Asimov's Science Fiction

July 2008

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 32, No. 7
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 144

I like Sheila Williams's editorials on short story selection. It's unfortunately clear from her editorials that she's not a writer — they lack a rhythm and polish and always feel a bit strained — but I think she's at her strongest when writing about what she does, and I've found both of her recent columns on the topic informative.

Robert Silverberg also continues his excellent series of reviews of older science fiction, this time with Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men. I'd happily read books of this stuff.

Other non-fiction in this issue isn't quite as good. Kristine Kathryn Rusch is as always a good writer. The topic, though, is yet another retrospective on space exploration. There seems to be many SF readers and writers in the generation before mine who have serious issues around our lack of space exploration and colonization and who are working through them in public. Good for them, I guess, but given that I don't have those issues, don't particularly care, and don't respond well to guilt trips saying that I should care, it's all a little tiresome. The letters page is interesting as always, but I had to cringe when Williams reported that apparently the reaction to the Galaxy Blues serial was uniformly positive. Clearly I should have written a letter as well as a negative review. Paul Di Filippo also has his standard small-press book review, which as always mentions only a few novels admist other types of writing that interest me less.

"Lester Young and the Jupiter's Moons' Blues" by Gord Sellar: The first-person narrator of this story is a black jazz player from an alternative late 1940s in which aliens had apparently landed, built a space elevator, altered history in innumerable ways, and (most relevantly to the story) started recruiting minority musicians to entertain them on space cruises. The story is written in an old-fashioned jive that takes a bit to get used to but which goes wonderfully with the setting. The aliens offer some rather spectacular enhancements to a musician's ability, but with a price and a danger that's not well-stated. Humor mixes with bits of twisted jazz history, a great sense of setting, and an old-fashioned "outsmart the aliens" SF story. Solid, interesting stuff, and a real find for a jazz loving SF fan. (7)

"The Woman Under the World" by Steven Utley: Utley seems to specialize in understated character stories featuring only a small bit of speculative science. This has more SF content than most, but as usual it's mostly in the character's head. It's the sort of puzzle story where the reader and the protagonist are trying to figure out what happened, and the characterization isn't bad, but the resolution is an old SF idea and a bit slight. (6)

"Cascading Violet Hair" by R. Neube: Neube completely had me with his background of a run-down bankrupt space station, runaway inflation and worthless currency, and a sharp class distinction that crosses a romance. It's solid, story-worthy material, and I liked the interplay between the romantic couple. Then the ending took what felt like an entirely pointless turn and the story fizzled for me into a weak conclusion. I think I missed a signpost somewhere. (6)

"Vinegar Peace, or, the Wrong-Way Used-Adult Orphanage" by Michael Bishop: Second-person perspective frequently makes my teeth itch, which was a major impediment to my appreciation of this story. It's an attempt to crawl into the head of the reader and replace characterization of the protagonist with a sort of projection of the reader into the story and situation, and given the material, I can understand the choice. Still, itchy teeth. That aside, though, this is a trenchant take on both parents whose children have died and families left behind after war deaths. It's surreal in places and a bit excessively symbolic for easy understanding, but the parts I got very effectively skewered some inanities of how people react to grieving parents and simultaneously captured the desolation and loss of purpose. It didn't entirely work for me as a package, but there's great material here and I'm sure there are others who will love it. (6)

"26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson: This is an excellent story. It's about a woman who owns a monkey show, except the show basically runs itself and all the monkeys know what they're doing and have ever since she bought the show for $1. They're remarkably intelligent, come and go as they please, and at the end of each show, they disappear out of a bathtub on stage and are gone for hours, only to return at the show bus. The emotional reactions of the main protagonist are exceptionally well-written, with deep emotions hiding under the light and somewhat amusing situation. Johnson throws in some twists in the plot and doesn't take it in expected directions, and the ending, while maybe a bit saccharine, worked perfectly for me. The best story of the issue and quite possibly deserving a Hugo nomination in short story. (9)

"The Philosopher's Stone" by Brian Stableford: I was dreading this story a bit since it's a return to Stableford's Elizabethan alternate world and I found the previous episode rather dreary. This, however, is a direct sequel to the stronger first story, "The Plurality of Worlds", and has quite a bit more action, plot, and intrigue than either of the previous installments. Stableford's world of vast alien federations, strange ethereals, and human uniqueness in body form and strength of gravity is growing on me. The overarching plot arc is not resolved here, but it's advanced considerably and I'm starting to want to know how it concludes. Stableford is taking steampunk a step farther, back into near-medieval attitudes and analysis, and does an excellent job keeping their approach familiar enough to understand and different enough to highlight the changes in ways of thinking about science and the supernatural. If the rest of the series is like this, I'll be looking forward to future installments. (7)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-07-01

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