“Dix” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (scifi novella)
“Artisanal Trucking, LLC” by Mary Robinette Kowal (science fiction short story)
“Queen of the River: the Harbor Hope” by James Van Pelt (science fiction short story)
“Emojis” by Rudy Rucker (science fiction short story)
“A Threnody for Hazan” by Ray Nayler (science fantasy novelette)
“Love Songs for the Very Awful” by Robert Reed (science fiction short story)
“Seven Months Out and Two to Go” by Rachel Swirsky & Trace Yulie (science fantasy novelette)
“The Billows of Sarto” by Sean Monaghan (science fiction short story)
“The Waiting Room: the Pedia’s Story” by James Gunn (science fiction short story)
“Attack on Terminal: the Pilgrims’ Story” by James Gunn (science fiction short story)
“In Event of Moon Disaster” by Rich Larson (science fiction short story)
“Because Reasons” by Alexandra Renwick (science fiction short story)
“Bury Me in the Rainbow” by Bill Johnson (science fiction novella)
This issue of Asimov’s is the second consecutive one with stories by Rusch and Rucker and the second with a double-barrelled shot of Gunn (sixth with at least one Gunn). The average quality is reasonable and there’s one or two notable stories but little sticks out significantly either way. One thing that does stick out is that, while there’s nothing here that’s strictly fantasy, there’s quite a bit that isn’t strictly SF in one sense or another.
Two stories are essentially fantasy. “Seven Months Out” features a woman who’s lost her husband, is expecting a baby, and works on a ranch where some of her cows are also expecting. Almost half the story is her hallucination, vaguely rationalized by maybe-aliens. Some few may respond to its thick (indulgent) emotional content. “A Threnody for Hazan” spends much more (too much) effort reinventing the wheel of a surreal spiritual time machine which lets a protagonist become a wall or road in WWII (which turns out to have more resonance than might be expected) but what it really wants to do is describe the relationship between an interesting and strange couple and to address all the awful things that make up history and humanity. It’s not bad but probably would have have been better if it had been a straight fantasy.
Four are essentially mainstream and come in light and heavy flavors. Of the two lightly science fictionalized ones, “Artisanal Trucking, LLC” doesn’t need to take place in a very near future of self-driving vehicles, while making noises about authenticity and self-determination, in order to tell a story about running over a dog and dealing with its orphaned puppies. “Because Reasons” doesn’t need to send a person to Mars in order to have the other talk about her feelings about that friend abandoning her: another country would do. Despite being yet another relationship “listory,” the list elements convey a voice and backstory that make for a reasonably engaging read. For the heavy ones, if a starship captain crashes her improbably designed vessel onto a colony world full of weird alien critters which orbits a temperamental star and becomes pilot of the “Queen of the River,” it has to be SF, right? Well, yes, but it’s also all contrived to produce an underplotted tale of a Mark Twainish paddleboat trip. It feels like a piece of something bigger but the critters were fun. There are similar, lesser critters in “The Billows of Sarto” which is almost identical to the author’s earlier “Crimson Birds of Small Miracles.” We have diseased characters wandering to strange planets to deal with death and experience the magical phenomenon of alien lifeforms. Just replace “crimson birds” with “billows” but either could be replaced by a bunch of parrots just as the alien world could be replaced by a tropical island. Aside from that, the improbable relationship of the two characters is especially flawed, despite a failed attempt at a preemptive strike: “He barely knew a thing about her, but…”
Two more pieces are arguably thickly cloaked medieval bits but the “pieces” and “bits” are more significant. “The Waiting Room” is a fragment of a prologue to “Attack on Terminal” which is, itself, a fragment of a prologue to the Transcendental books. Riley, his AI implant, and some fellow pilgrims are trying to travel to the Transcendental Machine. A brief attack by alien barbarians punctuates what is otherwise just Riley’s looking at and thinking about his fellow travelers.
“Dix” is indubitably an SF novella but of a TV sci-fi sort where technobabble problems and solutions fail to provide tension and the reader spends most of the tale waiting for the other shoe to drop but there’s only one shoe. A ship was stuck in foldspace for 5,000 objective years and has recently emerged. The protagonist and her captain find the first officer dead of an apparent suicide and have to deal with the threat this may pose.
Next are a pair of actual SF stories featuring bent brains. “Love Songs for the Very Awful” is one of Reed’s recent run of dyspeptic tales with anticlimactic endings but has elements of interest. A scientist has escaped from her small town and is running an experiment which models personalities by permanently implanted brain meshes. A sociopathic sort of a person is among the first test subjects which means that, when the tech has advanced and people are modifying their personalities, he can’t modify his. The tale deals with those two characters’ relationship with each other and his with another woman later. In the other tale, Scott’s “Emojis” don’t just go viral, they are viral. At the behest of his boss, he infects himself without knowing he’ll be contagious. So the whole world gets little empathy-based icons floating in their visual field and they can be used for advertising, too. So Scott decides to take it a step further. Entertaining enough but not as momentous as it seems like it should be.
Fans of Simak and/or anthropology might be most likely to enjoy “Bury Me in the Rainbow” which is a “stand-alone sequel” to “We Will Drink a Fish Together” (which I have read and recall enjoying but can’t recall otherwise). In this one, Tony takes over for the recently deceased Sam and is in a power struggle with a calculating and aggressive woman who thinks Tony is too trusting of the aliens who are offering some of Tony’s tribe passage on their ship. The off-the-cuff, incidental characterizations and observations are probably the best part of this. The story’s not overwritten or exactly padded and there are a lot of details and complicated parts but the basic story doesn’t seem to require this very long (34K) novella which resolves fairly predictably and clearly indicates another installment is coming. It’s done well enough and of enough substance to merit some attention, though.
Finally, I recommend “In Event of Moon Disaster.” Laurie and Sol are alone in a region of the moon after something has struck the surface. Laurie had gone out to investigate and has now returned. Sol lets her in and she goes to sleep. Then there’s a knock at the airlock. Laurie’s banging on the ship and wants to come in. This story riffs on all sorts of things from “The Brain Stealers of Mars” to “Knock” to “The Cold Equations” and “Think Like a Dinosaur” and more but you don’t need to be familiar with any of that to be weirded out by and interested in this story which also displays a grasp of twists and scale. Since this is set in one continuum, I don’t know if it also means to be addressing one of my biggest gripes with the “many worlds” conjecture but, if so, I like that, too.