Asimov's Science Fiction

March 2011

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 35, No. 3
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 112

This issue has a better-than-average editorial looking at Neal Barrett, Jr.; it's a reproduction of a speech given by Williams when he was named the SFWA Author Emeritus. Barrett isn't one of my favorite writers, but I like writer profiles in general. I wish Asimov's would publish more like this.

Silverberg's column looks at a remarkably silly device to generate fiction plots. Paul Di Filippo has an unusually good book review column looking at the publications of NESFA (but only scratching the surface — more of this, please!). But the non-fiction highlight of the issue is James Patrick Kelly's column, which takes an interesting if brief look at the idea that online interaction causes changes in how we think.

"Clean" by John Kessel: Alzheimer's, its effects, and possible cures show up from time to time in science fiction stories (unsurprising, as it's much on the mind of people in general), but I found the ideas in this take particularly haunting. Kessel postulates an Alzheimer's cure by, effectively, amputation: selective purging of large parts of the memory will apparently often halt the further spread of the disease. The story is told from the perspective of the victim's daughter and, as one might expect, becomes more about family, loss, and change than about the (mostly handwaved) details of the cure.

The approach is emotionally effective since it retains one of the primary horrors of Alzheimer's for loved ones (loss of memory and therefore loss of reciprocal feeling), while still arresting the disease and, at least arguably, significantly improving life for the sufferer. Given the idea, the story follows predictable paths, but the concept carries a lot of emotional momentum. The cure itself requires some suspension of disbelief, though; the chances such a tactic would be effective seem remote. (6)

"Where" by Neal Barrett, Jr.: I'm glad other people enjoy Barrett's work, but it's always been too surreal for me. This is no exception: setting, character, and plot are all very unclear. The author's note before the story says that Barrett wanted to leave quite a bit unexplained and let the reader fill in. What we get to work with are a set of childlike... somethings (except that they have sex, maybe?), living unremarked days in a decidedly strange world featuring museums with misspelled words, deliveries of newly-created people, and a wall marked with the names of the four known stars. I could sort of puzzle out an underlying theme about learning and growth, but it was a stretch. Mostly incomprehensible. (3)

"I Was Nearly Your Mother" by Ian Creasey: The setup was interesting: a teenage girl whose mother died some years ago is surprised by a near-double of her mother turning up at the door of her house while her grandparents are away. The woman is her mother from an alternate timeline in which she never had children but didn't die. Unfortunately, from there the story goes places that I thought were obvious and telegraphed. The mother immediately attempts blatant emotional manipulation hiding textbook insecurity, the narration hammers the point home in case the reader misses it, and the daughter falls victim to the manipulation even though she knows what's happening. The concluding moral (and it does feel like a moral) isn't bad, but it isn't very deep either. (4)

"God in the Sky" by An Owomoyela: Thankfully, this story is a significant improvement. A mysterious light appears in the night sky, so huge that it's apparently close, and yet galaxies are seen to pass in front of it. It's a startling, and immediately globally visible, astronomic puzzle. Owomoyela's take on the idea is not a hard-SF puzzle story but rather a look at the reactions of individual people to the light, focusing on a particular family. Those reactions run the gambit from refusal to let the light change anything to rediscovery of childhood religions and carpe diem impulsiveness. It's not the sort of story that reaches conclusions, but I liked the range of thoughtful human reaction, avoiding sensationalism. (7)

"Movement" by Nancy Fulda: The first-person narrator is a child with a very unusual way of seeing and interacting with the world, focused on time and a sense of connectedness to the flow of the world in a way that makes it almost impossible for her to communicate. (Comparisons with autism will spring immediately to mind, although her thought processes and reactions are not at all like autism in their details.) Her parents have the option to subject her to an experimental treatment and are struggling with the decision. The narrator also struggles with it, but in parallel, unable to communicate her thoughts on the subject. The story is by turns fascinating and heart-breaking. (7)

"The Most Important Thing in the World" by Steve Bein: For a change of pace, this is a light-hearted story in the sub-genre of "average person comes across advanced technology and has to decide how to use it." In this case, the technology is a suit that allows the wearer to stop time. The catch is that there's a price: time is conserved, so the gained time has to be lost again later. The person is a cabbie without a firm grasp of ethics, who starts experimenting with the suit and then learns the story of its inventor.

I suppose the cabbie has to be unethical to make the story work, but that's the part that bothered me the most. Since he's the viewpoint character, I wanted to like him, but his casual willingness to ruin several people's lives, as well as the disconnect between his sense of morals and the clear moral implications of his actions, bothered me throughout. But apart from that, the scientific idea is neat and the story occasionally provoked a smile. (6)

"Lost in the Memory Palace, I Found You" by Nick Wolven: Wolven here postulates a future in which the pace of life has become so frantic and change has become so constant that people frequently undergo memory breakdowns and forget large swaths of their life. The narrator normally copes with this, but he's having fragmentary memories of a woman who fills him with hope, and he's determined to try to recover the full memory and find that hope again. He bribes a government data analyst to try to track down the origin of his memory.

The story does a good job capturing the sense of frightening instability that comes with a high pace of change even though the details are not horribly realistic. I particularly liked the constantly-changing corporate structures. But it's also deeply depressing and almost nihilistic in its failure to find answers. Interesting, but the emotional tone was off-putting. (6)

"Purple" by Robert Reed: A solid, high-quality Reed story, which for regular readers of short SF is probably all you need to know. The story is primarily set in a sort of recovery and rehabilitation facility run by a mysterious god-like being that may be some sort of computer, may be some sort of alien, or may be something else. The inhabitants are people, but seriously damaged people in one way or another. Reed says in his introduction that the story was inspired by a raptor recovery center, and I think he captures the combination of mercy, care, strangeness, and necessarily distortive conditions extremely well.

Some parts of the story are very disturbing (humans as essentially pets, an attitude towards sex that is somewhat more like animals than we expect of normal human behavior, and a moment of nasty brutality), but the overall arc is surprisingly empowering. Reed often puts an unexpected twist in the ending of his stories, but usually that twist has a barb. Here, it's a twist of unexpected freedom. Probably the best story of the issue. (8)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-07-14

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