Asimov's Science Fiction

April/May 2010

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 34, No. 4 & 5
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 192

This is the spring double issue of Asimov's, which of course means a Norman Spinrad book column. This one I'd heard about well in advance of getting to this issue; it caused some controversy on-line when it first came out. Spinrad meanders, as is his wont, through reviews of a wide variety of SF (by white male Europeans) that he sees as being about the third world. Fine, okay, there's a lot of that out there, but what caused most of the controversy is his accompanying statements of profound ignorance about SF written by people actually from countries that don't consider themselves part of European civilization, his apparent lack of understanding of how cultural influence works, and a really unfortunate statement proclaiming Mike Resnick the best African SF writer currently available.

This is now a controversy that's more than a year old, so I won't dive into it myself; what needed to be said was said at the time, more thoroughly than I could. Charles Tan has a good roundup. The short version is that this summary of the field says rather more about Spinrad's personal reading than it does about reality, although I think he's also correct to highlight the paucity of good translations of SF for those of us who are sadly monolingual. This is one of the reasons why I plan to read more of Haikasoru's translations of Japanese SF.

The other thing I do have to say about this column, after having read the entirety of it in context, is that I think it was far more ignorant than malicious, and I'm inclined to take Spinrad at his word that he both bemoans the lack of world SF and thinks it's hard to come by in English. But I can't help but think of Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing; Spinrad's remarks about Octavia Butler, in particular, play very heavily into several of those techniques.

The other non-fiction in this issue is less controversial and better reasoned. Brian Bieniowski has a guest editorial on the virtues of the magazine (or broad anthology) format, in which not all the material will be within the reader's comfort zone or along the lines that they already know they like, comparing this to the B-side of record singles where one may be surprised by unexpected discoveries. I think that's a well-chosen argument in favor of reading magazines cover to cover instead of only sticking to writing one already knows. Silverberg, meanwhile, continues to point out that the maxim of showing, not telling, and the recommendations against lumps of exposition are more complicated than simple rules and are frequently violated.

"The Union of Soil and Sky" by Gregory Norman Bossert: I'm a fan of archaeological SF largely due to Jack McDevitt, so I was excited to see that this is set on an archaeological dig on an alien planet. Some of the political situation is familiar: corporations, academic bureaucracies, and the threat that the dig will be shut down and destroyed, for example. But at first this story focuses more on the slow, gritty field work of carefully extracting pot shards from the ground for analysis. There are aliens on site at the dig, whose own past is what is being explored, but while they seem happy to assist, they show a strange lack of interest in anything that's uncovered.

As one might expect, the dig team makes some dramatic discoveries and tries to piece together what they mean. Bossert goes for a sense of alienness rather than comprehensibility, which makes the ending moderately confused and open-ended but is probably more realistic than the more typical endings of complete comprehension. I wanted a bit more of a climax, though; a bit more meat in the discoveries. The story also suffered from a lack of memorable or elaborated characters. It's a novella that uses its length to detail its setting, and fell somewhat into a no-man's land between a fully-fleshed novel and the focus and energy of a short story. (5)

"Unforseen" by Molly Gloss: I've heard a great deal about Molly Gloss, a writer about whom other writers speak very highly, but this is the first work by her that I've read. It's a strong introduction. The first-person protagonist is an insurance investigator for accidental death insurance in a world where it's now possible to bring people back to life from certain treatable trauma. However, his primary job is to find a reason to deny a claim; the policies are written so that only truly random, unforseen, and unpreventable deaths will receive a settlement. This is slowly revealed in alternating sections of background explanation and a specific claim investigation visit. What made this story for me was the strong first-person voice of a man who's disgusted with his job, cynical, and extremely good at it. One of the better stories of the issue, if quite dark. (8)

"Adrift" by Eugene Fischer: Two strong stories in a row. The protagonist here is the supervisor of an automated freight distribution station in the middle of the ocean in a near-future world where shipping has been completely automated. Her rather routine life suddenly becomes complicated when a refugee family fleeing the Congo is found in a damaged shipping container that had been pulled out of circulation to the station for maintenance. The political complications are obvious, and immediately involve high-level management. The strength of the story is the earnest charm of the refugee man and his courageous efforts in a deeply unfair world to try to get his sisters away from a war. Expect to become quietly furious at what humans do to each other and how immigration policy works; the story is very effective. (7)

"They Laughed at Me in Vienna, and Again in Prague, and Then in Belfast, and Don't Forget Hanoi! But I'll Show Them! I'll Show Them All, I Tell You!" by Tim McDaniel: As one might guess from one of the longest titles to grace the pages of Asimov's, this is a humorous break, which was needed after the first three stories. It's a mad scientist story, told with a delightful undermining of reality. The twist is fairly obvious and most readers will catch on in a page or two, but the execution is fun enough to keep one smiling through the end of the story. (7)

"Mindband" by Pamela Sargent: The second (of three!) novellas of the issue, this one is somewhat more successful in being a mini-novel. It's a mosaic story of the people staying in or near a bed and breakfast in a small town, across the street from a mysterious business that's doing some sort of cutting edge research that they don't talk about. One of the guests in the bed and breakfast is a TV news anchor who lived through a terrifying instance of mass hysteria that resulted in a bridge collapse, and she's here to dig into the company after thinking she found some evidence linking them to that event. The rest of the characters are mostly innocent bystanders whose lives get tangled together by the effects of the technology that business is working on.

I think "Mindband" is best classified as a paranoid thriller. It has a definite SFnal aspect, but it's a single bit of technology against a world that's otherwise completely contemporary, and it's less transformative than corrupting, more horror than SF. As you might expect from that, the ending is also quite dark, although good things happen in the story. A bit too depressing for me, but well-structured. (5)

"Malick Pan" by Sara Genge: It's ironic that, in a fairly depressing issue, the dystopian story is one of the most optimistic. "Malick Pan" is set in a future in which the rich have closed themselves in cities with ubiquitous nanotech, and the humanity left outside has a difficult and dangerous existence scavenging through their refuge and avoiding contaminated areas as best they can. The progatonist is a young boy with unusual powers he gets from his control of the nanners, explained eventually by the discovery that he's originally from one of the cities and somehow ended up outside. The story starts with brutal scenes of tribal dynamics and survival, but it carries a thread of optimism from the determined confidence of the protagonist. The end sees him in transition to a world that the reader is quite sure is not ready for him. The dark parts dragged on a little long for me, and some of the picture of Malick's world is quite disturbing, but I liked the ending. (6)

"Alten Kameraden" by Barry B. Longyear: It's hard to write an alternate history about Hitler and World War II and say something interesting. It's even harder to get me to like it. Longyear succeeds here, which came as a considerable surprise.

The protagonist was a German sniper during World War I, one who ends up saving a young Hitler's life. Most of the story is set in the dying days of World War II, when the Allies are marching on Berlin and Hitler has retreated to his bunker. Wolff is now an engineer, called to fix a problem with the ventilation in Hitler's bunker, where he stumbles into a notorious moment in history. One that doesn't go quite the way that is recorded.

This is tricky territory, particularly when one makes Hitler a character, but I think it works, largely because it's understated while knowing that it's understated. Longyear keeps the things every reader is going to be thinking under the surface with a calm, matter-of-fact protagonist who's trying to focus on machinery to not think about the people, which makes the ending thought-provoking and a neatly handled pivot. Surprisingly good. (7)

"Pretty to Think So" by Robert Reed: Wow, this is a depressing issue. This is a global catastrophe story by Reed, one that's shorter and less twisty than Reed's normal stories. The initial idea was an emergency vacation, but I liked the perspective from the Secret Service agent the best; she was the one who made the story worth reading. (6)

"Jackie's-Boy" by Steven Popkes: The last story of the issue is, of course, another dystopia. It's the story of a boy and an uplifted elephant in a collapsed future world. What saves it from boy-and-his-dog territory is that the elephant is generally smarter and generally more capable than the boy, is remarkably grumpy, and doesn't care for the boy at all at the start of the story. That made it feel quite a bit more realistically bumpy and difficult than most cross-species friendship stories, and the slow-growing friendship between them gains emotional weight from the conflicts. A solid adventure story with some great characterization and a satisfying (if not entirely realistic) ending. (7)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-08-30

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