Magazine review: Asimov’s, vol 32 no. 2, February 2008 (ed. Sheila Williams)

Asffeb2008

(Dell Magazines, ISSN 1065-2698)

(Review first published on the Australian Specfic in Focus website, April 2008)

This issue of Asimov’s contains seven pieces of fiction, including the final chapters of a serialised novel, Galaxy Blues, for which I’ve provided an overall review below. It also includes several poems and regular non-fiction features, not reviewed here.

Michael Swanwick’s “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” is, in several places, too post-modern for its own good. It’s interrupted by not only diagrammatic representations of alien sign-language, but also by too many parenthetical asides from the story’s narrator, a human-personality-imbued survival suit doing its best to ferry a human survivor to safety in the aftermath of a hostile missile attack on an alien settlement. Yet it’s a testament to Swanwick’s skill as a craftsman of words that he rounds everything off well in a story that leaves just enough unexplored to leave the reader wanting more.

“Sex and Violence” by Nancy Kress is a two-page flash piece providing a wider context for the terrestrial pattern of meiotic reproduction. Its delivery is amusing enough, carrying as it does the hint of much behind-the-scenes activity.

“The Ray-Gun: A Love Story”, by James Alan Gardner, is a sardonic story of the events that follow the discovery, by 14-year-old Jack, of an alien ray-gun in an impact crater among the deserted woodlands surrounding his home town. Gardner’s writing is efficient and blackly humorous, and carries us nicely through Jack’s unconventional coming-of-age and ultimate redemption with some understated pot-shots at superherodom. It’s a story that seems both tough and tender, told with evident compassion for Jack and the people around him, but with an engaging, almost unflinching frankness. One of the issue’s highlights.

“The Egg Man” by Mary Rosenblum is a haunting, seemingly post-apocalyptic tale set in the Sonoran desert. Zipakna is a Mexican charity worker who makes an annual pilgrimage into the U.S. desert, delivering hen eggs with tailored pharmaceutical enhancements, all the time searching for something he knows he isn’t going to find. His visit to a doomed settlement leads to a chance encounter with a young boy, Daren, whose features are oddly recognisable. This ranks as perhaps the issue’s most powerful, most poignant story.

“Inside the Box” by Edward M. Lerner is a short riff on the quantum mechanics set-piece of Schrodinger’s Cat. The Cat is a physics cliché; it’s difficult to find something genuinely new to say on the subject, and Lerner’s lecture-room tale seems somewhat cluttered, bearing a couple of trailing strands that aren’t followed to their ends. It’s also, to my mind, unnecessarily info-dumpish.

John Kessel’s “The Last American” is a fictionalised biography of a monomaniacal figure who dominates the evolution of twenty-first-century American society. As an exercise in dystopic prediction, it’s reasonably well-drawn, but (perhaps because the protagonist is so unlikable) I found it curiously lacking in its ability to unsettle.

The issue is rounded out by the final instalment of Allen M. Steele’s novel Galaxy Blues. The novel, set in Steele’s ‘Coyote’ universe, concerns the exploits on one fugitive, Jules Truffaut, who falls in with a scheming financier’s plan to exploit a trade shipment to the alien hjadd homeworld. Needless to say, the aliens have an agenda of their own …

I’ve read one of Steele’s previous ‘Coyote’ novels, I think, but it was a long time ago (at least a decade).  Galaxy Blues seems sufficiently self-contained that prior knowledge of the preceding books doesn’t appear crucial, although events in Spindrift, to which Galaxy Blues is a direct sequel, are referenced several times.

The story is told in first person, narrated through Jules’ viewpoint. This allows for the ready dissemination of information we’re likely to require to follow the story – Jules tells us what we need to know, and how he feels about it – but it conveys a certain flatness of tone. To my mind, there’s insufficient contrast among the developing events, with the result that the reader’s engagement in the story is somewhat muted (at least, that’s how it was for me). But while I could wish that Steele’s showed a defter hand with developing tension and character empathy, the plot is well-organised and falls in a relatively natural-seeming division into the four equal-length subsections in which the overall work has been serialised. Ultimately, the ending satisfies (but doesn’t reveal any major surprises), and the story holds together well enough, in a kind of modern-tinged, classic golden-aged pulp SF kind of style. If that’s your preferred style, then Galaxy Blues is probably worth a read.

Overall, I’d class this as a reasonably good issue. The Swanwick, Gardner and Rosenblum pieces are all strong and memorable, and the remaining fiction is interesting enough. There’s sufficient variety of content that most spec-fic readers are likely to find something worth taking away from this issue’s pages.

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