Asimov's Science Fiction

August 2011

Cover image

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 35, No. 8
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 112

The editorial this issue is about the Dell Magazines Award, so newsy without a lot of content (particularly since we don't get to read the winners). Silverberg's column is much more interesting, focusing on the complex rules of the honor code of the Albanian highlands and pointing out that there's more complexity and strangeness in things we can find on Earth than in a lot of science fiction. Even within the rules of real human cultures.

James Patrick Kelly's column this issue is an interesting summary of what graduates of the Clarion writing workshop learned, in their own words. It's a nice barrage of quick writing tips, and an interesting view of what people take away from a writing workshop. The book review column this issue is Peter Heck's normal workman-like job.

"The End of the Line" by Robert Silverberg: Someday, I really should read Lord Valentine's Castle. As you might guess from this comment, this is another Majipoor story. This one follows an official who is part of an advance party for the Coronal Lord, the ruler (of sorts). He's decided, as part of those duties, to take the opportunity to learn more about the aboriginal people of Majipoor: the somewhat mysterious metamorphs, or Piurivar.

I'm not that familiar with the history of Majipoor, since all I've read is this story and one other, none of the novels. Apparently, knowing that the official in question is named Stiamot will place this story for more familiar readers. For the unfamiliar, such as myself, there's a lot of politics here and what's clearly background for a major event in the world, but as a standalone story it's a bit unsatisfying (and grim). It's not that clear why things had to turn out the way they did, and the characters seem largely without agency. It's well-written, but mostly a story for fans of the series, I think. (6)

"Corn Teeth" by Melanie Tem: This is a tight third-person story about a human child raised by alien foster parents, and it's deeply disturbing. Not because of the fostering, which appears wonderful and loving, but because it's a train wreck sort of story: the reader can see the horrible coming and can't do anything about it (and it turns out even worse than one might expect). It's also a story built around failure of communication and failure of empathy, and has a monumentally depressing ending, the kind that leaves scars. I'm sure all of this is entirely intentional; it seems very well-written. But I really didn't want this much horrible misunderstanding and depressing hopelessness in my reading. (2)

"Watch Bees" by Philip Brewer: I rather liked this story even if the protagonist is an awful person. The story is set in a future of bioengineered insects and hard economic times, and it features a man who is supposedly working his way from farm to farm to get back home. What he's actually after is more complicated and is closely related to the defense systems that keep intruders off of farms. You might guess some of the rest from the title. It's a story about understanding layered defense systems, and about economic warfare. I didn't care much for any of the characters, but the story is well-plotted and kept me interested in seeing what would happen next. (6)

"For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stones of Loneliness and I'll Not Be Back Again" by Michael Swanwick: By Swanwick, so it's a little odd, but I found this story surprisingly moving and ambiguous. It's about an American of Irish descent, a trip to Ireland, and a love affair with a fierce Irish nationalist, all set against an SF background of an Earth conquered by benevolent aliens. It's angry, uncertain, fanatical, and realistic by turns, and left me with profound mixed feelings. I think it does a good job capturing in a brief story the emotional complexities of what it means to give onself to a cause. (7)

"We Were Wonder Scouts" by Will Ludwigsen: This is a short and odd story about a variant of the Boy Scouts founded by a man who is a little too obsessed with the paranormal, and an outing in the woods that turns rather creepy. It's a type of story that I'm not very fond of: one that twists the delight of discovery into something dark and mundane. I suppose you could call it horror; it's more horror than fantasy, at least. Anyway, not my thing. (3)

"Pairs" by Zachary Jernigan: This story, on the other hand, isn't as dark as it seems like it should be from the setup. Humans have been conquered and enslaved by more powerful alien races, and now human souls are a profitable business. The protagonist is a person who has been embodied in a spaceship, and who works with (and monitors) another largely insane embodied person as they work as couriers, carrying souls to their buyers. But neither of them are as fully under control as they might appear, which is the point of the story. There is no grand tale of redemption, and the price is high, but I found the psychological portrayal oddly satisfying and faintly hopeful, and I was intrigued by the world background. (7)

"Paradise is a Walled Garden" by Lisa Goldstein: The cover story, this is by far the best story of the issue. It's steampunk, set in a world where Muslim civilization was not pressed back by Christianity and continues to thrive into the reign of Queen Elizabeth as, among other things, makers of automata. A girl has managed to get herself a job in a British factory by posing as a boy and is the first to sound the alarm when the automata that do most of the work go strangely (and violently) haywire. That leads to her being assigned to the subsequent delegation to Al-Andulus (Muslim Spain, if you're not familiar with that name from history).

The protagonist is the best part of this story. She's thoughtful, resourceful, and delights in learning things, something that she's rarely had the opportunity to do. She's also utterly unintimidated. In Al-Andulus, she thrives, despite the contempt of the leader of the expedition and some dangerous intrigues around the source of the anomalous behavior. I won't spoil the ending, but it's a delight, leaving the reader with a lot of hope for her future. I also liked the portrayal of the Muslim world, which is engrossed in its own business and has its own advantages and disadvantages, but is at least open to and focused on learning and technological development. The contrast with the superstitious British delegation is both pointed and historically grounded in Muslim relations with Europe around the point of divergence of Goldstein's world. (8)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-11-04

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