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.

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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.