Asimov's Science Fiction

October/November 2007

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 31, No. 10 & 11
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 240

This is the fall double-issue, which is an opportunity to print longer fiction and in theory is a showcase issue. Unfortunately, rather than a novella, Asimov's decided to start serializing a novel by Allen M. Steele; this is doubly annoying because I'm not a big fan of serialized novels and because I'm not much of a fan of Steele. Much of the rest of the fiction was also eh. Thankfully, Greg Egan's excellent novelette and a reprint of perhaps Isaac Asimov's best short fiction work make up for the rest.

In the non-fiction category, Silverberg's retrospective on Theodore Sturgeon was quite interesting, but as always in double issues the highlight is Norman Spinrad's book review column. His focus this time is on small presses and the aesthetic problems of the economics of publishing, a rant that I've heard many times, but in the process he writes some excellent book reviews. James Patrick Kelly wrote about the flare-up online after some stupid statements by the SFWA vice-president that I'd already heard about, but which may be amusing if you hadn't.

"Dark Integers" by Greg Egan: This review probably contains spoilers for "Luminous." If that's a concern, skip the next paragraph.

This story is the highlight of the new fiction in this issue. It's a sequel to the earlier "Luminous," which I'd now like to read, but it stands on its own fairly well. The hero is a mathematician, one of a very small group who has an agreement with another mathematical space that co-exists with ours but has different mathematical principles. It's possible to manipulate the border between those two universes by performing particular calculations. This has been kept secret for years in a sort of careful detente; the other side has far more computing power, but neither side want a war. But a new mathematician, unaware of the previous work, has discovered even more intrusive ways of exploring (and damaging) the mathematics of the other side, which risks the fragile truce. The result is a fascinating combination of a spy thriller and mathematically-driven hard sf. The characters aren't stellar, but they're sufficient for the plot, the mathematics isn't too opaque, and the story is surprisingly tense and compelling.

This is the first Egan that I've ever read, even though he's been on my to-read list for some time. The ideas here are every bit as strange and fascinating as I'd been expecting, and the story was more readable than I'd expected. I'm now more eager to read his novels. (8)

"At Sixes and Sevens" by Carol Emshwiller: Going from Egan's grand sf thriller to this tale of suspicion and twisted neighborhood life is a bit of a shock. This short story is told from the perspective of a suspicious woman with an odd next-door neighbor who doesn't fit in. The narrator is essentially the villain of the piece, spinning wilder and wilder fantasies about the horrible things her neighbor is up to, until the story does a dark reversal. It has an unusual voice, but without likeable characters I can't say that I particularly enjoyed reading it. (5)

"Paid in Full" by Susan Forest: This is an odd, brief story about two people who raise apparently giant insects. It's a straightforward story of unbalanced friendship and obligation that could be told in any setting, except there are giant bugs. I think I missed some subtlety of interplay between setting and story. The story dropped completely out of my head after reading it until I scanned back through the magazine while writing this review. (4)

"Night Calls" by Robert Reed: I respect what Reed is trying to do here, and he's generally an excellent short fiction author. However, this retelling of and homage to Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" just shows how powerful the original story was and how poor the echo is. The contrast is particularly apparent when "Nightfall" is reprinted in the same issue. Compared to the dynamic situation Asimov imagined, Reed's story is tepid; the characters are less concerned, the stakes are much lower, everything is muted and diminished, and there's no payoff surprise. (5)

"Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov: Reprinting a classic of the genre amidst a regular issue is a great idea and I hope Asimov's will do considerably more of it. This is also an excellent choice of reprint. I think "Nightfall" is Asimov's strongest short story, which is saying a lot for an SF grand master whose strength was in short fiction.

For those who have never read this story, you're in for a treat. It describes a world that orbits one star in a hideously complex multi-star system, so complex that it's always day. Only once every few thousand years do the orbital mechanics line up such that there's only one star in the sky and it's eclipsed, bringing darkness to the whole planet. You have to put up with Asimov's stock characters, a strong 1950s feel, and a complete lack of women (sadly, probably preferrable to an attempt to write one), but the SFnal core of this story is excellent. The primary thread is about the darkness, of course, but within that story Asimov sneaks in fascinating speculation about how the people of this world react differently to darkness and confined spaces when they're used to always being able to see, how astrophysics develops without any simple two-body problems, and other similar corners of human culture and science. Some of the speculation is a bit off, and one can quibble with the realism of some of the details, but even as a re-read the story is utterly engrossing. It helps that there's a knock-out final twist worthy of the best of classic SF.

I've read this story multiple times and it was still well-worth re-reading. (9)

"Leonid Skies" by Carl Frederick: The third astronomy-themed story thankfully doesn't try to rewrite a masterpiece and goes a different direction. A man is taking his son and a friend of his son's on a camping trip to try to reconnect after a long work-required time away from home. The site they've chosen is a domed campground that eliminates all of the bugs and other annoyances of camping. But they want to see the Leonid meteor shower, which is at a once-in-a-lifetime level of brilliance, and the desire of those running the campground to protect people from reality goes a little too far. It's a fairly obvious story, in that one could see the final confrontation coming from a mile off, but it's competent enough and has a feel-good (if ham-handed) ending. (6)

"Debatable Lands" by Liz Williams: The introduction makes a point of saying this story is SF. Uh, okay. It reads like an intensive description of a fantasy world with weird creatures, not much of a plot, and nothing that held my attention. Again I'm pretty sure I'm missing some spark of recognition that I'm supposed to feel, but having missed that, this was rather pointless and boring. (4)

"Skull Valley" by Michael Cassutt: This is a solid enough story about a police chase for an escapee from a mysterious government lab. It stops along the way to take a few oblique shots at US immigration policy and the Homeland Security department, but mostly it's an exciting chase mystery with the obvious "do the right thing" ending. Entertaining, but not more than that. (6)

"Dark Rooms" by Lisa Goldstein: Georges Méliès, a French magician and early SF film maker, is the focus of this story. The story follows a man who meets him early in his career in France, works with him, becomes frustrated by some of his impracticalities, and then strikes out on his own (in a particularly unethical manner). This story of selfishness, self-justification, and betrayal plays out against a background full of fascinating details of the early days of the film industry, when it started as a rich man's hobby and then quickly became more commercial. The fantasy twist didn't quite work for me and the emotional tone is quite depressing, but the background made the story worth reading. (6)

"The Turn" by Chris Butler: This story is even more bizarre, but for some reason it worked for me. It's set on a ship, travelling forward by pulling on a chain that somehow magically appears in front of the ship. Quill, the protagonist, is an archer whose task, beyond hunting for the crew, is to fire the arrow into the pillar at the Turn, where the chain runs out and the ship has to use the rope attached to the arrow to slingshot around and pick the chain up again. It's a surreal setting, told with detailed realism. The plot was less interesting, mostly an excuse to move through the world, but I was fascinated by the setting even though we never do find out what's going on. I'd love to see a future story that provided more details about this world and how it came to be. (7)

"Galaxy Blues, Part One of Four" by Allen M. Steele: This is the first section of the aforementioned novel serialization, set in Steele's Coyote universe after Coyote Frontier. Apart from my annoyance at the whole idea, it's not too bad. It follows Jules Truffaut's attempt to defect from the Western Hemisphere Union to Coyote, his adventures along the way, and the crew he eventually joins up with, stopping just as they're about to head off to trade with aliens. Jules is okay as a protagonist: self-confident and a bit arrogant, but tolerable. There's enough action to keep me entertained, although as usual I find Steele's descriptions tedious and could have done with fewer monotonous details (this time of zero-gravity maneuvers and shuttle piloting). The Coyote world itself I found as boring as always, but hopefully the rest of the serial will spend little time there. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-01-23

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