I have been reading science fiction for far too many years without reading Robert Sheckley. The first story in the collection Untouched by Human Hands sets the tone for what to expect from Sheckley. “The Monsters” is a story from 1953 that subverts the usual tropes of the genre by telling a first contact story from the aliens perspective.
A reptilian-like race observers a rocket landing on the surface and strange bipedal creatures exits the ship. The aliens refer to themselves as humans and the Earth-humans as monsters, but it is clear for the reader what is going on. Through casual conversations among the reptile aliens we get a sense of what kind of society they have, their moral values and how the interpret the actions of the visting “monsters”. Sheckley’s writing is very clear and to the point, but still conveys a lot of information.
For a modern reader the plot and the concept of challenging our moral values with an outside look might not seem that original here 70 years later, but I still think Sheckley’s writing is above many authors of the present. It is clear without being dumbed down and has a lot of satirical subtext without being pretentious. Highly recommended.
Every fall issue Asimov’s has a few horror-stories for Halloween, so here we get a ghost story with rape, violence and murder. Terry picks up a shady guy at a bar looking for a one night stand. She ends up dead and her sixteen year old daughter gets kidnapped by the guy. But Terry stays conscious as a ghost where she is able to watch everything that happens and with some effort has the ability to slightly influence the living. She uses that to help the police and help her daughter fleeing from the kidnapper.
There is no science fiction element but I actually liked this rather hard-boiled exciting thriller. Usually not a fan of ghost stories but this was an exception.
Read in Asimov’s September/October 2022 Rating: 3+
This story by Alastair Reynolds was disappointing – mostly because I expect more from him. The title “Things to Do in Deimos When You’re Dead” is pretty accurate for what the story is about. It is not a fantasy afterlife thing, but more of a uploaded mind stuck in a computer limbo virtual world thing. A man wakes up in a strange place he can’t figure out. Two other people tells him he is dead because the cheap cryosleep method of transport he has used to get around the solar system sometimes fails. The company behind it have written in small print that they are allowed to use the minds of people for whatever purpose in such accidents. But in even rarer cases the minds gets stuck inside a server on Deimos in some sort of virtual limbo before their mind pattern dissolves completely. The man has a hard time accepting that, but the two other people work with him and teach him how to put this situation to good use. Apparently the computer they are stuck in is also a communication hub for very secure digital information in the solar system, but they have found a way of manipulating the datastreams in order to make slight changes that will have positive impact in the real world. Like changing someones credit score so they can get that loan they desperately need.
I have several problems with this. Not the writing because Reynolds can do that, but the whole concept is explained in a very handwavy manner. Reynolds is usually on the harder side of things and too much here didn’t make much sense. Especially the whole manipulation of the datastream annoyed me. They make a point about how this is meant to be a very secure channel, but somehow the data is not even encrypted since they are able to easily manipulate it. There isn’t even a handwavy explanation for why basic data security should have gone backwards in this far future or how these virtual dead minds can do that. That aside, the story is also dragged down by being mostly the two people explaining things to the newcomer. Not much is really happening other than infodumps.
This short story barely has a plot, but it does contain a nice character study in what some people might do in the last moments before some unexplained apocalypse. Here we follow a student who basically just want to hand in her paper on Shakespeare to her professor before the worlds end. I was impressed with how much character and personality Palwick creates for the student and the professor in such few pages.
Read in Asimov’s September/October 2022 Rating: 3+
I found this story to be quite interesting. It follows a young high school boy when everything in the world slightly changes. Everyone is similar to who he knows but not quite. People are not the same, but are being replaced by other with similar looks and background. It becomes clear that everyone is somehow shifting around in parallel worlds. Everyone else is experiencing the same thing and if you look away for a few seconds everything shifts again. The boy manages to stay together with a man resembling his father – as long as they keep watching each other.
In this world breaking event society doesn’t quite break down but everyone is struggling with this new unexplained world shifting. In typical Egan style people start to work on the problem in a logical, methodical and scientific manner. Testing various things to see what makes people able stay together, how to communicate across worlds or test if the process can be stopped by video recording.
What I think Egan is going for here is to comment on whether society will descend into anarchy or solidarity in the event of a global crisis. Egan is somewhat mostly in the positive camp here, which is a nice change from all dystopian stories.
This story is part of a series of stories with recurring characters, but I think it stands quite well on its own. In a future where spaceships have an AI personality, after a long journey to the outer parts of the solar system a ships AI, named Brittney, have become more self aware than is usual for these AIs. Going back to Earth Brittney must adapt to “survive” so it can keep its memories and unique personality. Brittney gets sort of refurbished into a personal AI for a human host. They start working together for shared and individual goals.
There are so many AI stories in the last couple of years that I become tired of them quickly, but this story tells me that better and more interesting AI stories were written several years ago. Lovett creates the right balance between a relatable and interesting AI character – without it is too much like a human. Very much recommended.
This story is sort of a sequel to his 2009 Hugo Award winning short story “Bridesicle”. That story was brilliant so I was somewhat skeptical that it should need a sequel. In my mind “Bridesicle” was perfect on its own and didn’t need any followup. Maybe I am biased because of that, but I don’t think this new story works nearly as well. In fact it has a good deal of problems.
The premise of both stories is a future where people can be revived from the dead, but the insurance is expensive so not everybody has that opportunity. A company has taken advantage of this by picking deceased young woman and putting them in frozen storage. Then rich, mostly old, men can order short dates with them and then pay for the revival if she agrees to a marriage contract. It is not even implied, but clearly stated that this basically means that these women only get a second chance at life if they agree to become sex slaves. At least until the rich guy dies.
The original “Bridesicle” handled this beautifully by not dwelling excessively on this abhorrent business concept, but built an interesting story told from the point of view of one of the dead women and her complex relationship with the guy who falls in love with her. That story was in my opinion perfect and a very worthy award winner.
“Work after Eighty” tells a similar story from the point of view of a woman who works at the clinic. One day an old high school friend turns up as one of the newly dead women in the clinic. She takes it upon herself to try and coach her old friend into how she can get out alive by saying the right things to the dirty old men coming to date her. The problem with this story is that it spends almost every page telling the reader how awful this concept is and how horrible these rich old men are.
I don’t mind stories with a political message and there can be plenty of good reasons to make rich men the villains in a story, but in my opinion that cannot stand on its own. There is still a need to write a good story with interesting and complex characters. Perhaps even introduce some ambiguity and create a sense of doubt about the morals for the reader.
I don’t think most people need much convincing that a company that let’s rich men revive young woman to become their “wife” if they want to live again is immoral. Then it becomes somewhat tiresome with a whole story with basically different ways of saying the same thing.
I am probably more harsh on “Work after Eighty” than it objectively deserves. On its own it works for what it wants to achieve, but go read “Bridesicle” if you haven’t.