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Asimov's Science Fiction, June 2001

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

There's a nice irony to the contents of the June Asimov's, one of the magazine's stronger issues. The theme linking its four novelettes seems to be New Blood, the necessity of rejuvenation; and it may be no coincidence, given Gardner Dozois's perceptiveness as an editor, that the solid established professionals who staff his pages here -- James Patrick Kelly, Nancy Kress, Kage Baker -- are joined for the occasion by Andy Duncan, the finest writer of short fiction produced by American SF in some time, and Charles Stross, who is Duncan's opposite number in Britain. To read Stross and Duncan is to experience all over again the aesthetic exhilaration that came from first acquaintance with the work of Lucius Shepard, or Greg Egan; they are new blood indeed...

In the first of June's novelettes, "Undone," James Patrick Kelly tries, most creditably, to deliver some novelty of its own, and experiments with tricks of typesetting (double columns, passages recapitulated backwards) and multiple narrative resolutions. But although "Undone" is pleasing enough, it is really, and Kelly acknowledges this, simply a tribute to writers of the 50s: Alfred Bester (the typographical stuff) and Cordwainer Smith (the weird amorous wanderings in time, the dubious effusions in verse). So although bloodstains are mixed, and a civilization is requickened, revitalization remains an abstract quality in Kelly's pages. Then Nancy Kress steps into the breach; after borrowing a rather sepulchral title and epigraph from jolly lyrical old Algernon Charles Swinburne ("And No Such Things Grow Here," from "The Garden of Proserpine"), she tells a gray disillusioned tale about the sterility induced by prohibitions on gene-modification (as in "Frankenstein foods"). There's no doubting the skill Kress brings to bear on her subject, the psychological and philosophical necessity some people feel in their exhaustion to stand back from the struggles of the world; but it's only natural for the reader to sit back after finishing the story and shudder dispiritedly. A good bleak tale can be too much of a good (and bleak) thing; however, at least Kress's future world may see a new and ravaging dawn.

Next at the tilt is the redoubtable (and considerably newer) Kage Baker, who allows slightly more optimism to colour her dystopian text, "Monster Story". England some time hence is depopulated, its surviving children pale, purged and regimented; the class system still injects the poison of double standards into an enfeebled body politic. But a prodigy (a monster, one might say) has been born, and is setting out to cheat the system; he has every expectation of success; and despite (in fact, because of) Baker's excessive fondness for the clichés of pukkah life, one can only wish him well. Which is fair enough. But to revolutionize properly, a more thorough approach is required, something radical and all-embracing, rather like the efficient office management recommended in Leslie What's odd and effective little modern fable, "Paper Mates" (a meditation on sex and stationery). So what manifestoes do the new writers, the actual prodigies, have to offer?

"Lobsters" is by no means Charles Stross's best story, but it has all his customary fertility of concept and thrusting busyness of diction. Even Bruce Sterling and Greg Egan would have difficulty matching the rate of fire here. Uploaded lobster intelligences, the replacement of capitalism with a whimsical economics of altruism, the displacement of love by fetishism, distant galaxies that betray intelligence transcendent and rampant -- these jostle for attention with innumerable other frenetic strands of postmodern bizarrerie, and the mixture is of a ferocious fecundity not often encountered. In the end, the protagonist faces a kind of genetic conscription, and so the old order is served one last time; but how long can it compete with such progeny? Should it even try?

Where Stross rushes impetuously forward and damn the odds, Andy Duncan is quieter, retrospective. "The Chief Designer," his third novella, is a short masterpiece of historical reconstruction and genre recomplication. From the viewpoints of Korolev, the "Chief" who presided over the most crucial years of the Soviet space programme, and his assistant and successor, Aksyonov, the USSR's defiant progress into and retreat from orbit is traced, in staccato bursts of telling incident and incisive characterization; there is the substance of a novel here, but Duncan has no trouble both skimming its surface and tracing its core in his packed 35 pages. It's a mark of Duncan's versatility and subtlety that he is all at once writing an historical novella, carefully and atmospherically true to period, an SF story, with much technological fascination and astronautical gung-ho, and a ghost story, which "The Chief Designer" most strangely becomes in its closing pages. There is authentic genius here, irrepressible, surely enough to stimulate a tired genre to renewed life; it can only be hoped that Andy Duncan will not spread his wings too widely, and fly, as his Soviets could never quite do, clean out of SF's sight.

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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