Review: Asimov’s Magazine, December 2016

27 02 2017

This issue contains three novelettes, two short stories, and one novella—and that, curiously enough, is the order in which they occur in the magazine. My reactions to them follow.

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First, the novelettes:

In ‘They All Have One Breath’, by Karl Bunker, the singularity has arrived, which means that by the time James and Lisa get around to thinking it would be nice to have a baby, the Powers-That-Be—ostensibly benign, all-powerful AIs—might have other priorities. This is an effective and moving piece that makes its quietly chilling point without too much tubthumping.

‘Empty Shoes by the Lake’, by Gay Partington Terry, is so short—just seven pages—that I very strongly suspect it’s been miscategorised and is, in fact, a short story (i.e., < 7500 words). It’s an appealing enough coming-of-age story of two Appalacian loners whose paths seem a little too obviously destined to reconverge.

Gregory Norman Bossert’s ‘HigherWorks’ is a cyberpunkish tale which sees Dyer, onetime Oakland nano designer, a fugitive in London, looking to escape her past while creating a future for techno ravers. This one didn’t work for me at all—while it’s impressively detailed and riffs off a couple of intriguing ideas, it’s the detail and the busy-ness that drags it nearly to a standstill while it should be crackling with cyberpunk fizz.

The two short stories:

‘How the Damned Live On’, by James Sallis, is a dreamlike, deceptive flash piece that springs a quiet surprise.

In Kali Wallace’s ‘The Cold Side of the Island’ (which at eleven magazine pages might in truth, I suspect, be the issue’s third novelette), Lacie misses the funeral of Jesse, the childhood friend with whom, twenty-five years ago, she discovered a mysterious body—not a human body, but not exactly animal either—in the cold Massachusetts woods. This is an intriguing character study that deals effectively with the unknowable.

The novella, ‘Where There Is Nothing, There Is God’, by David Erik Nelson, sees Paul, an ex-meth-user and struggling actor, co-opted into a time-travel scheme that involves travelling two-and-a-half centuries into the past to trade crystal meth for rare silverware. It’s obvious that, somewhere along the line, this is going to cross into train-wreck territory, but Nelson keeps us guessing as to how in a story that strikes just the right line between ‘serious’ and ‘unhinged’.

The strongest stories here are those by Bunker, Nelson, and Wallace.





Review: Asimov’s Magazine, October / November 2016

23 02 2017

This is a double issue of Asimov’s (although I understand this size is about to become the ‘new normal’, as the magazine reduces in frequency from ten issues per year to six larger issues). It would also appear to be the mag’s Halloween issue for the year, since it’s labelled ‘Special Slightly Spooky Issue’. It has four short stories and four novelettes—i.e., about a typical issue’s worth—bookended by a pair of novellas. (Plus, of course, all the other usual issue contents, which I’ll excise from this review.)

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‘The Forgotten Taste of Honey’, a novella by Alexander Jablokov, posits a society in which one’s regional gods demand the return of any travelling citizens’ bodies to home turf, should they die away from home. Tromvi is a trader, looking to make it home very much alive–but she needs to find the appropriate corpses to safeguard her passage. This is a richly imagined second-world fantasy story: it’s an impressive example of its kind, but it didn’t really strike a chord with me.

Octavia Cade’s pittoresque novelette ‘Eating Science with Ghosts’ is, perhaps, less a story than a prose poem, with the narrator holding a globetrotting nine-course meal for a series of ghost scientists. There’s plenty of mood, and detail, and reflection; it never quite transforms into a tale, as such, but it manages to convey depths nonetheless.

In Sandra McDonald’s ‘The People In The Building’, an ancient horror lurks, waiting to pick off the workers on an office building’s various levels. This is a somewhat insubstantial story with a good line in horror-movie-grade suspense.

The ‘Wretched’ in Michael Libling’s novelette ‘Wretched the Romantic’ is Richard, a weathergirl-obsessed no-hoper whose (non-weather)girlfriend dumps him on the afternoon he botches an ash-scattering task for an elderly widow. That’s not the only, nor even the most dramatic, way in which his life changes as a result of that day. This is a black comedy with a deliciously bad attitude and an enviable sense of pacing.

Rich Larson’s ‘Water Scorpions’ is a compact little study in first-contact grotesquerie, well-executed and grim, though somewhat elusive.

In Will Ludwigsen’s novelette ‘The Leaning Lincoln’, Scott, the ten-year-old narrator, lives in fear of his violent and unpredictable father. When Scott’s father’s friend Henry presents the boy with a home-cast and misshapen figurine of Abe Lincoln to add to his toy-soldier collection, it initially seems like a good thing in a life too-often beset by bad. But things start going wrong in unpredictable ways, and Scott becomes convinced that the figurine is cursed. This is an effective and moving coming-of-age tale.

In ‘Lucite’, by Susan Palwick, tech geek Andrew is on a guided tour of Hell when he finds a display of lucite ‘souls-of-the-damned’ paperweights in the tenth circle gift shop. He buys one on a whim and then sets out to find out more about the old man whose soul his paperweight contains. It’s wistful and tense.

I had to check that Dominica Phetteplace’s novelette ‘Project Extropy’ actually had a different title than her July Asimov’s offering (nx, if you wish to be formulaic about it); it is, at any rate, a continuation of, or a companion to, the July piece (and there are, I understand, a few other iterations in earlier issues, which I haven’t sighted since my subscription only commenced with July). This one focusses on Akira, the seer whom Angelica contacted in the earlier story. These are, it would seem, the various facets of an upcoming mosaic novel by Phetteplace, and it does indeed read as an extract from a novel: while the characterisation is vivid and the extrapolation interesting, it didn’t entirely resonate as a story for me.

‘When Grandfather Returns’, by S N Dyer, is a triumph: a timecrossing multigenerational story that starts with Thunder Cries’ relentless tricksterism and finishes with a phantasmal incursion that sees retired professor Strong Horse and his disrespectful great-grandson Dylan unite against a foe from the past.

Michael Blumlein’s novella ‘Choose Poison, Choose Life’ rounds out the issue. Violet has travelled to the seaside tourist spot, Villa Gardenia, to take her own life, but another tourist, Shep, fights to talk her out of it. Violet’s fate is linked, metaphorically, with the separate stories of Daisy and Rose, two women who have somehow been marooned on the two offshore islands Violet can see from the beach. This is one of the issue’s strongest stories.

As (loosely) themed issues go, this isn’t a bad one overall (though I reckon Asimov’s is a shade better when it isn’t looking to maintain a dark theme throughout). Forced to pick favourites, I’d opt for ‘Choose Poison, Choose Life’, ‘When Grandfather Returns’, and ‘Wretched the Romantic’ as the issue’s highlights.





Review: Asimov’s Magazine, September 2016

29 01 2017

This issue has three short stories and four novelettes (which I’ve reviewed below) as well as several poems and the regular nonfic pieces (which I haven’t reviewed).

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In Carrie Vaughn’s novelette ‘The Mind Is Its Own Place’, starship navigator Mitchell Greenau finds himself in medical/psychiatric care when his vocation catches up with him, in the form of OSDS, a disorienting and sometimes psychosis-inducing disorder brought on by the physically subversive mathematics underpinning jumpspace calculations. The medics tell Mitchell he should trust them, rather than his own mind … but then they would say that, wouldn’t they? This is a claustrophobic, in-your-face, reflective piece that quite gets under the reader’s skin.

‘Dome on the Prairie’, by Robert Reed, reimagines Little House on the Prairie as an alien invasion piece, which works better than it might sound.

‘Epitome’, a novelette by Tegan Moore, takes on identity dilemmas and recuperative medical themes in a manner quite different to Vaughn’s story. Shelby has elected to provide home care for the seriously-injured Vivian, her roommate and friend, but Vivian is not as mentally responsive as she was before the accident. When Shelby seeks to ‘improve’ Vivian’s Personify avatar, to recapture something of the Vivian it seems she’s lost, things snowball. The characterisation in Moore’s story is impressive, though I didn’t feel it quite matched the searing brutality of Vaughn’s piece.

Peter Wood’s ‘Academic Circles’ pits English Lit associate professor (and Philip K Dick aficionado) Kate Warner against her plagiaristic colleague Thomas Marzano, who has somehow managed to predictively steal her latest manuscript. Wood’s story doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it gets the academic politics pretty well spot-on.

Jack Skillingstead’s novelette ‘All That Mess’ also starts with a University background, as combinatorial topology lecturer Dunn is presented, by one of the students attending his lectures, with a fascinatingly-incomplete formula he is asked to resolve. Problem is, completing the formula initiates a decidedly suboptimal sequence of paradigm shifts, which Dunn is the only person able to correct—if he can do so before the monsters he’s unleashed finish off him and his newfound romantic interest. This is an enjoyable and effective piece which doesn’t address anything too profound, but which sustains reader engagement nicely.

In ‘All That Robot’, by Rich Larson, we see events through the photoreceptors of Carver Seven, stranded on an island with several others of his kind and with one sole outcast human. If Reed’s story is Little House on the Prairie meets Space Invaders, Larson’s is Lord of the Flies with robots, and it’s satisfyingly resonant.

Ian R MacLeod’s novelette ‘The Visitor from Taured’ rounds out the issue’s fiction. I’ve noticed several times that Sheila Williams, Asimov’s editor, tends to choose stories with at least one eye to how they interact with each other, and ‘Taured’, which again evolves out of a University opening, effectively plays off the disciplines of English lit (the narrator Lita is a student of noninteractive analogue literature, ie books) and multiverse theory (her close friend Rob Holm is an astrophysicist who hopes to prove the validity of the budding-universe hypothesis) against each other, thereby juxtaposing the themes of the preceding stories by Wood and Skillingstead. This is a well-realised story that unfolds slowly but finishes strongly.

This is a pretty strong issue, and though I felt a couple of the stories had some flaws, they all held up pretty well: there are some missed opportunities, maybe, but no wasted space. My favourites here are those by Vaughn, Larson, and MacLeod.





Review: Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, August 2016

25 01 2017

The August issue has three novelettes and four short stories. (Plus, of course, poetry and nonfic, which I’ll exclude from review.)

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Sean Monaghan’s story ‘Wakers’ takes place on a shipful of sleeping colonists on a hundred-and-fifty year voyage to the planet Eden. But a problem damages the ship’s systems, throwing it off course and forcing the ship’s AI to rouse some of the sleepers so as to maintain life support and other essentials: bound for a much more distant star as the resources dwindle, it becomes, in effect, an accidental generation ship. The most recent generation has been the lonely and aging Grayson. When it comes time to waken his replacement, he’s faced with a choice: should he revive someone with the ideal technical skills to handle the situation, or should he waken his beloved Patty, now forty years his junior after that much more coldsleep? I liked the setup in this one, and I’m a fan of Monaghan’s writing—I chose his novelette ‘Double Team’ for ASIM 61—but I wasn’t ultimately convinced by the denouement, for which I felt the case hadn’t properly been made.

‘Toppers’, a novelette by Jason Sanford, plays out in a New York City rendered almost unrecognisable by urban decay and the pall of soul-stealing mist that hugs the ground. Hanger is a scout, willing to brave the mists to journey between the skyscrapers that are now the city’s sole refuges, but wherever she goes she hears the words of her dead mother calling from the mist. This is an imaginative piece, with plausible characterisation, but I just wasn’t able to buy into its underlying pretext.

James Alan Gardner’s ‘The Mutants Men Don’t See’ is a delightful riff on the genesis of superheroes, as concerned mother Ellie Lee tries to save her teenage son Liam from the recklessness he believes will trigger the dormant superpowers that he’s convinced he possesses. This is the second time I’ve encountered Gardner in the pages of an Asimov’s issue; the other occasion, his Feb. 2008 story ‘The Ray-Gun: A Love Story’, was also a highlight of its issue.

‘Kit: Some Assembly Required’, by Kathe Koja and Carter Sholz, is a dense and descriptive story in which Christopher Marlowe—or an AI believing itself to be he—awakens within the confines of a powerful computer. The evocation of the machine intellect is effective, as is the channelling of Marlowe, but it didn’t strike that much of a chord with me.

Matthew Claxton’s novelette ‘Patience Lake’ follows cyborg ex-soldier Casey as he seeks to find a way north through unfriendly countryside to the comparative safety of Saskatoon. He’s helped by widow Sandra, who gives him shelter on her farm for a few days while he repairs himself from injury, but not all of the locals are so accommodating. This is a well-told story of optimism in the most difficult circumstances.

In ‘Kairos’, by Sieren Damsgaard Ernst, the protagonist finds herself caught between history and science, as she strives to reconcile her former husband’s appreciation of Charlemagne’s relics with her present husband’s endeavours to foster indefinite life extension. This is a thoughtful riff on one of SF’s archetropes, all the more impressive since it’s apparently Ernst’s first published story.

Sandra McDonald’s intriguingly-titled novelette, ‘President John F Kennedy, Astronaut’, does what it says on the tin. This alternate future history (or should that be future alternate history?) doesn’t take itself too seriously, but manages at the appropriate times to be busy, and funny, and poignant.

The standout, for me, in this issue is Gardner’s story, though I enjoyed most of the rest as well.





Review: Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 2016

22 01 2017

I’ve had some recent issues of Asimov’s sitting in my TBR pile for awhile now; the announcement that Hugo nominations have opened has spurred me to make a start on working through them.

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The July issue contains four novelettes and four short stories (as well as poetry and nonfic, which I won’t review here):

In Suzanne Palmer’s novelette ‘Ten Poems for the Mossums, One for the Man’, poet Davin Gordon-Fauci takes a sabbatical as the sole human inhabitant/observer on Ekye, a technology-bereft world home to a rich and mysterious ecosystem. Working with an Underwood manual typewriter and sustained only by occasional drops of supplies from orbit, Davin struggles to find both his muse and an understanding of Ekye’s biota, particularly its ‘mossums’: moss-encrusted rocks that seem, when no-one is watching, to shift position against the landscape. Though some of Davin’s poems seem, to put it mildly, a bit naff, this is a gentle, strong story that moves to a rewarding close.

If the first story has a kind of neo-pastoral tone with a deliberate paucity of technology, the next three are very much focussed on technological invasiveness in imagined near-future societies:

‘Filtered’, by Leah Cypess, concerns the battle of wills between Steve, a columnist for an online news / commentary site, and Margie, his partner / editor, over Steve’s crusade to find a trick to subvert the omnipresent filters that keep people reading only those snippets of text they won’t find confronting. This is a depressingly plausible story, handled well.

In Rich Larson’s ‘Masked’, Bessandra and Aline arrange to catch up with Vera, who for the past month or so has been bereft of her Face, the artfully narcissistic augmented-reality visage which everyone sports as, well, a mask. Larson (whose story ‘Seachange’ I edited for ASIM 61) has an enviable skill for evoking the hyperreal, cluttered vapidity of futuristic youth culture, though this one (perhaps intentionally?) left me a little cold.

I’m not sure why Dominica Phetteplace’s novelette is titled ‘Project Entropy’: if that’s a reference to anything within the story, it quite passed me by. Angelica is a paid servant / companion in a future San Francisco in which everything, including friendship, is up for sale if one has the collateral. This story felt a little more like allegory than a genuine extrapolation of societal trends, but Angelica is a very relatable protagonist with an interesting perspective on life.

‘The Savior Virus’, by Jack Skillingstead, opens in a bar, with bioweapons developer / widower John Crawford promising to his prospective son-in-law Brian that he will develop a biological tool to obviate the instinct for war. There’s a ‘Golden Age’ oldfashionedness to this story, echoing elements of Asimov’s ‘Darwinian Pool Room’ and Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Piece of Wood’, but it didn’t really strike a chord with me.

In ‘Nobody Like Josh’, a novelette by Robert Thurston, a retired school principal reminisces about his former school’s (and town’s) resident ET, who is by all accounts ‘the strong silent type’. This is an engaging enough tale (and again somewhat ‘old school’), if somewhat meandering.

‘Webs’, by Mary Anne Mohanrai, is a short and brutally sharp sketch of xenophobia, difference, and the lengths to which people will go when pushed. This is definitely one of the issue’s highlights.

In the issue’s headline story, Will McIntosh’s novelette, ‘Lost: Mind’, Mimi, the wife of retired colonel Walter, submits to a radical, corporeally terminal, and illegal surgical procedure which sees the components of her mind subdivided into thirty-two pieces. It’s Walter’s job to smuggle these pieces back into the US so Mimi’s mind can be reassembled, but a baggage handling error throws a spanner in the works, leaving Walter with a deadline to find all the pieces of Mimi’s mind. The tension in this one is front-loaded from the start, and the characterisation of Mimi is well-handled and poignant. (I’ll admit I did find myself thrown by a simple numerical error in the first half, where ‘seven’ is inappropriately equated with ‘eight’, but that’s nitpickery on my part, and shouldn’t really detract from enjoyment of the story.)

SF magazine issues are always a mixed bag, and what works for one reader might totally fail to spark someone else. My overall assessment? The issue’s two strongest stories are the Mohanrai and McIntosh offerings, though the stories by Cypess and Palmer are also impressive.