Here is a 10,000-word story in which the main character never much does anything but talk, yet I found it fascinating reading. The protagonist of "I Was Nearly Your Mother" is Marian, a teenage girl living with her grandparents, because her mother died four years earlier and her father is in prison. She has come through these trying circumstances with admirable composure, but there are hints that her mental state remains fragile.
Then arrives on her doorstep an unfamiliar version of her late mother. This woman (who refers to herself as Della) has traveled from an alternate universe, where she aborted her pregnancy then came to regret the decision. Della assumes that Marian will instantly accept her as her lost mother, even though it is obvious from her behavior that she knows nothing at all about parenting, but of course Marian's reactions are far more complicated than that.
Marian is a flawed character and her para-Mother is deeply flawed (she pays for her alternate universe excursions through multiversal drug deals), but Creasey presents their flaws with sympathy. For instance, Marian is well on her way to an eating disorder, but Creasey shows this as a believable manifestation of her distrust of a world that has betrayed her: "She hated being told that weight didn't matter, when it so obviously did. It was just another way that adults lied, pretending the world was different, pretending that the fake surfaces didn't eclipse anything real that might lie underneath."
Creasey nicely develops alternate universes as a metaphor for how we all have choices to regret, we've all strayed from the path that would have worked out best for us:
Marian thought about the world Della came from, just one of an infinite range of worlds where things had happened differently -- mostly gone wrong in various ways. It felt like there was one real universe, a shining summit where everything happened as it should: a needle-thin pinnacle, surrounded by endless swampy lowlands full of bad decisions, unlucky accidents, and damaged people. As you slogged through the mire, could you clamber up to some better state? But how, when you couldn't see the landscape of probability? You'd find yourself flailing inevitably downward to your doom, confronted with far more wrong options than right. And everyone else in the world plummeted down too, dragging you with them. Even if you did the right thing, you had no control over other people's mistakes, their car crashes and jail sentences. Every time you slept, the world fell a little further during the night.Even if we could travel between universes, that wouldn't relieve the need to come to terms with our own mistakes or the mistakes of those around us.
Clearly a new writer to watch, in the past five years Ian Creasey has had ten stories in Asimov's -- including "Erosion," which was chosen for multiple year's best collections for 2009 -- and has appeared in other top-notch magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Postscripts.
To my tastes, Asimov's has been a bit uneven for the past few years, but the March 2011 issue is excellent, reaffirming the magazine's position as the premier source of short fiction in the field. I'll recommend another story from the March issue next week.