Asimov's Science Fiction

September 2010

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 34, No. 9
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 112

This is the issue in which the Readers' Award winners are announced. Sheila Williams makes the wise choice of allowing the readers' comments to be the primary commentary on the award winners. I wish magazines like this would print more of the reader mail (assuming they get more); there's too much noise in the on-line boards, but editorially-chosen letters are often interesting.

Silverberg's column is about bad robots, and more generally robot ethics. It meanders a bit, but I was happy to see a thoughtful defense of product liability as a control factor on the dangers of robotics. It's good to see someone appreciate how the implications of liability law extend (often usefully) beyond the individual court cases.

I had my typical reaction to Paul Di Filippo's book column: a lot of odd corners and small presses, and not a lot that I'm interested in.

The highlight of the non-fiction of this issue is a guest column by Aliette de Bodard on non-US SF. This is an explicit response to Norman Spinrad's notorious column of a few months earlier. De Bodard provides a considerably better, and more accurate, view of the state of world SF, and then provides a thorough and engaging examination of why non-English SF is so rarely translated. I've rarely read as polite and persuasive of an explanation of the way cultural dominance plays out in literature. I hope Spinrad is reading.

"Backlash" by Nancy Fulda: The protagonist is a former black ops soldier with nasty post-traumatic stress. During dinner with his daughter and her boyfriend, he gets a fortune cookie with the mysterious message "Activation code: pupae." Furious, thinking it's a practical joke, he storms out of the restaurant, but neither his daughter nor her boyfriend seem to know anything about it. When he returns, though, the waitress does, but has no time to explain before a firefight breaks out in the restaurant and he has to save her life. From there, the story moves rapidly into a tense thriller involving a sort of mental time travel, complex family dynamics, and a reluctant return to fighting terrorism.

This is solid entertainment. Fulda makes good use of the bittersweet dynamics of her time travel situation, the characterization is solid throughout, and I really enjoyed the relationship between the father and his daughter. There are some good reveals and even a slightly nuanced look at the motives of terrorism (although I would have liked to see that taken farther). Good entertainment. (7)

"The Palace in the Clouds" by Eugene Mirabelli: My favorite part of this story are the intermixed "factual" pieces about the secret history of Venice, one in which its conquest by Napoleon led some of the nobility to make a retreat into the clouds to maintain their independence. It's a great setup for a steampunk scenario that can be woven into our world. The story, alas, is somewhat less compelling: a boy goes flying with his uncle in an old biplane and lands with him on one of the remaining airships, starting a series of encounters with the remnants of the secret Venice, its stubborn remaining inhabitant, and the stately but crumbling vintage equipment. It's a great setting, but most of the story is concerned with the less interesting family dynamics and the love affair with the sky. Some nice images, but I wanted more of the steampunk. (6)

"Wheat Rust" by Benjamin Crowell: The action moves to a generation starship for this story, but it's the sort of generation starship where the inhabitants have gone back to a relatively primitive way of life. The ship is partitioned into separate regions, people rarely go outside of their region, and the intrusion of two men in space suits throw an unexpected wrench in their daily lives. If you read a lot of short SF, you've probably read something like this before. Refreshingly, though, the characters are aware they're on a generation starship and aware of the technology they don't have access to. The story is a fairly straightforward mix of vaguely dumb romance and an attempt to put a part of the ship back into balance, and sadly the latter only has one good set piece and not enough dramatic description for my taste. An okay adventure, but nothing particularly memorable. (6)

"For Want of a Nail" by Mary Robinette Kowal: The best story of the issue. Another ship story, this time making use of the pressure of limited resources, it starts with frustration at being unable to repair the family AI, mostly because the AI unit is not supposed to require repair and therefore involves tiny spaces almost inaccessible to human hands. Anyone who's tried to do hardware repair on certain badly-designed computers will immediately sympathize, and I love the way a missing cable connection can cause an AI to lose contact with ship data stores and become in danger of losing its daily accumluating memories. Kowal starts the story with a mix of tension and humor, embarassment being the most likely negative outcome, but then the story gets more serious, the emotion deepens, and "For Want of a Nail" turns into a startlingly effective look at hard choices about what existences are worth living. Kowal does blunt the impact a bit by using a resource-constrained environment to force choices that would otherwise be much harder to make, but even blunted the story is quite effective. (8)

"The Sultan of the Clouds" by Geoffrey A. Landis: This seems to have been the science fiction issue of Asimov's. Provided one includes secret history steampunk, everything in this issue is SF; not a fantasy in sight.

This story takes place in the clouds of Venus, following Leah Hamakawa and her assistant Tinkerman as they arrive in response to an invitation from the family that rules Venus. The planet had not been terraformed, that being beyond the reach even of future technology, but it is colonized: cities float high in the upper atmosphere where the pressure and heat are not so intense. The mystery is why they are invited, and why Tinkerman is separated from Leah shortly after they arrive.

This is an SF story that thrives on its setting: magnificant cities floating in the clouds, the vulnerability of those structures, and even a sport that involves moving through the skies in a sort of boyant kayak (yes, my palms started sweating when I imagined the drop). There is, of course, politics and intrigue and a bit of action to liven things up, but none of the characters impressed me with their effectiveness. Plot-wise, it's an okay story, but not one that I would seek out. I did like the communication techniques that come into play towards the end, though, and the climax, despite a rather silly villain, is satisfying. (7)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-12-27

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