Asimov's Science Fiction

June 2007

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 31, No. 6
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 144

The non-fiction this issue was about average: a mildly interesting but not compelling editorial, a column from Robert Silverberg about a random science-related topic, and Peter Heck's standard negative-free reviews that provide a reasonable overview of the topic of the book and little more. James Patrick Kelly does have, in honor of the Heinlein centennial, a good overview of web sites devoted to his life and work, which was the non-fiction highlight.

The fiction was a remarkedly mixed bag, with one very good story, one very bad story, and quite a bit inbetween. It's the typical mix of Asimov's: nothing too experimental, nothing too unusual, focusing on basic storytelling and the center of the genre.

"News from the Front" by Harry Turtledove: This story is based on an idea whose appeal I can understand, but which I think is fundamentally flawed in a way that prevents it from being successful as fiction. That opinion is going to require some explanation, and the nature of the flaw makes it difficult to review without turning the review into a discussion of the perceived message.

The short synopsis: "News from the Front" is an alternate history written as excerpts from newspaper accounts of World War II. The tone of these accounts is suspicious, overtly hostile to Roosevelt, and aggressively aimed at exposing US government malfeasance and incompetence in prosecuting the war. The war goes more poorly than it does in our reality, and I think it's clear from the excerpts that the reader is intended to draw a causal link.

The introduction to the story emphasizes that stories don't necessarily reflect the political views of the author. I think the defensiveness betrayed by that introduction points directly at the story's central flaw: there is little here but a political position on a heated ongoing issue couched as fiction, and, disclaimers nonwithstanding, it's essentially impossible to separate it from a commentary on current events and the debate over coverage of the Iraq war. This sort of story is going to be a mirror; it's going to either make the reader smugly content as they read the story as satisfying their perceptions of the media, or it's going to make the reader angry and dismissive. In neither case does this story add any new thoughts or anything new to the debate. It's an exercise in emotional shit-stirring.

There are other serious problems. It is careless of the distinctions between a newspaper's news coverage, editorials, and the op-ed page, all of which are different in tone and motivation in the modern press. The current press is full of newspapers with carefully written news stories and editorials full of polemic, or newspapers where the editorials and op-ed page directly contradict. None of that appears here, and while some of the stories are tagged "editorial," some of the excerpts are clearly from editorials and not marked that way. There's no acknowledgement of op-eds and their role in the tone of a paper. I don't have Turtledove's research and knowledge of history to know if this reflects the nature of the press at the time, but it doesn't reflect the press now and the core premise of the story is importing the current press into the past. This makes the story look like a cheap shot; it's cherry-picking material and ignoring distinctions that might show a more nuanced presentation of how political views are expressed in the press.

The analogy with the Iraq war coverage is painfully obvious from the tone and from the choice of newspapers quoted (mostly famous establishment papers associated with liberal viewpoints by right-wing commentators, such as the New York Times or the San Francisco Chronicle). But rather than following the pattern of the Iraq war coverage (which included initially positive coverage by some of those same papers), the excerpts shown are a parade of everything any right-wing commentator has ever accused a newspaper of publishing while being attributed to the same papers from the start. There's detailed information on troop movements and planned naval operations, open defiance of censorship of specific military secrets, and scornful attacks on the government and on Roosevelt in every news article even when it's unrelated to the substance. It's such an exaggeration and caricature that the analysis by analogy of the Iraq war is lost; the analogy has been reduced to absurdity, devoid of nuance or debate.

It's very hard, given that presentation, to escape the feeling that Turtledove is organizing an literary lynching and is going farther and farther over the top to ensure that it's impossible for the reader to not despise the press that he's showing. It felt more like Two Minutes Hate than a story. I believe the disclaimer that stories don't necessarily represent the opinion of the author, but Turtledove shows the reader no other motivation to bother writing this.

And, even if those problems were fixed, even if Turtledove more clearly analyzed how newspapers make political statements and said something more measured and nuanced about the political interactions between the press and the government rather than using caricatures, the basic problem remains. We know that the US won World War II. In this story, the US does not. The highlighted difference is negative press coverage. Therefore, no matter what else it says, the story takes a clear and unambiguous position on the question of whether negative press coverage can lose a war that would otherwise be won, and reactions to this story are unlikely to go beyond mirrors of the reader's position on whether this much-debated statement is true. Other than that single point elaborated at length, "News from the Front" had no substance for me (although apparently there are tidbits of history scattered about that may make it more enjoyable for WW2 buffs). (2)

"Three Days of Rain" by Holly Phillips: One can get whiplash going from an overtly political alternate history without a narrator or conventional setting to Phillips's tight third-person, elaborate description, and loving detail. "Three Days of Rain" falls somewhere into the environmental apocalypse background, but its substance is about human reaction to change and about the bonds and connections among a community. It's a love poem to life and place. One's enjoyment of it will depend on whether one is in the mood for immersive description without a great deal of plot development. (6)

"Studies in the Field" by R. Neube: From there, we go to straight science fiction involving old-fashioned human meddling in alien affairs. The first-person viewpoint character is a xenopologist (anthropologist of alien life, presumably) studying the native species of a planet with two continents and two warring species. There's an attack, some puzzling out of alien behavior, and a blatant violation of the Prime Directive. I thought it was written well enough, but it's a typical SF solo adventure story lacking unique substance. (5)

"Don't Stop" by James Patrick Kelly: A woman who sees and runs with ghosts tries to come to terms with her difficulties with commitment and her relationship with her mother. Kelly uses ghosts as a symbol of the weight of fears and history, and the running motto of "don't stop" as a path to overcoming that drag and moving forward with one's life. The moral isn't new, but I liked the general feel of the story and was rooting for the heroine. (6)

"Tideline" by Elizabeth Bear: The best story of the issue. Bear pulls on the heartstrings rather sharply, so save this one for when you want bittersweet pain, but it's a beautiful delivery. The protagonist is a AI-controlled tank, damaged and alone after a war, moving along the shore of the ocean and picking up shiny objects, and one day encountering a young boy. It's a story about taking meaning from memory, about honoring one's emotional connections, and (as is common for Bear) about choosing to pay the price to do the right thing. Here, the price isn't a dramatic gesture, but rather an ongoing and repeated choice of the use of scarce resources, making it all the more powerful. I thought it was beautiful. By the end, it made me cry. (9)

"Scrawl Daddy" by Jack Skillingstead: The characters are the best part of the story, a memorable mix of misfits with scars and problems and some surprisingly erotic moments. I liked the Scrawl, the grafitti equivalent, and I wish it had been more central to the plot. Instead, the plot turns out to be an odd story of psychic connections and exploration that has little momentum feels disappointingly irrelevant. One of those stories that I would have liked better if the characters had been transplanted into a different plot. (6)

"Marrying In" by Carrie Vaughn: Here's another story that suffers from much the same problem as the Turtledove entry. It's a story about immigration to Colorado in a future where immigration between states is tightly controlled and one has to marry in to a resident family to be able to move to many western states. The viewpoint character has ambiguous feelings, but her husband's new family just assumes she's trying to get into the state. My reaction to this was more positive than to "News from the Front" probably because of my personal politics, but after further analysis, it's almost equally devoid of substance and likely to be a mirror of one's existing political viewpoint. This political issue is less polarized, so this story has more of a hope. But this story could have, and has, been told as non-fiction essays and biographies, and I think it is less effective fictionalized. It's nicely written with likable characters and a good portrayal of family meetings, but the more I thought about its basis, the less satisfied I was with it. (4)

"Alien Archaeology" by Neal Asher: The novella of the issue, this is another entry in Asher's Polity series, the topic of several past stories and several novels. He returns again to the mystery of the gabbleducks, and we find out a bit more about their past and their nature, mixed in with a lot of action, conflict, double-crosses, and torture. Asher is a solid SF action writer in the new, messy, rust-covered style. I think the strongest part of this issue was his portrayal of a rogue AI. The central mysteries of the plot don't receive much closure, but I was entertained all the way through the story. (7)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-07-12

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