Asimov's Science Fiction

March 2008

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 32, No. 3
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 144

The non-fiction this issue was about average, although it's worth mentioning that James Patrick Kelly's "On the Net" column keeps improving and is becoming more consistently entertaining. Peter Heck's review of Asimov's Pebble in the Sky is also worth singling out amidst the rest of his column. I love reviews of classics and wish reviewers would sprinkle in more of them when they have an opportunity.

The fiction is hard to characterize. This issue seemed full of relatively straightforward stories told against exotic backgrounds that have nuances of deeper messages. I wish a bit more had been spelled out in a few cases, but they made for good page-turning entertainment.

"Following the Pharmers" by Brian Stableford: This is the most interesting Stableford that I've read. He switches here to a more straightforward SF setting, a future post-global-warming world in which biological chemistry is a dominant technology. The hero is a lone pharmer, someone who uses gene-tailored plants to generate drugs. He is surprised by a new neighbor, a woman who famously had argued her case of legalized pharmaceuticals in court and who is still pushing to change the world. The first person protagonist just wants to be left alone, but he's pulled into her plans and his past and secrets are revealed in the process. An engrossing, well-told story with a sharp ending, a bit on the cautionary side. (7)

"Kallakak's Cousins" by Cat Rambo: This is much lighter fare, bordering on pure fun. It's the story of a vendor in a space station where every bit of space is precious and his conflict with two people from a different family (or a different race of alien; I was never entirely clear on that and it doesn't really matter for the story) who are making a legal claim on his space. His life is further complicated by his good-for-nothing cousins who turn up at the worst possible moment and decide to take care of him. The resolution turns on accidental use of cultural superstitions, the sort of ending that builds on everything that happens through the story in an unexpected way. Good light entertainment. (6)

"The World Within the World" by Steven Utley: Utley tends to write quiet, odd stories with only a faint edge of SF. This extremely short bit revists his standard trope of time machines, but there's no world exploration this time. It instead recounts a discussion about haunted machines, to no particular end but a bit of "maybe it is true" unsettled feeling. I didn't quite get it, in part because it's a pure conversation with little characterization help; it's a bit difficult to keep in mind who all these people are and what their relationships are to each other. (5)

"Shoggoths in Bloom" by Elizabeth Bear: I think the best part about this story is how it gives you the impression it's about one thing and then shifts to another, and then another. As advertised in the title, it's clearly aimed at H.P. Lovecraft territory; it follows a black naturalist in the days just before World War II who is investigating shoggoths on the New England coast. Shoggoths, in this universe, are known creatures, blobs of living jelly, although no one really knows what they are or how they work. He's trying to find out. From there, the story moves into a bit of the horror and revelation angle that one might expect, but not before race also enters the story mingled with the politics of World War II. And then the horror turns out to not be that horrific after all, just very weird, and the conclusion of the story turns to ethics. The flow from topic to topic is very well-done and kept me engrossed the whole way, and while the ending is reasonably obvious, I still liked it a great deal. Recommended. (7)

"This Is How It Feels" by Ian Creasey: This is a deeply disturbing story about punishment by implantation of false memories and emotions. It's very Orwellian, and rather plausible if the technology existed, reminding me of the slippery slope of child molestor laws taken to a ridiculous extreme. It's exactly the sort of poetic justice that people come up with without thinking about the consequences. The problem is, in the story, it actually works, even in larger ways than anticipated. I call bullshit on that: the outcome of this sort of punishment would be nowhere near as sanguine in at least some cases. More realistic would be to have the protagonist snap and become a serial killer. The ending left a very bad taste in my mouth. (3)

"Sepoy Fidelities" by Tom Purdom: There's less of a moral here; this is a more straightforward action/adventure story set in a strange SF backdrop. The Earth has been conquered by benevolent (apparently) aliens who have perfected transfer of minds and artificial body enhancement. It follows two of their agents who are pretending to be celebrity politicians and working to save a regular human who is key to the aliens' plans. The tension of the story comes from the conflicts between their human reactions and the presumably logical and systematic plan of the aliens that they're supposed to be following. The story doesn't reach any clear conclusions beyond playing out its particular plot. Entertaining as an action drama, but not a lot more. (6)

"Spiders" by Sue Burke: This is a much quieter story about a father and son exploration of an alien jungle and his attempt to spark curiosity without fear. I found myself enjoying it more than I expected. The constant undercurrent of tension between the danger of the world and the beauty of it plus the concern of a father trying to balance both aspects wonderfully captures a powerful component of parenthood for me, and the ending captures an important fact about children. One of the better stories of this issue. (7)

"Master of the Road to Nowhere" by Carol Emshwiller: Another of those stories that makes me feel vaguely dense. This one follows an outcast group of humans with a very odd social arrangement, living on the outskirts of humanity in a not-well-defined maybe-alternate world. It's told in three (?) voices, following the male of a nomadic group of mostly women and his difficulties in filling his role, coming to terms with his identity, and dealing with his love for one of the women in particular. Most of the thrust of the story is the odd tone and interlocking perspectives that paint a view of the world from very odd angles. It's a love story of sorts, built on a strange set of assumptions. I never knew quite what to make of it. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-03-17

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