Wednesday, May 14, 2008

April/May Asimov's (Part the third)

The April/May Asimov's has a novelette by someone I had never read before, although I had heard the name. S. P. Somtow contributes the disturbing "An Alien Heresy." Readers may recall last year's highly acclaimed Hugo-nominee, Eifleheim by Michael Flynn. In that novel (which I unfortunately couldn't finish) aliens land in medieval Germany. The gentle, kind, and humanistic local priest helps them out. "Alien Heresy" is the evil twin of that story. Here an alien lands in medieval Europe, and a priest working for the Inquisition does all the unpleasant things one would expect. He also discovers he's got a bastard son in the town from the last time he was through there (during the trial of the early pedophilic serial killer who inspired the Bluebeard legend), and has to decide what to do about that. I'm not sure anything in the story is graphic enough to warrant the "viewer discretion is advised" message, but it all adds up to leave you wanting to give your brain a good scrubbing. Certainly it's a strong reminder that medieval times were often nasty and brutish, not noble and Disney-fied.

Helping us to recover from that experience is "Ghost Town" by Catherine Wells. A returned astronaut wanders through her much-changed hometown. She was only supposed to be gone for two years, but while she only experienced two years, everyone else aged sixteen. Her little sister is older than she is now. Her experience of time-shock is vividly drawn. In the end the solution to her problem is pretty darn obvious, but the portrait of an emotion that no human has experienced yet is well-done.

Kate Wilhelm provides a long story, "Strangers When We Meet," using that rather-more-common-in-fiction-than-it-is-in-real-life device, the unique and unexplained mental illness. A college student has survived the car crash that killed her family. She's fine, but has day-by-day amnesia now: every night she forgets everything since a bit before the crash. She wakes up not knowing that her family is dead. She is the perfect subject for a researcher who needs to do repetitive and boring scanning of a single brain to get the best possible maps of neural function. (Normal volunteers get bored or leave for the summer, etc.) Unfortunately, she could also be the perfect tool of a corrupt and abusive government (for what, exactly, is never specified. It's just implied to be evilly nefarious). A young man also becomes involved, falling in love with the young lady. He's quite nonplussed when she fails to remember him, so he goes barging in, demanding to know what's going on. Despite my uninspired summary, this is a great tale to read. The characters are well drawn, and you start to really care for them. Wilhelm is expert at ratcheting up dramatic tension. My main criticism (aside from the story dodging the question of whether the researcher is any better than the government officials in terms of using the poor girl) is that the ending is very abrupt. I wished I'd learned more about what happened to the girl, instead of having the story just stop. With the ending it becomes obvious that the girl is only a macguffin, and the story is really about the people around her.

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