Review: Asimov’s, May/June 2019

Asimov’s,
May/June 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “Unfinished Business” by Bill Johnson (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi” by E. Lily Yu (science fiction short story)
  • “The Memory Artist” by Ian R. MacLeod (reprint science fiction novelette)
  • “Sacrificial Iron” by Ted Kosmatka (science fiction short story)
  • “Never the Twain Shall Meet” by Peter Wood (science fiction short story)
  • “Chasing Oumuamua” by Sean Monaghan (science fiction short story)
  • “Recrossing Brooklyn Ferry” by John Richard Trtek (science fiction novelette)
  • “Not Only Who You Know” by Jay O’Connell (science fiction short story)
  • “The Intertidal Zone” by Rahul Kanakia (science fiction short story)
  • “Gremlin” by Carrie Vaughn (science fiction novella)

One story, Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Memory Artist,” which is set in his “Breathmoss” universe, is a reprint1. The other six of the first seven had me convinced I was going to write a uniformly negative review. Two of the last three (the exception being a short-short) saved the issue2.

Unfinished Business” is a “Ship” story. The Ship is a vessel containing various layers of Earth flora and fauna which has returned to acquire another layer, resulting in all sorts of sociopolitical shenanigans, both on Earth and in the Ship. In this case, two humans and a dog have witnessed signs of an alliance between two antagonistic Ship factions, making them part of the “skine” (or tableau of the event). The (re)enactment of the event is complicated by saboteurs and the humans must figure out how to thwart the latter while preserving the former. This might produce a fair story but I’ve read at least one in this series and could barely hang on. I would not recommend starting with this, especially because the opening scenes are confusingly disjointed and so much of the background is so sketchy. Also, the love-“hate” relationship and bickering of the protagonists didn’t work for me. Between the decent concepts and uneven execution, this was basically average, though it might seem better in its complete context.

Recrossing Brooklyn Ferry” is another novelette of about the same length with far less content. Though it lacks action and is initially elliptical, genre readers will know they’re reading a time travel tale (though I suspect non-genre readers would be utterly mystified) and it eventually becomes clear that people are escaping their oppressive government in the present by leaping over the wall of time. One thread of the story occurs in its present and another occurs in 1923 America as we follow various hunters and runners. The only interest I had in the story centered around the mystery of a woman’s death which later seemed to be intentional deception rather than any actual twist (though I could have read it wrong); one character is a walking “easy button” who personifies the authorial fiat around a main character and a point is made of how boring the former is when the latter has even less personality; there’s a red herring involving metal spike fragments.

The previously mentioned short-short, “The Intertidal Zone,” lacks any genuine science fictional element: shorn of its many-legged and -eyed “aliens,” it’s just about a woman getting plastic surgery. I would have liked to have liked “Never the Twain,” which is possibly the only SF story to be set in Kinston, NC or to deal with barbecue, but just as in “Zone,” you could substitute twins for “entities split in a transporter accident” and make the “robot” worker a human and the result would be an essentially unchanged mainstream story, this one about sibling rivalry and barbecue (Eastern barbecue is the only barbecue). “Chasing Oumuamua” has little more SF: a sister has to get spaceship plans out of her mad scientist brother so NASA can catch the next interstellar object after Oumwhoozits. The siblings and the insanity are mainstream and touchingly done but there is nothing essentially science fictional in the story’s frame. It’s also full of weird things: it claims to be set in 2024 and has a character who must be at least 57 who listens to Matchbox Twenty on the oldies station and claims Star Trek was dated when he was a kid; it’s full of namedropped brands like it’s a cyberpunk story; it messes up heavy metal handsigns; and it messes up the dramatic timing of the brother’s five minutes of lucidity with an excessive spasm of descriptive writing.

Doing and Undoing” is at least more speculative but not especially science fictional: a magical spiritual awakening has happened and faded away. In the meantime, society has redistributed its wealth and the “Haves” and “Have-nots” have been replaced by the “Doers” and the “Don’ts” in yet another brick in the mystifyingly solid wall of anti-basic-income stories. The protagonist’s own spiritual awakening is just as much handwaving fantasy or author fiat as the societal one but worse for appearing “on-screen.”

Sacrificial Iron” is superficially more science fictional but has a relatively minor problem with seemingly bad science (the notion that Hawking radiation appears “out of nothing” and that cosmic inflation means the speed of light is inconstant which means we can now produce FTL stardrives). I say “relatively minor” because this is another in the surprisingly populous subgenre of Unbelievably Contrived Space Expeditions Which Go Wrong. Someone somehow thought it was a good idea to send two men into space for years and thought it was good to do so without really knowing anything about their possible destinations. It gets even better because it turns out one of the crew is crazy and the other was expelled for beating up a kid with a baseball bat in school but this somehow slipped past the psych eval team. Then the final conflict shows that the IQ evals must have been just as effective as the psych evals. This Cain and Abel story (which almost reads like a discussion of political parties) interestingly barely precedes the somewhat similar and better “The Skinner Box” (Tor.com, June 12, 2019).

Finally, turning to the better stuff, “Not Only Who You Know” would sound like it would have to be worse. The story opens with a woman having cut off the head (and hand) of her boyfriend. But he’s not dead yet and, if he plays his cards right, he may even get them re-attached. This preposterous but definitely attention-getting concept is carried out with aplomb as the backstory is gradually revealed just ahead of the reader’s impatience (barely) and portrays a sort of “Noctambulous” (Rich Larson, Mar/Apr 2019 F&SF) notion of the rich and the means people will go to get or stay in that state. The character’s behavior and their own self-images are fascinatingly strange and complex and their relationship matches. Aside from the premise (which I could understand some not being able to accept) the only real problems are that the tense and time-critical tale resolves too easily and the denouement is too extended. Aside from those issues, though, it’s an invigorating and entertaining ride.

The last and longest story of the issue is the best. The three-part “Gremlin” opens with a Russian female fighter pilot in a dogfight with a Nazi when the Messerschmidt explodes and she realizes “there’s something on the wing!” – her wing, that is. When she gets back to base, she becomes the confused and secretive ally of a strange creature which eats metal and has all manner of special abilities. Her American granddaughter takes center stage in the second part as a Warthog pilot in Gulf War II. Grandma insists she take a mysterious bag into combat with her. The third part follows an even more remote descendant into the future and out into space with the critter still with her.

The opening section (and the 586th was a real unit of female WWII fighter pilots) is gritty with historical realism which somehow pulls off the SF/F element at the same time. As a fan of the A-10, I was already biased towards the second section which is also vivid but it went beyond that to become emotionally effective with the inter-generational connections and (relatively) contemporary relevance. When a character dies, the main character is devastated and feels that, with her A-10, which “was at heart a cannon with wings,” she could “murder the world, given ammunition enough, and time.” She mentions how her friend would “slip quietly into a statistic” but this story achieves the opposite through the humanizing power of fiction and reminds me how few stories about our current eternal wars are written, especially compared to the Golden Age SF of WWII and how we all need to be reminded that these are not statistics. The third section went exactly where I was hoping it would go, which is to the future and space but, unfortunately, it was the most obligatory and least convincing section as the historical details gave way to futuristic vagueness. It still had an effective action sequence and ended the whole in a satisfying way. I wish the third part could have been as powerful as the first two but I still strongly recommend the tale.


1 It was originally published in Chinese after having been “inspired by” a “workshop” produced by a Chinese “financial services group” and a magazine.

2 It still needs the salvation of better proofreading/editing, though, as there are several typos and outright errors.

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Review: Asimov’s, March/April 2019

Asimov’s,
March/April 2019

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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.

Review: Asimov’s, January/February 2019

Asimov’s,
January/February 2019

Asimovs-1901

Original Fiction:

  • “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots” by Alexander Jablokov (science fiction novella)
  • “Credit to My Nation” by Sandra McDonald (fantasy short story)
  • “Written in Mud” by William F. Wu (science fictional short story)
  • “All the Difference” by Leah Cypess (science fictional short story)
  • “Ventiforms” by Sean Monaghan (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Gorgon” by Jay O’Connell (science fictional short story)
  • “Salting the Mine” by Peter Wood (science fiction short story)
  • “Taking Icarus Home” by Suzanne Palmer (science fiction novelette)
  • “Neom” by Lavie Tidhar (science fiction short story)
  • “The Esteemed” by Robert Reed (science fiction novella)

Almost half of the titles in this issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction are not, or are only loosely, science fiction. Frankly, this is also the least inspired issue of Asimov’s I can recall having read.

Credit” is set in the Caribbean, deals with a person of indeterminate gender facing discrimination, and ends with a magic wish-fulfillment. “Mud” aims to be a post-apocalyptic cli-fi comedy set on the shores of Kansas with talking fish nearby. “Difference” is yet another story which uses a magic multiverse machine to ask relationship questions, in this case, ostensibly, of whether the protagonist married the right husband. “Gorgon” has a morally problematic HR guy deal with a “uniquely irreplaceable” employee which requires dealing with issues of time and deus ex AI. It was also fairly familiar but more interesting than the others of this group.

Esteemed” is not much different from both “Difference” and “Gorgon” and seems too much like the recent “DENALI” from the same author and the same magazine as well as what I understand Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time to be like, though I haven’t read that to know for sure. A time traveler is introduced to the world by President Ford and turns out to be inextricably bound up with a group of “Esteemed,” particularly including one family. Various real-world and science-fictional crises involving nuclear proliferation, global warming, genetic engineering, and AI are confronted but figuring out the temporal messiah may be the biggest issue of all. Considering its length, it read fairly quickly but its narrative approach of looking at people as though they were objects seen from a great distance unsurprisingly created a disengaging effect.

Salting” is not much different from “Mud” in terms of failed humor. In this attempt at an Andy Griffith Show in Space, Otis is played by an alien and Andy is played by a lesbian. Andy’s folks have been abandoned by a corporation which returns to place them and the natives under their thumbs after a long time away but both develop a halfway red herring plan of resistance which ends by fiat.

Noem” is three pages of dull infodump about an artificial city in the Arabian desert followed by two pages about the protagonist’s visit with her senile mother after the senseless destruction of a chatbot “friend.” The depiction of that was effective.

Ventiforms” is one of at least a couple of stories in series, dealing tangentially with another of Shilinka Switalla’s great artworks but really focused on Taile Aronsen, who is looking for her son. He’s become rather… involved… in his work assisting Switalla. This feels like a story that is simultaneously overlong and yet missing its opening, is one of several stories recently which have an insufficiently prepped presentation of characters overloaded with emotion and, like “Salting,” “Credit,” and others, ends too easily.

Boots” is another in series. Sere functions as a sort of private detective trying to figure out the strange behavior and imprisonment of her sister’s boyfriend which leads her to uncover a complicated plot between the complex mix of species living on her world. It mostly deals with many of those aliens doing many disgusting things and with footgear fashion. Some may enjoy this tale’s color and activity.

Finally, “Icarus” has a Good Samaritan find a lost kid who’s nearly burned up in a pod after falling in with some odd folks whose idea of a good time is flying close to the sun. This has two severe problems: it’s inexplicably told in second person and it has the protagonist behaving in ways that seem to lack good sense without sufficient motivation before providing more grounds for this through character backstory after the fact. Still, this was evocative and otherwise effective and, if I were going to make any of these the cover story, I’d agree that this one would be it.

Review: Asimov’s, November/December 2018

Asimov’s, November/December 2018

ASF_Nov_Dec_2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Water and Diamond” by Derek Künsken (science fiction novelette)
  • “Stormdiver” by Nick Wolven (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Gift” by Julie Novakova (science fiction novelette)
  • “Incident at San Juan Bautista” by Ray Nayler (fantasy short story)
  • “Joyride” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (space opera novella)
  • “Pregnancy as a Location in Space-time” by David Ebenbach (science fiction short story)
  • “Theories of Flight” by Linda Nagata (science fiction short story)
  • “Parallel Military Cultural Evolution in a Non-human Society” by Tom Purdom (science fiction novelette)
  • “What I Am” by William Ledbetter (science fiction short story)
  • “Girl with a Curl” by R. Garcia y Roberston (space opera novella)

Unlike the companion issue of Analog, this issue of Asimov’s has a perfect mix of four short stories, four novelettes, and two novellas. The quality of the stories in those categories is very odd, though. There’s almost no story without some interest and the average is, well, very much above average compared to other venues, but there’s also a complete lack of completely satisfying tales.

There are a few stories set in the relatively near future on a relatively small scale. “Water and Diamond,” apparently related to the “Quantum Magician” universe, isn’t exactly a reprint or a translation but is close to both. It was originally published in a Chinese magazine and shows every sign of it, but makes its first English appearance here. The Chinese have discovered a wormhole and built a socialist habitat in the system on the other side. Though her husband is a lazy gamer, our protagonist is a cop devoted to maintaining order who stumbles across a mystery in the data the AIs collect. There wouldn’t be a story if the habitat’s computer systems and policing weren’t looser than one would expect and the bulk of the tale is fairly dull but the mystery, itself, is initially intriguing. Unfortunately, while the solution turns out to be bigger than anyone expected, the clues, themselves, were disappointingly literal and insignificant. “Stormdiver” is even closer to home, involving a publicity-hound sister and a more straight-laced brother taking separate machines into Jupiter’s clouds to find out why several probes have disappeared. It’s a reasonably exciting and interesting tale but, if a convincing reason for manned missions  in Jupiter’s radiation bath and clouds was given, I missed it, the big climactic scene between brother and sister made little sense, and the revelation isn’t especially surprising given the foreshadowing. Closer still, in “Pregnancy,”  the first pregnant woman on Mars jots down seemingly random and somewhat repetitive notes about pregnancy on Mars vs. Earth and worries about the baby relative to her bipolar suicide sister. There’s a line or two of humor or interesting observations but this is not a story and, as sometimes happens, references an actual event (regarding Vesna Vulovic) which was far more interesting.

Two of this issue’s stories deal, at least nominally, with post-humans. “Cultural Evolution” contains long-lived and pacifist humans who refer to us, their ancestors, as “pre-humans” but otherwise seem perfectly human to me. The protagonist is a specialist in military history who is with a large team of people studying some aliens. He uses camouflaged drones to especially follow the events involving an alien general and her possible transgressions of her culture’s norms of warfare and how that may shed light on “pre-humans,” while the rest of the story is about coping with scarce academic resources. The scholarly mystery held my attention for a time but I must have missed something because I don’t know what this story was really about and it seemed to end with some sort of academic joke. “The Gift” also deals with very, very long-lived humans and handles the psychology of such beings much more impressively than “Empress of Starlight” but it clunks to an ending with a didactic speech. In the meantime, the two interleaved temporal strands (about an alien probe arriving in the Solar System and giving us the “gift” of immortality and the much later events of immortals hunting each other down for their accumulated misdeeds) were good.

Incident” was a bit of an outlier. The Man of a Trio of Names meets up with the Woman of a Village’s Worth of Bodies and they get existential in this story of a sort of time travel which makes no effort to rationalize it.

The remainder of the tales all have YA aspects and one has a bit of a science fantasy feel like “Incident,” though it’s more clearly rationalized (presumably, especially if you’ve read Memory which I unfortunately haven’t). A young man with “Theories” is being Daedalus-like in trying to learn to fly despite the Bad Things which such efforts can cause, his cousin is sick, and the two come together in this tale of Gray Goo. This is a very effective commercial for the older novel, and for what I assume will be its forthcoming sequel, but it’s not a satisfying story, reading more like a chapter. “What I Am” is a flash piece about an AI sweater being converted into a submarine metal detector by its owner, a boy who threw his dead mother’s ring into a pond in a fit of stage two grief. It seems to be aiming at a great deal of sentiment, but it left me nonplussed.

The other two YA tales are both novellas and both space operas. “Girl” comes with a synopsis of at least two of its prequels and involves a girl taking over a starship and, together with her cousins, a princess, and various other odd people, including one named Sleepy Booty, fighting to free Callisto and nearby parts from evil slavers and a supercomputer. Some may find this very long novella (or book segment) hugely entertaining and some may find it too silly to bear. I’m going to call “Joyride” the best story in the issue, just because its bulk was so exciting and gripping but it comes with extreme reservations. A boy (who wants to be a ship captain some day) and a girl (that he’s somewhat infatuated with) are engaged in a series of competitions. The latest is a race to steal shuttles of sorts to go outside the main ship to see the “Scrapheap” where innumerable decommissioned ships float within a forcefield. They both hope to get away with it and assume they’ll have their ingenuity recognized even if they’re caught. However, things unsurprisingly go disastrously wrong and to say this is about “Learning Better” is an understatement. This is a TV-style space opera which, especially in the end, is replete with handwavium. It also simultaneously partially misappropriates blame, is unconvincing regarding the key element of its protagonist’s supposed brilliance, and is problematically intellectually elitist. Still, it was easily the most exciting story in a rather sedate issue.

Review: Asimov’s, September/October 2018

Asimov’s, September/October 2018

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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.

Review: Asimov’s, July/August 2018

Asimov’s, July/August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “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.

Review: Asimov’s, May/June 2018

Asimov’s, May/June 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Wandering Warriors” by Rick Wilber & Alan Smale (fantasy novella)
  • “When the Rains Come Back” by Cadwell Turnbull (science fiction short story)
  • “Life from the Sky” by Sue Burke (science fiction novelette)
  • “Creative Nonfiction” by Paul Park (slipstream short story)
  • “Riverboats, Robots, and Ransom in the Regular Way” by Peter Wood (sci-fi short story)
  • “Cost of Doing Business” by Nancy Kress (science fiction novelette)
  • “A Mammoth, So-Called” by Marc Laidlaw (fantasy short story)
  • “Unexpected Flowers” by Jane Lindskold (short story)
  • “Time Enough to Say Goodbye” by Sandra McDonald & Stephen D. Covey (time travel short story)
  • “Bubble and Squeak” by David Gerrold & Ctein (disaster novella)

While this issue doesn’t have many stories with overt magic and they all have something at least slightly askew, there’s little straight science fiction. Leaving genre aside, there were few that were chores to read and the longer ones were generally the more interesting ones, but there was also nothing really unambiguously excellent.

The two novellas are remarkable for how good and bad they are. “The Wandering Warriors” is a superb failure. From an alternate 1946, a barnstorming baseball team finds itself magicked back to the Rome of 212 by the Empress Julia Domna as part of her effort to get her sons, Geta and Caracalla, to play nicer with each other. Luckily for the ball club, the player/manager is a Latin scholar (if not a Poe scholar, as he refers to “the glory that’s Rome”) and Julia takes a liking to him. A love for baseball and Roman history shines through this story and, if you have similar interests and can accept the premise, you likely have a treat in store. I simply could not accept it, finding the image of Julia Domna (and Geta and Caracalla) playing baseball only slightly more ludicrous than a 1946 baseball team being full of Latin scholars and feminists, not to mention never understanding why or how this team was chosen or why they come from an alternate WWII since nothing is done with it in either alternate or temporal senses. The other novella, “Bubble and Squeak,” is named after the protagonists’ nicknames. Squeak is an Asian man who is small, smart, and practices karate and other martial arts. He’s also gay and practices modern dance and returns to his residence by shouting, “Honey, I’m homo!” “Bubble” is a scuba diver/stuntman. Both are soon to be married amidst a “mega-tsunami” which destroys Los Angeles when Hawaii goes haywire. (Given the current events with the Hawaiian volcano, I hope this isn’t prescient. ) The opening is poor and the denouement is that and overlong. The story’s third-person limited narration would have benefited from more than the single viewpoint (or pair of them) and, indeed, shows the strain by inconsistently breaking from our protagonists to have a scene with a subway driver for a moment. There’s a relatively unimportant oversized portion involving “Pearl” who was never properly introduced. Like the Latin-speaking ballplayer, there are no points for guessing how handy Bubble’s scuba skills will turn out to be. And there’s no real SF here beyond positing a tsunami in L.A. a few years from now rather than in India a few years ago. All that said, the vast bulk of the story is dramatic with some well-realized and vivid scenes of disaster and struggles to survive (and a nice shout-out to Asimov). If you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, it won’t be perfect but should suit and, even if you aren’t, it may sweep you away for the middle 80% or so.

Of the two novelettes, “Cost of Doing Business” is (1) yet another cli-fi tale and (2) yet another “force them to be free/destroy the village to save it” story. A reporter is recruited by a zillionaire (“a native West Virginian” who was “born in Florida”) to write a book about his efforts to get the US off of fossil fuels and onto renewables. He’s sort of like a Pepsi brother – a mirror image reversal of the Koch brothers, basically. While the story illustrates the cost this should have, the reporter, at least, seems strangely okay with what it describes overall. It’s a thoughtful story (and one of the few clearly SF stories in the issue, extrapolating things like an SF variant of the Zika virus in addition to its cli-fi and future politics) but gets kind of caught in the weeds towards the end, turning info-dumpy and even preachy and losing the narrative until the end. Better, and my favorite story of the issue (in “honorable mention” territory), is “Life from the Sky.” While never completely freed from ambiguity, it’s possible this story depicts some New Wave-like mute crystalline alien lifeforms supposedly falling into the ocean like meteorites and washing up on shore. While getting some fresh air, Audrey (a young meeting planner still living with her increasingly crazy mom) finds one and takes it over to some scientists who have more, getting a little net-famous, and good and very bad things follow from there. The aliens are symbols in a tale that’s really about “media intoxication,” perceptions of threats, rage, and identity. and how to deal with the internet since “we can’t make it go away or ignore it.” Like “Cost,” it starts to ramble a bit and the plot ends up being handled in a rather lazy way but the protagonist and her plight were interesting.

There are six short stories, mostly very short. “Rains” raises expectations of being akin to The Dispossessed, with “Ath” being a “panarchy” while its Moon is mostly controlled by capitalists, but doesn’t fulfill them. The plot is slight and bifurcated. In “Creative Nonfiction,” Mike Pombo is a disturbed teacher of that subject (and an unreliable PoV) and Taylor McLeef is his disturbed student. The metafictional aspects with hints of horror (in which they threaten one another and pick scabs off of their psyches through the medium of the writing) seemed to be working (when that sort of thing usually doesn’t for me) but then it tried to ratchet up the stakes (as well as trying to better qualify as science fantasy) and that part just didn’t work for me. “Riverboats,” with its ersatz pirates led by Captain Leinster may be trying to riff on the Dean’s novel (The Pirates of Zan in book form). A corporation owns both the pirate and pirated ships which are controlled by computers with a couple of robotic placeholders while both the pirate and pirated passengers are white collar workers in various stages of dissonance with their normal jobs. This tries to be funny, I think, but didn’t work for me. “Mammoth” is a minor, but nifty enough, bar tale (without the bar) about an ill-starred Arctic expedition that had attempted to return with a “mammoth” in a giant block of ice which has an ending that is both “neat” and not (in a couple of ways). Given that there’s no explanation for the gimmick, it feels more like a fantasy to me. Secret history or the like, at best. “Flowers” is about a relationship going bad (despite or because of chocolates and flowers) and is similar to another story I read recently that I’ve already forgotten in that the “speculative” element is a bunch of “or” sorts of “choose your own adventure” pathways but which are merely rhetorical and not actual and would basically be fantasy even if they were. “Time Enough” is a time travel story in which the nature of the traveler and her connection to the people of her past and the story’s present are gradually revealed, so it’s hard to summarize without specifying all that. It deals with getting an asteroid mining company off the ground with basic R&D but is more about connections and couldawouldashoulda. Executed competently enough but not especially earthshaking.