Asimov's Science Fiction

August 2010

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 34, No. 8
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 112

Robert Silverberg's column this issue is on the words that were invented by science fiction and have since passed into the mainstream. This is standard SF fandom stuff, a bit of quiet bragging that most long-time readers of the non-fiction surrounding SF have heard before, but Silverberg writes it entertainingly and covered a few whose origins I hadn't known. The best non-fiction of the issue, though, goes to James Patrick Kelly, who writes a very informative column about the methods used to detect extrasolar planets.

"Superluminosity" by Alan Wall: I'm afraid this story failed for me on multiple levels. A former worker in a time travel experiment that was shut down had smuggled a time machine out of the lab (remarkably improbable already), and gets into a spat with his wife over having impulsively shaved a poodle and damaged her dog-grooming business (not to mention one of many affairs). To make it up to her, he gets talked into going into the past to get her a handbag.

This is one of those stories full of remarkably petty and non-introspective people doing cruel things to each other for the most banal of motives. I found it impossible to identify with any of the characters. What suspense it has derives mostly from a conflict in an failing marriage that could be used as a textbook example of the detached, condescending husband and the vicious, vengeful wife. Ugh, pass. (3)

"The Lovely Ugly" by Carol Emshwiller: Like many of Emshwiller's stories, this is by turns charming and deeply disturbing. It's the story of a first contact told from the perspective of the aliens rather than the humans (an approach I always like). At first, it's amusing to see the humans fall into mistaken assumptions about the technology level of the aliens because of how they live. The narrative voice is happy and engaging. But then the aliens make a serious mistake in understanding human social rituals and boundaries, and the narrator ends up doing something unforgivable that he never realizes is as serious as it was. It's a more melancholy and despairing story than it seems at first, a good reminder of the limits of mutual understanding and empathy. (6)

"Crimes, Follies, Misfortunes, and Loves" by Ian Creasey: This story, by contrast, starts melancholy and then turns into something different. Sonia, the protagonist, has grown up in a post-crash world, where technological civilization has collapsed due to exhaustion of natural resources. She's part of a group who goes through the vast piles of stored data from the past, primarily for their own amusement, amazed at the quantity of banal information that pre-Transition people left behind.

With that as backdrop, Creasey tells a quiet, emotional story about the past, our records of it, and their significance to us and how they can affect the present. He asks a significant question about what priority and what power to give past records, slowly building it into a finely balanced decision. It's a story with a conclusion that could have gone either way, one that encourages the reader to argue with Sonia and explore alternate decisions. Well done, although I thought the dialogue was weak and wooden in places, particularly (and distractingly) near the climax. (7)

"The Battle of Little Big Science" by Pamela Rentz: It's great to see a story about Native Americans written by someone who's a member of a native tribe and has worked in Indian Affairs for years. That immediately caught my interest.

The shape of the story is somewhat familiar: a harried scientific team is working on an invention, in this case a time viewer, for a skeptical set of funders who are demanding impressive results yesterday rather than tomorrow. But the project is about researching the past, and mixed into that story is a conflict between impatience for something that makes the work notable today, the complex relationship the tribe has with the past, and the lingering question of how knowing the past might change the present. It's a great story to put in combination with Creasey's "Crimes, Follies, Misfortunes, and Loves"; they both ask similar questions and come up with some similar answers, in much different contexts. (7)

"Warning Label" by Alexander Jablokov: This was my favorite story of the issue. Set in a future world with ubiquitous enhanced reality implants, everything in the world carries tags. Warning tags, informational tags, ad hoc discussions, and whatever else people want to stick on things. The basic idea reminded me somewhat of Schroeder's Permanence, but with more scope than the rights tags that Permanence had. The protagonists decide to try to peel off layers of protest tags from the statue of a charismatic political leader in a park and encounter more layers and surprises than they expected, leading to several twists and a satisfyingly cynical conclusion. There are lots of neat bits along the way about the effect of propaganda, political communications, and how the world might look with this sort of ubiquitous crowd communications (with a touch of handwaving about filters to deal with the inevitable spam). A well-constructed, funny, and thoughtful story. (8)

"The Witch, the Tinman, the Flies" by J.M. Sidorova: Nina is a girl with a heart condition, growing up in Stalinist Russia shortly after World War II. This is the story of her friendship with a disgraced genetic scientist living next door, struck up because she couldn't play outside with the other children due to her heart. It's about, in part, the conflict between science and ideology and the effect the triumph of ideological truth over empirical studies had on the scientists. But the joy of this story is that it's written from inside the world understanding and symbol set of a young girl, one who rarely gets anything important directly explained to her and therefore makes up explanations that seem to fit the words that other people use. This adds a delightful layer of surreality, allowing the story to be read on both a realistic and a symbolic layer. There isn't a great deal to the story's plot, but the tone and presentation make it. (7)

"On the Horizon" by Nick Wolven: This rather disturbing story centers around a convict who's brain has been tweaked so that he picks up negative emotions and damage in other people. He's being used by the FBI in a rather grim-looking future as a human bloodhound, to resolve cases involving serial killers and other psychopaths. It's a murder mystery of a sort, and also a story about the most grim and darkest kind of empathy. A little too dark for me, and I didn't quite follow the underlying truth that it seemed the story was trying to expose, but it's well-told. (6)

"Slow Boat" by Gregory Norman Bossert: After an issue filled with thoughtful and often disturbing stories, I approve of the decision to end it with an SFnal adventure romp. The protagonist, who goes by NaN, Our Lady of Omissions, made a reputation by being obsessive about covering personal data trails and being anonymous. But the story opens with her waking up in a life support pod in an otherwise abandoned spaceship that's taking a slow trip between planets.

This is a great mix of adventure, as NaN tries to figure out where she is, what's going on, and what she can do about it, and retroactive filling in of the background and the reason why she ended up on the ship. There's a sharp and subtle point embedded about the takeover of social movements by backers with their own motives, but mostly it's a great adventure with some difficult struggles and a thoroughly satisfying ending. Great fun. (8)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-12-23

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