Review: Asimov’s, March/April 2018

Asimov’s, March/April 2018


“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.


Review of Recently Read “Year’s Best” Stories

At this point, fourteen stories listed in the collated contents of the big “year’s bests” have annotations saying the evaluation was “late.” This was because the stories were initially unavailable on the web or came from odd venues. I’m reviewing them now, expanding on the brief “read,” “honorable mention,” or “recommended” labels.

For reviews of the Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities stories, please see this post.

I read “Charges,” “Hunger,” and “Sidewalks” in mid-/late-December without thinking to actually review them, but simply jotted down my usual notes, so what follows on them are just belated restatements of those notes.

I felt that “Charges” (about an attempt to “cure” transgender people in the near future by torturing them and transferring them into non-transgender corpses) was extremely dated (transposing past treatment of homosexuals into an exaggerated future) and plain silly “science” fiction. It had a sort of horror movie intensity but that’s about all that could be said for it. “Hunger” addresses the potential ennui of (relative) wealth which, while not completely invalid in some nuances, is suitable for 1% propaganda generally. More importantly in fictional terms, the protagonist talks about “the romance of death by adventure” and notes that “I faced a less newsworthy ordeal.” Which made for a less interesting story as this was a boring grocery list of “actions” and, as said, largely unconvincing thoughts. In “Sidewalks,” a speech pathologist meets a woman from an alternate reality who speaks a form of Old English and comes from California, though she’s initially taken to be a gibberish-speaking nut. The details of this make little sense and, generally, this sort of story has been done many times before and much better.

Moving on to recent reads, “Persephone” is an initially interesting slipstream/dark fantasy which has quite a few strong images and ideas and an interestingly shifty narrative technique as it describes a pseudo-orphaned lost girl but seems underwhelming given the wind-up. “Confessions” describes the perfect storm of higher education, corporate rule, and social media, through a narrator who’s modded down from a “Pro” member of society to a “Con.” Unfortunately, most of this is already here and isn’t science fictional at all. It’s also unfortunate that it doesn’t make for the perfect story as it’s rather dull and unpleasant but not in a compelling, effective way. Perhaps it’s to the point but the narrator protagonist was hard to engage with and, while it did go for an emotional ending, it didn’t quite work for me. It’s not bad, but not remarkable. “Wind“—in which a fiddle player and history teacher on a generation starship tries to explain to her resistant kids why even broken history (and music and tradition and creation) is necessary—is a story with nice ideas and decent characters and most everything else needed for an excellent story but basically forgot the plot or, more specifically, the drama. It’s a mostly good but dull story and I’m someone who loves starships and history and music so I imagine it’d be worse for those who don’t. The zestier “Monkey” is somewhat clever with its structure of a fragment of history interlarded with scholarly notes which depict some gorilla warfare, so to speak, in which the meek will inherit the earth if they jujitsu for it and the most striking thing was the very isolated elements of humor or discordant notes delivered with a perfectly straight face in the course of a generally serious tale. This story doesn’t do much wrong aside from the contrivance of not having the religious order’s noncombatants expelled along with the royal family and I think it merits an honorable mention (I’ve waffled a bit) but it didn’t overwhelm me.

Buckell has two stories in the annuals, both of which seem more like honorable mentions to me. “Shoggoths” is a reasonably clever science fantasy about GPS and automated vehicles being used to try to summon monster monsters. The vehicle for conveying this concept is a tale of a couple of tow truck operators stealing a drug dealer’s stolen car in order to return it to the original drug dealer for a reward. This is a fun read but doesn’t strike me as especially significant. The more problematic “Zen” has a cardboard villain representing tradition and inflexibility start and lose a starship fight with the modern, flexible good guys. When he survives and sneaks aboard the victorious starship, he and a mind uploaded into the form of a maintenance bot vie for supremacy, with the bot’s programmed lack of freewill complicating the struggle. This has a gosh-wow-sensawunda suitable for both old and new space opera and homages several things from previous SF but its simplistic ethos is discordant in a new space opera. Further, the wondrous setting being mostly a clever plot contrivance is bothersome. Still, the story’s pace and imagery are noteworthy.

The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine” is an unusually funny story for Egan (not saying that it’s an outright comedy, but it definitely has its lighter, stranger moments). When the protagonist unceremoniously loses his job and he and both his immediate and extended family go through some financial troubles, some discussion with a tin-hat brother-in-law and an attempt to debunk his theories lead to pondering the nature of economies and emergent systems. This description doesn’t do it justice as it doesn’t convey the calm, confidently unhurried but efficient pacing, the tangibility of the characters and their plight, or Egan’s usual thoughtful angle on things. While I still prefer “Uncanny Valley,” both novelettes are great reads.

And wow: “An Evening with Severyn Grimes” is a date you don’t want to miss. The idea of mind uploads placed in borrowed bodies and the religious/ideological people who oppose this is a bit familiar (and not completely dissimilar from “Zen”) and the hackery of one of the characters is a bit magical, but this tale—of a woman, for reasons of her own, infiltrating a cult which wants to seize a rich guy currently in such a borrowed body so they can kill him painfully and publicly—is sheer brilliance. The old mind in the young body is constantly seeking thrills to make him feel alive again and that’s just what this short story does for the reader. This needs to be the basis for a slightly expanded movie or something. Further, it does something “Zen” does not do in that it has complex characters working at complex cross-purposes who can sometimes align just enough to make things really interesting. Very enthusiastically recommended.

Review: Asimov’s, January/February 2018

Asimov’s, January/February 2018

“The Seeds of Consciousness: 4107’s Story” by James Gunn (science fiction short story)
“The Final Commandment: Trey’s Story” by James Gunn (science fiction short story)
“In the Lost City of Leng” by Paul Di Filippo & Rudy Rucker (science fantasy novella)
“The Equalizers” by Ian Creasey (science fiction short story)
“Solicited Discordance” by Matthew Hughes (science fiction novelette)
“Assassin in the Clouds” by Robert R. Chase (science fiction novelette)
“Barren Isle” by Allen M. Steele (science fiction novelette)
“Mother Tongues” by S. Qiouyi Lu (science fiction short story)
“The Rescue of the Renegat” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (science fiction novella)

The January/February issue of Asimov’s is disappointing in that there are no truly remarkable stories but there are several decent reads. Either way, this issue is one for the series lovers. “In the Lost City of Leng” is a “sequel” to H. P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” while “Solicited Discordance” adds to the SF part of the Archonate series, “Assassin in the Clouds” is another Angelo and Sphinx adventure, “Barren Isle” adds to the Coyote saga, “The Rescue of the Renegat” adds to the Diving universe, and “The Seeds of Consciousness” and “The Final Commandment” form a series within this single issue, not to mention being related to the Transcendental novels. And those are just the ones I know of, making a minimum of 7 of 9 of the original stories (or 10, counting a translation). I am a story-series lover, myself, but this is a bit much, even for me. However, one of the most important things a good series story must do, while adding to the overall picture, is to stand on its own and, while these may not entirely do so, none but the last two I mentioned feel like middles or excerpts.

Speaking of those two, both “The Seeds of Consciousness” and “The Final Commandment” follow on from an article (“Thought Experiment: Space Opera and the Quest for Transcendence,” also by James Gunn) which talks first about the history of space opera and then about the Transcendental series. It seems to indicate we will be getting two character-based narratives but what we get are two (perhaps Stapledonian) infodumps which recap Darwinism-with-variations. The first deals with a sentient mobile plant species and the second, with a “species” of intelligent machines. The explanation of the plant’s sentience-trigger and really the whole species strains belief. Both are interesting in a “fictitious non-fiction” way but neither are as stories.

Other less successful stories, to me, were “The Equalizers,” which uses a Human Resources director as the protagonist in a tale about a trial run of using special goggles which turns everyone into monotone brightly colored blobs for the purposes of non-discrimination and is mostly devoted to the woman’s conflict over her sex life after a recent breakup. The “dishwashing liquid commercial” tone of the dialog, under-utilization of the technology gimmick, and weak ending hurt this for me. “Mother Tongues” deals with the mixed emotions a woman has over selling her native language faculty (which can be transferred to another mind after being erased from her own) to pay for her daughter’s education. The idea is old, the pace is slow, the emotions are dreary, and the conflict doesn’t speak to me (no pun intended). Your mileage may vary.

An oddball story (with a hollow earth and sea cucumbers) is “In the Lost City of Leng,” which, again, is a “sequel” to “At the Mountains of Madness.” I’m at a severe disadvantage here as I am not very familiar with Lovecraft’s works (a deficit I’ll correct Real Soon Now). Apparently the first story deals with a first expedition to the Antarctic to fight weird critters in 1930. This story speaks of a second expedition which failed horribly and details the third in 1934, in which our protagonist quits his job as a reporter to join an oddball gang of adventurers. This story’s style isn’t quite modern or quite 1934, isn’t quite Lovecraft’s style but will occasionally lapse into it, isn’t quite comic but isn’t entirely serious. And I don’t know if this is a strength or a weakness or how a true Lovecraftian would react. It at least entertained me.

In addition to the “series” theme, a second theme is that of rescue or guardianship. While I don’t care for themed magazine issues, this is where most of the better stories are to be found. “Solicited Discordance” involves an “op” being hired by an imperious aristocrat to find her son, who has disappeared with a strange girl. After getting on their trail and noticing another man following the pair, the op develops a theory about off-worlders coming in to scam rich locals and tails them to see if it will play out. I thought the op was wrong the whole time and found his misanthropic certitude grating and the plot was convenient (the op’s AI assistant can do just about anything) but this was generally readable. “The Rescue of the Renegat” nearly kills itself as soon as it begins, with a heavy “tell, don’t show” style with many contradictions, redundancies, and other problems, but finally gels into a decent adventure in which a starship crew tries to rescue that of another which has just reappeared in normal space (from a hundred years ago) and whose drive is about to blow. The very end is also simplistic and heavy-handed, though. “Barren Isle” deals with a couple of children escaping from a religious cult and getting into trouble. They’ve encroached on the island of diminutive but fierce natives and things get complicated when some cultists and our viewpoint rescue team come after them. I have no love for religious fanatics but Steele so clearly does not that it harms the tale, making it a bit cardboard, but the action is good. And Angelo and Sphinx return to deal with an “Assassin in the Clouds.” Angelo’s on an aerostat with a scientist who has developed a way to increase human processing capabilities, but the process has severe limitations and drawbacks. One of the drawbacks is that someone may want to harm the scientist and it’s Angelo’s mission to protect him. This deals with an interesting idea and the action is kind of exciting.

Review of Jan/Feb 2017 Asimov’s for Tangent

Review of Asimov’s, January/February 2017

Recommended (but all with reservations of some kind or another):

  • “Fatherbond” by Tom Purdom (SF novelette)
  • “The Catastrophe of Cities” by Lisa Goldstein (SF-ish novelette)
  • “Pieces of Ourselves” by Robert R. Chase (SF short story)
  • “The Speed of Belief” by Robert Reed (SF novella)

Year’s Bests and My Recommendations

Edit (2017-01-30): This post discusses only a few, mostly print, items and the webzine picture is much different and more complete. Please see Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 1), (Part 2), and (Part 3/Conclusion) for that.

The contents of three of the four main “year’s bests” have been announced (awaiting only the Clarke) which enables me to compare my recommendations with their anthology picks. I’ve read very little of this year’s short fiction, so there’s not much I’m familiar with, but there are some pieces I know. It would give me pause if my recommendations were identical because part of the fun is people having unique points of view. But it would also give me pause if every year’s best editor agreed that some one story was great and I didn’t. It wouldn’t necessarily cause me to change my opinion, of course, but would cause me to at least rethink it. This year neither extreme occurred.

Of the three stories I recommended from Bridging Infinity, Strahan (the editor of the original anthology, itself) picks the one I thought might have been best (Ken Liu’s “Seven Birthdays”) and Dozois picks the one I thought was probably second best (Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty’s “Cold Comfort”). However, no one picked my third favorite (Benford & Niven’s “Mice Among Elephants”), with Dozois picking Alastair Reynolds’ “Sixteen Questions” instead. I did note that the Reynolds was an artsier story and might appeal to some folks based on that and that the Benford/Niven did have a significant flaw but was a lot of fun. The only other stories appearing from that anthology were Horton‘s picks of Charlie Jane Anders’ “Rager in Space” which, aside from the first paragraph, I didn’t like and Karin Lowachee’s “Ozymandias” which I liked okay but which only made the edge of “good work” and didn’t seem like year’s best material to me. (But then I didn’t recommend any of the three stories I was familiar with from Horton’s picks – his other being Cat Rambo’s “Red in Tooth and Cog” from the March/April F&SF, about which I said, “[t]his story is relatively long for its content and features a rather overwrought end sequence and unsurprising conclusion but the depiction of the ‘teeth and cogs’ is quite imaginative and entertaining.”)

Dozois also picked a couple of stories from the two issues of Asimov’s I read. From December, we both recommend/pick Karl Bunker’s “They Have All One Breath” which was all I recommended from the issue. There is a rather pointed irony regarding the January issue, though: I recommended only Ted Kosmatka’s “Chasing Ivory” from that issue. (Dozois does pick a Kosmatka, by the way, but a different one.) Dozois picked Ian McHugh’s “The Baby Eaters,” about which I specifically said, “[b]asically, it is the familiar bio/sociological tale of a human trade agent on an alien world who suffers culture shock…. All in all, high-grade magazine filler: probably not likely to be in a Year’s Best or win any awards, but a good read.”

So I’m content with the overlaps and, even with the oddity of the McHugh, I’m also good with the discrepancies. Picking the fun and concrete Benford/Niven over the artsier and ethereal Reynolds is actually par for my course.

Edit (2016-12-23): I missed a couple that I’d reviewed from the April Clarkesworld: Dozois and Strahan picked “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman and Horton picked “The Bridge of Dreams” by Gregory Feeley. As can be seen in the review, I grappled with “Touring” as a serious, quality story but saw some problems and just didn’t click with it, so couldn’t recommend it. But I get what they saw in it and it was easily the best story in the issue. “Bridge,” though, was just not Year’s Best material, in my opinion.