Once again I read the new Asimov’s and spout my unsolicited opinions about what works and what doesn’t. If I do this enough I’ll eventually get okay at it.
“The Caramel Forest” by Chris Beckett. Third person limited, past tense. Maybe 6500 words. I’m basing my wordcount estimates on counting the number of pages of Asimov’s the story takes up, and multiplying by ~500 words per page to get a very rough wordcount estimate. There’s probably a better method.
Anyway. Cassie is a little girl, age somewhere between seven and twelve I guess, leaning towards the younger end of the range. She and her little brother Peter live on an alien planet. Her xenobiologist father’s work took the family there when Peter was an infant, her mother hates it (and everything else) a little more every day. Straightforward enough, but their failing marriage is just one of the axes of conflict in this surprisingly layered little story: there’s also human vs. alien, parent vs. child, and class issues with colonist vs. ecologist. The settlers speak a Romance language, profess religion, smoke, and have various other blue-collar/working-class/nonwhite/non-privileged signifiers; the Agency scientists (assuming Cassie’s father is typical) are condescending, Godless, well-educated, and expect everyone to speak English. One of the father’s coworkers Ernesto may be an example of cross-cultural mixing, but he’s also marginalized, inasmuch as it’s implied Cassie’s father is sleeping with Ernesto’s wife.
The POV is third person limited, I said above, but it drifts towards third person objective in places, to good effect: the aliens have a telepathic ability alleged to disrupt human thought processes, and as Cassie falls further under their sway we’re less and less privy to her inner thoughts. The story ends abruptly, leaving a lot hanging, but I was impressed by the density of “the Caramel Forest.” Beckett sketches in a tremendous amount in just a few short scenes.
“The Wizard of West 34th Street” by Mike Resnick. First person present tense. Maybe 5000 words.
Yeoman work from the celebrated Resnick; an entertaining but forgettable read. Your basic “man meets precog” story, with a twist at the end that I saw coming before I was halfway through, but hey, it set out to do a certain thing and it does that certain thing very well. Reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s Azazel stories which had the same lightweight tone, and were likewise B-grade product from an excellent author.
“The Waves” by Ken Liu. A mix of third person limited with dashes of third person omniscient and second person. ~6500 words? Its pagecount is roughly the same as “the Caramel Forest” but it’s identified as a novelette, which SFWA defines as ~7500 to ~17500 words. So, really it’s just another example of how crude my wordcount estimation is.
There’s a scene in “the Waves,” the first full scene, between the protagonist Maggie and her husband Joao, which runs extremely clunky: They were able to speak to each other through a tiny optical-neural interface chip implanted in each of their brains. In this scene we get force-fed a lot of backstory; it’s not narrative or even exposition, it’s just an avalanche of character descriptions and situation and setup.
This scene keeps “the Waves” from landing a spot at the 99% percentile among favorite pieces of art experienced in 2012 and puts it in the mere 98% tier. The story’s beginning, as a slower-than-light generational starship crew and how they react to massive technological change (clinical immortality, FTL travel, and phrases like “the Singularity” get bandied about) could easily be a short story on its own. But when Maggie’s ship arrives at its destination, centuries later, the story is really only beginning. New forms of immortality and expansion and exploration and self unfurl across the vast reaches of spacetime, and eventually we come full-circle to the post-post-posthuman cosmic intelligences and their meddling with alien life and creating sentience, just for funsies.
Retellings of various creation myths — Norse, Mayan, biblical — interrupt to the narrative, and we’re invtied to see an implicit correlation between post-post-posthumanity and the creation-spirits of Australian aboriginal religion. So to sum up, I liked it. I’d hate Ken Liu for being so much better than I could ever hope to be at telling this particular kind of story, but the clunkiness of the second page reassures me.
The rest of the stories tomorrow!