Asimov's Science Fiction

December 2008

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 32, No. 12
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 112

With a novella and a couple of novelettes, this issue feels like it has fewer and more meaty stories than usual (a feeling made even stronger by the fact that several of the short stories are extremely short). The cover story, the novella, was unfortunately a bit disappointing. That's always the risk with novellas; if they're not to your taste, a lot more of the issue doesn't work.

In the non-fiction department, there's nothing particularly note-worthy. Robert Silverberg talks about Murray Leinster, continuing his retrospectives, and Peter Heck does his normal job of praising a few upcoming books. (He does explain the introduction of The Queen's Bastard to me, though, proving that I had misunderstood it completely and underscoring how confusing it is.) I like the Silverberg retrospectives, but his description of Leinster didn't provoke a lot of interest.

"Way Down East" by Tim Sullivan: I've now seen the "touring alien comes to small town" theme done by several people, most notably (and amusingly) by Connie Willis, but this is a good version. The protagonists are lobster fishermen. The alien is a rather disgusting looking creature who is somewhat empathic or telepathic. There's some amusing tangles between small-town perspective and government agent perspective, but mostly the story is a subtle character study in which the alien's influence is hidden beneath the surface. I found the last half of the story surprisingly compelling and deeper than I expected it to be, even if the ending is a bit sentimental. (6)

"Welcome to Valhalla" by Kathryn Lance & Jack McDevitt: This is one of the short stories (five pages). It's about Richard Wagner, brilliant opera composer, racist, and darling (years after his death) of Nazi Germany. I'd just finished listening to Great Courses lectures about Wagner, which went into some detail about his beliefs and conduct, so I was in a sense primed for this. A recognizable portrayal of Wagner is there (Lance is apparently an expert on him, after all), but there wasn't enough depth to this story to please me. It's sort of an intervention story and sort of an apologetic, and while it doesn't whitewash Wagner, I didn't think it said much either. Forgettable. (4)

"Perfect Everything" by Steven Utley: Utley certainly isn't my favorite short story writer, but as Utley stories go, this is one of the better ones. It has much more SFnal content than is typical of him, including an intriguing take on a sort of uploaded version of another person and a bit of standard space adventure in an era of colonization. Typical of Utley, it's much more of a character portrait than a story: the conclusion is intended to be an emotional climax rather than a resolution of the background plot details. Typical of my reaction to Utley, I cared more about the plot details than about his somewhat annoying characters, and hence found this unsatisfying. (5)

"In Concert" by Melanie Tem & Steve Rasnic Tem: The protagonist is an elderly woman who, through her whole life, has hidden a random and uncontrolled talent for reading minds. She can pick up other people's thoughts, but she has little control over whose thoughts (and distance is apparently irrelevant). The thoughts and emotions of random people apparently all over the world drift into and out of her head, and she's gotten used to it. She's near the end of her life, barely managing to live alone, suffering from poor physical health, when she makes occasional contact with an astronaut who was lost in space. The story is about their relationship and her attempt to help, mingled with her daily life.

The best part of this story is what felt like an accurate, respectful, and honest portrayal of life as an elderly woman. I have no idea how accurate this truly is, not being one myself, but it felt right. Her priorities are different, her sense of time is different, and the Tems did, I think, a good job at showing how her mind drifts. The plot was somewhat less convincing (it's hard not to start singing "Major Tom" through most of the story). I think some people will find it sweet and moving and others will find it slow and a bit boring, and I'm afraid I was more in the latter camp than the former. (6)

"Still on the Road" by Geoffrey A. Landis: The story is two pages long. Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady are flying around in a space ship, picking up people and doing random insane things. Oh, I'm sorry, I just spoiled the story for you. (2)

"The Flowers of Nicosia" by David Ira Cleary: So, see, there's this rock band, with a drummer who's addicted to Xanax, named Downtown Dharma, and the singer decides that they need to do something for world peace, to reach out and heal divisions through rock and roll. So they're going to go play some Islamic country, where they can make a difference, except everything is even more screwed up than it is today and the only place that's even vaguely safe is Cyprus. Meanwhile, the latest terrorist tactic is a bioengineered disease that causes one's body to be consumed by psychedelic fungal growth.

This story had potential all the way through. The protagonist is interesting and has a strong narrative voice, there are some memorable characters (particularly the rebellious religious Muslim keyboardist who joins up with the group), and there's plenty of suspense. However, there's also a somewhat excessive attempt at a 1960s retro drugged-out peace-hippie tone that I found grating, rather too much back and forth about the drummer's completely uninteresting drug addiction, and a growing feeling that the protagonists are complete idiots. There are various directions this story could have gone (mostly plot twists that would have firmly established the protagonists as not being idiots) that would have salvaged it for me, and I kept waiting for one of those to happen. Unfortunately, none of them do. The bioengineered disease occasionally comes across as an otherwordly menace, but mostly comes across as a combination of stupid and gross. The ending does little other than confirm one's worst suspicions about the intelligence of everyone in the story. Bleh. (5)

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-02-23

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