Magazine review: Asimov’s, vol 32 no. 4/5, April/May 2008 (ed. Sheila Williams)

ASFAPRMAY2008

(Dell Magazines, ISSN 1065-2698)

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

This double issue of Asimov’s contains one novella, three novelettes and seven short stories. It also includes several poems and regular non-fiction features; my pdf package included only the fiction, and so I’ve restricted my review to the eleven stories that comprise this issue.

“Memory Dog” by Kathleen Ann Goonan is a novelette of grief, conflict and hope, seen through the eyes of a dog who remembers being human. Certain of the story’s assumptions and conceits grated for me in the first few pages, but it won me over: it’s an understated, measured, obliquely haunting tale.

In “Slidin’”, Neal Barrett, Jr. presents a post-apocalyptic Texas populated by Simpson’s-style mutants: Laureen’s sister is frog-shaped, her brother has two heads and her granddad appears to be simply a large foot. Laureen herself is more ‘normal’ in appearance, but what passes for normality in a post-apocalyptic world? I found this story a bit too extreme, too fantastical for the plot it carried, though Barrett’s written Texan accenting is beguiling enough.

Robert Reed’s “The House Left Empty” opens with the attempted delivery of an important package to a former inhabitant of a small suburban enclave. This is a quiet, reflective story exploring the choices made within a near-future society which places a greater value on comfort than progress.

“An Almanac for the Alien Invaders” by Merrie Haskell is an intriguing short story prophesying a year in an alien campaign to conquer and assimilate Earth. It’s written in a combination of present and future tenses, an effect which comes across as a bit gimmicky, and which doesn’t aid in suspension of disbelief; but despite this, and despite the stereotypical tendencies of the alien invaders – one race is largely humanoid, the other is squidlike – the plight, and the choices, of the disenfranchised anthropology professor who provides the viewpoint are presented in a clear and quite satisfying manner.

In “An Art, like Everything Else,” by Nick Wolven, Tim is haunted by the virtual presence of his dead lover, Dominic. There are some interesting analogies drawn here between ghosts and the persistence of memory, and the story is nicely constructed, but overall it’s suffused with a slightly undefined air that may or may not be intentional.

P. Somtow’s novelette, “An Alien Heresy”, juxtaposes an alien visitant with a priest of the Inquisition, in 14th century France. It’s an interesting spin on the age-old conflict between science and religion, and the principal character – Lenclud, the priest – is particularly well-drawn as a troubled, fallible human seeking to follow a set of rules to which he cannot always adhere. This story came with a warning of ‘disturbing scenes’, which is something I’ve not encountered previously in the literature: there is some gore, but it’s certainly not exceptional and doesn’t get in the way of a well-told tale.

“Ghost Town” by Catherine Wells revolves around Kaye, a time-lapsed astronaut returned from an interstellar flight to a world that has assumed her to be dead. The idea of temporal dislocation following spaceflight is an old one, and the treatment here is hardly new, but it’s honest and moving nonetheless.

“Strangers When We Meet” is another novelette, by Kate Wilhelm. Rebecca Hardesty is injured in the same car accident that kills her mother and brother; but her injuries include recurrent amnesia. She falls under the care of a brain-science specialist, Edith Dreissler who comes to care deeply for Rebecca’s wellbeing while also appreciating her unique value as a brain-science test subject. Dr. Dreissler’s experiments with Rebecca are benign and well-intentioned, but there are others who view the young amnesiac in a more ruthless fashion. Wilhelm’s writing is quietly, efficiently revelatory, she handles multiple viewpoints extremely well, and produces here a highly infectious, but perhaps not cutting-edge, story of memory, values, and painful choices.

Matthew Johnson’s “Another Country” explores the dislocation experienced by ‘prefugees’ (fugitives from past time) who emerge, through rifts in time, in modern-day Ottawa. Geoff (a prefugee himself, originally named Galfridius) is a counsellor seeking to ease the transition for the broken families of ancient Romans who find themselves having to adjust to a completely different set of societal rules. The conflict between ‘new’ and ‘old’ makes for some painful choices for Geoff, who has adjusted well to modern-day society but is acutely aware that many of his erstwhile compatriots have not.

“The Advocate” by Barry B. Longyear is a short first-person tale of a writer suffering a debilitating medical condition (essentially a form of creeping, irreversible amnesia), who turns to memory duplication and transfer (to a cultured ‘meat suit’) in hope of (a) concentrating on his writing and (b) allowing his duplicated self to help find a cure for his condition. The problem is, this division of labour isn’t entirely acceptable to the other party … it’s an effective enough story, though it didn’t grip me strongly.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s novella “The Room of Lost Souls” rounds out the issue’s fiction. It’s a detailed description of a dangerous mission to a mysterious space habitat, ostensibly to recover the remains of a long-lost war hero. Rusch expertly piles on stratum after stratum of tension, though there were elements both of the plot (which paid too much attention to the horror and not enough to the science aspects, for my taste) and of the writing (which, in my opinion, had too many subsidiary clauses elevated to sentence status) that irritated me. Still, it’s a highly atmosphere-laden story, and follows on from at least one other (“Diving Into the Wreck”) in which Rusch has used this principal character.

In summary, there’s such a focus on memory and the past in all of the stories assembled here that it has me wondering whether this was a themed issue. Then again, those are natural enough topics for spec-fic; and in the absence of the issue’s editorial (not included in my PDF package) I can’t say whether the grouping here is thematic or not. What I can say is that this is a reasonably solid collection of SF, much of which I found rewarding to read, with “Memory Dog” and “Another Country” the highlights for me, though the Somtow and Wilhelm novelettes and several of the other short stories are also well worth it.

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