening of idealism, "To Leuchars" works quite well; but the deus ex machina wheels of its plot, which peculiarly impose new illusions even less defensible than the old, leave a sour taste in the mouth. And Lois Tilton's "The Enclave," a competent but derivative description of a survivalist community living in bucolic withdrawal from the real world of technology and disease, penetrates the illusions of isolation acutely enough, but descends too easily into affirmatory sentiment at the end. Bathos, bathos.

This issue's opening novella, "Father To The Man" by the ever-productive Robert Reed, is the reverse of bathetic, serving as it does as the climax of a series of well-regarded space operas Reed has published in Asimov's since 1993. Unfortunately, for an uninitiated reader, "Father To The Man" reads like the closing chapter of a novel the previous parts of which are not available. Being plunged into a remorseless torrent of undecodable references to what has gone before is perplexing, to say the least. Reed executes a very serviceable variation on the theme of post-human superheroes on the loose through time and space, but little more can reliably be said.

So: a respectable, but only intermittently inspired, issue. Where is Lucius Shepard when you need him?

Copyright © 2000 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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