Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 39, No. 3 (March 2015) edited by Sheila Williams
Inhuman Garbage by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Pareidolia by Kathleen Bartholomew and Kage Baker
Twelve and Tag by Gregory Norman Bossert
Tuesdays by Suzanne Palmer
Military Secrets by Kit Reed
Holding the Ghosts by Gwendolyn Clare
Red Shift by Barbara Duffy
The Fates Rebel by Ruth Berman
Prince/Glass by Jane Yolen
Full review: As I have noted before, there are often unannounced "themes" that can be found in individual issues of most science fiction publications. In the March 2015 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, with three stories that touch upon the question, that theme seems to be "what makes someone human". The other stories in the volume are a mixed grab-bag containing ideas ranging from very slow time travel to very poignant mourning.
Set in her Retrieval Artist continuity, the murder mystery Inhuman Garbage by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is the longest story in this issue. After the body of a young woman is found in one of the recycling crates on the way to the compost pile of the lunar settlement of Armstrong City, detective Noelle DiRicci is called in to investigate. Having dealt with some less than industrious colleagues, and a mostly disinterested recycling company owner, DiRicci's investigation takes her to the unsavory alleged crime boss Luc Deshin. From there the story makes numerous twists and turns, in large part because legally it turns out that despite the fact that the body found in the recycling crate is quite human, killing her was legally not murder. The story splits into two paths with the first being DiRicci's inquiry that is stymied by rules, red tape, and what seem to be somewhat unfair laws, and Deshin's efforts to deal with what he perceives to be a threat to his family - efforts which are much more pragmatic and direct than DiRicci's. Eventually the issue is resolved - solved on Deshin's end, and left in a much more unsettled state on DiRicci's, but the real question posed by the story remains: Who is human, and who is deserving of the protection of the law? The story also contains some rather ominous points relating to the vulnerability of interdependent ecosystems, although these aren't really followed up on in the context of this story. Although Inhuman Garbage isn't an outstanding story on its own, it is an interesting building block in Rusch's ongoing fictional reality, fleshing out her imagined world as part of a decently constructed story that raises some interesting issues.
Told from the perspective of an immortal cyborg working for a time travel company to collect and preserve collectible antiquities, Pareidolia by Kathleen Bartholomew and Kage Baker is a story of unintended consequences. After a brief introduction to establish the background of their fictional universe, the story moves to a seemingly innocuous interlude in ancient Egypt as the narrator Imhotep (who also happens to be Joseph) provides his fellow countrymen with standards to make sculpting and building more uniform. From there the story hops forward by fifteen hundred years to Byzantium, where the immortal Josephus is now running a caravan business shipping rare goods to the hidden locations where they will wait until collected by the company in the far future. A directive from his bosses in the future sends Josephus scrambling off to the construction site where the Hagia Sofia is being rebuilt to intercept a painter who has been making some religious icons that display rather unusual properties. After a death and some sleuthing, Josephus discovers the secret of the paintings, learning that they are an accidental crop sprung from the seed he had planted so long ago in Egypt. In the end, Josephus sets things right and the story ends. There isn't anything particularly deep or insightful about the plot, but the atmosphere set by the story is entertaining.
Set in a rough and tumble bar on Europa Twelve and Tag by Gregory Norman Bossert revolves around a "get to know the new face" gathering for the crew of an under-ice ship that work pulling valuable biomass from the vast and chilly ocean under the surface of the Jovian moon. To learn about their new work mates, the crew play a game called "twelve and tag" that involves word play and then a crew member telling two stories, one of which must be a lie and one of which must be true. The story is a bit confusing, as there are simply too many characters for Bossert to really detail, but for the most part the only ones that really matter are Cheung, the ship's pilot, and Adra and Zandt, the two newbies. All of the other crew members are essentially interchangeable, and their individual identities are mostly irrelevant. Through the series of stories told by the characters, Bossert is able to provide a fairly thorough picture of the future these characters inhabit, including the use of T.A.G. technology to "back up" people's brains so, among other things, they can be reconstituted should they die. For much of its length the story seems to meander aimlessly, not really going anywhere but providing some background material about the world. Eventually, Bossert ties everything together, and does so in a way that is moderately unexpected with a hint of rising horror as the reader figures out what is actually going on. About halfway through the story, I was sure I didn't like it, but in the end it turned out to be quite satisfying.
Another story that imagines the consequences of the ability to record a person's brain and transfer their consciousness to another body, Holding the Ghosts by Gwendolyn Clare examines exactly what might happen to the body in question. In the opening paragraphs of the story we learn that Abby's parents can't afford to lease the body they use for her to visit since she has gone to college, so they only have her on weekends. This seems to work out well until Abby's body remarks that she isn't actually Abby, but rather merely a container for Abby's ghost, driving her mother to rush to the doctor's office brimming with questions. After the doctor reassures Abby's mother that the body has no mind of its own, we meet Chantal, on vacation with her husband, and then Max, brought back for her engineering expertise. As the pieces fall into place, it turns out that Abby wasn't really "away at college", and Chantal's weekend with her husband was probably a repeat experience. The story doesn't really answer the question of what being alive means, but it does pose some rather interesting conundrums.
Due to an error somewhere in the production process, the first page of Tuesdays by Suzanne Palmer was omitted from the printed version of this issue. To remedy this situation, the first page was printed in the April/May 2015 issue of the magazine, and the entire story was placed on Asimov's website. The story itself is a brief little vingette about what seems to be an unusual and inexplicable event in the early morning hours at an all-night diner. What makes the story slightly out of the ordinary is that it is told in short snippets rotating from one viewpoint character to another, as each of the witnesses recounts what they saw to a pair of mostly bored police officers. The story is also told out of order, jumping back and forth in time on a handful of occasions, although this does little other than pointlessly hide the reasons for each person's presence at the diner until later in the story. Everything builds up to a punchline that is mildly amusing but isn't really worth all of the work that went into setting it up. There are a couple of interesting tricks in presentation contained in the piece, but they are all in the service of a story that doesn't really go anywhere interesting.
Military Secrets by Kit Reed is light on the speculative fiction and heavy on metaphor, following the narrator Jessie as she comes to grips with the fact that everyone but her has given up on her missing Navy officer father. In the opening paragraphs of the story, a very young Jessie is separated from most of her classmates, leading to a long digression in which she explains how she learned her father was missing, and how she continues to hope that he is still alive somewhere, possibly clawing his way back to his family. With childlike faith, she continues to hope even though her mother withdraws from the world, her neighbor sympathizes and brings casseroles, and one of the nuns at her school reveals to everyone that Jessie's father is gone. Eventually, Jessie, along with her classmates Bill and Dorcas, is bundled into a "bus" that is a dark tube where they sit in the blackness of the back of the vehicle waiting, frozen in time. Though the speculative fictional element in the story is quite light, the metaphor it serves up for children forever trapped at the age their father vanished is quite powerful.
Red Shift by Barbara Duffy is a moderately opaque poem that seems to be something of a love song, using the motion of the galaxies and Miles Davis music as metaphors. As one might expect, The Fates Rebel by Ruth Berman is a brief exploration of what might happen should the three fates turn away from their usual habits and engage in a little mutiny. Somewhat darker even that fates run amok, Prince/Glass by Jane Yolen is a grim twist on the traditional fairy tale formula that has just the right amount of creepy.
Overall, while this issue has no real standout stories, it also doesn't have any really poor ones either. Oddly, the weakest story in the issue is probably the cover story Tuesdays, and even that is a moderately diverting and amusing piece. On the other hand, stories like Twelve and Tag and Holding the Ghosts are above average, and while Military Secrets is mostly lacking in science fictional elements, it is a gut-wrenching emotional journey. Taken as a whole, this is a fairly ordinary issue of Asimov's. Given that an ordinary issue of Asimov's is pretty damn good, that's a fairly strong recommendation.
Previous issue reviewed: February 2015
Subsequent issue reviewed: April/May 2015
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