Asimov's Science Fiction

April/May 2009

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 33, No. 4 $ 5
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 192

As usual for the double issue of Asimov's, the highlight is Norman Spinrad's book column. This issue, the column is particularly personal as Spinrad looks at the life and work of the recently deceased Tom Disch and reviews his final work, The Word of God. Much of the substance is Spinrad's typical coverage of the plight of SF writers, but there's a fascinating profile of a difficult person included as well.

Almost as good is Silverberg's column, which is another of his excellent retrospective reviews. This time, it's on Van Vogt, and Silverberg amusingly glories in the bizarreness of Null-A.

"The Great Armada" by Brian Stableford: One of the two novellas of this issue is the grand conclusion to a four-novella sequence about an alternate Elizabethan world, in which some of the great figures of the time face the prospects of an alien invasion and complicated relationships with intergalactic civilizations. The previous installment was "The Philosopher's Stone".

Unfortunately, I don't think Stableford carried off the complexity of his multi-sided intergalactic fight. This story tries to sort out the competing motives and influences of the sides we've been introduced to in previous stories, but it failed in clarity for me. It didn't help that the story assumes a lot of detailed knowledge of the previous novellas, far more than the introductory summary helped with. Authors who attempt long stories told in multiple novellas a year apart need to be more sensitive to the recall of magazine readers and not refer to previous characters and events only by name, without any recap. I resorted to re-reading parts of the earlier ones and was still confused. That means the grand finale felt more muddled than explosive and I failed to care much about the protagonist. I can see the potential of this story sequence, but it was mostly a miss for me. (5)

"True Fame" by Robert Reed: Like many of Reed's stories, this one features a great concept: a future world in which ubiquitous data access lets skilled users identify and pull up private information about nearly everyone. It has two ethically ambiguous but likable protagonists and a good plot hook in the form of a man who can't be identified. The plot twist and the weird almost-fantasy turn the story took lost me, though. I missed a clue or an implication that Reed probably didn't want to overexplain but that went straight over my head, leaving the story rather unsatisfying. (6)

"An Ordinary Day with Jason" by Kate Wilhelm: The protagonist of this story is the mother of a child who has a staircase as an imaginary friend, except when he sees the staircase, so does everyone else. This is apparently inherited; her husband went through the same phase. He'll outgrow it, and in the meantime, she just has to watch out for the staircase and tell him that the house doesn't have an upstairs.

It's a bizarrely intriguing hook, with of course some additional complications underneath. Unfortunately, it's also a hook that loses some luster by being explained. In the end, it sorts out into a fairly ordinary fantasy power exploration. Good hook, though. (6)

"Atomic Truth" by Chris Beckett: In echoes of the world of "True Fame," this story follows two characters through a future world in which everyone wears goggles that are both a personal computer interface and a screen. The world can be dimmed out to focus on the goggles, someting that's common for commuters on the subway. The two characters are a mentally ill man who's outside both the system and the world of the goggles, and a fairly average woman with some relationship problems. It's somewhat about the different views of the world from the haves and the have-nots, somewhat about an extrapolation of the strange disconnect of hearing half of someone's cellphone conversation, and somewhat about the drawbacks of artificially constructed realities. It's not new material for SF, and the ending didn't click together as completely as I wanted, but the extrapolation was interesting. (7)

"The Armies of Elfland" by Eileen Gunn & Michael Swanwick: This short story by a superstar pair of authors apparently started life as a real-time plotting exercise for Clarion West. It's a post-apocalyptic elf story, set in a world where elves have conquered and enslaved humans and are using them for amusement and a food supply. The elements are fairly typical: a human canny enough to keep herself alive and get close to the queen, the perils of interactions with the fae sort of elves who trick and capture, and a fight on terms that one is never entirely sure of. It's a solid entry in that subgenre — not the best that I've read, but enjoyable entertainment. (7)

"Human Day" by Jack Skillingstead: The opening of a man in a sort of fallout shelter exploring the world through the eyes of a robotic dog caught my attention, and I liked the idea of a half-crazy man convinced something is going horribly wrong after an accident at a fictional version of something like the Large Hadron Collider. Unfortunately, the story gets stranger and more psychological and the end lost me completely. (6)

"Cowgirls in Space" by Deborah Coates: This is another story where I'm not sure I followed the ending and I wish the author had taken a bit more time to explain. But despite that, it has strong characterization for a short story (if just a few too many characters) and a slow and effective introduction of a great core SFnal idea (similar to one that Michael Crichton attempted at length with far less success). I do wish that the story either extended the characterization or explored the idea a bit more. I found it a bit too short. (7)

"This Wind Blowing, and This Tide" by Damien Broderick: I like the idea of a character who is, as he calls it, an etiological distortion, someone who subconsciously messes with cause and effect and causes things around him to fit his subconscious desires. I particularly like giving that power to a rather obnoxious person who becomes something like a human poltergeist, and having him involved in a potential first-contact investigation because he's the only person who can get through the protective field around the ship. But, of course, because he's involved, they don't know if what their clairvoyant is seeing is actually true. Alas, as seems to be a theme for this issue, I found the ending disappointing. Not enough firm resolution, not enough wrapping up of plot threads, and too much weight on the emotional reactions of a character who isn't that likable. (6)

"Exegesis" by Nancy Kress: This very short "story" is also the funniest and best thing in this issue. It's a critique of the quotation "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" from the movie version of Gone with the Wind, but at dates 100 years apart going into the future and through a cultural collapse and rediscovery. The mistakes, distortions, and conclusions of future scholars make a wonderful parody of our guesswork and literary analysis. (8)

"The Spires of Denon" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: I was happy to see that the other novella of this issue is by Rusch, who is one of my favorite authors for writing old-style SF adventure stories, which are always good for variation. This one is no exception: it's a story of exploration of an artifact on an alien world, a bit reminiscent of the sort of story that Jack McDevitt writes. There's both a bit of a BDO (Big Dumb Object) mystery and another layer of mystery as the reader attempts to figure out who to root for. Trust Rusch on the last part; I was wondering if my emotional reactions to the characters would be betrayed by the story, but they weren't. It's not great literature, but it's a satisfying story. (7)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-09-27

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