Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, Nos. 10 & 11 (October/November 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
Becoming One With the Ghosts by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Several Items of Interest by Rick Wilber
Torhec the Sculptor by Tanith Lee
Frankenstein, Frankenstein by Will McIntosh
Names for Water by Kij Johnson
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula by Mike Resnick
No Distance Too Great by Don D'Ammassa
The Termite Queen of Tallulah County by Felicity Shoulders
Dummy Tricks by R. Neube
Changing the World by Kate Wilhelm
Under the Thumb of the Brain Patrol by Ferrett Steinmetz

Poems included:
Roadside Stand by Mark Rich
Foxwife by Jane Yolen
Welcome Home by Janis Ian
All That Matters by Roger Dutcher

Full review: I have often said that the double issues put out by the various genre magazines seem to suffer in terms of quality, presumably due to the double count of pages that they must fill. The October/November 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is another example of this recurring problem. Though it has several quite good stories, it is leavened out with some fairly mediocre ones as well as a turgid lead story that makes the issue start off with a hobble.

Leading off the issue is Becoming One With the Ghosts by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, one of the two stories featured on the cover. This gets the issue off to a very slow start, as the story is a very slow moving mystery revolving around the crew of a starship that discovers things are not all in order when they return to what they had assumed would be a safe haven. The glacial pace of the story only serves to highlight that the "mystery" is only a mystery because the reader doesn't know the full capabilities of the ship, and because it turns out that the crew do, their perplexed reaction to the problem that presents itself makes the story unbelievable. Overall, the story is just not all that good.

In the other cover feature in the issue, Several Items of Interest, author Rick Wilber returns to the same universe that he created in With Twoclicks Watching in which Earth has been conquered by a mostly benevolent, but definitely Machiavellian race of aliens. The protagonist has journeyed to the alien's home world to act as a sort of Quisling reporter, while his brother has turned against the invaders, attempting to drive them from Earth. The main action of the story involves the narrator's repeated journeys to Earth in order to try to dissuade his brother from continuing his insurgent campaign that threatens to provoke retaliation that will result in the loss of vast numbers of human lives. The story twists and turns until the full devious nature of the plot is revealed. over all, this is the best story in the issue.

Torhec the Sculptor by Tanith Lee is an interesting tale that focuses on Torhec, an eccentric artist whose personal philosophy concerning the nature of art leads him to always destroy his creations. His paths intersect with an incredibly wealthy man whose fondest desire is to own one of Torhec's undestroyed pieces, which is an anathema to the artist. The two end up negotiating a satisfactory exchange, but the final resolution of the story is will probably catch most readers by surprise, although it is the perfectly natural logical consequence of the personalities established for the characters in the story. Another story dealing with loss and impermanence is No Distance Too Great by Don D'Ammassa, in which a bereaved spouse signs on to travel to a distant world in honor of his dead wife. However, the story establishes that the method of traversing interstellar space is affected by the emotional state of those travelling through it. The protagonist's ambivalence manifests itself in a dangerous way, threatening to strand the entire ship and its crew forever in hyperspace. As the title implies, the story is a science fiction love story, but it is also a tragically bittersweet one.

Frankenstein, Frankenstein by Will McIntosh is a gaslamp fantasy style story in which a charlatan posing as the famous monster discovers competition, and then ends up biting off more than he can chew as his con job ends up becoming a little too real for his liking. The story is a nice riff on the classic Mary Shelly story, including enough of the fantastic and yet always hovering close enough to the edge of realism to drive home the horror that is revealed. Taking the Frankenstein monster type story from a different angle is Under the Thumb of the Brain Patrol by Ferrett Steinmetz, which posits an alternate reality in which the nerdy smart kids run the social scene in high school, and jocks are picked on outcasts. Some of the "neurals" as the geeky popular kids are known, trick the jock protagonist into a trap in which he must fight their genetically engineered creations. His solution to the problem is a pretty decent one that displays the benefits of compassion. The story isn't particularly deep, but as a classic morality play, it works fairly well.

The Termite Queen of Tallulah County by Felicity Shoulders combines the exterminator business with time travel technology, featuring a woman who uses the ability to travel in time to go back and stop insect infestations before they start. She discovers an unexpected secret about her father, but manages to set things right by the end. There is nothing particularly new concerning time travel here, but the story is a fairly heartwarming tale about saving a loved one from their own folly. Another story that revolves around family relation, Dummy Tricks by R. Neube, takes the issue on from a completely different angle. Set on a hellish ice world, a hired family member, despised by his supposed family members runs across a pirate ice prospector. After destroying the intruders, he discovers that his antagonists are not exactly what he thought they were. The entire story is violent and tragic, with the characters reflecting the harsh conditions that surround them. Anyone reading it should be warned that although the story is good, unlike Termite Queen it is not a happy one.

Names for Water by Kij Johnson is a short little story about a strange telephone call a college student gets, and the strange cosmic connection that results. More fantasy than science fiction, it is interesting, but not anything more than that.

The Incarceration of Captain Nebula by Mike Resnick is a seemingly silly story about a seemingly insane patient being treated for the delusion that he is a galactic hero in the mould of E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen. The story has a final twist that isn't all that unpredictable, but transforms the story from silly humor to over the top space opera, but in a good way.

Most issues seem to have a non-genre story, and this one is no exception. While Changing the World by Kate Wilhelm is not technically a science fiction or fantasy story, set in basically the modern world with a healthy dash of paranoia thrown in, it does, however, deal with a something every science fiction fan has certainly been assaulted with: UFO conspiracy theories and the kinds of people who believe in them. The whole story is basically an exploration of the question "what if everyone bought UFO conspiracy theories", with some rather unsettling results.

While many of the stories in the issue are quite good, several others are merely average. The real problem with the issue is that Becoming One with the Ghosts starts the issue off with such a slow and unexciting story one has to slog through before getting to the good stuff. Despite generally good stories such as Several Items of Interest and The Termite Queen of Tallulah County and several other decent ones, the lead story is simply so flat and dull that it drags the whole issue down to a merely average rating.

Previous issue reviewed: September 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: December 2010

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