Asimov's Science Fiction

October/November 2008

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 32, No. 10 & 11
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 240

Time for another fall double-issue, and this time, rather than serializing a poor novel, Asimov's printed two full novellas as well as a couple of novelettes. I think this is a significant improvement, particularly given the quality of the fiction in this issue.

The editorial is about the Dell Magazines award and is therefore mostly a list and uninteresting comments about the presentation. Silverberg's column on beamed power is mildly interesting, and I think James Patrick Kelly does a good job of covering the basics of alternate history. The non-fiction highlight, as always for double issues, is Norman Spinrad's book column, here looking at the marketing boundaries of genre again and at several books identified as post-genre and what that might mean. I think he's almost convinced me to read Aldiss's HARM, and I'll forgive an insightful book column the mistake of thinking Watermind is M.M. Buckner's first novel (it's her fourth; she even won a Philip K. Dick award for War Surf, her third).

"The Erdmann Nexus" by Nancy Kress: This is the first of the novellas in this issue. Kress isn't a writer I particularly look for, but she's a competent writer and rarely writes a bad story. This is one of her better ones, mostly because of the detailed and varied characterization of the residents of a nursing home. The focus is Henry Erdmann, a retired physicist, who takes the role of detective in figuring out mysterious ailments linked with visions and apparent mental powers that the residents begin to experience. It's a Nancy Kress story, so unsurprisingly there's a theme of human evolution and transcendence, but there are also moments of character conflict that reminded me of Connie Willis. That's a rather good mix. I found the ending a bit unsatisfying, but the story was solid entertainment. (7)

"Listening for Submarines" by Peter Higgins: Christopher is a British Navy sonar operator, one of the men who monitors listening points around the world for signs of Soviet sub activity during the Cold War. Unlike most, he likes listening to the raw audio signal rather than only checking the computer monitoring, which is how he hears a strange song in the middle of a dangerous brinkmanship exercise. He begins obsessing over this sound, mingled with an obsession over his neighbor, and the story slowly shifts into one where half-understood strangeness touches daily life and government actions. It's the sort of story with no real resolution and suffers for it, and I'm a bit tired of the obsession theme, but some of the description is excellent. (6)

"Prayers for an Egg" by Sara Genge: This story uses alien biology and a three-part gender structure to tell a story about masters and servants, social class, and the lies of power. I found it predictable and depressing (and a little gross in places). The moral and political structure of the world seems fixed in stone, the independence of the viewpoint character is doomed from the start, and the only rebellion allowed is self-destructive. (4)

"Defending Elysium" by Brandon Sanderson: Most of this one is a bad-ass secret agent story, following an investigator come to retrieve another agent who has apparently gone insane. The SF twist is that this agent is the top agent for a phone company who, by dint of successfully negotiating a treaty with the first alien contact after a monumental government screw-up, is now above the law. They're the holders of alien FTL technology which all other governments have tried and failed to get hold of, including the government of the other agent who is attempting to crack the Phone Company's secrets.

It starts there, but the story takes an interesting twist once aliens come on-stage and the narration delves into the odd differences between human development and alien development. The battle over technology turns out to be of a different character than expected, and there are some nice ending revelations about the nature of the universe. There's nothing ground-breaking here, but it's a solidly enjoyable story, mixing elements of first contact and alien psychology, an uber-competent hero, and some fascinating and fun world-building. (8)

"Money Is No Object" by Leslie What: This very short humorous story is another twist on the drawbacks of getting what you want. Practical impacts of wish-fulfillment are a rich vein for satiric humor, particularly, as here, when small details turn out to be vital. Any more would give away the story; worth the read. (7)

"Dhuluma No More" by Gord Sellar: The world has taken radical measures to fight global warming, sending plumes of material into the upper atmosphere to increase the albedo. It's working, but it also stopped the monsoons, plunging third-world countries into even more abject poverty. The viewpoint character is a reporter travelling with a crew from Mozambique who are trying to salvage ice in Greenland from the melting glaciers. He's interviewing a man who used to be a young rebel and the subject of reporting he did many years ago. There's a twist and some action, but the conclusion is cliched and seemingly pointless against the world background. It's an interesting polemic, but I don't think it makes much of a story. (5)

"The English Mutiny" by Ian R. MacLeod: MacLeod reverses the table in this alternate history, casting India as the colonial power and England as the helplessly outgunned, backwards colony. In that setting, he tells a story of a grand mutiny through the eyes of an ordinary soldier who knew the instigator in the service. The story becomes less about the details of MacLeod's alternate timeline and more about the nature of bloody revolution, the sort of person who leads it, and moral ambiguity of the fighting. This one is notable primarily for the way it captures in a story the impact of charisma. (6)

"Cat in the Rain" by Jack Skillingstead: I'm not the target audience for this rather dark bit of existential horror. It follows a man through the slow realization that there are gaps in the world that pull people away, the necessity of human connection to fight them, and the helplessness to do anything about this even if one understands it. The story reads well as an extended analogy for the impact of depression, but it's still much too dark and hopeless for my personal taste. (4)

"Truth" by Robert Reed: The second novella of the issue, this is apparently a companion piece to the earlier "Veritas" (which I haven't read). It's about a time traveller who has been captured by the government and the investigation into what his plans are, in a near-future world torn by war after US military action in Iraq progressed to attacks on Iran and a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. But more directly, it's a story about interrogation.

The heroine of the story is one of the top government interrogators, newly sent to the top-secret underground facility holding the apparent time traveller to take over from the previous interrogator. The meat of the story is a beautiful tracing of her methodical approach to the problem, her dogged unwinding of the mysteries of this man and of her predecessor, and the slow working out of what is actually going on. It's one-on-one psychological combat and is thoroughly engrossing. As always for a Reed story, there are some excellent twists, including a profoundly rewarding one at the end. The best story of the issue, and one of the better ones by Reed in a while. (8)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-12-28

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