Review: Asimov’s, March/April 2019

Asimov’s,
March/April 2019

ASF_Mar_Apr_2019

Original Fiction:

  • “The Peacemaker” by Gardner Dozois (1983 science fiction short story; reprint)
  • “Instantiation” by Greg Egan (science fiction novella)
  • “Tourists” by Rammel Chan (science fiction short story)
  • “Eighteen Songs by Debussy” by Michael Swanwick (science fiction short story)
  • “How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” by Lawrence Watt-Evans (science fiction novelette)
  • “Terrible Trudy on the Lam” by Eileen Gunn (fantasy short story)
  • “January March” by Tom Purdom (science fiction short story)
  • “The Starry Sky over the Southern Isle” by Zhao Haihong (2017 science fiction short story; “self-translated”)
  • “Transport” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (science fiction novelette)
  • “Isla Tiburón” by Alex Irvine (science fiction short story)
  • “The Lights Go Out, One by One” by Kofi Nyameye (science fiction short story)
  • “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” by Jack Dann (fantasy short story)
  • “The Lost Testament” by Allen M.Steele (science fiction novella)

The March/April 2019 Asimov’s is a special issue in honor of former editor Gardner Dozois. It features some writers with special connections to him such as Jack Dann, Tom Purdom, and Michael Swanwick, as well as people like Greg Egan (who received a lot of support from Dozois) and Lawrence Watt-Evans (who has a sequel to his Hugo-winner that Dozois edited). Some of this may be specially commissioned or just serendipitous but the bulk of the tribute consists of special non-fiction. Regular columns have special content: Sheila Williams writes an Editorial on the great editor; Robert Silverberg Reflects on him; James Patrick Kelly finds connections to him On the Net. A special column includes touching and/or hilarious memorials from over a dozen writers. Returning to fiction, the capstone is a reprint from Dozois himself: the Nebula-winning “The Peacemaker” from the August 1983 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, as it was then known, as it was then edited by the underrated Shawna McCarthy. I don’t ordinarily review reprints from current magazines but I will say that this slow-moving tale of a boy washing up on the shores of a religious cult after the ice caps have melted and the seas have risen is an inarguably well-written tale which concludes powerfully and its generational and personal significance is apt.

Turning to the regular fiction, there are four novelettes and novellas among the twelve stories and at least three of them are in series.

Instantiation” is a superior sequel to “3-adica,” a novella from the Sep/Oct 2018 Asimov’s (review). While the earlier story was generally good, I felt it had some problems that this one avoids. It also orients the reader more clearly so that they might not even need to read the first one to follow along, though I wonder if the characters of Sagreda and the others would seem as fleshed out (so to speak). This installment deals with the fact that the business which runs the gameworld in which our AI cryptopeople exist is starting to fail, making them realize they face a mortal threat. They discover a possible escape route via a game in which logical positivists kill Nazis (I don’t know how the business could be failing) because one of the players is using a special VR rig which has useful features (any sufficiently advanced bug is indistinguishable from a feature). The problem is, that player has recently quit. In order to draw the player back in, Sagreda goes undercover. One of the most effective elements of this story, which sets it apart from most other VR/AI stories is the clear double perspective with which we read about data that’s human and machines that are worlds and how, well, “haptic” it all seems, with genuine stakes. While this story’s plot arc does conclude, those stakes are made even more tangible in an epilogue which shows more is to come.

Lost Testament” is a sequel to “Starship Mountain” (Jul/Aug 2018 Asimov’s; review) and “Sanctuary” (Tor.com, May 17, 2017; review). It features the same cast of characters as “Starship Mountain.” In this one, Pilot and Philip drop into private investigator Jeremy Crowe’s life again, this time soliciting his help to go to another rich family’s estate and steal a valuable document and a gizmo. This is a decent read but less interesting than its predecessor with the only tension coming from being followed by the fuzz and with little plot for a novella. (There are also several glitches, ranging from the non-word “stalagtite” to making a big deal about not taking a gun because they’re illegal but later revealing lockpicking tools which are just as illegal.) Even if the blurb didn’t say so, the pause to this one also makes it clear there will be more.

How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” is the third tale in that milieu, the most notable one of which is “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers.” In that award-winning tale from the July 1987 IAsfm, Harry runs a diner which serves as a nexus for travelers of parallel worlds and sometimes receives strange payments from them but the story primarily concerns his assistant. This one primarily concerns a PI who is compelled to go to Harry’s after a client hands him a sort of rock Harry pawned to him that makes the PI feel really good. The narrative describes the lengths to which the PI goes to get his hand on another one. While explanations are possible, it’s not clear why the current owner’s not as affected.

Finally, in “Transport,” which is a tale apparently unconnected to the Diving Universe but in which space travel is just as bizarrely unreliable, a kid disappears from a spaceship, causing a cover-up to unravel, an unpleasant lawyer to go on the warpath, and an ex-engineer to come out of retirement. The whole story feels like something impatiently thrown together to get across its point but the last two pages/chapters feel especially hasty, schematic, easy, didactic, and sentimental.

Of the short stories, “Lights Go Out” is very nearly a novelette. The Solar system is about to be destroyed by a black hole and a few starships go out looking to move a sun to a rogue planet. This has a humanizing family component to its intergalactic scope and places its characters in an agonizing moral dilemma after a wondrous discovery in another solar system but the science and a lot of the plot details were simply unbelievable. “Tourists” involves a race that loves to be just that but their activity once resulted in a massive loss of life when they revealed themselves to a xenophobic race so doing that is now forbidden. There is some nice paranoia regarding urges to come out but it all depends on an “idiot plot” and annoyingly repeats the phrase “[some language] or whatever” over fifty times in just over eight pages. I wouldn’t ordinarily review “Starry Sky” but wouldn’t ordinarily review “Peacemaker” either, so the former is an excessively passive tale about a damaged ecology resulting in poor economic policies which damage families, but a dad and his daughter at least have a phone. As only the rich get clean air in “Starry Sky,” so only they get clean water in “Isla,” while security teams working for the company hunt poor terrorists. It’s an initially interesting and serious tale (with a hilarious bit on water, wine, and beer) but ennobles its terrorists while not giving its bad guys any wives or children because that would complicate its moral clarity. The better “Eighteen Songs” is about sex and violence in an AI-dominated post-human future of body-swapping written in the key of (WT)F. (I prefer Mr. Mojo Risin’s formulation: “I tell you this, no eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.”)

Terrible Trudy” is a bizarre little comic fantasy set in the 1940s about a tapir who escapes from the zoo and becomes an entertainer but eventually meets Firrup Mumble (Philip Marlowe?) and happens into another career change. “January March” is an unusual and nicely written but modest story about a bureaucrat accompanying some participants in the international portion of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade. They face windy situations which the “cyber” autopilot has to deal with while the guy reflects on all this and the current romantic relationship in his life. My favorite of the shorts was “Mr. Death.” This is one of those “heresy of paraphrase” stories which makes it hard to summarize. A sick boy is at the beach with his famous model mom when he sees a boy and a very strange man. When the boy disappears and the man appears by him, the boy has a strange experience. While I would have liked something “bigger,” the thing that sets this slightly apart is the effective weirdness which seems to suspend time for the reader just as time is suspended for the boy.

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Short Story Month

For Featured Futures, obviously, every month is Short Story Month. Still, Charles May reminded me that this month is even more a Short Story Month than the others while taking  a look at a story for the occasion. As he says in “Wil Weitzel’s ‘Lion’–O. Henry Prize Stories—Short Story Month,” it’s “a celebration that has never really caught on with writers or readers, but one to which I feel bound to contribute.” That seems like a fair assessment and I feel much the same.

I found some history in “Making the Case for National Short Story Month” and, from one of the horse’s mouths, “The Origins of Short Story Month: a guest post by Dan Wickett.”

For some current approaches, a literary magazine offers “14 Writers You Love & Their Favorite Short Stories,” with links to those which are available online. I was pleased to see one short story writer I love and am extra-pleased that hers is one you can go read right this very minute to celebrate Short Story Month!

Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler.

(You can also read “Bloodchild,” the title novelette of a collection of wall-to-wall excellence.)