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Asimov's Science Fiction, April 2001

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

There's something to be said for convention, for a story fully conscious of and grateful to the conventions that guide and nourish it; but such reverence should never be taken too far. Unfortunately, two of the four novelettes in the April Asimov's bend over backwards in their genuflection, to such an extent that serious spinal damage is to be apprehended. It can only be hoped that Laura J. Mixon and Elisabeth Malartre recover from their literary contortions, artistically if not physically.

Malartre's contribution, "A Windy Prospect" (and her prospects are rather windy, if she goes on writing like this) is just plain dumb, clichés worse confounded. A desert planet has intelligent kangaroo-like inhabitants, whose reproductive secrets (arcane and dangerous, as in any such story) humans have not, for some inexplicable reason, bothered to investigate much; and with sensitivity to match that neglect, the Earth authorities have allowed a mining company to set up clunking shop on said planet, subject to no environmental regulation and with the !Dran 'roos as cheap labour. The protagonist, an Australian redneck, and his love interest, a visiting "cross-cultural liaison" (read expedient bimbo), seem to have no awareness of the history of colonialism, of the traumatic impact of technological civilization upon any culture of so-called primitives; rather, mining efficiency overrules all, and when they scent profit, they join the rape of the !Dran world without compunction. So, while recycling blithely every stock element of anthropological SF, Malartre ignores its chief lessons, of cultural sensitivity and alertness to historical example-lessons even Star Trek learnt long ago, as witness the Prime Directive. Perhaps Malartre is unconscious even of that. But why waste further space speculating on the origins of such transparent and transient bullwash?

Laura J. Mixon, it should be said at once, tries a lot harder; "At Tide's Turning," a description of a difficult stage in the terraforming of an alien moon, has intelligent touches, such as its portrayal of the claustrophobic culture of the clone groups who are altering the climate of Brimstone. What grates here is how so conventional a plot is grafted on to an effectively evoked milieu: surely more can be accomplished here than simply another tale of a lonely outsider redeeming herself by performing heroically in a moment of acute crisis, yawn, yawn, ad nauseam? In such cases of failure of narrative nerve, editorial intervention is called for; but it wasn't forthcoming, so counter-examples are required -- and fortunately, the April issue contains two further novelettes that illuminate key aspects of the SF craft rather neatly.

That cunning and cynical old pro, Brian Stableford, leaps first into the creative breach. "Rogue Terminator," a gleefully misleading title if ever there was one, is all about terminator genes, those triggers of death in genetically modified organisms that have reached the end of their usefulness or their period of paid use, and about how rogue farmers (pharmers in the parlance of the Genetic Revolution) can switch them off to the ends of illegal agricultural profit. Not only is the detail sardonically telling, a vista of near-future economic and ecological transformation that strangles the reader's complacency with vicious immediacy; there is also an acute irony in a relation of such novelty in the canny close traditional dialect of an English farmer, a dialect that makes it plain that whatever else changes, crops included, the skills and politics of land management remain essentially the same. Stableford has written on such topics innumerable times before; but he always offers a fresh angle, tricks of perspective that invigorate the old while broaching subversively the new. You can use clichés, but their alignment is everything.

Nancy Kress administers an even more effective demonstration than Stableford's, in a long novelette titled -- another knowing cliché -- "Computer Virus." Kress's essential situation is familiar: a hostage drama, with the wealthy recluse seized and held captive in the very fortress that was supposed to guarantee her security; negotiations follow with the captor, accompanied by much nail-chewing tension inside and outside "the castle." But tweak certain elements, Kress reckons as expertly as ever; why not make the hostage-taker an exotically sympathetic figure, someone persecuted unjustly by a government conspiracy? Been done before, too? Well then, another tweak: the captor is a sentient computer virus on the run through the networks. This MIGHT have been done before, but never this well; and the cliché is remade, the convention allies seamlessly with the author's original input. "Computer Virus" belongs on the awards shortlists, and dexterity with old standbys is essential to its success; Mixon could well benefit by studying it, and maybe even Malartre is not totally a lost cause.

As to April's shorter entries: animals are in season there. "Cockroaches," by Joseph Manzione, is a strikingly conceived but ultimately rather muffled take on how small we are in the universe (cockroaches, the analogy goes) and how subtle a sea-change can be. Unusual perspectives are very valuable, as Stableford shows; but you also must learn to write well. S.N. Dyer leads a trio of cat-worshippers in "My Cat," a paean to feline (or more likely authorial) pretensions of an artistic nature; two poems, "Ways to Tell if Your Cat Is a Space Alien" by Geoffrey A. Landis and "More Ways to Tell If Your Cat Is a Space Alien" by Mary A. Turzillo, complete the tribute with much whimsy and some accuracy. Sickly stuff, some might say, but still superior to Lisa Goldstein's hymn to dogs in a previous issue. Oh, and a final accolade goes to "Bacchanal" by Tim Pratt, a poem that summarizes with poignancy how much of a cliché frat parties are -- they go back millennia. Like certain SF plots.

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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