Robert Reed's "Before My Last Breath" in the October/November 2009 issue of Asimov's looks at the origins of a tradition. In this story, a coal-mining operation discovers evidence of an ancient alien civilization, and a team of archeologists comes to some intriguing conclusions about the aliens' history. They crash-landed millennia ago, the humans theorize, and expected to be rescued. As years passed, they suspected that their rescuers were delayed, and some of them buried themselves in a peat bog to hibernate until they arrived. But help never came, and over generations the aliens forgot the reasons behind the bog hibernations. As their bodies, technology, and culture devolved, the once-pragmatic undertaking became a simple burial custom. The metal ring the first aliens brought into their hibernation was a depiction of their spaceship, but later generations simply held a simplified circle of metal, a symbol of something forgotten: "Nobody remembered what the starship looked like. Or maybe they forgot about the ship entirely, and the ring's purpose changed. It was a symbol, an offering, something that would allow their god to catch their soul and take them back to Heaven again." Religion as cultural entropy: a bleak theory befitting the somewhat sorrowful tone of the story. Reed's stories are always intriguing, and this one is no exception.
Also well worth reading in this issue is Ted Kosmatka and Michael Poore's "The Blood Dauber," a story about a zookeeper who finds himself caring for a rather unusual wasp... or something. To say it's a story about the futility of revenge doesn't do it justice. I wouldn't be surprised to see this turn up in some year's-best lists; it will very likely be one of my Reader's Poll choices for this year (which I really ought to start thinking about, huh?).The November issue of Analog includes "Joan," a fun but not wholly satisfying story by John G. Hemry. The main character is a time traveler who is obsessed with Joan of Arc, and travels to 15th-Century France to meet her-- and to sort-of accidentally save her from execution. Kate, the time-traveler, has a hard time understanding Joan's faith; when Joan describes one of her visions Kate worries that this proves her to be "the kind of hysteric that history had often painted her as." Kate has an idea of Joan as a proto-feminist icon who wouldn't believe that kind of "mindless superstition." This doesn't sit right with me because I can't really imagine someone being as obsessed with Joan as Kate is without wholly accepting the importance of Joan's visions to her story. Kate's obsession, it seems, is built on a very basic misunderstanding and tremendous blind spot; the only way you can avoid accounting for Joan's religion is to willfully ignore it. Joan wins Kate over a bit by the end, but her need to be won over strikes me as odd.
The November and December Analog carry a two-part serial by G. David Nordley called To Climb a Flat Mountain that has some sectarian strife in its backstory. The characters in this tale are a war party flying from Earth to liberate a colony world that has been overrun by "New Reformationists"-- reactionary religious zealots who have reinstated quaint old customs like slavery and gladiatorial combat. Some of those in the war party are "real Christians," or "Old Reformationists"-- as one character notes, "nobody was more ready to go after this New Reformation fringe group than the Old Reformation." But the warship is sabotaged, and they overshoot their target by a few hundred light-years, landing on a cube-shaped artificial world with some strange geological properties (as the title suggests). Some of the castaways are susceptible to the same kind of conservative pitfalls as the zealots they set out to conquer, and before long the survivors have split into two groups: the close-minded religious one and the heroic, go-getting secular one. This somewhat simplistic division falls pretty quickly into the background, though, as Nordley is more interested in exploring this strange six-sided world and its alien inhabitants than the human conflicts that got us there.
The December Analog also includes "The Universe Beneath Our Feet" by Carl Frederick, a story told from the point of view of a rebellious pair of crablike aliens who live in an underwater theocracy. K'Chir and Jerik doubt the existence of their society's God-- a benevolent being who rains "sweet manna" down upon the ocean floor. Instead, K'Chir posits that the "manna" is the decomposing remains of other ocean creatures. To prove it, he sets out to climb the enormous wall of ice on the outskirts of their community, hoping to reach the top and find no God there. Frederick's description of the aliens' bodies is inventive, so it's a shame that the religion and culture he has created for them is so unoriginal-- and human. There's a stern high priest, a strict code of discipline, a benevolent God-in-the-sky-- and absolutely nothing to suggest that this religion originated anywhere other than in the mind of a human being with a great distaste for things religious. I previously criticized Frederick for his simplistic understanding of God in his fact article "The Challenge of the Anthropic Universe," and the same problems are apparent here-- he has a very narrow understanding of what religion is, and can be. Here, it's hampered an otherwise-enjoyable piece of fiction.
The same can't be said of H. G. Stratmann, whose series of stories about Russian Orthodox astronaut Katerina Savitskaya continues in the December Analog with "Wilderness Were Paradise Enow." In this installment, mysterious aliens have given Katerina and her fellow astronaut Martin Slayton godlike powers. Katerina rejects them, since they aren't also accompanied by godlike wisdom. Martin, on the other hand, sets out to solve all of humanity's problems. Healing the lame and diverting the courses of tornadoes works fairly well, but when he tries to stop human-on-human violence he runs smack into the problem of free will, with disastrous results. Katerina holds up the Crucifixion as an example of why it's important to choose good rather than being forced to behave. Her stance is a Christian humanist one:
Whatever measure of paradise we create on Earth, Mars, or other worlds will be one we earned-- not something given as a 'gift.' If we make life better it'll be because we used science to make Nature less dangerous and relieve human suffering. If we choose to be kind and care about others, we can claim credit for doing it. He showed us what we could do with our own human abilities. It's up to us to freely accept His challenge and imitate Him.The January/February Analog continues their story in "Thus Spake the Aliens," which ponders the moral and theological goals of the mysterious extraterrestrials, and bringing Katerina's adventures to an apparent conclusion. Put together, these stories must be approaching the length of a novel by now...
Also in the January/February Analog is "Neptune's Treasure," a new entry in Richard A. Lovett's series of stories about deep-space miner Floyd and his precocious AI companion Brittney. This story continues to explore the nature of selfhood, primarily through Brittney's internal monolog.
More whimsical is Eric James Stone's "Rejiggering the Thingamajig, a story about a hyper-evolved, Buddhist Tyrannosaurus and a trigger-happy, artificially-intelligent gun on a quest for decent tech support. The T. Rex tries to teach the gun about her faith, with limited success-- after overzealously firing on some dangerous woodland creatures, it claims "I was only tryin'a help 'em move on to their next rebirth."
Then there's "Simple Gifts" by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, the story of human colonists on a mineral-rich planet inhabited by Ewok-like "furries." The humans want the planet's resources, but they're paranoid about offending the furries' "primitive" religious sensibilities-- worries that may be based on anthropocentric assumptions about what the aliens actually believe. It's a clever story, and a nice antidote to the anthropocentrically-depicted religion of stories like "The Universe Beneath our Feet."
Lastly, there's another of Kristine Kathryn Rusch's always-enjoyable Retrieval Artist stories, "The Possession of Paavo Deshin," which ponders the complicated ethics of a case of adoption, kidnapping, and cybernetic implants.The January Asimov's opens with "Marya and the Pirate" by Geoffrey A. Landis, a great story that reminded me in some ways of Tom Godwin's classic "The Cold Equations." Landis tells the story of an honorable pirate's attempt to hijack a mine built on the back of a comet. Thre's only one person on the mining station, and the pirate doesn't wish her harm-- but the universe may have other ideas. The issue of religion comes up briefly when the young girl sees him offer a prayer to a statue of the Buddha. She's skeptical about whether the pirate actually "believe[s] in that stuff," and he responds:
No, not exactly. The rituals instill a certain amount of discipline that I like to encourage my people to follow, and I observe the forms, so as to not give them any temptation to slack off. But if you mean, do I believe a three-thousand-year-old dead Indian guy is watching over us from the great beyond, I'll reserve judgment on that until I see him.That's hardly the focus of the story, however, and the battle of wits between the young miner and the pirate makes for a great story.
Also in this issue is Chris Roberson's short "Wonder House," a story about a pulp publisher set in the 1930s of an alternate universe in which the Aztec and Mandarin empires are the dominant world powers. The focus of this story is on the similarities between the role of Jews-- or, more accurately, Jewish pop culture-- in this fictional world and our own. At the story's conclusion, two young pulp fiction devotees make a pitch to the publisher to create a new character for a new medium, one that combines words and colorful pictures. Their creation is a hero, rooted in Jewish folklore, who will help the helpless and fight for the oppressed while wearing a colorful costume bearing the Hebrew letter Shin, for "Shaddai." I've been thinking a lot lately about the religious origins of Superman (for reasons I hope to be announcing soon), so this story was of particular interest. One nitpicker's note, though: the kids who make the pitch are Segal and Kurtzberg-- that is, Jerry Siegel and Jack Kirby-- which seems a bit unfair to Joe Shuster. Isn't Kirby's real-world list of creations long and impressive enough without also making him the fictional creator of Superman?
That's it for now-- though the February Asimov's just arrived, so I'm not really caught up.