Monday, January 31, 2011

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 35, No. 2 (February 2011) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
The Choice by Paul J. McAuley
Out of the Dream Closet by David Ira Cleary
Waster Mercy by Sara Genge
Planet of the Sealies by Jeff Carlson
Shipbirth by Aliette de Bodard
Brother Sleep by Tim McDaniel
Eye of the Beyond by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg

Poems included:
Entanglement, Valentines, and Einstein by W. Gregory Stewart
Flicker by Uncle River
Tower by Jane Yolen

Full review: With three post-apocalyptic stories, a story about a death resulting from childbirth, a story about a father's seeming callous indifference to his child, and a story about the dangers posed by giant evil corporations, the February 2011 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction seems to have, as its overarching theme "the future is going to suck but humanity will soldier on". Even the remaining story in the issue Brother Sleep, despite not being overtly dark, has a depressing overtone. Oddly, the two stories featured on the cover are also two of the weaker stories in the issue, which makes one wonder why they were featured so prominently. I suppose that the Paul McAuley story is featured because he has name recognition, but that doesn't seem to justify putting the cluttered mess that is The Choice on the cover.

The first of the two post-global warming stories is also the aforementioned story featured on the cover - The Choice by Paul McAuley - in which McAuley pretty much throws a bunch of popular science fiction tropes into a blender and pours the story over the pages. A young man with a possibly insane and definitely dying mother living on an artificial island amidst the risen ocean waters, takes his best friend to see a stranded alien artifact whereupon his friend runs afoul of criminals looking to gain the advantages of alien technology and eventually the protagonist's best friend's abusive father seeks revenge for the death of his son. Our hero winds up in jail, and when he gets out he is faced with the titular "choice" to try to claim some profitable technology for his own or set out to seek his fortune wandering the world. The story is kind of anticlimactic because McAuley doesn't give his main character many reasons to choose the option he rejects, and provides him with a whole bunch of reasons not to. Other than the minor let down at the ending, the story is interesting although there is so much going on that it seems a bit cluttered. Either the story should have been lengthened to allow for more background development, or some elements should have been left out to allow for a more focused telling. The other (and in my opinion superior) post-global warming story is Planet of the Sealies by Jeff Carlson, which starts off seeming like a story about the exploration of a dangerously hostile alien planet. It becomes clear, however, that the alien plant being explored is Earth with a destroyed environment. The characters are hunting for valuable relics from the past in a massive landfill, although what they are hunting for is not what one might expect. Carlson mixes a fairly hard science story with the tension between the need to huddle together to survive and the urge to strike out and explore and delivers the best story in this issue.

The second story featured on the cover is Out of the Dream Closet by David Ira Cleary, a very surreal feeling tale that I think I was supposed to get more out of than I actually did. The story is set in a strange reality with only four real characters, the central one being a precocious woman whose father/creator has frozen her physical development at the age of ten, a situation she considers intolerable. Her father forbids only one thing, and of course, that is exactly what she does in rebellion. The problem is the reason why this act is forbidden is not really adequately explained, and as a result her father appears to be little more than a capricious jerk. The story clearly means to be deep and meaningful with lots of symbolism with a capital "S", but I found it mostly slow and pretentious.

One quirky element of this issue is that it features two stories that are follow-up stories in which an author returns to the setting of a previously published story. The first of these two, Waster Mercy by Sara Genge, is set in the same post-apocalyptic Children of the Waste landscape as Genge's previous stories Shoes-to-Run, from the July 2009 issue of Asimov's, and Malick Pan, from the April/May 2010 issue. While the previous stories featured protagonists from the wastelands, this story has as its central character a missionary from the "civilized" part of the world seeking anything but martyrdom in the desolate world. The story reminded me a little bit of A Canticle for Liebowitz, although the theology and goals of the central character are quite different from any of the Catholic holdovers in Canticle. The protagonist meets a denizen of the wastes, and things go about as one might expect when a fish out of water has to deal with one completely in his own element. As all of Genge's other Children of the Waste stories, this one is quite good, and one of the best stories in the issue. The other story set in a previously visited imagined reality is Aliette de Bodard's Shipbirth, set in the same alternate reality as the July 2010 story The Jaguar House, in Shadow, and which continues the story of a world in which the Americas were discovered by the Chinese and are dominated by a technologically advanced Aztec Empire. The story focuses on Aztec mythology concerning childbirth, which like many things for the Aztecs, is intimately connected with danger and death. The story gives a glimpse into the creepy form of space travel of the reality, and the terrible sacrifices that must be made to make it work. Told from the perspective of a doctor attempting to assist the birth of a "ship mind", the story continues to highlight the alien perspective and casual brutality of the Aztec culture that dominates de Bodard's posited reality.

Covering similar ground as Nancy Kress' Beggars in Spain, Brother Sleep by Tim McDaniel imagines a future Thailand in which most people are relieved of the need to sleep, and the rare unfortunates who are unable to successfully undergo "the treatment" that makes this possible find themselves at a marked disadvantage. The story shows the social stratification along the lines of sleepers and non-sleepers, and places Horse, its main character, right in the middle as a non-sleeping college student with both a brother and a roommate who are still sleepers. Though he has a pile of advantages, Horse discovers that being one of the "elite" comes with a cost and doesn't solve all problems, eventually finding himself envious of those around him, and longing to escape reality just for a little while and sleep. The shortest and weakest story in the issue is Eye of the Beyond by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg. The story is fairly simple: businessman who owns a company that sells cheap clothes for deceased people to wear is pressured to sell his business to a giant evil corporation. He resists, is given a collection of dire warnings by those around him that such resistance will be futile and self-destructive, and then the big evil corporation takes over his business and arranges to have him killed. The problem with the story is that is basically all there is to it. That the giant evil corporation is EEEEVIL is simply taken for a given through most of the story, with very little being given to support this point other than the fact that they want to buy the hero's business and some vague background noise. Exactly how the giant evil corporation convinces the main character's family, friends, and associates to sell his business out from under him is never explained – they just do. The efforts the main character goes through to save his business are never detailed – he just says he tries. While the story is clearly supposed to be scary polemic about the dangers of giant evil corporations, because everything the corporation does that is evil takes place in the shadowy background, it just doesn't have much impact. In short, if you want to write a cautionary tale, you have to say more than "the giant evil corporation wins because it is a giant evil corporation" if you want to have much of a story.

I have said before that Asimov's Science Fiction is just not quite as good a publication as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and this issue isn't going to make me change my mind. While most of the stories are decent, and a few are above average, Out of the Dream Closet and Eye of the Beyond both serve the drag the issue down again. Although this is an okay issue of Asimov's, it is nothing special and fairly grim to boot.

Previous issue reviewed: January 2011

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