Review: Asimov’s, September/October 2018

Asimov’s, September/October 2018


Original Fiction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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” (, 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.

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.)

Review: Asimov’s, March/April 2018

Asimov’s, March/April 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “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

Original Fiction:

  • “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.