Asimov's Science Fiction

August 2008

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 32, No. 8
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 144

There is a guest editorial this issue from Steven Baxter, a tribute to Arthur C. Clarke (who recently died). Baxter does an adequate if somewhat pedestrian job of providing a basic overview of Clarke's work and an idea of why he was significant. Silverberg's column for this issue is a little weird, being a copy of an introduction to one of his upcoming short story collections (not even edited to remove references to the collection), but it's a mildly interesting discussion of what makes a short story. James Patrick Kelly's discussion of SF and the Academy is also mildly interesting.

I can't say that for Rudy Rucker's handwaving bafflegab about intelligent nanomachines, most of which is completely unscientific nonsense and wishful thinking. This is, of course, my normal reaction to Rudy Rucker, who's the SF writer most likely to inspire my groans when his name appears on the cover of a magazine. Those who like him better than I should adjust expectations accordingly.

Peter Heck's book review column in this issue is one of his better ones, although I was much less impressed by the short story version of "Hunter's Run" ("Shadow Twin" from the April, 2005 Asimov's) than he was. He does a good job of explaining the merits of Jack McDevitt's work, though.

"Lagos" by Matthew Johnson: Johnson starts this story with a great twist on outsourcing: outsourced telepresence that has poor African women going to a regional center where they remotely operate vacuum cleaners and similar appliances for the rich. I love this idea: it combines the use of new technology with finding new ways to use cheap labor that seems more realistic to me than pure robotics. The best way to get intelligent-seeming appliances is to find some cheap person to run them. From there, the story takes some twists that had me grinning as soon as I realized where Johnson was going. There are some cringeworthy presentations of firewalls that turn them into vaguely magical objects in order to play with puns, and the ending is a bit of a letdown, but the story in general is solid and a lot of fun. (7)

"Old Man Waiting" by Robert Reed: I never quite got this one. The first-person protagonist is some sort of con artist who always has money and gets people to do what he wants. He becomes obsessed with a man who doesn't respond to people, but who he thinks is some sort of alien. There's a typical Reed twist at the end, but none of it made much sense; I never felt like I had a handle on who the characters were supposed to be. (5)

"Lucy" by J. Chris Rock: This is science fiction in the fiction about science sense, way on the hard SF end and not assuming any technology that's unbelievable today. It follows two grad students who are responsible for monitoring a probe to Titan while dealing with a strange neighbor and his dog. It's one of those stories without a clear plot connection between its halves, only several possible thematic connections that the reader can put together how they like, giving it a mainstream short-story feel. Odd, but still enjoyable. (6)

"Divining Light" by Ted Kosmatka: I loved this story. I think it's the best of the issue, and quite possibly a strong contender for a Hugo.

It opens with a very noir scene of a suicidal alcoholic, but quickly introduces that character as a research physicist who'd gone through a breakdown and was given a last chance. He's clearly not very healthy, and not able to cope with work, but he meets his new co-workers and then starts exploring the double-slit experiment, just to have something to do. From there, Kosmatka uses Wheeler's delayed choice experiment as the basis for a remarkably eerie story about quantum mechanics, observers, and what the nature of an observer could mean to our concept of intelligence and identity.

Kosmatka goes afield from the real implications of quantum mechanics and the nature of a detector, but he does so seamlessly enough that I found it easy to miss the point of transition, and what he does with the implications of his modified version of delayed choice is enough to make one's skin crawl. It's an idea story, but characterization is adequate to carry it, and Kosmatka goes some nasty places with implications for politics and religion. This is as memorable of a story build around the double-slit experiment as Niven's classic "All the Myriad Ways" was for the many-worlds interpretation. You may find it annoying if playing fast and loose with quantum mechanics bothers you, but otherwise, recommended. (9)

"What You Are About to See" by Jack Skillingstead: Speaking of the many-worlds interpretation, here's another quantum mechanics story, although this one in a much more classic SF vein. It's a weird variation on the alien contact story, including a secret government facility hidden by a unique bit of handwaving and a sort of character development via multiple worlds. Not a particularly believable idea, but entertaining. (6)

"Wilmer or Wesley" by Carol Emshwiller: This is another very creepy story, this time largely because it's told in such a matter-of-fact tone. The protagonist is a zoo exhibit of some kind but is substantially the same as the people who come watch him do "tricks" like behaving like a person. He can even read and talk, although this only invokes hilarity in the people watching him. It's a sharply uncomfortable look at how one's perceptions are only reinforced by observation, and Emshwiller pulls no punches throughout. (7)

"Radio Station St. Jack" by Neal Barrett, Jr.: I'm not much of a fan of Barrett's surrealistic style normally, but this is the most enjoyable story of his that I've read. It's set in a post-apocalyptic world running on survival economics and fighting off periodic insane raiders. The protagonist is a man who runs a radio station and a church, who's concerned with seducing one of his nuns and picking good musical programs until raiders show up who apparently can't be easily dealt with. The ending is oddly inconclusive and the story is generally frothy, but it was surprisingly entertaining. (6)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-09-15

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