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Asimov's Science Fiction magazine has a knack of discovering SF writers. In its early years these included David Brin, S.P. Somtow, John M. Ford and Harry Turtledove. All have since gone on to high flying genre careers, though perhaps not in the directions originally predicted from their first stories. One who's journey has been more diverse than most is S.P. Somtow (who also writes as Somtow Sucharitkul). Now best known for his horror work, Somtow started with a run of humourous SF stories, in the shape of his Aqualiad alternative Rome and the far future Mallworld. Meisha Merlin has collected all the published Mallworld stories (along with two unpublished pieces) in The Ultimate Mallworld.

Mallworld is a 30km long shopping centre, in the middled of nowhere, owned by the powerful barJulian family. Unfortunately for the human race, it's been sealed off from the rest of the universe by the Selespridar, until it grows up. Trapped in a bubble just larger than the orbit of Saturn, the human race can't see the see the stars any more. This means that Mallworld has become the hub of what passes for human civilisation. It's here that humanity has its one point of contact with its masters, and it's here that the Selespridar will be sampling the lives of 9 humans to see if they are ready for the rest of the universe. Using this survey as a framing structure we're presented with Somtow's short stories.

While Somtow's stories are best classified as humourous SF, they're also finely tuned studies in melancholy. Yes, everyone behaves in trivial ways, because without the promise of the stars life is trivial. It's this underlying sadness that drives the main characters of these stories to overcome their situations, whether it's through music, art or parenthood. They're also a pointer to Somtow's later career in the moral certainties of dark fantasy.

An interesting collection of early works, that show Somtow's later promise.