Asimov's Science Fiction

October/November 2009

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 33, No. 10 & 11
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 191

The non-fiction was better than average this month, despite a somewhat weak editorial about Star Trek. Robert Silverberg continued his world-building discussion with some details about Majipoor, which have left me with a desire to read Lord Valentine's Castle. Mary Robinette Kowal has an interesting column on the possible, theoretically possible, and strictly impossible in science fiction (although I'm still skeptical of the classification of FTL travel into the theoretically possible; that always strikes me as wishful thinking, perhaps on the part of the scientist).

This is one of the annual double issues, so it also features a book review column by Norman Spinrad. As usual, I enjoy these columns more than any other book review column I read, even though I largely disagree with Spinrad on the surrounding commentary around the state of the industry that he always attaches. As usual, a lot of the review column is a rant about the publishing industry and the destruction of science fiction by an obsession with bottom-line finances, which is overstated although not completely without basis. But mingled with that rant are some good book reviews of several interesting books, some of which (like Joe Abercrombie's fantasy series) I'll probably buy eventually.

"Blood Dauber" by Ted Kosmatka & Michael Poore: The protagonist of this story is a zookeeper, one who loves his work but doesn't love the animals. He knows, in fact, that the animals hate him. It makes for an odd background tone, very unlike other zoo stories I've read that were all about the wonders and fascination of the animals. Bell seems to care more about the puzzle.

The puzzle this story hands him is an insect he can't identify from any book, and which has a very strange reproduction and growth pattern. He spends much of the story experimenting with it while his personal life falls apart in the background. He's also responsible for directing community service at the zoo, and one of the convicts assigned to him is the spark that causes both the insect plot and his personal life to hit crisis points.

There's a bit of a scientific puzzle in this one, but it's mostly a character story. I liked Bell better than I expected, although I doubt I'd like him in person. It's a bit refreshing to see a bleak portrayal of a zoo that confronts the inherent cruelty of the environment; I'm sure this has been done many times before, but it's one of the few times it's appeared in a forum I read. (7)

"Where the Time Goes" by Heather Lindsley: Much serious SF has been written on the implications of time travel and possible ways of resolving its paradoxes, but unless one is going to attempt to chase all the implications of a thorough cross-time war, I think it works best when taken with a sense of humor. That's what this story does. It follows two down-and-out freelancers who, in traditional space SF, would be merchant carriers barely paying their docking fees by running cargo from port to port. Here, they're collectors, who go back in time to harvest wasted time and bring it back for sale to people who want extra time. They botch a mission and someone in the past becomes aware of their presence, which leads to an escalating series of missions in which their stow-away starts to meddle. Good, comic fun with a solid premise. (7)

"Wife-Stealing Time" by R. Garcia y Robertson: This is a sequel to "SinBad the Sand Sailor" and is, like the previous story, a mostly brainless adventure romp. SinBad once again falls in with a beautiful woman who likes taking her clothes off. This time, the complications involve both the Slavers and an off-planet hunting party. It's planetary romance or high-tech sword and sorcery, following the perpetually resigned and occasionally Eeyore-like SinBad into more dangerous complications that spin out of control. Not quite as good as the previous story, but still undemandingly entertaining. (6)

"Flowers of Asphodel" by Damien Broderick: I'm afraid this story failed for me by being essentially incomprehensible. Broderick tried hard to create an unusual voice in the first-person narration, building the story around an irascible and digressive man who was woken early from rejuvination as part of some sort of punishment. There are tons of allusions to Greek mythology, some sort of futuristic high tech, and some sort of complicated layered reality environment run or controlled by a goddess who was his wife. But none of it made much sense to me, and in the days since I first read the story, any remaining sense has fled. Probably of more interest to someone who wants to chase and understand all the allusions. (3)

"Erosion" by Ian Creasey: This story follows a prospective space colonist on a last vacation on Earth before launch. He's been extensively modified and improved to hopefully withstand unforseen conditions on hostile alien worlds, but runs into trouble during a storm on a (post-global-warming) sea coast. The story resolution is dark, but mostly via the protagonist making a series of very poor decisions. Given that he's the only contact point for the reader in the story, I had a hard time caring about anything that was happening. I think I get the symbolism of his problems and their application to colonization, but I was left thinking the mission would be much better off without this guy. (And yes, I realize that's kind of the point of the story, but still.) (5)

"Flotsam" by Elissa Malcohn: This seems to be the issue for depressing stories that I would have expected in F&SF rather than here. This is an unusual story in that it follows someone who's from the down-and-out side of a culture and never has much understanding of what's going on: a girl who grew up in a fishing village heavily affected by industrial pollution. She had a trauamtic incident as a child, apparently finding a dying mermaid infant among the dead fish. The rest of the story is the psychological fallout and scarring from that, combined with her continuing belief that there are intelligent sea creatures who are being killed by pollution and who people are just not aware of. The ending reaches some sliver of optimism, but it's all rather dark and bleak. Points for showing the story from an unusual perspective, though. (6)

"Before My Last Breath" by Robert Reed: Unlike most of Reed's stories, this one doesn't have an ending twist. The thrust of the story is even stated in the introductory paragraph. It's the story of a discovery of an alien burial ground, and jumps from character to character to tell the unfolding story of its discovery, excavation, and analysis, ending with a flashback to the aliens showing how accurate the archeological guesses were. It's an interesting example of fiction about working scientists, although I thought it lacked a punch. (6)

"The Ghost Hunter's Beautiful Daughter" by Christopher Barzak: Sylvie's father is a ghost hunter who hit upon the technique of taking pictures of ghosts to make them disappear. This relies on Sylvie, his daughter, who can not only see ghosts but who, when interacting with them, makes them real enough to be captured by the camera. Unbeknowst to him, the ghosts can continue to interact with Sylvie and with each other when captured in a picture album, including the first ghost he caught: Sylvie's mother.

This is a touching and quite interesting family story built around Sylvie's conflict between doing the right thing and loyalty and obedience to her father. That is, it's touching and quite interesting right up to the end, where I thought it ran completely off the rails. I'm not sure what I was supposed to get from the ending, but it felt like a profound disappointment and betrayal of the rest of the story and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. (5)

"Deadly Sins" by Nancy Kress: This is a very short story about a futuristic bit of industrial... well, espionage isn't quite the right word. It's a thin situational story that relies on a fairly predictable ending twist, so I think it is one of Kress's weaker short stories, but I did like the interaction between the protagonist and the public defender computer in her cell. (6)

"The Sea of Dreams" by William Barton: I'd have to go back and check to be sure, but I suspect this is a sequel to "In the Age of the Quiet Sun" featuring the same characters. It at least shares with that story the property of being more fun and less annoying than the other Barton short fiction I've read, even if some of the setup and a lot of the protagonist's behavior is nastily sexist in a way that kept detracting from the story.

The protagonist is the independently wealthy head of a company with sole ownership of the technology that allows efficient space travel, salvaged from a discovered alien craft. His companion is an AI based on the neural cells of a now-dead woman, who clones beautiful female bodies and rides their minds mostly to have sex with him. (Apparently the first thing he does with each clone after they've been awakened is to rape them, so they all adore him. It's that sort of story.) There's rather a lot of wish-fulfillment floating around here, and most of it is skeevy.

If one can hold one's nose through that (and that's a big if), this is a surprisingly entertaining sort of planetary adventure that starts with a dangerous exploration of a derelict alien craft and turns into adventures with midgit genetically engineered humans built on a model reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs (but with at least some handwaving explanation). If one can continue to ignore the fact that the beautiful clone woman spends most of the story wandering around naked (and the constant commentary from the protagonist on this), there's a nice bit of deep time and a well-done interplay between time travel and space exploration. Like a lot of Barton, it comes across at times as propaganda for space exploration, but here it's presented in a tolerable and entertaining form. Assuming one can get past the utterly appalling behavior of the protagonist and the creepy sense that he's still a self-insertion wish-fulfillment character despite that.

One of the better Barton stories I've read, although I still can't recommend it due to the nasty handling of gender issues. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-10-07

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