Thursday, April 7, 2016

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 39, Nos. 4 & 5 (April/May 2015) edited by Sheila Williams


Stories included:
The New Mother by Eugene Fischer
The Children of Gal by Allen M. Steele
Day Job by Tom Purdom
Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters - H'ard and Andy Are Come to Town! by Michael Swanwick and Gregory Frost
The Gun Between the Veryush and the Cloud Mothers by Anna Tambour
Paul and His Son by Joe M. McDermott
The Marriage of the Sea by Liz Williams
What I Intend by Robert Reed
Willing Flesh by Jay O'Connell
How to Walk Through Historic Graveyards in the Post-Digital Age by Fran Wilde
The Sentry by Frank Smith

Poems included:
Birth of an Astrophysicist by Bruce Boston
Layover by Wendy Rathbone
Grain of Truth by Robert Frazier
Schrödinger's Door by Richard Bruns
Basement Refrigerator by Joshua Gage

Full review: The double issues of Asimov's Science Fiction (and Analog as well) tend to suffer somewhat in comparison with the regular monthly issues. Theoretically, these issues are supposed to cover two months worth of the magazine, and thus they should not have any harder time filling their pages than a pair of monthly issues would. In practice, however, these issues seem to always contain more weak stories, and more stories that seem to serve merely as bland page-filler than would be found in any two regular monthly issues. The April/May 2015 issue of Asimov's seems to be a typical example of the double issues, with a couple of stand out stories, a couple of good stories, more than its fair share of stories that are merely average, and one story that is simply not very good.

The cover story for the issue, The New Mother by Eugene Fischer imagines a world in which a new sexually transmitted disease that transform's the victim's gametes from haploid to diploid has begun to spread. This has the effect of making men who contract the disease sterile, and women who suffer from it almost perpetually pregnant with what amount to genetic duplicates of themselves. The story itself follows a reporter named Tess as she researches a story about the social impact of the disease, focusing on the figure of Candace Montross, a woman who escaped from a religious compound where her daughters were systematically sterilized at the direction of the cult leader. Told via snippets of Tess' text, interviews with scientists and politicians, and interspersed with scenes from Tess' own life (Tess is pregnant through the story, a condition that leads many of those who she deals with to make certain assumptions given the subject matter of what she is researching). Through the story, Fischer explores the implications of a world in which it is possible for a woman to have children without the need for a man to be involved, and the responses that are likely to result, which range from reasonable and intelligent, to the idiotic and malicious. Of particular note are the responses that Fischer imagines that the pro-life movement might have when confronted by this alteration to the means of conception. In some ways, the story seems to draw upon the combination of moral panic and studied indifference to suffering that followed the discovery of AIDS in the 1980s as inspiration for the positions taken by various individuals who opine upon the issue. There are serious questions here, and Fischer offers an array of potential answers. Some of these answers are clearly better than others, but there doesn't seem to be any one that is definitively correct. Science fiction is at its best when it asks difficult questions, and The New Mother poses some thought-provoking and disturbing ones.

The Children of Gal by Allen M. Steele is the final installment in the four-part Arkwright series of stories, the previous three having appeared intermittently in various issues from the year prior to this issue. I have never been fond of the practice of slicing a story up and publishing it in disparate chunks spread out over the course of a year or two's worth of magazines, but Steele at least has worked hard to make each section of his story mostly stand alone. In this segment of the story, the inhabitants of Eos have developed a religion that is somewhat obviously the corrupted teachings of an ancient technological society that they have forgotten. At the opening of the story, Sanjay's mother Aara is being exiled for reporting an event that contradicts the teachings of Gal, which makes her a heretic. After Aara has left for Purgatory, Sanjay and his father try to get on with their lives, and pass a few difficult months trying to pretend that their lives can return to normal. Through this section of the story, Steele does some world building, filling the reader in on the details of the rigidly religious society that Sanjay lives in. Eventually Sanjay reunites with his lover Kaile, who confides in him that despite her family's fairly strong adherence to the faith of Gal, she observed something similar to that Aara had reported, but did not tell anyone for fear of being deemed a heretic. In a fairly amazing coincidence, the first night that Kaile agrees to return to Sanjay's bed, Aara shows up to spirit them away and tell them that everything they have been told about their history is wrong, which really should not come as any surprise to the reader. Eventually Sanjay and Kaile come to understand the truth, although it takes quite a while for Kaile to give up on the lessons she was taught in her Sunday school classes. This sort of story requires a collection of fairly fine balances to pull off successfully, and Steele comes close to accomplishing this. The corrupted society must be recognizably descended from one that is familiar to the reader, but if it is too easy to make the connections it just becomes a bland variant. The characters minds must be changed in a realistic way, but if one takes too long to reveal to the characters what the reader already knows, the story runs the risk of becoming dull and uninteresting. In The Children of Gal, Steele flirts with bland and dull, but manages to stop just short of both. The story isn't particularly memorable, following in the footsteps of many other stories of this type without really breaking any new ground or doing anything particularly interesting, but it is reasonably well executed and is at least a reasonably worthwhile read.

Writing a story set completely within a truly alien culture is extraordinarily difficult, and The Gun Between the Veryush and the Cloud Mothers by Anna Tambour serves as a clear illustration of this truth. Unfortunately, it illustrates this truth by being confusing and not particularly well-executed. Set in a society that is stratified between those who live "Above" and those who live "Below", the tale shifts between a handful of viewpoints in the lead up to a momentous event in which the "gun" that seeds the Below is due to set off the harvest. As the story progresses, it turns out that the gun isn't working properly and has been killing those who live Below, although only a few Above-dwellers are aware of this fact. They are also aware that the gun is in imminent danger of failure, although this doesn't come out until well into the story. One major problem with the story is that there is both too much world detail provided and not enough at the same time. Tambour provides a lot of detail about the two intertwined cultures in the story, but without context, much of this detail is just clutter. There are some implications that the cultures are descended from another, more technologically adept culture, but the hints are so opaque that it is difficult to draw a connection between the obviously corrupted words used by the characters and the technology they are supposed to be references to. In a way, this story is an attempt to do what The Children of Gal did, but with a much more alien descendant culture. The story also shifts viewpoints between too many characters for its length, and it settles upon a couple of characters that I simply couldn't bring myself to really care about. There were some characters who seemed interesting, and whose stories (and survival) mattered, but as the story progressed it was increasingly dominated by two characters whose lives mattered to me not at all. These factors, combined with the fact that the alien nature of the world made even those story lines hard to get a good mental grasp on, makes the end result less than inspiring.

There are some stories where you know something is going to go horribly wrong from the outset, but the joy in reading them comes from finding out just how the tragedy will unfold. Day Job by Tom Purdom falls into this category of story, as Len seeks treatment for his antisocial behavior so he can secure a permanent job. He consults with Rafe, an aide to Dr. Shinwalai and is prescribed a course of treatment to modify his personality in a manner that will make him more empathetic and better able to navigate social situations. But Len's treatment doesn't progress as it should, in part because Len doesn't bother to tell Rafe everything, and in part because Len is actually kind of a monster. The story bounces back and forth between Len as he goes about his daily life with his workaholic girlfriend and his rather unpleasant online persona and Rafe and the various other members of Dr. Shinwalai's staff as they try to figure out exactly what is wrong with Len, and how to treat him. Everything builds to a tense and slightly abrupt conclusion, and then there is a brief coda in which we see a glimpse of Rafe's life away from work. The truly interesting thing about this story isn't Len's problems, which are apparent fairly early, but the snippets of the rest of the world that we see, and the fact that the various people who we get some insight about seem to be, by current standards, are fairly maladjusted themselves. As usual for Purdom, this is a story that shines a fairly probing and sharply critical light onto the human condition, resulting in a mildly unsettling story.

Combining magic, chicanery, and a Depression era setting, Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters - H'ard and Andy Are Come to Town! by Michael Swanwick and Gregory Frost features (naturally enough) H'ard and Andy, two con artists making their way across mid-America in what appears to be the height of the Dust Bowl. After some preliminary (and minor) con jobs, the pair get down to business, but only after the crooked local sheriff figured out their scam and demands that he be cut in on the profits. Further complicating matters, the sheriff's rebellious teenage daughter Lolly has decided that the two flim-flam men are her ticket out of town to a life of adventure and debauchery. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that H'ard and Andy do have some magical powers, and that the primary difference from our world and this fictional one seems to be that the pair are not alone, and even have magic that is recognizable and subject to categorization. As one might expect, the con job goes awry in unexpected and humorous ways and the two protagonists barely make it out of town with their ill-gotten gains and a more or less invited passenger. The story isn't particularly deep or meaningful, but it is an enjoyable lark.

Paul and His Son by Joe M. McDermott involves a difficult relationship between a father and his teenage son, telling the story entirely from the father's perspective. Paul is concerned that his son runs away frequently, gets into trouble when he is away from home, and when he is home, does poorly in school and generally resents his parents. In some ways, Paul's son behaves like a slightly exaggerated version of a fairly normal teenage boy. But Paul worries about his son. As the father of a somewhat difficult teenage son, I can empathize with Paul, but as the story progresses, Paul's concern seems a bit obsessive. The lengths to which Paul is willing to go in order to monitor and control his child seem extreme, and somewhat off-putting. Alongside Paul's attempts to control his son, there is a plot involving a doctor who is treating one of Paul's legal clients who the doctor is illegally providing life-extending drugs to despite government orders to cut him off. As the story draws to a close, Paul explains to the doctor that part of Paul's role as an estate attorney is to show such clients that they are better off letting go and accepting death for the benefit of their families. This, coming at the same time that Paul is desperately trying to exert close control over his life by controlling his son, seems just a tad hypocritical. And that seems to be the point of the story - that control is illusionary, and despite Paul's best efforts, he is doomed to fail and even still he cannot stop trying. The story probably resonated for me more than for the typical reader, but it is both sad and heroic, with just a touch of creepiness thrown in as seasoning.

A story with a macabre fairy tale sensibility, The Marriage of the Sea by Liz Williams is the first person account of a young woman who has been chosen to be the bride of the sea. She is proud of the honor, even though she knows it will result in her death, believing that she will be united with the Watermaiden under the waves. The story proceeds placidly and almost grandly before the serene ritual is interrupted by women from the hills who have come to rescue the narrator even though she does not want to be rescued. There is confusion, attempted sacrifice, and disaster leading to unexpected death and even more unexpected survival. In the end, the narrator finds herself at the edge of the sea, wondering if she is loved or is to be rejected. The story reads a little bit like a tragic myth similar to that of the Greek heroine Andromeda, but instead of fearing the Kraken, Andromeda is in love with the creature. The story is a love story, but a bitter and somewhat one-sided one.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is something that is dear to the hearts of many science fiction fans, and it forms the basis for Robert Reed's story What I Intend. Unlike many such stories, Reed's focuses on a wealthy financier who decides to throw his considerable wealth into a project that involves combing through the massive volume of data from various forms of telescope that has accumulated over the years, but never been analyzed. This is, of course, a form of evaluation that is very much a part of the finance culture - hunting through all of the noise to try to find that little bit of signal that will give you the edge against the competition. The story develops along mostly expected lines, until the twist near the end that shatters all of the protagonist's dreams. The story has a glimmer of hope, and that's where it goes from being merely adequate to pretty good. In the end, What I Intend is an exploration of obsession, and a cautionary tale about its limits.

Imagine you could be the person you want to be. The person who eats right, gets all the exercise they should, and generally takes good care of themselves. For most people, that person wouldn't be you, and becoming that person would require changing your own fundamental nature. In Willing Flesh by Jay O'Connell, a man named Garrison faces this predicament, and buys a product that lets him take a shortcut that implants an alternate personality that is motivated to do all the healthy things he isn't. As one might expect, this plan goes awry, and for a time the story seems to be moving in the direction of a horror-style resolution. Eventually, O'Connell throws in a kind of a twist, and the story moves to an unexpected, almost happy ending, albeit a slightly creepy one.

Two stories in the issue deal with people returning home from war, each contemplating the lingering consequences to those involved in such conflicts. The first, How to Walk Through Historic Graveyards in the Post-Digital Age by Fran Wilde deals with Eleanor, a former embedded reporter who was the sole survivor when the unit she was following was wiped out in a fiery explosion. The only issue is that Eleanor had experimental implants placed in her eyes before she shipped out, and those implants stored and uploaded information, including classified information. After the incident, filters were placed into her implants, and memories were removed from her brain, preventing her from seeing or remembering classified information, and most of what happened when she was deployed. Unfortunately, Eleanor still sees the ghostly images of the soldiers and children who died when she was wounded, and now returned home to Maryland's eastern shore, she visits a local cemetery where she has begun to see the ghost of Tallulah Bankhead as well. Her minder hopes to use these visions as a means of marketing the implants, and is desperate enough to give Eleanor just enough leeway that she is able to turn the tables on him in a way that is true to her news reporter values. The story is deeply ambiguous, as it is never clear if the ghosts Eleanor is seeing are real, are malfunctioning implant technology, or simply hallucinations caused by post-traumatic stress. There is a very real question as to whether Eleanor's moment of triumph is real, or if it is just another illusion, and this is what makes this story so agonizing and so haunting.

The other story about someone returning home from a war is The Sentry by Frank Smith, detailing a day in the life of retired veteran Rick, home on Titan from the war against the Europans on Tethys. Humanity has moved to the outer solar system and lives primarily on the moons of Saturn, each one terraformed with a differing degree of success. His body ravaged by the hardships of war, and his mind consumed by its terrors, Rick is having trouble adjusting a normal life with his daughter, son, and dog in a cozy neighborhood on terraformed Titan. An idyllic day involving a nap in front of a televised baseball game turns into a crisis when the family dog almost, but not quite, kills a bunny rabbit, and the kids insist that Rick do something about the problem. The action in the story is decidedly mundane, but everything is colored by Rick's experiences and his internal struggles with his memories of military service. The story works to a little moral at the end, but what makes it really work is the fact that even the "normal" of mundane life for Rick and his family is all wrong. Lurking underneath the surface of the story is the fact that terraforming hasn't actually made Saturn's moons completely suitable for terrestrial life, so even though Titan is a more hospitable place to live than Europa or Tethys, it still offers a warped existence. Even if Rick is able to return to "normal", that normal is still screwed up.

Short and to the point but still lovely, Birth of an Astrophysicist by Bruce Boston captures that shining moment when someone first understands the true nature of the universe and sets out to study it further. Dedicated to the lonely distances of space travel, Layover by Wendy Rathbone almost makes traveling between planets seem mundane and routine enough to be sorrowful. With a little bit of kaiju and a dash of Dune, Grain of Truth by Robert Frazier engages in some musing about moths and what they might be up to in the kitchen cupboard. Combining ambiguity with humor, Schrödinger's Door by Richard Bruns considers a door that is and is not there with a knock that is also there and not there. The poem manages to be comedic and slightly unsettling at the same time. Basement Refrigerator by Joshua Gage is a poem about the unlikely, but seemingly inevitable contents of a basement refrigerator, the mystery of where such things might come from, and the reasons one might leave such things alone.

Overall, the April/May 2015 issue of Asimov's is a fairly ordinary double issue of the magazine. The best story in the issue is The New Mother, and both Day Job and How to Walk Through Historic Graveyards in the Post-Digital Age are both pretty good as well. Most of the other stories in the issue are enjoyable reads, with Willing Flesh throwing in a bit of horror and Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters - H'ard and Andy Are Come to Town! throwing in a bit of humor. The only real clunker in this group is The Gun Between the Veryush and the Cloud Mothers which suffers from trying to be too ambitious in concept and not pulling it off very well. Taken as a whole, the issue is merely adequate, with some mediocre stories, but also some highlights of excellence within its pages.

Previous issue reviewed: March 2015
Subsequent issue reviewed: June 2015

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2016 Nebula Award Nominees

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