december asimov’s

This being a capsule review of the December 2010 issue of Asimov's. It's an issue without a novella, so I had more to read than usual. 🙂

  • "Plus or Minus", by James Patrick Kelly (novelette) — Another "coming of age in space" story, and one with some odd and uncomfortable sexual politics that didn't otherwise grab my attention, so I didn't finish it.
  • "Libertarian Russia", by Michael Swanwick (short story) — Michael Swanwick is a writer I've enjoyed in other contexts (the head librarian at the library I worked at in high school gave me a copy of his Vacuum Flowers the library was getting rid of as something she thought I would like, and I did), so I was hoping to enjoy this story. Unfortunately it's a very transparent morality play about the limitations of libertarian philosophy, and while I even agree with Mr. Swanwick on a number of points, morality plays are not what I want out of my fiction, so I was disappointed. Post-apocalyptic Russia wasn't even a well-enough drawn place that I could appreciate the setting despite the dismal plot, and that seems like a setting that should have potential. I'm bored stiff of post-apocalypses — especially misogynistic ones, which they all are almost without exception, and this is not one of those exceptions.
  • "Sins of the Father", by Sara Genge (short story) — An interesting and unusual take on mer-people — what happens when global warming causes sea levels to rise catastrophically? — and a story sensitive to its characters and their place in the world. The story has an awkward and to my mind unnecessary infodump towards its end — I'd already figured out what was going on in the world, how the story was SFnal, from hints earlier on, and I didn't need or want it explained to me, but that hardly mars the otherwise excellent story. I consistently like Ms. Genge's work, so I'm glad to see that Asimov's continues to run it, and I look forward to seeing her name on the cover of future issues.
  • "Freia in the Sunlight", by Gregory Norman Bossert (short story) — An interesting and at times beautiful story about AI told from the perspective of a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) straining towards full consciousness. One of the better depictions of nascent consciousness I've read.
  • "Variations", by Ian Werkheiser (short story) — The son of a famous musician helps a startup recreate his father's performances. The science strikes me as a bit unlikely, but the transformation undergone by the main character is well drawn and the ending has a beauty to it that I can't find the words to articulate well.
  • "Excellence", by Robert Reed (short story) — A man's doppelgänger AI (built from his template) becomes successful. The man sells him. Hilarity ensues. It had a bit of discussion about what makes someone successful, but didn't otherwise grab me much.
  • "The Prize Beyond Gold", by Ian Creasey (short story) — In a world where genetic engineering of the human body is common and sports records among baseline humans get closer and closer to asymptotic best performance, one man has a shot to break a 70-year-old record and win… "The Prize Beyond Gold"! (You really need to read that sentence with Stentorian Movie Trailer Voice in your head. Go ahead, I'll wait.) This story would in fact film well, I think (two great tastes — science fiction and sports! Gattaca meets Chariots of Fire!) Unfortunately most of the story is an infodumpy conversation between the main character and a genengineered woman who's asking him to join her clade once he breaks the record, as a bit of a pie in the face of people who would use him as a symbol of how the "standard model" still has something worthwhile to it, so it's a bit heavy on side of telling instead of showing and loses something for that. Not that that would stop any film adaptations, which could proceed from just the idea and the title. However the film adaptations would almost certainly lose the ambiguity of the ending, which was a plus in favor of the story. Six of one…
  • "Uncle E", by Carol Emshwiller (short story) — A bit of a modern Boxcar Children, with a mysterious stranger, the titular uncle, who tries to help the orphaned children find a new home. Not much more than cute, but cute. (And a story about children in which the mysterious strange man isn't seriously dangerous to them! That's a positive.)
  • "Warfriends", by Tom Purdom (novelette) — The sequel to an Ace Double story from forty years ago, and it reads appropriately. Two intelligent species on a jungle planet, a (in my mind's eye) tiger-like species that dwells on the forest floor, and a more ape-like species that dwells in the trees, attempt to work together to defeat a common enemy. Some interesting bits of worldbuilding, some interesting bits of character development, but not enough of the latter to make me really satisfied.

I'm reminded by my description of "Freia in the Sunlight" that I read Ted Chiang's novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects last weekend, and it's probably the best depiction of nascent consciousness I've read. The story follows two employees of an early next-generation virtual pet "digient" startup (these are rather smarter than mere pets, even in the beginning) who adopt several of the digients after the company closes and raise them as their children to adulthood, and the trials and tribulations they face along the way. (What do you do when the company behind the software platform your child is running on shuts its doors and turns its servers off?) It's in many ways a story about the bittersweetness of being a parent and watching your children grow up, and the characters, both human and digital, and their relationships, are all well-depicted. I read Ted Chiang's stories more for their ideas than for their characters, and even in Lifecycle the characterization is spare (but obviously effective), so I was surprised to discover how much I cared about the characters in it when the story was over. Highly recommended.

(I'd also like to point out to other fans of Chiang's work that the Small Beer Press trade paper reprint of his collection Stories of Your Life: and Others, which I cannot recommend highly enough, is now out, so you no longer need to pay $50+ for a used copy of the hardcover.)

There was also a minor tempest in a teapot recently in the science fiction community over steampunk and its merits or lack thereof, which was mostly notable to me in that someone linked offhandedly to Phil and Kaia Foglio's Girl Genius comic (available to read in its entirety for free on the web!), which I've been meaning to read for some time, and it hooked me in a whoops-where-did-the-time-go kind of way. It's gaslamp fantasy, and make no mistake about it — there's not much challenging of aristocracy or depiction of the plight of the lower classes here — but it's genuninely fun, and it's the first thing I've read in a very long time where I got to the end and wanted to go back to the beginning immediately and reread it, because I wanted to keep living in that world. It's good, honest escapism, and I found it refreshing. Escapism has been lacking in my life of late, and I needed some. (And I'll note that the tendency to talk like a spark, with lots of exclamation marks and cackling, is catching, so if I seem a bit more wild-haired and wild-eyed than usual, now you know why. 😉

So that's what I've been reading. What have you been reading?