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Asimov's Science Fiction, January 2001

Asimov's SF, January 2001
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A review by Nick Gevers

The January Asimov's is dominated by Allen Steele's substantial novella "Stealing Alabama," a proficient thriller and the first in a promising series. Steele, in his usual rather conventional but also very readable Heinleinian manner, relates how, in an economically depressed mid-21st century rump USA, a conspiracy of courageous souls steals back destiny from a right-wing dictatorship. Said dictatorship has devoted huge resources to the prestige project of a starship, conspicuous consumption while the masses starve; the flag will be carried to the stars and the regime's popularity will be bolstered, while the impoverished multitudes and numerous imprisoned dissidents stay safely off the agenda. But elements of the ship's crew will have none of this, and plot to hijack the vessel from under the noses of the fascist securocracy. With impeccable cinematic pacing, Steele unfolds their elaborate conspiracy, maintaining strong suspense until the end. "Stealing Alabama" is all very well done, even though the rebel leader is called Robert E. Lee...

What makes this story especially interesting, though, is Steele's determination to free the American space programme from its association with the cause of the American Right. Please realise, he argues passionately, that the dream of space flight is an enterprise for all humankind, capable of benefiting everybody; to believe otherwise is to allow conservative military-industrial zealots to usurp control of the process by default. Then it is misused: then the reactionary worshippers of Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan and George Wallace (all of whom have institutions or shuttles named after them by the totalitarian Liberty Party of Steele's future) can transform NASA into an instrument of partisan expediency rather than a symbol of universal hope. Claim space back, Steele appeals; and his protagonists attempt to do just that. More will be written of them.

January's other entries are generally a good deal quieter, but they certainly make their mark. Novelettes by Robert Reed and Richard Wadholm intelligently question whether the psychological and ontological foundations of successful married lives should ever be taken for granted. Reed's "Mirror" supposes that our selves in countless parallel universes -- selves who have succeeded where we failed, or failed where we succeeded -- can step through a sort of quantum looking glass, to lord it over us or try to steal our riches away. The narrator has a beautiful wife, who may yet be coveted by the many versions of the billionaire who courted her but lost her; now town is full of numbered billionaire-iterations, and paranoia is inevitable. Reed resolves matters stylishly and well; but Wadholm, in his superb "From Here You Can See The Sunquists," takes a darker turn, into surrealism and despair. The Sunquists are a mature couple who can travel freely into the past, refreshing their marriage at its points of origin and greatest affection; but past truths may not accord with fond memories; and stepping into the future can be fatal, as the essence of one's dotage prematurely appears. This is a cruel knife of a tale, with any justice an award winner; but Wadholm clearly knows how illusory justice can be...

Time travel's existential implications also preoccupy the ever-reliable Kage Baker and Steven Utley. In "Studio Dick Drowns Near Malibu," Baker depicts her usual Company cyborg, a superhuman scavenger of historical valuables; having faked his own death to facilitate the assumption of a new scavenger-identity, the cyborg finds himself compelled to assist a suicidal woman in her adoption of a new name and commencement of a new life -- a life far more meaningful than any he can hope for. Freedom from the constraints of time and death is possibly no freedom at all; and Utley echoes this sentiment in "Half a Loaf," a philosophical dialogue of a story featuring other time travellers who can only strive to be satisfied with all they have gained (the Silurian was a pretty tedious epoch). But it's time Utley left the Silurian...

Lawrence Person's three-page "Getting Ready for Prime Time" constitutes a snappy and jocose reminder that dwelling on one's own ills so much is not altogether wise; there are Others out there, and they interpret our mopings and compensating japeries in ways peculiar to themselves. And they're on their way over...

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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