This being a review of the April/May 2011 double issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. (If you’re wondering where March went, never fear — I am indeed posting these out of order, my March issue having disappeared, hopefully into the bookbag of a housemate to read on the T, but I have read it, and I’ll review it when it has returned to me.)
- “The Day the Wires Came Down”, by Alexander Jablokov (novelette) — This story centers around a transport system using wires strung between high points in London, or rather as you might guess from the title the death of same. Jablokov attributes it to a dream he had, but I’d swear I’ve read somehwere, probably the excellent webcomic 2D Goggles, about Charles Babbage’s plans to build something similar for mail-carrying. (I can’t find the reference right now, but somebody else on the Internet also remembers this, so I’m not crazy, or at least no crazier than a random person on the Internet.) It’s an interesting idea, and the quality of the writing is good. Unfortunately that setting detail alone is kind of ho-hum, and the characters don’t do much to enliven it, so I got bored and punted partway through the story. The setting of course has a bit of a steampunk vibe, and this shows up the problem I have with a lot of steampunk stories — their setting is a lot of Rule of Cool, but there’s nothing underneath that, no problem to animate it — it is, to abuse the metaphor a bit, an automaton, flawless on the outside but only clockwork underneath.
- “An Empty House With Many Doors”, by Michael Swanwick (short story) — A depressed widower meets a version of his wife from another universe. Well-executed and blessedly short.
- “The Homecoming”, by Mike Resnick (short story) — The story begins, “I don’t know what bothers me more, my lumbago or my arthritis.” That told me everything I needed to know about it, and I bounced off. It may be a fine story, but I judge it to be more about the aches and pains of late middle age than anything I, with the narcissism of youth, find interesting.
- “North Shore Friday”, by Nick Mamatas (short story) — Some Greek illegal aliens, some INS agents, and a federal telepathy machine. Well-characterized, and especially interesting for the way it uses typography to achieve a non-linear narrative.
- “Clockworks” (novelette), by William Preston — A prequel story to his “Helping Them Take the Old Man Down” from the March 2010 Asimov’s. I like it as I liked the other, though I enjoyed the other’s careful treading of the boundary between science and the supernatural, and I am a bit disappointed to see here that the story makes it pretty evident that the supernatural exists in this world. (And I am getting bored of Cthulhu.)
- “The Fnoor Hen”, by Rudy Rucker (short story) — I always find stories about future pop or startup culture to ring a little false (though this may be because the truth really is stranger than fiction). I was suspending disbelief in this story until the line “‘You’re always talking about morphons these days,’ said Vicky [the main female character], feeling cozy with the vague old word, which had something to do with chaos or math,” at which point I said to myself “why am I reading this garbage again” and punted it.
- “Smoke City”, by Christopher Barzak (short story) — This story begins strong, so strong that rereading the first paragraph still causes my heart to catch in my throat, but after that it descends into a heavy-handed not-even-allegory about how terrible the early Industrial Age was and loses all of its phantom depth.
- “A Response from EST17”, by Tom Purdom (novelette) — Oh look, another story about how risk-takers are necessary in any society. How trite. It does contain an interesting idea — what if we don’t see aliens in the sky because every new civilization that achieves contact is given a payload of information, like immortality and sustainability and all the rest, and it finds the ensuing thousand-year struggle to cope with this so traumatic that it hunkers down on its planet and doesn’t talk to anybody. Mostly this just makes me want to read more Culture books, however.
- “The One that Got Away”, by Esther M. Friesner (short story) — The main character is a fish-woman prostitute, however her voice annoyed me, and I punted.
- “The Flow and Dream”, by Jack Skillingstead (short story) — The last survivor on a dying generation ship is forced by the AI inhabiting that ship to start settlement of the planet. Yeah. Uh, meh?
- “Becalmed”, by Kristine Katheryn Rusch (novelette) — Genocide survivor… or is it instigator… is repressing her memories and needs to draw them out. If she instigated the genocide, she’ll be executed. This was actually fairly good — the first Rusch piece I’ve liked. I think partly because it’s set in a great traveling Fleet — Starfleet if Starfleet never went home and traveled in a pack — which is an interesting setting, and I kept mapping the ship into the Galaxion universe and that made it even better. The story’s not novel, but it was well enough done that I didn’t notice too hard.
- Another Norman Spinrad book review column, notable for its thankful avoidance of his previous topic but for one blessedly short paragraph, its inclusion of some items of actual interest, and its long rant about why Spinrad hates the New Weird, whatever that is (“it’s not scientific enough!”). Six of one…
I think I’m getting bored of Asimov’s — I’m less and less inclined to read it, and with my new job I spend less time on the T so I have less need of it. At the farthest end of winter when I’m sick of the cold and the gloom and the bland white food, what I crave above all else is bitter greens, and so now the characters, settings, plots provided by Asimov’s really aren’t providing whatever it is I’m craving in my literature. Would people be sad if I stopped running these reviews?
This being a review of the February 2011 Asimov's.
- "Out of the Dream Closet", by David Ira Cleary (novelette) — If this isn't an anime, it needs to be. The themes and images remind me a lot of Haibane Renmei and the works of Hayao Miyazaki. The main character, who calls herself Little Girl, is ~60 years old, but her body has been frozen at about 12 by her father, who believes that that is the ideal age. Her father, whose physical body has become bloated and mutated, has decided to die by uploading himself into the literalized cloud-mind, whose moods make the weather of the world, and Little Girl has to deal with the fallout of that decision while trying to persuade her father to free her to grow up. Definitely the best story of the issue.
- "Waster Mercy", by Sara Genge (short story) — A monk whose order exists to atone for the excesses of the modern age, looking for salvation, strands himself in the post-apocalyptic wasteland outside Paris and is saved by a local boy. Interesting, but I didn't like it as much as I've liked some of her other stories.
- "Planet of the Sealies", by Jeff Carlson (short story) — Continuing the unstated "alien archaeology" theme of the issue, a group of clone families mine the landfills of post-apocalyptic California for genetic material to increase the diversity of their genomes. I found the world of the story fascinating, but I wished its resolution was less black-and-white.
- "Shipbirth", by Aliette de Bodard (short story) — Set in the same Aztec-flavored universe as her other stories, a… transgendered necromancer…? attends the failed birth of a starship. Creepy (as you'd expect from the Aztecs) and good but lacking in some way I can't put my finger on.
- "Brother Sleep", by Tim McDaniel (short story) — The main character is a wealthy student in a Thailand where he and all his peers have had a medical treatment such that they need to sleep only a few hours each night (shades of Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain). His roommate hasn't had the treatment, and the story deals with their interactions. It has some moments, and it's an interesting choice of setting, but it gets preachy in a Westerners-tell-non-Westerners-what's-wrong-with-them way towards the end. Tangentially, my envy of the non-sleepers knows no bounds.
- "Eve of Beyond", by Barry Pronzini and Bill N. Malzberg (short story) — A clothing magnate is bought out by his ruthless and amoral competitors. This is science fiction? Mediocre at best.
- "The Choice", by Paul McAuley (novella) — Unusual for me to read the novella, but the beginning (more alien archaeology) grabbed me. A post-global warming world where benevolent (or are they?) aliens showed up just in time to save us from ourselves. I really like the worldbuilding at the beginning, and a lingering fondness for sailing stories kept me engaged and enjoying the story while the main characters chased the crashed Big Dumb Object, until they found it and ended up taking something they shouldn't have, at which point predictable (and deathly dull) hilarity ensued.
After a lovely, busy almost-a-month hiatus in blogging, perhaps to celebrate the end of Iron Blogger, I'm back.
Here, at very nearly the last moment I can put them in, are my selections for the Asimov's Readers' Awards. The poll is instant-runoff voting, allowing three selections per category, so the numbered selections below are my votes, in order, and following are honorable mentions, in no particular order. All titles link to the month in which I review them, and of course all my current Asimov's reviews can be found under the asimovs tag.
- "The Union of Soil and Sky", by Gregory Normal Bossert
- "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down", by William Preston
- "The Jaguar House, In Shadow", by Aliette de Bodard
- "Warning Label", by Alexander Jablokov
- "Conditional Love," by Felicity Shoulders
- "The Other Graces, by Alice Sola Kim
- "Sins of the Father", by Sara Genge
- "Louisa Drifting", by Mark Rich
- "Roadside Stand", by Mark Rich
- August 2010, by Michael Whelan
- July 2010, by Tomislav Tikulin
- March 2010, by Donato Giancola
I was surprised to discover that both of the poems I found notable this year were by the same guy, one Mark Rich. Though he wrote a couple other things which I didn't even notice, so clearly he's not batting 100%, just better than everyone else. Prose poetry is not the be-all, end-all of science fiction poetry, people!
Since this list represents most of the short fiction I've read which was published in 2010, this is also likely to be substantially my Hugo nomination slate, which I'll be figuring out momentarily.
Here's to another good year in science fiction!
In magazine publishing, the new year begins… well, whenever the January issue hits the stands, which is usually a month or two in advance of the actual calendar date. So we're into a new year for Asimov's even if we've still got a couple weeks to go before January 1st. There weren't any real standouts in this issue, but there were a solid three or four compelling stories, so it was a pretty good issue all told.
- "The Backward Banana", by Martin Gardner — The first thing in the issue of note is a puzzle, as you might have guessed if you recognize the author's name, told as a single-page science fiction short-short story. Apparently these ran regularly in Asimov's for a bit under the first decade of its run, and it's a cute little thing. It's neither as tight, nor as opaque, nor as hard as the puzzles I'm used to, written for the MIT Mystery Hunt, but the skills I've developed there came in handy to solve it, and I had fun doing so.
- "Two Thieves", by Chris Beckett (novelette) — A bit of a swashbuckler, I guess ("novela de capa y espaza," literally "story of cape and sword," as I have just learned it would be called in Spanish). It's cute enough, but the characters are stock, and it's not subtle with its images and tropes. Fun, but nothing more than that.
- "Dolly", by Elizabeth Bear (short story) — Fans of Bear's Shadow Unit will recognize her facility with police procedural detail at work here. As always, she builds layered and believable characters with an economy of strokes, and, though there's nothing new about the big idea at work here, she draws it to a real-world, logical conclusion in a way I found deeply satisfying.
- "Visitors", by Steve Rasnic Tem (short story) — A middle-aged couple go to visit their son in a cryogenic facility which, we gradually discover, is also his prison. That's an application of cryogenic tech I confess I hadn't considered before, and it's interesting in its implications. Unfortunately they're not drawn out especially well, I didn't really connect with the story otherwise, and it doesn't really go anywhere. It did do better than average at letting me figure out what was going on rather than telling me up-front.
- "Interloper", by Ian McHugh (short story) — The setting here is interesting — a potentially post-apocalyptic Australia where a Torchwood or Primeval-style interdimensional rift has appeared, spewing dinosaurs and odd powers and things that go bump in the night, the titular Interlopers. The main characters are a circus of people touched by the rift, who are also not coincidentally on the lookout for anyone like them, which of course goes wrong. The ending is sort of predictable, but there are worse things to say about a story. Lots of good detail, lots of good showing-not-telling, and it did keep me guessing for a bit. A fun story.
- "Ashes on the Water", by Gwendolyn Clare (short story) — This is a bit of a travelogue or maybe quest story, as a young woman in India looks for the river on which to spread her sister's ashes. (It feels a bit like it could be set in Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl universe, a few decades before Bacigalupi's work takes place, the strongest similarities being its non-Western setting and its preoccupation with water.) I felt for the protagonist, and she seemed well-drawn. The story did feel a bit preachy, and it has the usual potential for problems that all fiction about non-Westerners written by Westerners does, of which I'm not a good judge because I'm a Westerner too.
- "Killer Advice", by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (novella) — Despite being set on a space station, this is a traditional locked-room mystery, and (except for its murder weapon) could be set in any of the traditional settings for such. The characters are mostly stock characters one recognizes from other such work — the officious hotelier, the alcoholic doctor, the moneyed widow, the captain's daughter, etc. It's a fun read, as evidenced by the fact that I actually finished it (I don't usually read the novellas). It's been a while since I've read a mystery story, and it was fun to revisit the genre. The stock characters are stock for a reason — they work. That said, this is not, unfortunately, anything like a tightly-plotted story. The information necessary to solve the mystery isn't given to the reader until the characters themselves discover it, so no figuring it out on your own for the perceptive mystery readers in the audience, and there's a careless red herring early on — one of the characters uses the past tense to refer to the first victim before the character knows the victim is dead — which perceptive mystery readers will pick up on and be distracted by for the next twenty pages. Thankfully it is just twenty or so pages, so one can ride with the plot along the well-worn ruts of the genre in easy enjoyment and reach the destination before the journey becomes tedious.
Every year Asimov's runs a Readers' Award poll, which seems a remarkably straightforward way to encourage it to print more of the interesting things I like. At some point in the next few weeks I'll go through the posts I've made here and extract some semblance of a top three in each length category, which is what the poll calls for, also conveniently good Hugo nomination fodder, and I'll probably post them here as well. Best is always a dicey proposition — best on what axis? — but I'll pick an axis, and it'll do for this purpose.
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?