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 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.