Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol 34, No. 12 (December 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
Plus or Minus by James Patrick Kelly
Warfriends by Tom Purdom
Libertarian Russia by Michael Swanwick
Sins of the Father by Sara Genge
Freia in the Sunlight by Gregory Norman Bossert
Variations by Ian Werkheiser
Excellence by Robert Reed
The Prize Beyond Gold by Ian Creasey

Poems included:
Xenoaesthetics by F.J. Bergmann
Sailor by Mark Rich
Blueprint for a Domed City by Jessica Taylor

Full review: The December 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is, taken as a whole, one of the best issues of the magazine in quite a while. It is one of the best issues of any genre magazine in recent memory. With a collection of stories that are all good, and even a selection of poetry that is strong, the magazine is simply a superior example of one of the most prominent magazines in the science fiction field.

The first story in the issue, and also featured on the cover of the magazine, Plus or Minus by James Patrick Kelly follows the crew of a cargo ship on its long journey through the asteroid belt. Little more than glorified janitors, the crew is made up of a variety of misfits, including the narrator, a cloned genetically engineered girl who rebelled against the parent who decided she should be optimized for crewing interstellar ships. An accident on the journey transforms the story into an engineering puzzle, but unlike many others, it is a puzzle that cannot be solved through clever sleight of hand. Though the story focuses on the petulant rebellion of an angry teenager, the tragedy in the story unfolds on its own. The story is quite good, and unlike some other recent examples, worthy of being the featured story in the issue.

After a very long dormancy, the setting Tom Purdom created in The Tree Lord of Imeten is revisited in Warfriends. The story fleshes out the long-standing conflict between the two intelligent races of Imeten, and the delicate alliance inspired by the human interlopers that has united them against their common enemy the Drovils. Told from the perspective of the Itji, long treated as slaves by the tree-dwellers, the story highlights the sacrifices made by those formerly held in bondage that keep the fragile coalition together. Though humans are known to the characters, they do not appear directly in the story, which is told entirely from an alien perspective, and told quite well.

Those who worship at the altar of Ayn Rand will probably be disappointed in the darkly sobering Libertarian Russia by Michael Swanwick. Having abandoned the rigidly controlled cities for the libertarian utopia of unregulated the Russian countryside, the protagonist picks up an all-business hooker looking for a ride, and discovers that a completely free landscape is not exactly what he expected. Sitting alongside Swanwick's story is Sins of the Father by Sara Genge, a thematically very different story about a merman exiled to live among the isolated and heavily regulated remnants of humanity. Rigidly controlled by both social custom and the edicts of the sea-dwellers, humanity and the exiled protagonist struggle to survive in a harsh and unforgiving world. In the end, a noble sacrifice is made in the face of a brutal government and a desperate plea issued. The story is a dark vision of a possible future, and beautiful in a cruel way.

Another story set in an all too possible feeling future is Excellence by Robert Reed, in which economic catastrophe has resulted in a world where success in fictitious online games has become of paramount importance to many people. The protagonist, a moderately well-off deadbeat and superlative game player, is approached with an offer too tempting to turn down that promises to make him a wealthy man. The story has some major twists in the end, and the true meaning of the title only becomes clear in its final lines. Overall, it is a good story that makes a strong statement concerning what is necessary to optimize human potential. Also exploring the concept of human potential is The Prize Beyond Gold by Ian Creasey, which imagines a future in which human potential has been so maximized that further improvements can only be made with extreme dedication and sacrifice. Set against this level of commitment are humans who have been modified to superiority, either before or after birth, and their devalued accomplishments are contrasted with those of the "natural" humans they regularly outperform. But because their accomplishments are easy, they get no attention compared to the objectively lesser but subjectively superior accomplishments of unmodified humans. The central character wrestles with the decisions that he will be faced with if he does accomplish the virtually impossible task of setting a new world record, wondering whether the sacrifices are worth it, and contemplating the relative value of accomplishments. Overall, it is an insightful and thought-provoking story.

In counterpoint to Excellence and The Prize Beyond Gold is Freia in the Sunlight by Gregory Norman Bossert, a story about maximizing the potential of artificial intelligence. The plot of the story is mostly just a framing device to explore the idea of a machine intelligence that becomes sufficiently advanced to contemplate the meaning of beauty, even when its designers don’t intend for it to do so. One would not think that the story of a former child prodigy attempting to deal with the death of his genius father would be thematically unified with the story of an artificially intelligent unmanned drone however Variations by Ian Werkheiser also contemplates the question of beauty, positing a technology that purports to allow one to capture the reality of an artist's live performances, even after he has died. After years of anger, the protagonist of the story finds his own beauty in his relationship with his father, and finds an empty shell at the end of his journey.

Even the poetry in this issue is memorable. Xenoaesthetics by F. J. Bergmann illustrates the longing for art that an alien species that never created the concept feels when confronted by humanity. The poem Sailor by Mark Rich is an ode to a solar sail, while Blueprint for a Domed City by Jessica Taylor captures the sterility and prison-like feel of a supposedly protective domed city.

The most critical feature of the December 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is that there are no weak stories. What pushes this issue into rarefied territory is that many of the stories are not merely decent, but are decidedly above average to very good in quality. From Plus or Minus, to Warfriends, to The Prize Beyond Gold, to Variations, the magazine follows great stories with more great stories. Even Freia in the Sunlight, which is probably the weakest story in the bunch, is a good story that would have been a standout in many other months. Consequently, this issue is strongly recommended.

Note: This volume contains Plus or Minus by James Patrick Kelly, a 2011 nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

Previous issue reviewed: October/November 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: January 2011

2011 Hugo Award Nominees

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