Saturday, November 6, 2010

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 9 (September 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis
Backlash by Nancy Fulda
Wheat Rust by Benjamin Crowell
The Palace in the Clouds by Eugene Mirabelli
For Want of a Nail by Mary Robinette Kowal

Poems included:
The Now We Almost Inhabit by Roger Dutcher and Robert Frazier
Egg Production by Ruth Berman

Special articles included:
Thought Experiments: The View from the Other Side - Science Fiction and Non-Western/Non-Anglophone Countries by Aliette de Bodard

Full review: I've noted numerous times that the various science fiction genre magazines often seem to have unannounced themes in them. The unannounced theme in the September 2010 issue of  Asimov's Science Fiction seems to be "hard science fiction stories", which is slightly unusual, because when compared to Analog, Asimov's usually tends to lean more towards the softer side of science fiction, and dabble in out and out fantasy. In this issue, however, almost every story is either clearly a hard science fiction story, or very close to one. Given this, coupled with the fact that the stories are all pretty good, the resulting issue is a superior one.

The issue starts off with a special article by Aliette de Bodard titled Thought Experiments: The View from the Other Side - Science Fiction and Non-Western/Non-Anglophone Countries that examines science fiction from outside the Anglosphere. It seems odd to describe a genre in which readers happily consume material written by American, English, or Australian authors with equal abandon (and in many cases, in complete ignorance of the nationality of the writer who penned the book they are reading). However, English speaking science fiction seems to have almost no room for authors from outside their sheltered sphere. In her article, de Bodard highlights the science fiction that has been produced outside the U.S., ranging from the long standing tradition of science fiction in Japan to that produced by Brazilian writers to the new interest in science fiction emerging in China and convincingly details why science fiction takes root in some areas and not in others. The article is full of insight into the nature of the history of the genre, and thought-provoking concerning the possible future.

This month's story featured on the cover artwork is The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis, and the first of the hard science stories features questions of terraforming, immeasurable wealth, some political machinations, some oppression and a little bit of romance. Set on a colonized Venus, and stuffed full of a heavy heaping of creativity, the story seems to have stemmed from someone posing Landis with the question of how humans could plausibly settle on Venus, and what might happen if they did. The story seems to be a throwback to some of the Arthur C. Clarke or Brian Aldiss stories in which projects to transform planets take place on a massive scale, but this story comes at the problem from the other end during the planning stage, and examines some of the somewhat less than altruistic reasons such a project might be started. It is, through and through, an excellent story.

Wheat Rust by Benjamin Crowell is the second hard science fiction story in the volume, set on a massive generation ship on which various primitive inhabitants are kept from technology (and even the knowledge that technology could exist) by beings that the ship inhabitants have mythologized as "builders". Into the bickering groups in the habitat drop a pair of space suited builders who first set off a political fight, and then set the reluctant protagonist in motion to combat the titular infection that threatens the food supplies of every inhabitant. The story is quite timely as wheat rust has reappeared as a threat to Earth's crops in reality, but unlike the characters in the story, we don't have more or less benevolent "builders" watching over us. One might not expect it from a story like this, but it is loaded with humor and sex which makes it flow by, and the end result is a pretty good story.

The final hard science fiction story in the issue, For Want of a Nail by Mary Robinette Kowal, is also set on a generation ship. In this case the story revolves around the attempts of the main character to repair her family's Artificial Intelligence after it has been dropped. The characters must struggle against their own ignorance, their normal reliance upon the A.I. to handle most tasks for them, and the unpleasant secret that is revealed as a result of the damage to the A.I. The story highlights how helpless humans can be if the technology they depend upon goes awry, and also contains a tragic story of how a person with power can abuse that power in their own self-interest, albeit perfectly understandable self-interest.

Backlash by Nancy Fulda breaks slightly from the hard science theme of the issue by introducing time travel into a story about espionage and terrorism, although the version of time travel described in the story is almost plausible. The protagonist, a retired secret operative, is delivered a botched message from the future and is sent to halt a terrorist plot that threatens to kill half of the city and in the longer term radically changes the government of the United States to a repressive dictatorship. His daughter, her boyfriend and his future wife all get involved while he simultaneously figures out a way to foil the terrorists and deal with the demons of the past. Almost unremarked on in the story is the method by which the potential for a time-travel paradox is resolved, although the characters do realize the tragic consequences of the effects that time travel has upon them. It is a well-done and action filled time-travel story.

The Palace in the Clouds by Eugene Mirabelli is a story reminiscent of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, hypothesizing an airborne Venice, suspended by massive white balloons floating among the clouds. The story is told from the perspective of a young boy let in on the secret of the Venice among the clouds, and intercut with historical background explaining how and why the city was built. The story is something of a fantasy even though nothing in the story actually breaks the laws of physics, and thus everything could be potentially plausible. The floating city is described as beautiful, and almost magical, which lends credence to the stubborn resistance the last inhabitants display, and makes one wish such a place actually existed. The story has a dreamlike and almost unreal quality the brilliantly conveys the image of the doomed drifting platform suspended in the clouds.

With one strong science fiction story after another, the September 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is an excellent installment of the magazine. If the editors can keep the content of this magazine as consistently high in quality as in this issue, I will be a very happy subscriber. At the risk of sounding a little too eager, this is one of the best issues of Asimov's Science Fiction that has come out recently.

Note: This volume contains For Want of a Nail by Mary Robinette Kowal, the 2011 winner of the Hugo Award for Best Short Story and The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis, a 2011 nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novella.

Previous issue reviewed: August 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: October/November 2010

2010 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: Bridesicle by Will McIntosh
2012 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

Hugo Award Winners for Best Short Story

2011 Hugo Award Nominees

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