sf short story candidates, pt 2

“World of No Return”, Carol Emshwiller (Asimov’s 1/06)

Around 60 years into her writing career, this is Emshwiller’s first story for Asimov’s. Some of her recent entries in F&SF have been notable more for their obtuseness than anything else, but this story is a relatively straightforward tale that could easily have been modified to remove the sf trappings. The narrator goes by Norman, but he’s really an apparently humanoid alien who’s been living on Earth with his parents most of his life, trapped and waiting for rescue. When he’s left to his own devices, he ends up befriending an old lady who lives alone and needs some help around the house, in exchange for keeping him away from the authorities, who aren’t even aware of his extraterrestrial origins, they just see him as a bum. Theirs is a marriage of convenience, a relationship which Emshwiller deftly handles, along with Norman’s conflicting feelings when his rescuers finally come to Earth, and he’s now lived there so long he doesn’t feel like he needs rescuing any more. There are some parallels to be drawn between elements of our own society and Norman’s family, who shield him as much as possible from humans and human culture in an attempt to keep him focused on his own heritage and above temptation. Emshwiller leaves this unsaid, but delivers an evocative, thought-provoking story nonetheless.

“Nano Comes to Clifford Falls”, Nancy Kress (Asimov’s 7/06)

Nancy Kress often deals with the human side of radical technological or biological shifts, and this story falls into that familiar territory, with a heavy dose of Twilight Zone smalltown sensibility thrown in. Clifford Falls is the town in question, and they’re far enough away from the big cities to be shielded from much of the upheaval that comes with the four new nanotech machines that the town receives, one for food, one for clothes, and two for anything else that anyone wants. The main character of the story is Carol, who doesn’t pay much attention to the machines as she’s too busy dealing with the aftermath of a recently departed husband and trying to raise her kids on her own. But she sees what happens as social order starts to break down, since people no longer have to work to raise the money they need to buy things. Suddenly there are no school teachers, so Carol takes it upon herself to start a small school of her own. Things go from bad to worse when two strangers break into her house, and those left in town realize they need to band together. They end up forming a commune of sorts, for their own safety but also to put some new rules around how to use the nano machines. Kress does a great study in a short amount of pages on how at least some parts of society manage to adapt to such sudden and world-shaking change, with the end result being not too much different from how they were before it all started. All that’s missing at the end is the Rod Serling epilogue.

“Kyle Meets the River”, Ian McDonald (Forbidden Planets, Peter Crowther, ed., DAW)

These days McDonald can take any premise or subject and turn it into a story about future India. This story reads like a Heinlein juvenile crossed with The Kite Runner, told from the perspective of a boy named Kyle who’s living in the middle of a post-holocaust India in an enclosed community with his parents, who are helping get the country back together. He befriends a local boy and the main part of the story is how his friend helps Kyle escape from the enclave and see the “real” city, including a trip to the Ganges River of the title, where they see people bathing in the river and witness a sort of public cremation. There are several other unrelated scenes that lead up to this, and the fallout from his last adventure has potentially far-reaching significance for Indian relations, but none of these things really add up to much. As I usually find with McDonald’s stories, they’re well told, but his choice of this detached, dreamlike
prose ultimately doesn’t leave much of an impression after the story is over. This is another example of a story that doesn’t even necessarily need to be science fiction, apparently based on real-life living arrangements for foreign workers in Iraq, so while it’s an interesting read and I may be in the minority, I get the feeling it won’t have much staying power.

“Impossible Dreams”, Tim Pratt (Asimov’s 7/06)

This relatively simple story of Pete, a movie fanatic who stumbles across a video store from a parallel Earth where movies like The Magnificent Ambersons were made correctly, other classic movies feature different actors, and some movies exist that never happened in this reality. He befriends the store clerk, Ally, and desperately tries to figure out how to watch the movies on his home theater after discovering that not only are the movies different in her reality, but the formats are different too, as is the money he needs for the rental. Pratt does a good job of taking Pete from euphoria to despair as he exults over his good luck only to run up against one obstacle after another that prevents him from actually watching anything. While all this is going on, he’s got even more problems, as the store only appears for a brief time every evening, and that window of opportunity is noticeably decreasing. Ally is just as much of a movie buff as he is, and of course the movies in our reality don’t jibe with what she knows either. The ending is a bit predictable, but otherwise this is a nice, small-scale story that would make a good short film of its own, in this or any reality.

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