SF short story candidates, pt 3

“Kin”, Bruce McAllister (Asimov’s 2/06)

This odd and slightly creepy story concerns a young boy named Kim (not to be confused with the title, although the similarity is duly noted) and his mission to find an alien hitman to prevent the government from terminating the birth of his sister in an age of strict population control. He finds one basically by confronting possible contenders one by one with the accusation of their being a hitman, until he finally comes upon one who really is. The alien is too savvy to actually do it, but he does confront the government official with a warning, and sure enough strings are pulled and Kim’s parents get to keep the baby. The alien is more interested in how Kim came upon this idea in the first place, and comes to understand there is some kinship (hence the title) in how they view the world. In an short epilog several years later, the alien has died and leaves his vast personal fortune and cache of weapons to Kim and his family, and Kim can’t wait until he can travel to where the weapons are stored, implying Kim’s destiny may not be too far from that of his benefactor. A little farfetched, maybe a little too pat, but certainly with a distinctive tone.

“With By Good Intentions”, Carrie Richerson (F&SF 10-11/06)

This Texas tall tale about the company hired to pave a road to hell is a modestly amusing but slight entry. The actual published title has an ellipsis followed by the word “with” crossed out, if that makes any difference. Sandoval paving company gets a big contract to build a 6-lane road, and in spite of a number of plagues that visit them along the way (bats, rattlesnakes, raining blood, etc.) they manage to get the job done with a minimum of disruption. Their reward includes one “get out of hell free” card for each worker. At the end, the crew boss asks their employer why he asked for a road that runs both directions, since presumably all the traffic will be one way, but there’s no payoff, the question is left hanging. A cute little yarn, but not a standout.

“The Small Astral Object Genius”, James Van Pelt (Asimov’s 10-11/06)

The name of James Van Pelt is not currently counted among the greats of short sf, but this is a stand-out story about a boy named Dustin who spends all his free time playing at some gizmo called a Peekaboo that connects to his computer and is part of a global volunteer search for data on other planets in the universe. There is much debate over whether these Peekaboo’s really do anything or if it’s just part of a marketing hoax, but Dustin and his friends believe in it and log countless hours at the computer as it seeks random locations in space looking for other stars and planets. Those that they occasionally find can be printed out into pictures which serve as trading cards, part of the incentive for keeping up the search, and Dustin’s particular obsession with hard-to-find planets give him the nickname that is the story’s title. This plot by itself isn’t so incredible, but what Van Pelt does to great success is play this story against that of Dustin’s home life, his parents marriage breaking up, the isolation that he feels within the house, his strained relationship with his parents, and the juxtaposition of these elements with this seemingly futile and possibly fabricated search for other planets amongs all the vast emptiness of space. At the end, Dustin’s Peekaboo makes a startling discovery that has the unexpected effect of breaking the ice in drawing his parents back together. Just a great, evocative, layered, original story that will probably get passed over in favor of something by Mike Resnick.

“The Age of Ice”, Liz Williams (Asimov’s 4-5/06)

The nice thing about a short story is that if you don’t get it the first time, or were distracted while reading it and suddenly it was over, or any number of other mishaps that can diminish your enthusiasm, it doesn’t take much time to go back and read it again. This one actually took three readings over two days before it came together, and the third time you had to wonder why it seemed so obtuse the first two times. This story is told in slightly stilted fantasy-type language, with almost no dialog, and although the details are given in sf terms, it still has the feel of a fantasy story. A woman comes to a hostile city looking for evidence of a rumored weapon. Her search focuses on the ruin of the library, but along the way she is taken captive twice by a group of “scissor-women”, and twice encounters an adversary known as the “flayed warrior”. She is able to download all the information from the library back to her own city, and the next day they’ve declared a truce, the end. This seems like a condensed version of a story from a much more fully realized setting, by itself it’s not long enough to get your bearings to the point that you can really get into what’s going on, but in an expanded form or as part of a larger narrative it would probably be more effective. But on its own terms, there’s just not enough to hang onto.

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