- “Ephemera” by Ian R. MacLeod (science fiction novelette)
- “Stones in the Water, Cottage on the Mountain” by Suzanne Palmer (fantasy short story)
- “Lieutenant Tightass” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (sci-fi novelette)
- “Rules of Biology” by Dale Bailey (science fantasy short story)
- “Unter” by Michael Cassutt (science fiction novelette)
- “True Jing” by Zack Be (science fiction novelette)
- “The Backward Lens of Compromise” by Octavia Cade (fantasy novelette)
- “Attachment Unavailable” by Leah Cypess (science fiction short story)
- “Liberating Alaska” by Harry Turtledove (alternate history novelette)
- “Straconia” by Jack Skillingstead (fantasy novelette)
- “Starship Mountain” by Allen M. Steele (science fiction novella)
Apologies for the lateness of this review. About half the stories in this issue of Asimov’s are some species of fantasy and half are more science fictional. A couple of the fantasies and most of the SF have their interesting points with a couple of the latter being noteworthy. I’d personally prefer a much more science fictional issue and would love more stories to combine the peak of one of the two best stories and the consistency of the other to produce truly outstanding experiences, but this was a fair issue overall. I’ll tackle the less science fictional first, then the more.
“Compromise” is not only stylistically but conceptually awkward as it argues for the value of science by interspersing interpretations of astronomers’ lives with… a fantasy about a woman with “the world’s worst superpower” which involves negatively distorting the world based on her reveries. “Rules of Biology” would be more aptly titled “Rules of Pseudo-Biology” with its ham-handed metaphor of what fathers give up when they split from the mother and a step-father moves in, extending it beyond custody and environment to the genes themselves. “Stones” is yet another iteration of the iterative relationship-centered “many worlds” tale except without much of a nod at even that bit of fringe science, so that it reads as fantasy and is, naturally, repetitive and uninvolving. “Liberating Alaska” is a sort of “historical minutiae porn” which has the US fighting the USSR over Alaska and its gold in 1929, apparently because the US didn’t acquire it in 1867 but during WWI. It has a lot of details but a simple, linear plot of wisecracking amidst death in an Alaskan version of Normandy. I doubt it would appeal to non-alternate history fans or even all who are, but some fans may enjoy it. “Straconia” is frustrating because it puts a character into an interesting situation that reeks of paranoia, surrealism, and Kafka, and does much successfully but also has significant problems. The whole thing is triggered by a wife who is basically immediately written out after the husband goes looking for her and magically finds himself in a hidden city; the sidekick the protagonist picks up has appealing elements but there are some odd notes in the handling of the character’s race; and, regardless of theme, it just doesn’t end particularly well in a plot-sense. Still, quite compelling through most of its middle section.
“Unter” is one of a spate of stories which involve humans hiring their bodies out to be controlled remotely by rich people and has inexplicable characters in an unconvincing crime mystery. “Attachment” is a brief, half-amusing/half-annoying entry in the long line of “internet joke tales” in which an online group of mothers discusses the wisdom of letting the aliens take babies for sleep-training. “Lieutenant Tightass” is a prequel to the recent “Dix” in the same magazine but is much superior to it. It doesn’t start well and is a little heavy on its “time to be a tightass and time not” theme but is otherwise entertaining enough. “Ephemera” has a spiderbot ruminating on humanity in a hollowed-out asteroid which contains a library of basically everything after humanity has finally had WWIII. The bot is an interesting character and the subject matter is naturally not without its emotional effect though the story is lacking in drama and visceral effect (and has an Earth with remarkably quickly shifting continents). “True Jing” is even more frustrating than “Straconia” and for the similar main reason of an unsatisfying ending in a plot sense. Still, this tale’s far-future super-science space whale hunt is so dramatic and imaginative through its bulk and does such a good job conveying the mind-expanding nature of an alien trying to communicate with a human, and what extraordinary steps an effective translation might require, that I can’t fail to note it. “Starship Mountain” is a sequel to “Sanctuary” (Tor.com, May 17, 2017) and, in some ways, is better. Set generations after the Lindbergh crash-landed, humans have forgotten much of their history, encouraged by the native Tau Cetians. In their enclave, things have returned to something like an 18th century European nature and the protagonist is a private eye who straps on his sword and his one-shot pistol to try to fulfill a wealthy, powerful man’s assignment to find his missing daughter. The task will lead to his finding much more though the ending makes clear it’s not over yet. Despite the protagonist being such a tough guy, the resolution turns out to be fairly easy and Scooby-Doo-like (and I don’t know why people have come to cash “cheques” at “banques” while speaking of “plastik” and so on), but it’s a fairly entertaining and noteworthy tale.