Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 8 (August 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
Crimes, Follies, Misfortunes, and Love by Ian Creasey
Warning Label by Alexander Jablokov
Slow Boat by Gregory Norman Bossert
Superluminosity by Alan Wall
The Lovely Ugly by Carol Emshwiller
The Little Battle of Little Big Science by Pamela Rentz
The Witch, the Tinman, the Flies by J.M. Sidorova
On the Horizon by Nick Wolven

Poems included:
Cultural Boundaries by F.J. Bergmann
A Wrong Turn by Elizabeth Penrose
The Great Peeloff by Qadira P. Garger

Full review: The August 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is a mixed bag of mostly decent stories. The issue is a little heavy on cyberpunk style dystopias, but also includes two decent time travel stories. As is often the case, one of the stories in the issue is not really a science fiction or fantasy story at all. In an unusual twist, it is probably also the best story in the issue.

Featured on the cover of the issue, The Lovely Ugly by Carol Emshwiller, is not a cyberpunk or time travel story, but instead deals with contact between aliens and humans from the perspective of the aliens. Told from this side of the story, the hubris of the human explorers is readily apparent, which seems to be the main point of the story, but the alien perspective is never entirely convincing. The secondary theme of the story, the lack of cross-species understanding, and how to bridge that gap, seems a little forced as well. Attempting to tell a story from a non-human perspective is a difficult endeavor at best, and Emshwiller manages to do it, but not well enough to make the story really work well.

Superluminosity by Alan Wall is a time travel story mixed in with a lover's spat. The story features a caution as to why it might not be a good idea to give someone who is angry with you too much power over your safety, although the design of the time machine in the story seems to me to have a severe design flaw (if one can signal that one is ready to return, why can one not simply trip the trigger that will cause you to return). Another story dealing with time travel, The Little Battle of Little Big Science by Pamela Rentz is actually a combination that includes both time travel and alternate history. Set in a alternate reality that assumes that Native American tribes control all scientific research, the protagonist is a scientist trying to impress her tribal elders enough to keep alive her project into building a time viewing machine. She confronts a collection of obstacles on her way to securing funding, but ends up realizing that others may not view the utility of her device in the same light she does. Although the premise is somewhat implausible, the story is interesting and enjoyable.

Crimes, Follies, Misfortunes, and Love by Ian Creasey is a post-apocalyptic story about the denizens of a post-industrial world sifting through the piles of mostly useless information left by people in blogs, Facebook profiles, and other data sources. Seen from the point of view of people struggling to survive, the current obsession with documenting the most mundane trivia of our lives seems both insane and compelling. While hunting for useful tidbits, the narrator of the story is also trying to uncover her own past in a society that frowns upon making new records. The story is full of melancholy and makes many of the same points Neal Stephenson made in Anathem concerning the obsession modern society has with trivial ephemera. Dealing with the overlod of information found in modern society from a different angle is the cyberpunk influenced Warning Label by Alexander Jablokov in which the protagonist tries to figure out the mystery of some inexplicably missing data. The story highlights the avalanche of useless information that we are already inundated with, and carries this element of modern society to an extreme that is both humorous and disturbing.

Another story told with cyberpunk sensibilities is Slow Boat by Gregory Norman Bossert featuring a kidnapped data hacker who finds herself on the titular slow boat to Mars. Combining the background of a Gibson story with the problem solving plot of a classic work by Asimov or Niven, the story is both funny and suspenseful. Another story with cyberpunk overtones is On the Horizon by Nick Wolven, a murder mystery set in a dystopian United States in which cities have become unmanageable regions turned over to gangs, and the agrivcultural industry has officially set about treating the illegal immigrants who work its fields in a manner reminiscient of the treatment of black slaves in the antebellum South. The protagonist is a felon turned into an empath to serve the government by hunting down other felons. The murder that dirves the plot merely serves as a backdrop for the political points being made by the author in a fairly heavy-handed manner, and as a result the story, while somewhat scary, has far less impact than it might have.

By far the most frightening story in the issue is The Witch, the Tinman, the Flies by J. M. Sidorova. The story, demonstrating the dangers of State adherence to a dubious scientific theory is almost not science fiction, and yet fits in the issue anyway. Set in the Soviet Union during World War II, a period during which official Soviet support was handed to the crackpot theory of Lysenkoism, and research into genetics was banned and suppressed. The story is told from the perspective of a young girl who befriends a geneticist keeping her head down to avoid notice by the NKVD. The story is chilling because it is so close to reality, and offers a strong statement on the dangers of accepting unscientific ideas in lieu of actual science. Given the debates working their way across the United States today concerning the teaching of actual biology as opposed to fairy tales like Intelligent Design, the story hits close to home.

Although the cyberpunk theme gets a little repetitive, the variety within that subgenre keeps the issue from getting tedious. While The Witch, the Tinman, the Flies is the only truly stand-out story in the issue, most of the rest are pretty good. Even stories such as The Lovely Ugly and On the Horizon are, at worst, moderate disappointments that tried for greatness and came up short. As a result, this is a moderately good issue of Asimov's Science Fiction and should be a decent read for any science fiction fan.

Previous issue reviewed: July 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: September 2010

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