Asimov's Science Fiction

April/May 2011

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 35, No. 4 & 5
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 192

Williams's editorial this issue is about the tendency of SF to take a rose-colored view of the world, which on the surface seems odd given the tendency of recent SF towards dystopia. But she makes a good point that the portrayal of the past is rose-colored, linking that into the current steampunk trend. She doesn't take the argument quite as far as I'd like, but I'm glad to see editorials raising points like this. I'm inclined to think that a lot of the rose-colored frame of the past is because few of us want to read about real historic conditions at any length, even for edification, because the stench and discomfort isn't fun to read about.

Silverberg's column is another discussion of programmatic plot generators, which mostly makes the point that plot ideas are the easy part of writing. James Gunn contributes an extended biography of Isaac Asimov that probably won't be new to long-time genre readers but may fill in some details (although it politely sticks to mostly flattering material). Spinrad's book review column is one of his better ones; it looks at two novels by China MiƩville and two by Ian McDonald and explores differences in world-building. Spinrad predictably makes the case in favor of science fiction with rules and against the New Weird, but the discussion along the way was worth reading.

"The Day the Wires Came Down" by Alexander Jablokov: Speaking of steampunk, here's an example. There is even an airship, although the primary technological focus is suspended street cars. Jablokov postulates a city-wide transportation network of suspended carriages called telpher cars, along with a city built around the telpher cables: stores on roofs, windows displaying merchandise to passing cars, and even a history of heated competition and dirty tricks between competing telpher networks. The story is set, as the title would indicate, on the last day of the network. It's being shut down for cost, with some hints that progress is destroying something precious.

There is a plot here, revolving around some mysteries of the history of the telpher network and the roles of several people in that history. But the story is primarily a celebration of old technology. It's a rail fan's story recast with a steampunk technology, featuring the same mix of fascination with mechanics and a sense that the intricate details are falling out of common knowledge (and perhaps usefulness). As a story, it's a bit slow-moving, but I enjoyed the elegiac tone. (7)

"An Empty House with Many Doors" by Michael Swanwick: This is a very short story, more of an emotional profile, involving a man's reaction to the death of his wife. Oh, and parallel universes. It's sort of the inverse of Niven's classic "All the Myriad Ways." Similar to Niven's story, I found the idea vaguely interesting but the conclusion and emotional reaction unbelievable and alien. (5)

"The Homecoming" by Mike Resnick: Resnick tends to yank on the heart-strings rather sharply in his stories, so I knew roughly what to expect when a father comes home to find his son is visiting. A son who, rather against his father's wishes, has been significantly altered to be able to live with aliens. Throw in a mother with serious dementia, and you can probably predict what Resnick does with this. Still, most of the story is a two-sided conversation, and I thought he succeeded in doing justice to both sides, even though one of them was destined to lose. (6)

"North Shore Friday" by Nick Mamatas: Illegal Greek immigrants, a family-run system for getting them married off before the INS catch them, government psi probes and eavesdropping on thoughts, joint projects between computer and religion departments, secret government experiments, and even ghosts... this story is a complex mess, with numerous thoughts stuck into small boxes and scattered through the surface story. It's one of those stories where figuring out what's going on, and even how to read the story in a sensible way, is much of the fun. If you find that fun, that is; if not, it will probably be frustrating. I wished there was a bit more plot, but there's something delightful about how much stuff Mamatas packs into it. (6)

"Clockworks" by William Preston: This is a prequel to Preston's earlier "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down". Like that story, it's primarily a pulp adventure, but layered with another level of analysis and thoughtfulness that tries to embed the pulp adventure in our understanding of human behavior and the nature of the world, although this one stays a bit more pulp than its predecessor. As with Preston's other story, we don't get directly in the head of the Old Man (here, just called the man, but identifiable from clues in both stories as Doc Savage); instead, the protagonist is a former villain named Simon Lukic who the man hopes to have fixed by operating on his brain. The undercurrent that lies beneath a more typical pulp adventure is the question of whether Lukic is actually healed. I think there was a bit too much daring-do and human perfection, but it's a perfectly servicable pulp story with some depth. (6)

"The Fnoor Hen" by Rudy Rucker: If you've read any of Rucker's work before, you probably know what to expect: a mind-boggling blizzard of mathematically-inspired technobabble that turns into vaguely coherent surrealism. (You can probably tell that I'm not much of a fan, although the clear good humor in these stories makes it hard to dislike them too much.) There's a mutated chicken and some sort of alternate mathematical space and then something that seems like magic... I'd be lying if I said that I followed this story. If you like Rucker, this seems like the sort of thing that you'd like. (4)

"Smoke City" by Christopher Barzak: At the start of this story, I thought it was going to be an emotional parable about immigration. The progatonist lives two lives: one in our world, and one in the Smoke City of industry, a world of hard labor, pollution, and little reward, with families in both. But nearly all of the story is set within Smoke City, and the parable turns out to be a caustic indictment of industry and its exploitation of labor. I kind of wish Barzak hadn't used rape as a metaphor, but when the captains of industry show up, I can't argue with how deeply and accurately the story shoves in the knife. There isn't much subtlety here, but it's still one of the better stories in this issue. (7)

"A Response from EST17" by Tom Purdom: I'm very happy to see Purdom's writing appearing regularly. His stories are always quiet and matter-of-fact, and at first seem to miss emotional zest, but they almost always grow on me. He lets the reader fill in their own emotional reactions to events, and there's always a lot going on.

This story is a first-contact story, except that the "humans" here are not human at all. They're automated probes sent by two separate human civilizations, with different programming and different governance algorithms, and they quickly start competing negotiations. The aliens they've discovered similarly have factions, who start talking to the different probes in an elaborate dance of gathering information without giving too much away. The twist is that this pattern has replayed itself many times in the past, and information itself can be a weapon. I enjoyed this one from start to finish. (7)

"The One That Got Away" by Esther M. Friesner: Friesner is best known, at least to me, for humorous fantasy, and this story is advertised as such from early on. The first-person protagonist is a prostitute in a seaside town. She's bemused to finally be invited over by a sailor who's been eyeing her all evening, but that sailor has something else in mind than normal business. For much of this story, the fantasy element is unclear; when it finally comes, it was an amusing twist. (7)

"The Flow and Dream" by Jack Skillingstead: This is a mildly interesting variation on the old SF story of hibernating humans (on a generation ship or elsewhere) waking up to a transformed world. Here, it's not a ship, it's a planet, and the hiberation was to wait for terraforming rather than for transit. The twist comes from an excessively literal computer and the fun of putting together the pieces. Sadly, the story trails off at the end without much new to say. (5)

"Becalmed" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: "Becalmed" takes place immediately before "Becoming One with the Ghosts" and explains the incident that created the situation explored in that story. The first-person protagonist of "Becalmed" is a linguist, an expert in learning alien languages so that the Fleet can understand the civilizations that it runs across. But something went horribly wrong at their last stop, something that she's largely suppressed, and now she's confined to quarters and possibly in deep trouble. As is the ship; they're in foldspace, and they have been for days.

"Becalmed" is structed like a mystery, centered around recovering the protagonist's memories. It's also a bit of a legal procedural; the ship is trying to determine what to do with her and to what degree she's responsible. But the heart of the story is a linguistic and cultural puzzle.

This is another great SF story from Rusch, whose name on a cover will make me eager to start reading a new magazine. I love both angles on the universe she's built, but I think I like the Fleet even better than the divers. The Fleet captures some of the magic of the original Star Trek, but with much more mature characters, more believable situations, and a more sensible and nuanced version of the Prime Directive. Rusch writes substantial, interesting plots that hold my interest. I'd love to see more like this. (8)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-01-11

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