Asimov's Science Fiction

March 2010

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 34, No. 3
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 112

Sheila Williams uses the editorial to look at previous employees at the magazine and see where they are now, which like a lot of her editorials strikes me as navel-gazing. I don't know who would find this interesting enough to warrant the magazine space. But Silverberg again saves the non-fiction of this issue with a great look at showing instead of telling in the history of SF writing. I've seen this discussed many times, but rarely does the person discussing it start with Hemingway.

Also in this issue was an interesting column from James Patrick Kelly on free on-line resources and what actually pays for them. Not new material to those of us from the free software community, but it was good to see. Paul Di Filippo's book review column was unusually good, too; there were a couple of books in there I was interested in.

"Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" by William Preston: This is an odd one: it felt like it was building up to a strong point, verging on a moral, but I'm not quite sure what that moral was or what to make of it. The focus is on a secret group of do-gooders, run by a legendary Old Man who is never named in the story but was apparently well-known during the Cold War era of this alternate world. I think Preston was aiming at a super-virtuous black ops organization, like a private CIA, but I had a hard time not reading it as a superhero organization. The protagonist was a member, an agent, who is approached years later after a 9/11-style event by government agents who supposedly want to find the Old Man and determine why he and his organization didn't prevent 9/11 like so many other similar events in the past. Underneath that motive, they clearly assume he could have stopped it and therefore consider him partly responsible for it.

The story revolves around the Old Man and his motives and capabilities, but they stay mostly mysterious. He starts out seeming like the kind of conservative libertarian political hero who shows up in Tom Clancy novels, and then turns into someone more like Superman, complete with a Fortress of Solitude. He seems to be explained as a sort of pure utilitarian, someone who weighs the outcomes and can always make the most effective choice, but I never bought it. And the ending is just odd. Preston seems to be making a point about empowerment, or about daring to do something about evils in the world, but this is in the context of a person with amazing, magical powers that no one else could possibly duplicate. Very strange. (6)

"Centaurs" by Benjamin Crowell: Here's another story that wanders off in an odd direction. Ginny lives among the Neptune trojans and is going to meet her boyfriend, whom she's only previously communicated with on-line. The setup is pure hard SF juvenile: lots of detail about the equipment, about navigation in low-G environments, and about the combination of coming of age and heavy responsibility for personal safety. As one might expect, there's some peril. But the peril doesn't play out like the typical classic juvenile, particularly for the protagonist, and the story makes its exit as a slice-of-life story instead of one with a satisfying conclusion. I liked the setting, particularly as a revisiting of the classic juvenile pattern, but I had a hard time engaging with the characters through the ending. (6)

"Blind Cat Dance" by Alexander Jablokov: This is the first story in this issue that I liked all the way through. It's set in an intriguing future, in which people have tried to solve the systemic destruction of habitats with careful training (and genetic manipulation, and some additional magical technological modification) of animals to simply not notice their actual surroundings. In effect, people have edited themselves out of the perceptions of the wildlife, and convinced them their habitats are much bigger than they actually are.

Against that backdrop, the protagonist is a somewhat creepy man who appears to be stalking a woman on behalf of her former boyfriend. The woman decides that she wants to be a trainer, one of the people who works on wildlife to modify them to accept this sort of habitat (and construct those habitats). The plot has a few twists, but for me it was mostly an excuse to read more about the background. This is a nice, meaty story, with a lot of ideas to dig into. (7)

"Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising" by Derek Zumsteg: As one might guess from the title, this one is humorous, but it has a nice edge of social commentary. It's set in a future where pragmatic, practical, orderly aliens have taken over the world. The protagonist is a ticket collector on a proof-of-payment transit system (meaning that you have to buy tickets before you board and the ticket inspections are random, resulting in a fine if they catch someone without a ticket). His specialty is not looking like a ticket inspector and catching people by surprise, and he catches two young aliens sneaking onto the train. This turns into an extended conversation with adult aliens about the nature of the transit system, and about how it's too easy to break the rules. It's a story built around what it means to be human, how humans deal with rules, and how to balance order, efficiency, chaos, and tradition. The ending was deeply satisfying. My favorite of an all-around strong issue. (8)

"The Speed of Dreams" by Will Ludwigsen: Another good story. This one is told as a lab experiment notebook of a junior high student who is trying to determine how much time is compressed in dreams. It's a great idea, featuring experimental observations interleaved well with real-life events. The twist is startling and disturbing, worthy of a Robert Reed story, and much too unexpected to spoil. (7)

"The Tower" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: Rusch is almost always a strong author, so I was looking forward to this one. It didn't disappoint. She takes on territory that I would normally associate with Connie Willis: historians going back in time to do first-hand research on historic events. But Rusch's world is a lot darker. The historical mission is to gather information about the alleged murder of the Princes in the Tower by Richard III. The wildcard is that one of the team members is actually there to steal some of the lesser-known crown jewels. Rusch doesn't have Willis's humorous approach, but the time travel and surrounding politics seem much more realistic, as are the obstacles and problems that the travelers run into. A solid, interesting story, particularly for the contrast of its approach with Willis's while using a similar basic setting. (7)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-07-09

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