Review: Asimov’s, March/April 2018

Asimov’s, March/April 2018

ASF_Mar_Apr_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.

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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 of Infinity Wars for Tangent

Review of Infinity Wars, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Recommended:

  • “In Everlasting Wisdom” by Aliette de Bodard (SF short story *)
  • “Command and Control” by David D. Levine (SF short story *)
  • “Heavies” by Rich Larson (SF short story)
  • “Weather Girl” by E. J. Swift (SF novelette *)
  • “ZeroS” by Peter Watts (SF novelette)

Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1, I’ve now read the eleven stories that only Clarke or Dozois selected. Part 1 left off with a question about whether multiple quality Dozois selections and a slower start from Clarke would continue.

As far as Clarke’s selections, I didn’t care for Margaret Ronald’s talky alien infonet tale “And Then, One Day, the Air was Full of Voices” and I previously ambivalently reviewed Lettie Prell’s artsy post-human “The Three Lives of Sonata James.” I couldn’t go for a full-tilt recommendation of Karin Lowachee’s “A Good Home” (paraplegic vet adopts PTSD android) or Sarah Pinsker’s post-apocalyptic “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea” but they’re certainly reasonable selections to me and you probably wouldn’t go wrong to give them a try.

The only solo Clarke selection that really impressed me was Rich Larson’s “Extraction Request and that in a very specific way. It is undeniably effective but if you don’t wish to read nihilistic military horror SF (The Dirty Dozen economized to an Evil Eight and then dropped in a blender with Aliens and The Blob) then you can safely give this a pass. I wouldn’t have wished in advance to read such a thing but, as I say, it does effectively draw the reader in and is quite creative, especially in certain sadistic details.

I would also recommend Dozois’ selection of Rich Larson’s “Jonas and the Fox more generally but with reservations. Jonas is the older brother of Damjan. They’re living through a revolution when a distant relative, the Fox, who had helped start the revolution prior to being deemed an enemy by it, arrives and hides out with them. Damjan later falls to his brain-death and the Fox has his mind sideloaded into Damjan’s body to hide more effectively. Our story picks up at this point as starry-eyed and contrary (and guilt-plagued) Jonas and his parents and the Fox deal with their situation and try to survive informant teachers and bloodhound soldiers and so on. The reservations come from this being a gripping story throughout yet not especially satisfying in the end. The ending is certainly apt enough and prepped for but somehow the story overall feels like a slight letdown. Also, I’m perfectly happy to swallow the personality/consciousness/soul backups and several other things but, even in that context, the plausibility of aspects of what can and can’t be detected (at least three things) bothers me. Still, quite good and just as gripping as “Extraction Request” with psychological horror but without the visceral horror and nihilism.

Dozois’ other selections were pretty solid. I was least impressed by Maggie Clark’s “A Tower for the Coming World” (interconnected sketches dealing with a variety of people connected to a space elevator) but it wasn’t bad. Eleanor Arnason’s “Checkerboard Planet” wasn’t great, but was a pleasant good ol’ planetary exploration tale starring her recurring Lydia Duluth character. Like Larson’s tale, only more so, Mercurio D. Rivera’s first contact tale, “Those Brighter Stars,” suffered from a somewhat unsatisfying ending (albeit by design) in a tale of abandonment on both small and large scales but was mostly brisk and vivid.

James Patrick Kelly’s “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three” – a tale of siblings, jealousy, mortality, religion, and the Fibonacci sequence – is an embarrassment for me since I have to confess I don’t get it. It seems really superb until the end where I think I understand what happened and why but then simply do not understand the lack of response to it in the denouement. I understand why there wouldn’t be much focus on a certain kind of response but an absence? So I don’t know what to say about it. If the whole thing does hang together and is as good as the bulk, it’d certainly be recommended.

Along with the Larson, the other tale I can clearly recommend is Ted Kosmatka’s “The One Who Isn’t which stays confusing and disorienting for almost too long but finally crystallizes into a remarkable story. As such, it’s one I hate to say anything about because even a simple characterization would spoil the journey. The setup “starts with light. Then heat.” It goes on with a woman “in a porcelain mask” testing a child on his perceptions of colors. Given his inability to distinguish blue and green, she informs him he’s “getting worse.” Then she tells him a bedtime story and I encourage you to go find out about it.

For awhile now, I haven’t been thrilled with Dozois’ annuals but, if the parts I’ve read are at all reflective of the whole, this seems like a very good anthology. One of my major complaints has been an excess of depression, death, destruction, and dystopia in the annuals of late. This certainly has some of all that but in more tolerable quantities and with a lighter or more nuanced touch. Of the nineteen stories from the volume I’ve read thus far, I especially liked eight of them and disliked or wasn’t interested in only a handful with the rest at least being okay. That’s a pretty strong batting average.

Next up, the Horton and Strahan solo selections to finish up this little project!

Edit (2017-01-29): And here’s that conclusion.

Rec: “The Ghost Ship Anastasia” by Rich Larson

It’s a new year and the January webzine stuff is coming out and now this blog can officially begin. I’ve read Flash Fiction Online, and a tale each from Apex and Clarkesworld. The latter produces the first (mild) recommendation of the year.

“The Ghost Ship Anastasia” by Rich Larson, January 2017 Clarkesworld, science fiction novelette

Silas, his sister Haley, Io the muscle, and Yorick the suit are sent by their company to examine a bioship that’s gone silent. Haley dies from micrometeorite damage to her cryo chamber in transit with only a deteriorating software backup of her consciousness remaining, which Silas is determined to save. Their troubles have only just begun, though, as they enter the ship to find the “bio” part has run riot and the controlling software, having become sentient due to the flesh/machine hybrid, is even more out of control. The previous crew appears to have been eaten to provide some of that increased biomass and the new arrivals try to avoid being next on the menu.

This is a gothic space opera and, if you like the first Haviland Tuf tale of George R. R. Martin or the Boojum tales of Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear or many Alastair Reynolds or most Neal Asher stories, you may like this. It does have problems: it places too much weight on the Turing test and isn’t very plausible when it comes to computers and AI (from Haley’s inexplicably decaying software to the fact that the AI is supposed to be easily distracted (because if our contemporary computers can’t process millions of instructions per second and can’t multitask how is a futuristic AI supercomputer supposed to?)), and the ending may not surprise everyone, but it’s effectively creepy and full of fast-paced excitement with a believable and interestingly quirky but Ordinary Joe protagonist.