This story is set in a near future Silicon Valley where a tech billionaire gets his friend to test a prototype of a bracelet that is able to detect the current mood of the wearer. It glows different colors depending on whether the person is intrigued, skeptical, afraid, excited and so on.
At least that is where it begins, because the story quickly takes some wild turns where we end up in a parallel world with an highly advanced Roman empire. Apparently, the tech billionaire has stolen some of his tech through a portal to this world.
There are quite a few interesting concepts introduced here and a couple of noteworthy jabs at the tech billionaires of the present, but it is simply too many things crammed into too few pages. The story starts in a normal pace, then quickly goes into overdrive and then it is all over with a couple of timelapse paragraphs. These kind of ideas could really have benefited from at least a novella to come properly together.
This long novella was a tough one to get through. It is basically one long love letter homage to Elon Musk. Even without the recent Twitter debacle I don’t think Musk is someone who deserves much praise. He might have grand ideas about humans colonizing space in the near future, that can seem admirable especially for science fiction fans. But with his complete lack of basic human decency, I wouldn’t wish for a future led by people like him. At times I was unsure whether this whole thing is meant as satire, but I actually don’t think so.
The story takes place at least 100 years in the future and a slow colonization of the solar system is in progress. The story is told like a journal and autobiography by a business man who has named himself Elon Tesla in honor of Musk – who allegedly showed humans the way to colonize space. Now Elon Tesla takes the credit for terraforming Mars, building space habitats around Jupiter and the creation of hibernation technology allowing humans to travel great distances in time and space without reducing their biological lifespan. The background frame around Teslas lifestory is the discovery of an alien spacecraft on course for Earth that will reach us in a thousand years. And he wants to meet them.
The whole Elon Musk fanism is bad enough but even if I tried to read it with that name erased, the story is really just very boring. Things are told with broad strokes about all the big developments without any details. A story written as an autobiography really needs an interesting character to be worth it, but Elon Tesla has basically no personality at all. It is unclear what he even does. He is not a brilliant engineer inventing stuff making it all possible. He doesn’t even has the big ideas. Seemingly all he does is provide funding for other peoples ideas and then takes the credit. In that sense, I guess he resembles Elon Musk.
This short story follows an older farmer named Buck living in North Carolina. He recently lost his wife and is generally not happy with life at the moment. Then a storm hits his farm and the rainfall reveals something underneath a small hill on his farm. His farm is on otherwise flat land, but since the small circular shaped hill have always been there, he hadn’t given it much thought. Underneath the now washed away dirt he finds what appears to be a crashed flying saucer. The saucer appears to be still “alive”, but weakened. With help from his UFO-enthusiastic cousin they manage to reactivate the saucer, following its “instructions” – since it appears to be able to communicate with them in some telepathic function to their subconscious.
I got a very Clifford D. Simak like feeling reading this story. The characters are likeable farmers portrayed with a lot of respect, like Simak was also famous for doing. The story manages to balance and combine something lighthearted and a bit funny, while also dealing with serious issues such as loss and loneliness in an appropriate manner.
Read in Asimov’s November/December 2022 Rating: 3+
I tend to prefer stories with a clear setup where the world is established and there is a mostly straightforward plot. This story is one of the exceptions because the plot is minimal and we don’t get much background information about anything. Yet it has stayed in my mind for a while and clearly made an impression.
A man is living inside computer simulations and no longer has a physical body. But he has grown bored by them. He tries a new rather expensive one that on the surface is very mundane. It is basically just a short train ride. But the level of detail is so much richer than the other simulations. Everything is individually modeled and not just a generic texture. Birds are fully simulated animals and not simply basic repeated patterns. It feels more real.
It is not a story with plot-twists or big revelations, but it has a lot of atmosphere with a sense of melancholy. There are countless stories of computer uploaded minds but this captures how such simulations will likely still miss something to feel completely real. We don’t get any background information on any of the characters, but we get a very clear sense of their motivations and internal struggles with living inside computer simulations. They all seem to be missing their real physical life and will happily settle for a simulated world that has more depth than breadth in its level of details. Whatever goes on in the real world is story is not mentioned but not important. The story works very well within it its own little microcosm.
Khanna gives a first contact story where the actual contact part is not that easy. A large object appears over Los Angeles and it just hovers there doing nothing. All kinds of methods at communication is attempted. Visual, sound, smell, every kind of radio transmission and nothing happens.
The story follows Monique as she gets involved with the project for her ability to find hidden connections in seemingly noisy data. When they try physical contact with the object, the people come back sick – but with very different kinds of symptoms. Monique thinks this is the key to finding the right way to communicate with the aliens.
It is a risky choice to build a first contact story around aliens that are not communicating anything at all. There is a payoff in the end explaining what is going on and I found it to be quite a good explanation for why aliens might not try communicating with anything obvious like sound, radio or visual. The problem is that the whole story is one long buildup to that point and then the story stops. The payoff is good, but not enough to justify the whole story that I felt could have been used for more.
Read in Asimov’s November/December 2022 Rating: 2+
Kress is mostly known for using biology and especially genemodifications in her science fiction, so this time travel story from 1991 is a bit different but still very much a Kress story.
Everyone knows the trope about going back in back to kill some historic person in order to prevent a terrible war, though I can’t really recall many stories directly doing that. Here Kress creates an interesting setup where a mysterious church group tries to manage different time streams. They do this not by killing people in the past, but taking them hostage. The story follows Anne Boleyn being taken hostage and held in a facility with other historic figures like Helen of Troy and Herr Hitler. She is treated well given the circumstances, but what she wants most of all is some explanations on why she was taken out of her time and what her now cancelled future would have looked like. Rightfully she feels robbed of having the freedom to live her own life and decide her own destiny. This causes some problems for her hostage takers and are forced to reevaluate their methods.
Anne Boleyn was the queen of England from 1533 to 1536 when she was executed. Removing her before that apparently would prevent the great English Civil War about a hundred years later. I am not that well versed in that period of history, but while interesting – that part of the story is really not that important. What makes this story good is Anne, her perseverance and vigor to work within this system that has captured her and robbed her of her life, to achieve some kind of justice in the end.
You don’t need to be a history buff or even know who Anne Boleyn is (admittedly I didn’t) to enjoy the story. The characterization of Anne is what makes this story worthwhile. The time-travel stuff is just a delightful bonus.
The cover story for this issue of Asimov’s brings us aboard a spaceship that has some kind of accident. This gets told from two alternating point of views. From the rescueship and from the livestock manager Gabe aboard on the other ship.
I was a bit confused about the structure at first because switching between viewpoints and time usually means that they merge for some reveal in the end. However here it is quickly revealed that the rescue will be successful and that Gabe has survived almost 30 years on the ship. So a good deal of the story is various flash backs of his time on the ship, how he makes food and such, and most importantly – gets in contact with the only other other survivor, Alis. She is in another part of the ship that is sealed off, so they are never able to reach each other but stay in touch with radio communication.
At first I thought the story was well written with a steady engaging flow, as is to be expected by Palmer, but lacking a bit in drama and tension because the immediate dangerous situation is relatively quickly resolved. I also didn’t feel that engaged in the main characters – yet.
Because without saying too much, there is a twist and reveal later in the story that turned things around. That started a very emotionally engaging end to the story and made the Gabe character much more interesting. So it started out as sort of fine 3 star story for me, but turned around to a story I will definitely consider for my vote in the yearly Asimov’s Reader Award poll.
This novella is about genemods which Kress more or less made her writing career on. In this story gene modifications are still in the early stages, but a rogue group have successfully modified babies with a gene that make them more empathic. What I found interesting with this story is the perspective it is told from. Not directly from those involved with the gene modifications, but here from a manager of an actress preparing for her role in a movie about the first kids with this empathic gene. This is what Kress does best with these kind of stories, telling it from a more indirect angle. Following the consequences of new developments in research rather than the actual inventions. As the story goes, the manager and the actress gets more directly involved as things spiral out of control.
Even though the story is well written and the plot flow nicely, I did feel like some parts of the stories were a little constructed. Like the main character is a dwarf and has a broken relationship in the past involving a non-dwarf kid. All this of course makes a nice parallel to the gene modifications that are central to the story, but it is also a bit too neat.
Read in Galaxy’s Edge July & September 2022 Originally published in Asimov’s March 2009 ISFDB Link Rating: 3+
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 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.