“The Seeds of Consciousness: 4107’s Story” by James Gunn (science fiction short story)
“The Final Commandment: Trey’s Story” by James Gunn (science fiction short story)
“In the Lost City of Leng” by Paul Di Filippo & Rudy Rucker (science fantasy novella)
“The Equalizers” by Ian Creasey (science fiction short story)
“Solicited Discordance” by Matthew Hughes (science fiction novelette)
“Assassin in the Clouds” by Robert R. Chase (science fiction novelette)
“Barren Isle” by Allen M. Steele (science fiction novelette)
“Mother Tongues” by S. Qiouyi Lu (science fiction short story)
“The Rescue of the Renegat” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (science fiction novella)
The January/February issue of Asimov’s is disappointing in that there are no truly remarkable stories but there are several decent reads. Either way, this issue is one for the series lovers. “In the Lost City of Leng” is a “sequel” to H. P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” while “Solicited Discordance” adds to the SF part of the Archonate series, “Assassin in the Clouds” is another Angelo and Sphinx adventure, “Barren Isle” adds to the Coyote saga, “The Rescue of the Renegat” adds to the Diving universe, and “The Seeds of Consciousness” and “The Final Commandment” form a series within this single issue, not to mention being related to the Transcendental novels. And those are just the ones I know of, making a minimum of 7 of 9 of the original stories (or 10, counting a translation). I am a story-series lover, myself, but this is a bit much, even for me. However, one of the most important things a good series story must do, while adding to the overall picture, is to stand on its own and, while these may not entirely do so, none but the last two I mentioned feel like middles or excerpts.
Speaking of those two, both “The Seeds of Consciousness” and “The Final Commandment” follow on from an article (“Thought Experiment: Space Opera and the Quest for Transcendence,” also by James Gunn) which talks first about the history of space opera and then about the Transcendental series. It seems to indicate we will be getting two character-based narratives but what we get are two (perhaps Stapledonian) infodumps which recap Darwinism-with-variations. The first deals with a sentient mobile plant species and the second, with a “species” of intelligent machines. The explanation of the plant’s sentience-trigger and really the whole species strains belief. Both are interesting in a “fictitious non-fiction” way but neither are as stories.
Other less successful stories, to me, were “The Equalizers,” which uses a Human Resources director as the protagonist in a tale about a trial run of using special goggles which turns everyone into monotone brightly colored blobs for the purposes of non-discrimination and is mostly devoted to the woman’s conflict over her sex life after a recent breakup. The “dishwashing liquid commercial” tone of the dialog, under-utilization of the technology gimmick, and weak ending hurt this for me. “Mother Tongues” deals with the mixed emotions a woman has over selling her native language faculty (which can be transferred to another mind after being erased from her own) to pay for her daughter’s education. The idea is old, the pace is slow, the emotions are dreary, and the conflict doesn’t speak to me (no pun intended). Your mileage may vary.
An oddball story (with a hollow earth and sea cucumbers) is “In the Lost City of Leng,” which, again, is a “sequel” to “At the Mountains of Madness.” I’m at a severe disadvantage here as I am not very familiar with Lovecraft’s works (a deficit I’ll correct Real Soon Now). Apparently the first story deals with a first expedition to the Antarctic to fight weird critters in 1930. This story speaks of a second expedition which failed horribly and details the third in 1934, in which our protagonist quits his job as a reporter to join an oddball gang of adventurers. This story’s style isn’t quite modern or quite 1934, isn’t quite Lovecraft’s style but will occasionally lapse into it, isn’t quite comic but isn’t entirely serious. And I don’t know if this is a strength or a weakness or how a true Lovecraftian would react. It at least entertained me.
In addition to the “series” theme, a second theme is that of rescue or guardianship. While I don’t care for themed magazine issues, this is where most of the better stories are to be found. “Solicited Discordance” involves an “op” being hired by an imperious aristocrat to find her son, who has disappeared with a strange girl. After getting on their trail and noticing another man following the pair, the op develops a theory about off-worlders coming in to scam rich locals and tails them to see if it will play out. I thought the op was wrong the whole time and found his misanthropic certitude grating and the plot was convenient (the op’s AI assistant can do just about anything) but this was generally readable. “The Rescue of the Renegat” nearly kills itself as soon as it begins, with a heavy “tell, don’t show” style with many contradictions, redundancies, and other problems, but finally gels into a decent adventure in which a starship crew tries to rescue that of another which has just reappeared in normal space (from a hundred years ago) and whose drive is about to blow. The very end is also simplistic and heavy-handed, though. “Barren Isle” deals with a couple of children escaping from a religious cult and getting into trouble. They’ve encroached on the island of diminutive but fierce natives and things get complicated when some cultists and our viewpoint rescue team come after them. I have no love for religious fanatics but Steele so clearly does not that it harms the tale, making it a bit cardboard, but the action is good. And Angelo and Sphinx return to deal with an “Assassin in the Clouds.” Angelo’s on an aerostat with a scientist who has developed a way to increase human processing capabilities, but the process has severe limitations and drawbacks. One of the drawbacks is that someone may want to harm the scientist and it’s Angelo’s mission to protect him. This deals with an interesting idea and the action is kind of exciting.