The June 2011 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction has a beautiful cover of a woman who is partly constructed of a gold metallic weave. The artist, Jacques Barbey, poses her at the shore of a river or lake golden with the sunset, wearing a headdress that appears to be functional in some way, apparently as a weapon. It doesn’t seem to match up to any of the stories in this issue, but it is a lovely image all on its own. And who says fantastic paintings need to refer to anything but the artist’s own imagination, anyway?
Most of the issue is consumed by a new novella by Mary Robinette Kowal, “Kiss Me Twice.” This accomplished work is a true science fiction mystery, which is much harder to pull off than might be immediately apparent. The author can’t pull out some amazing technological gimmick to solve the puzzle, because that would be cheating; so she has to set out the rules of the society and its technology, and then stick to them, leaving all the clues for the reader to unravel. Kowal manages this beautifully.
The story is about Metta, an artificial intelligence who works with the Portland police department. She dons various avatars for the different officers she works with. They all see her in their VR glasses, and, of course, she can interact with many of them at the same time, all with seemingly different personalities. But really, her personality is simply her own, because she is a true artificial intelligence, fully — well, I almost wrote “fully human,” though that obviously isn’t the case. She’s definitely her own person, though. When she works with Huang on the case that makes up this story, she wears the face of Mae West in her Diamond Lil character, even going black and white for the occasion. Huang seems to be one of her favorites, and he cares for her, too, treating her like a real person (although some members of the police department insist on treating her as nothing more than a glorified computer).
The case starts when Huang is called to a murder scene on the roof of a building. The victim is a wealthy, powerful white male who has his finger in every real estate pie in the city. In the middle of the initial investigation of the scene, Metta is kidnapped; that is, according to the cameras in the central station, masked intruders burst in and grab Metta’s chassis. Huang is the only officer who thought to ask Metta to show him a picture of the intruders, but even that is so limited that the best he can testify to is that there were three of them. Huang also quickly comes to the conclusion that Metta has been taken in order to affect one of the investigations going on at the time of the kidnapping — and it becomes clear that it is Huang’s murder investigation that was the target of the intruders.
The mystery unwinds from there. Huang is aided in his work by a rebooted Metta — not the original Metta returned, but a sort of new person with a few hours’ less memory, an interesting complication when one considers the nature of true artificial intelligence. The effect of the tampering with the computer — because, don’t forget, Metta is also a police computer, serving all the functions one might expect of a computer, from document preparation to recording statements — turns up interesting clues, if Huang can trust his own memory instead of relying on Metta, as is his wont.
“Kiss Me Twice” is a thoroughly enjoyable novella. It rates very high in the ranking of science fictional mysteries, playing fair with readers and managing to disguise clues without hiding them in high tech. I hope Kowal writes more science fictional mysteries, because few can write them as well as this story proves Kowal can.
Ian R. MacLeod’s novelette, “The Cold Step Beyond,” is a different sort of mystery. Bess doesn’t know much about who she is and where she came from. She knows that she has been highly trained as an acolyte of the Warrior Church. She is deadly in a million different ways, and particularly proficient with her sword. She has only recently completed her training, and her first two missions have been unremarkable. Now she in a forest in the Island City of Ghezirah, waiting for evidence of what her mission is (as her instructions were frustratingly obscure). One morning, as she is encased in her body armor and going through her sword exercises, a small creature appears, a human female armed with a laser gun. They manage to get past the first few moments of their acquaintance without killing one another, and start to form a sort of friendship. Elli, Bess’s new friend, takes Bess to Elli’s home on the Isle of the Dead, which starts to explain a bit more about who Elli is. Oddly, it also starts to explain to Bess who Bess is. It’s a different sort of mystery from “Kiss Me Twice,” but it’s also beautifully constructed and told.
Carol Emshwiller’s latest short story also appears in this issue. Emshwiller is a treasure in the genre, and not as well known as she should be. This story will likely set you off in search of her stories and novels. “All the News That’s Fit” is about a small mountain village so cut off from the world that it is entirely reliant on a man, Flimm, who travels from the big city on the other side of the mountains at regular intervals to tell them the news. When Flimm ceases to come, Darta decides to go after him and find out what happens. It is an arduous journey, and many possible explanations for Flimm’s failure to return present themselves in the dangers that Darta faces. The real explanation, though, is one no one in the mountain village could have predicted. It’s a sad story, ultimately, and one has to wonder if Darta makes the right decision in the end.
Alan DeNiro’s “Walking Stick Fires” is almost incomprehensible — or, if not quite that, at least pointless so far as I could tell. Much as I enjoyed DeNiro’s novel, Total Oblivion, More or Less, he lost me with this story of Parka and Jar and their motorcycle journey. These two beings — not quite human, but not entirely alien, either, it seems — travel through the southwestern United States, on the run from the law and looking for safety. They encounter a number of hazards that make the world appear not quite as we know it, and not even quite real. Somehow, the insects known as walking sticks (which are very strange looking and wonderful, by the way; check them out sometime) play a role in all this, and may even be a major power in this odd version of the world. This is a weird story, a wild work of imagination, but it does not fall together into anything I recognize as a plot, a character study, or even a dream. I have no clue what DeNiro was trying to get at here.
“Apocalypse Daily” by Felicity Shoulders is about game developers who destroy the virtual world they have created in a different way every day. It becomes pretty difficult to come up with creative ways to end life as we know it once you’ve covered earthquakes, an eruption of the supervolcano that underlies Yellowstone, nuclear war, epic flood, and so on, and Katrina is having a tough time forcing new ideas out of her team. But the team comes up with a doozy, proving in the process that it is the rare apocalypse that can compete with office politics when it comes to making your life miserable.
The short “The Fighter,” by Colin P. Davies, is a nice complement to Kowal’s novella. It tells the tale of an individual who isn’t quite what he seems, when he is stopped by police on what at first seems to be a routine traffic stop. The story is so short that saying any more about it would ruin it, so I’ll leave it for you to read and enjoy.
The poetry in this issue reminds me how difficult it is to write good science fictional or fantastic poetry. Two of the three poems are near misses, but Bruce Boston’s “Ancient Catch” is lovely. Have you ever looked, really looked, at a fish? They are so old, a life form that doesn’t seem to have changed much in millenia. Boston catches that great age and the great ordinariness of it in his poem. It reminded me of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” one of my favorite poems; there is no greater compliment I can pay Boston than that.