Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 33, No. 3 (March 2009) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
Act One by Nancy Kress
The Long, Cold Goodbye by Holly Phillips
Getting Real by Harry Turtledove
Intelligence by R. Neube
Slow Stampede by Sara Genge
Whatness by Benjamin Crowell

Poems included:
First Beer on Mars by David Lunde
Nightlife by Sandra Lindow
Cabaret by J. E. Stanley

Full review: The March 2009 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is one of the better issues of the magazine. It contains a collection of strong stories, with only one noticeable weak one. Even the two-page story Whatness is an excellent story, packing more into its few pages than many much longer stories can in many more pages.

Act One by Nancy Kress returns to some familiar stomping grounds for the author in a tale concerning genetic engineering. In this story, a well meaning but somewhat empty headed actress finds herself in over her head dealing with genetically modified children and the "Group", an organization that has been illegally enhancing children. The story is told from the perspective of her attorney, who has his own troubles to deal with and a somewhat ambiguous relationship with genetic modification. In the end, they all must deal with the Group's plans and the public blowback from those plans. It is a good story, as most of Kress' output, but sometimes I wish she'd write more stories that don't have genetic modification of children as the central theme.

The Long, Cold Goodbye by Holly Phillips has a kind of dream-like quality as the protagonist moves about a strangely empty alien city in search of her friend. The story tries to be deep and emotional, but I found it to just be maudlin and mostly pointless. The icy atmosphere of the setting seemed to extend to the entire story, and made it simply dull. Slow Stampede by Sara Genge is more or less the exact opposite kind of story despite its name. Set in a swamp in which a bandit tries to steal from passing caravans of giant, slow moving alien beasts of burden and finds himself negotiating for his life with an alien water dweller, this story seems to be pulp action updated to reflect modern sensibilities and science. While Phillips' story was turgid, this one flows well and was fun to read.

In Getting Real, Harry Turtledove sets forth a truly disturbing future (if you are in favor of U.S. hegemony) which is less disturbing if you are a Sinophile. Basically, the premise is that the U.S. becomes remarkably like the society portrayed in Idiocracy but still tries to throw its weight around, and finds itself foiled by the superior technology of the Chinese in their role as the new big dogs on the block. The story, like many Turtledove tales, has an edge of humor, but builds a mounting sense of hopelessness as the reader watches all of the efforts made by gallant American patriots turned aside easily by technology that they simply cannot comprehend. I was especially struck by the unremarked upon hypocrisy of the Chinese characters in one scene involving a flamethrower, which only served to underscore how far the wheel had turned. The story ends on what might be called a hopeful note as one sees the potential seeds of the victor's downfall, On the whole, this is a typically well-done story by Turtledove that is one of the high points of the issue.

Intelligence by R. Neube is a darkly funny story about an evolving AI and the human handler paid to keep it company. The story revolves around the fact that an AI may very well be incredibly intelligent and able to amass huge quantities of data, but it might not be able to actually understand what it is looking at well enough to evaluate it sanely. Though told in a silly manner as the computer tries to get around the security that surrounds it, the story does pose some serious questions about what an advanced computer system gone awry might be like. Also quite funny is Whatness by Benjamin Crowell, which is the shortest story in the issue and my favorite. It concerns an alien dealing with the vestiges of a human and his dog. The story is so short (taking up a mere page and a half) that to try to describe it would result in giving the whole story away. The most I can say without completely spoiling it is that humans talk too much and dogs have simple, easy to fulfill desires.

As with most poems in Asimov's, First Beer on Mars by David Lunde and Nightlife by Sandra Lindow are serviceable, but unspectacular. Cabaret by J. E. Stanley, on the other hand, presents a deeply disturbing possibility in an almost offhand and casual manner.

On the whole, this issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is quite good. With only one story that didn't work, two excellent stories, and the rest clustered in the "good" range, March 2009 proves to be a good month for the magazine. This issue is well-worth picking up for any science fiction fan.

Subsequent issue reviewed: April/May 2009

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