“By Fools Like Me”, Nancy Kress (Asimov’s, Sept 2007)
Kress almost always has a solid idea behind her stories and this is no exception, evoking a post-apocalyptic society where trees are so rare as to be sacred, there is too much carbon dioxide in the air, the weather is harsh and unpredictable, there are terrible dust storms and never enough rain, and people eke out a meager existence just trying to keep alive. A elderly woman narrates the story, she’s old enough to vaguely remember what things used to be like, and her memory is further enhanced when her young granddaughter Hope finds a cache of books, a forbidden item in this age because of their unnecessary use of the precious trees. A religion of sorts has evolved around the community’s tenuous relationship with nature, and something like reading books can be explained as the harbinger of destructive weather. Needless to say the books are too tempting to be ignored, but things go badly for the grandmother such that even Hope turns on her as she is too young to understand what is reality and what is superstition. Kress juxtaposes these conflicting emotions within several of the characters very well in a short space, and the resolution is anything but uplifting, there’s something fairly basic to be said here about how easily myth can become fact and how it affects human interactions. Kress never seems to get nominated any more, but I still like her stuff quite a bit.
“Cafe Culture”, Jack Dann (Asimov’s, January 2007)
Sort of continuing with the same theme is this seriously provocative, disturbing story in a near future New York where suicide bombers have taken root and are a common occurrence. Told from shifting points of view between Leo, whose wife has recently left him for another woman and he’s not taking it very well, and Dafna, his cleaning lady who has just helped her son martyr himself and is now planning to do the same. Taken by surprise when Leo comes back early, Dafna is found out and Leo sends her away but keeps the bombing jacket she was about to use for himself. It’s a creepily plausible future where the U.S. is no longer insulated from the routine bombings seen in other countries, and while they are still primarily the province of religious fanatics, Dann seems to be saying that given the means and the motive, there are a lot more potential suicide bombers in western civilization than we’d care to think about. The title also plays upon people’s adaptability, that even the most horrific events can be eased into the routine and life goes on. Not exactly uplifting, but definitely food for thought, and very well presented.
“Verthandi’s Ring”, Ian McDonald (The New Space Opera, Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, eds., Eos)
This is certainly a beautifully told if generally incomprehensible story, par for the course from McDonald but out of his normal milieu. Where he normally revels in the exotic details of future scenarios derived from non-western cultures, here he takes on a vast Stapledonian interplay of post-singularity life that has permeated the galaxy, and what happens when two vast but opposing factions go to war. The names of the enormous tentacled entities embroiled in this conflict are mellifluous (Scented Coolabar, Rose of Jericho), and the eponymous ring is a string superstructure within the galaxy that holds the key to resolve the conflict, although not in an optimal way. McDonald has also borrowed a page from Ken MacLeod in coming up with elaborate names for his starships (i.e. “We Have Left Undone that Which We Ought to Have Done”). The rich level of detail McDonald comes up with forces you to struggle with most of the sentences until you can try to at least categorize enough of his made-up nouns to figure out what he is talking about. The amount of imagination necessary to come up with something like this is staggering, and the fact that he can translate it at all to the printed page in such a way for it to make the least amount of sense is equally impressive. As with most of his stories, it’s all about impressions, and a general sense of the unknown and unknowable in a future stranger than mere mortals of the here and now can comprehend. It all tends to dissipate rather quickly once the story is over, but it’s a dizzying read.