Asimov's Science Fiction

September 2009

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 33, No. 9
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 112

The editorial in this issue is about the 2009 Dell Magazines Award, which I always find frustrating since the winners aren't printed in the magazine. I don't know if this is because of some fairness rule around the contest or some other issue, but what's the point of a competition report when the stories aren't available in the same medium? If I were interested in reading stories on-line off the Asimov's web site, I wouldn't subscribe to the print copy of the magazine.

Robert Silverberg's column is much better, starting a series on SF world-building that's, in this installment at least, aiming for the hard SF side of the problem. Paul Di Filippo's book column is, sadly as usual, forgettable.

"Away from Here" by Lisa Goldstein: This story about a family-owned hotel and an overworked and depressed teenager starts out looking like a coming-of-age story and turns into a version of fairy peril that substitutes the more modern escape of running away with the circus. I had trouble with an ending that I thought was painfully closed, which made the story less enjoyable for me, but Goldstein portrays emotions vividly. Good if you don't mind quiet desperation. (6)

"Camera Obscured" by Ferrett Steinmetz: As a varyingly avid Xbox 360 player who has come to terms (as most of us have) with the impossibility of reaching the top of any leaderboard ever (best showing: briefly 80th best on one map in Defense Grid), I immediately fell in love with the premise of this story. In its world, everything everyone does is tracked with leaderboards as thorough and dynamic as those in a modern console gaming environment. The protagonist is a high school student who has a scheme through which he thinks he can become the world's best lover (hetero male), after having failed to reach the top of the leaderboard in any of the (many) other things he's attempted. These scores are judged primarily by his peers, and the world relies on ubiquitous video surveillance as a sort of life-blogging. But his first intended conquest turns out to be more complex than he expected, and he gets a lesson in human connection.

Nothing in the moral or resolution of this story should come as a significant surprise, but I loved the background and smiled happily at the conclusion. Well done, particularly in capturing the effect and feel of the all-judging leaderboards. (7)

"Soulmates" by Mike Resnick & Lezli Robyn: Here's another long-standing SF trope, this time emergent AI, played with a heart and close attention to emotional reactions. A widower starts talking with a diagnostic robot in his job as a night watchman, and through those discussions comes to terms with taking his ailing wife off life support. Resnick has a reputation for tugging at the heart strings a little too vigorously, but this one hit the right pitch for me. Again, nothing should surprise the regular SF reader, and Resnick & Robyn go a bit too far into logic puzzles a few times in the conversations with the robot, but I found the expected playing out of the story satisfying nonetheless. (7)

"In Their Garden" by Brenda Cooper: This story is set after an environmental apocalpyse, in an Oregon garden that's attempting to preserve native plants against the global-warming-changed weather. The protagonist has spent her life in that environment and is eager to see the outside world and frustrated with the boundaries and restrictions of her life. A short coming-of-age story that I thought was going to be predictable, but which undergoes a nice twist and a nice bit of thematic resonance. (7)

"The Day Before the Day Before" by Steve Rasnic Tem: Unfortunately, this take on another old SF trope, the time fixer story, isn't as successful. The protagonist is a member of the typical time patrol organization: mysterious, prone to unexplained missions, and attempting to influence history in very minor ways to make the right thing happen. This is background for a story that doesn't so much resolve as drift towards and away from a central moment with no clear resolution or ending. It's all very vague, in a way that didn't work for me. (4)

"Tear-Down" by Benjamin Crowell: From time patrol to conscious houses. This time, the protagonist is the house, an old-model house that's acquired by a new family who is considering having it replaced with a newer model. It's one of those stories told from a quiet and largely unemotional viewpoint, leaving the reader to fill in the emotions and to feel even more strongly for a protagonist who can't feel for itself. It's also a story about relationships, about adjusting to someone else and getting to know them, and there it's simply and sweetly told. The story dodges most ethical implications of clearly intelligent houses, but that story has been handled at length elsewhere and I didn't miss it. It was nice to read a solid, heart-warming story about the anthropomorphized objects that serve and support us. (8)

"Her Heart's Desire" by Jerry Oltion: This is a light but fun short story that takes a twist on wishes and heart's desires. When one gets a wish intended for someone else, the fairy-tale logic may mean this isn't as much of a tragedy as it may first appear. Slight, but worth a smile. (6)

"Broken Windchimes" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: As is often the case, Rusch delivers the strongest story of the issue. "Broken Windchimes" is the story of a singer, a castrati who has been performing for aliens who value above all else absolutely pure notes sung by human boy voices. When he misses a note, as they all do eventually, he becomes a broken windchime, no longer wanted for performance, but possibly still able to find work as an instructor and well-supported by his earnings as a performer. Rather than continue on the alien world and teach other singers, he goes to the orbital station that serves as the entrance point to the world and the center of local human population. There he discovers music he's never known, as well as much more about his past and the politics of the system.

This could easily have turned into a cliched story about slavery or oppression or abuse, but it didn't. Rusch successfully walks a fine line between serious problems with consent and a pragmatic necessity with a flourishing underground, a line that relies heavily on the humans being low in the galactic hierarchy (at least in this corner of it). The protagonist is compelling precisely because he isn't angry, although he has the most right to be. He's too engrossed in the way in which his world is opening up from the life he knew. This is a disturbing story in places, with a few hard choices, but also a heart-warming and compelling one. As is often the case with Rusch, I wouldn't mind seeing more in this world. (8)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-10-05

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