Asimov's Science Fiction

August 2009

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 33, No. 8
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 112

Silverberg continues his interesting discussion in this issue of obtaining foreign language copies of his books, and James Patrick Kelley does a survey of awards in the SF field. Peter Heck's book column in this issue is one of the better ones.

The editorial in this issue is the yearly reader's choice awards, all of which were at least reasonable choices: "The Room of Lost Souls" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (who's one of my favorite short fiction writers), "The Ray Gun: A Love Story" by James Alan Gardner, and the exceptional "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson. I'd previously identified each of them as the highlight of the issue in which they occurred, so I'm happy to see my taste is in line with that of most of the readers. (It means a higher chance of more things I like in the future.)

"The Qualia Engine" by Damien Broderick: Broderick joins a long tradition of writing stories about hyper-intelligent kids, this time hidden from the general population by feigning less intelligence than they have. There's a twist on the normal formula — they're somewhat less intelligent than their parents instead of more — but the focus ends up not being on the intelligence. Instead, it's used as backdrop for a story exploring the subjective impression of reality and questioning what would happen if we could share that impression with someone else. No new ground is broken here, but I found the ending surprisingly subtle and moving. (7)

"Creatures of Well-Defined Habits" by Robert Reed: The best of Reed's stories set one up along an apparently clear path, throw in a twist, and then slowly turn the story inside-out and give you an entirely different experience than you were expecting at the start. This is one of those. Set well into the future, it tells the story of a synthetic human-animal hybrid who listens regularly to the stories of one of the medically preserved humans, a man who is now over five hundred years old and a creature of extreme habit. A sudden accident interrupts their world, which in turn leans the protagonist to make a sudden theft, for reasons that are amusingly revealed in the last line of the story. Great fun. (7)

"Blue" by Derek Zumsteg: This is an unusual story. The setup is classic hard SF: two explorers in orbit around a black hole (which is invalidating much of the predicted physics of black holes). The ship is in some trouble escaping to return with the data (I think; it's intriguingly unclear since the protagonists talk around the problem). But while the scientific problem shapes the story, the protagonists bicker constantly, fight over the horrible food, and drive each other to distraction with the patterns of too-long familiarity. The story turns into a sketch of an interpersonal dynamic of two people who have been together on a ship for far longer than either wants, and at that it succeeds wonderfully. This is a great balance between a hard SF problem and strong characterization. (7)

"The Consciousness Problem" by Mary Robinette Kowal: Elise is a scientist who worked with her husband on a cloning project before a car accident that left her with a serious concussion and lingering cognitive problems. Her husband is split between worrying about her and continuing with their work, eventually leading to cloning himself as the first subject and experiment. My favorite part of this story is the way the love between Elise and her husband is shown: it's persistent, flexible, and finds different forms of expression in different circumstances, rather than turning into the brittle and fragile bond that seems to show up so much in fiction about relationships.

This story continues a trend in this issue of strong characterization, a focus on interpersonal dynamics, and using SF to explore emotional reactions and problems. Usually, Asimov's stories are more hit and miss for me, but the magazine is firing on all cylinders this issue. (7)

"Two Boys" by Steven Popkes: The two boys of the title are the first recreated Neanderthal boy, genetically engineered from recovered tissue samples, and (a few generations later) the normal human son of someone who had bullied him in school. At first I was concerned Popkes would use a take on Neanderthals that is somewhat similar to Robert Sawyer's dire Hominids, giving them a talent for peacemaking and making them out to be clearly superior to humans, but thankfully he avoids that. The peacemaking work that the reconstructed Neanderthals do is more because they have no sides and no alliances. (Although the magical handwaving about projection of authority was annoying, and I have to wonder why they had no alliances with the countries in which they were born and raised.) The story wanders without a well-defined plot, but the characterization isn't bad and the characters are likeable throughout. A slight story, but still entertaining. (6)

"Turbulence" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: This fairly brief story about fear of flying, accidents, and the power and fragility of anticipation and belief is not quite as strong as Rusch's normal fare, but it's definitely memorable. You may want to avoid this one if you have a fear of flying, since Rusch directly targets that mental trickery that one often has to maintain to stop anticipating the bad things that could happen. The introduction calls it disconcerting, which I think is the right term. (6)

"California Burning" by Michael Blumlein: The story opens with the protagonist taking the body of his father to a crematorium (with a lovely bit of characterization of the crematorium operator). His father wouldn't have cared what was done with his body, but his mother was insistent on cremation; she didn't want a grave that she felt bound to. But all does not go according to plan: his father's bones refuse to burn.

This could be the setup for a creepy horror story, but Blumlein is going somewhere else entirely. It's instead a humorous and sweet story about what we know about other people, what we need to know about other people, and how to accept people for who they choose to be. It also features some disturbing but then funny segments that are reminiscent of the movie Men in Black. Blumlein maintains a comfortable, light-hearted tone throughout and anchors the story with several believable and enjoyable conversations that circle philosophy without being either didactic or obtuse. Nicely handled all around. (7)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-06-15

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