Review: Asimov’s, September/October 2018

Asimov’s, September/October 2018

ASF_Sept_Oct_2018

Original Fiction:

  • “3-adica” by Greg Egan (science fiction novella)
  • “The Witch of Osborne Park” by Stephanie Feldman (fantasy short story)
  • “The Huntsman and the Beast” by Carrie Vaughn (fantasy novelette)
  • “R.U.R.-8?” by Suzanne Palmer (Capek-derived playlet, not reviewed)
  • “The Grays of Cestus V” by Erin Roberts (science fictional short story)
  • “DENALI” by Robert Reed (science fictional novelette)
  • “The Callisto Stakes” by Doug C. Souza (science fiction short story)
  • “Survivors” by Sheila Finch (fantasy-like short story)
  • “The Wrong Refrigerator” by Jean Marie Ward (science fictional novelette)
  • “In the Sharing Place” by David Erik Nelson (science fictional short story)
  • “Best Served Slow” by Leah Cypess (fantasy short story)
  • “The Secret City” by Rick Wilber (alternate history novella)

The lengthy reading of this issue and writing of this review has been plagued by innumerable problems and I apologize for the result.

The Secret City” is an alternate history story which deals with a baseball playing spy (Moe Berg, who is based on a real person) but it seems too similar (if separate) or too different (if connected) to a story from a couple of issues ago by the same author. In this one (also reminiscent of Steele’s “Einstein’s Shadow” (Jan. 2016 Asimov’s) down to having big planes), a couple of parallel-world-shifting spies try to get Fermi successfully into a 1940 US to help build an atomic bomb to answer Germany’s recent destruction of Dublin with theirs and get Rommel’s Texas Korps off the US’s doorstep. This is readable enough but has errors even for alternate history (why would an essentially identical Me-262 be in production in 1940 when it wasn’t even test flown in our timeline until 1941?; why would the Afrika Korps have fought in El Alamein and Tobruk in 1940 when these were 1941-2 battles?; etc.) and doesn’t make any coherent historical argument, seeming to change things randomly (this world’s President Roosevelt is Eleanor and Texas has seceded again without problems because it was so simple the first time). Perhaps worse, the protagonists (including the unnamed but repeatedly referenced “woman”) aren’t especially engaging and the novella is just a middle with a dramatic pause more than an ending.

Moving to supernatural tales, “Witch” deals with modern suburban witches and involves the family unit moving to a new place where bad stuff happens. A familiar-feeling domestic tale in which witchery is taken for granted and the twist is unsatisfying. “Beast” bucks the prevailing trend of male-oriented stories by the unprecedented means of retelling “Beauty and the Beast” with the genders reversed. (I think it says something that my favorite part was actually bad because, while the Prince and Mr. Beauty arguing about the latter’s sanity was funny, it was also out of place, tonally.) “Best Served Slow” is probably the best of the outright fantasies or it could be my enjoyment of “posthumous fantasy” kicking in again. This one deals with an old woman accompanying her family on a return vacation to Greece where she has a murder mystery to deal with. Problems include an otherwise good opening that is helped along by a little too much artifice, a confusing couple of critical conversations, and a necessarily but unsatisfyingly inconclusive conclusion, not to mention the odd aspects of a Delphic oracle being more summoner than sought, and being associated more with the Erinyes/Furies than Apollo. But the zesty protagonist is portrayed well and the story is interesting.

Grays” is very loosely SF, with tropes clothing a social tale of folks working bad jobs in a bad environment in which, to the basically insane artist protagonist, drugs and death seem like the only solution. Similarly, “DENALI” is more pseudo-SF as aliens leave us a magic machine which allows the political will of the people to manifest, making the world switch tracks through parallel universes or the like. Disturbingly, it seems to throw in the towel on democracy though its (perhaps overly symbolic) main couple and their relationship was interesting. “Survivors” is nominally about an “indistinguishable from magic” visitor trying to help out a PTSD vet but the whole thing takes place in a creepy, metmorphosing cemetary and feels like fantasy. It didn’t seem especially emotionally convincing. (Also, no American vet would have a “row” with his wife.) “The Wrong Refrigerator” is a fantasy which applies “quantum entanglement” to people and tangles that up with time travel as a woman who wants kids to paper over her unhappy marriage finds herself connected to an old flame who has been “killed” in a scientific experiment gone awry (akin to Larson’s recent “Carouselling”). Things come to a head when her husband tries to trade her to his boss for a promotion. (Oddly this story references Jessica Rabbit but made me think of what little I’ve seen of Peggy Sue Got Married.)

Moving up a notch, “Callisto” is narrated from the point of view of nanobots charged with keeping a kid alive in a futuristic drag race as he circumnavigates Callisto in a homemade gizmo, ostensibly trying to win some prize money to (akin to “Grays”) ease his horrible and abusive domestic and social situation. The complication is that the kid really has been suicidal and he’s got his kid sister with him in the machine. The viewpoint is interesting, as is the contest within the contest (boy vs. nanos, boy vs. racers). The sentimentality, especially of the nanos with their constant concern for “little Sandi,” is a bit much and much of the story is questionable, but it’s a decently paced adventure with some depth.

3-adica” is a “hard math fiction” computer virtuality story in which a couple of sentient game pieces have discovered a really clever GPU hack and are using it to try to make their way to the promised land of the 3-adica game but have so far only made it to a gothic, gaslight, Dracula/Ripper sort of horror game which gives us SF vampires and such. The milieu and the main character are well done but its two phases seem disjointed and it ends abruptly, ultimately feeling like the opening of a novel more than a novella. Also, while 3-adica is intrinsically interesting and symbolically significant, I’m not sure that it’s used in practical plot terms in a way that justifies so much focus on it, especially given what the protagonist actually encounters there.

(By the way, there are several odd word choices early on: “misogynous Ripperology” should probably be “misogynistic,” “desanguination” should be “exsanguination,” and “resile” is an intransitive verb meaning “to return to a prior position” so “I will not resile from the task” doesn’t seem quite right. Leaving aside language, I have no idea why the Shelleys were used the way they were but it seemed pointlessly bizarre.)

Finally, “In a Sharing Place” does everything “wrong” and is the best story in the issue. It’s a second-person present tense tale with lots of Capitalized Concepts which leaves the reader confused about exactly what is going for quite awhile but (apart from an inexplicable reference to “li’l hijackers”) has such a mastery of tone and a well-judged intimation of weirdness (including the easy but effective drama of traumatized kids going off to meet sometimes horrible fates) that it easily holds interest until all is revealed. This story of a strange invasion which has destroyed civilization is ultimately quite powerful and its point-of-view allows it to seem ambiguous and not preachy. The closing segment is an extremely powerful depiction of inside and outside in both physical and psychological ways.

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