Asimov's Science Fiction

April/May 2007

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 31, No. 4 & 5
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 240

This year is the 30th anniversary year of Asimov's and they're making a big deal about it. Since this is the first double issue of the year, it has even more anniversary bits. The retrospectives from all the previous editors (well, Asimov represented by a reprint of an editorial) was vaguely interesting but forgettable. Robert Silverberg's reflection was, as usual, more interesting, as were the letters. The non-fiction highlight, though, had nothing to do with the anniversary: since this is a double issue, we get the treat of a Norman Spirad book review column. As usual, he tries to pick an interesting fight (in this case, the death of hard SF), and as usual, he writes some excellent book reviews in the course of exploring his point.

The fiction was, for a double issue, rather flat. I thought this issue was full of okay stories, none of which grabbed me and left me delighted to have picked up the magazine.

"The River Horses" by Allen M. Steele: I'd be quite happy to never read another story in this sub-genre of SF, so this was going to be a miss for me regardless. Set in Steele's Coyote universe, it's one of those exploration and colony-founding tales that could be transplanted into several other genres with few changes. SF tropes are used mostly as trapping and meaningless background for a story of exile, dangerous creatures (that didn't need to be alien), hard life choices, and unlikely allies. One of the main characters is a cyborg, and I suppose that if I'd read the rest of the novel series, I might see more SFnal content here. As is, though, the cyborg played a standard archetypical role of the honorable loner, I became quite frustrated with the viewpoint character, and I came away with no desire to read the rest of this series. This was a full novella and was tediously long. (4)

"A Small Room in Koboldtown" by Michael Swanwick: This, like "Lord Weary's Empire", is an excerpt from Swanwick's new book, The Dragons of Babel. This is a minor detective story with an unusual choice for detectives (workers for a local politician who wants his constituents to see him solving their problems). Nothing that memorable, but like "Lord Weary's Empire," Swanwick constructs a strong sense of place. (6)

"Wolves of the Spirit" by Liz Williams: Here's another story that's written as SF but could live in other genres, in this case gothic or horror. It's the story of a lone lighthouse keeper at the edge of civilization, hauntingly beautiful creatures in the nearby ocean, and a deceptive invader. The best part of the story is the wild, lonely setting and the feel of ice and waves. Williams's writing is atmospheric as always, and I found the plot line a bit stronger in this story than in some of her previous ones. (6)

"The Eater of Dreams" by Robert Silverberg: I give Silverberg full credit for the emotional detail in his description of a far-future utopia and its strange methods of psychically channeling the well-being of the people through its Queen-Goddess. The delivery of the final twist felt forced and preachy, though; the story built up towards more significance than it managed to fulfill. (5)

"The Rocket Into Planetary Space" by William Barton: Yet another space program justification story. You either like them or you don't. I'm always a touch surprised when they show up in Asimov's, since they feel like Analog material to me, but Asimov's tries to be the everyman SF magazine and probably has to cater to that community from time to time. This is an undisguised paean to commercial space travel, space mining, and the wonderful discoveries that will make it all worthwhile. If you're in sympathy with the moral and share the technical interest, you may like the loving detail of current spaceflight technology and the extended author's note about how it's all possible, really! I found it riddled with wish-fulfillment and vaguely annoying. (4)

"Lilyanna" by Lisa Goldstein: I found the setup for this story charming: a librarian discovers small keepsakes of an earlier era in returned books and slowly realizes that the library is haunted with a presence, while obsessively attempting to uncover who the ghost might be. The story plays subtlely on the feeling of history one gets from library books and the daydreams about whose hands may have touched the same book. I would have liked the story better if it had stayed more on the intellectual level and hadn't drifted into more stock supernatural horror territory and played on past vs. future ghost motifs. A good idea that I don't think went anywhere. (5)

"Distant Replay" by Mike Resnick: Resnick's stories seem more often than not to be emotionally manipulative to the point of blatant string-pulling, and this is no exception. However, despite that, I liked it. It starts with a fairly standard reincarnation scenario, where an old man meets a woman who appears to be exactly like his dead wife, but much younger. Resnick immediately starts subverting the concept, though, and then adds a twist and a sweetly sappy ending that worked for me. Avoid if you don't want your heartstrings obviously tugged; read if you're in the mood for a sappy love story. (7)

"End Game" by Nancy Kress: As is typical for Kress, this is a story about breakthroughs in mental capacity and ways of thinking that may be the successor to the current human race. More unusually, this story takes a distinctly sinister twist early on and becomes more of a warning about the drawbacks of optimizing the human mind. A bit slight, but I liked Kress's take on mental static and its benefits. (6)

"Always" by Karen Joy Fowler: This is one of the odder and most strangely compelling stories about a religious cult that I've read. It's written from the perspective of someone on the inside, who joined a cult of immortality with the typical cult structure (it's all about sex for the cult leader) but who believes completely in it. The creepiness is significantly blunted by the first-person narrator's calm, slightly amused, unflappable attitude towards the whole affair, even the apparent collapse of the cult. Fowler's story touches on belief, denial, and the question of whether it really matters whether what one believes is actually true. An effectively ambiguous story with many possible messages depending on what viewpoint the reader brings to it. (6)

"Fifth Day" by Jack McDevitt: The notes of a recently deceased biologist turn out to be revolutionary in the study of the origins of life, but he never published his findings during his life. A local reporter is intrigued and starts trying to track down why. It's a well-written story, but it's a message story that stays in predictable and frequently repeated territory. I'm not sure that another story about the battle over interpretation of scientific results was needed. (5)

"Green Glass" by Gene Wolfe: Wolfe's stories never take the obvious approach to any topic, and this take on alien abduction is no exception. It's never clear quite what's going on; Wolfe leads us into assumptions and then forces us to reconsider them frequently. Also typically for Wolfe, I almost enjoyed the story, almost understood what it might mean, and then badly wanted someone to explain its possibilities to me. Wolfe is a wonderful writer and horribly confusing. I loved the opening scene, though. (6)

"Dead Money" by Lucius Shepard: Mix voodoo, experiments in enhancing human paranormal capabilites, a mob story, a dysfunctional romance, and lots of poker culture, and you get "Dead Money," the most plot-intensive well-rounded story of the issue. Voodoo provides an interesting twist on the standard super-soldier background, and I liked the move of making the result of that experiment a background character and foregrounding a shady small-time player who's in out of his depth. The center of the story isn't the SF; it's the off-again, on-again love story between the protagonist and the keeper of the science experiment, a love story that feels realistically broken and twisted. The villain of this piece isn't obvious for most of the story and the darkness comes from unexpected but very human directions. Mix in some nice action, a great set piece, and lots of poker for the enjoyment of people who watch Texas hold 'em on ESPN, and you get a satisfying read that works in novella length. Probably the best story of the issue. (7)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-06-13

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