Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 35, No.1 (January 2011) edited by Sheila Williams

Stories included:
Killer Advice by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Two Thieves by Chris Beckett
Dolly by Elizabeth Bear
Visitors by Steve Rasnic Tem
Interloper by Ian McHugh
Ashes on the Water by Gwendolyn Clare

Poems included:
Five Pounds of Sunlight by Geoffrey A. Landis
Retired Spaceman by G.O. Clark

Full review: Featuring two murder mysteries and two imprisonment stories, the dominant theme of the January 2011 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction appears to be "crime and punishment". The final two stories, Interloper and Ashes on the Water throw in a minor apocalyptic theme, with one set in the growing heat wave of an impending apocalypse, and the other in the aftermath of one. Overall, despite this somewhat grim subject matter, the issue is a pretty good one, with mostly well-written stories despite their often harsh subject matter.

The first murder mystery, Dolly by Elizabeth Bear, is something of an homage to Isaac Asimov's classic R. Daneel Olivaw robot mysteries. The story is a variation on the locked door mystery, but is set in a world in which people seem to have eschewed human interaction in favor of highly sophisticated robotic servants and companions. However, this provides the opportunity to use these companions as highly sophisticated murder weapons as well. Confronted by a murder that doesn't seem to add up, the two investigating detectives make a leap of intuition that gets to the real point of the story: how sophisticated can our machines become before they become more than mere machines. Though the story treads on some pretty familiar ground, the murder mystery is well done and the homage to Asimov is touching. The other murder mystery, Killer Advice by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is also the featured story on the cover, and is the longest story in the issue. Also something of a locked door mystery, the story is told with a rotating viewpoint that focuses heavily on the dysfunctional personalities of the various characters drawn from the crew of a sabotaged ship and the residents of a run down space station resort. The mystery itself doesn't really play fair with the reader, pulling the solution out of a hat at the very end with no foreshadowing concerning the motives of the killer, but as in Dolly, the mystery is just a vehicle for the real meat of the story, which is the interplay of personalities, one of whom is a killer. The story is interesting and enjoyable despite the hide-the-ball aspect of the mystery story itself due to the exploration of the insides of the mind of someone who can kill, and several others who cannot.

Every issue has to have at least one story that provides some levity, and Two Thieves by Chris Beckett is that story in this issue. One would think that a story about two violent criminals sent to permanent exile in a penal colony wouldn't be humorous, but when they find an altogether unexpected avenue of escape, they take it only to find that their bumbling greed lands them in even more trouble than they were in before. The story is humorous, but the humor is definitely bitter humor. The other prison story, Visitors by Steve Rasnic Tem, is not humorous at all, but painfully tragic. The story follows a pair of parents as they visit their imprisoned child in a system that provides hope for many, but despair for them. Though they believed they had made the correct choice for their offspring, the story takes a brutal turn when it is obliquely revealed just how much the incarceration has cost their child. The story contains a faint glimmer of hope, as the mother desperately tries to give her son back what has been taken from him, although the story is still dark and depressing. Even so, it is my favorite story in this issue.

Of the two apocalyptic-themed stories, Ashes on the Water by Gwendolyn Clare is the more frightening, because it is all too plausible. Set in a future India in which water has become so scarce that the rivers themselves have been walled off from the populace, the story deals with the love one sister has for another in the face of this adversity. Granted, one sister is dead before the story begins, but the protagonist is determined to honor her sister's memory despite the effort required to do so. In the end, she lets go of her sister and her dreams and faces up to the new reality that is encroaching upon old India, and the changes that this will force upon them. Though it has a high body count, Interloper by Ian McHugh is just not as effective a story. Though it has all the elements necessary to make a very good story, the real problem is that there is simply not enough text to do all the things that McHugh wanted to do with it. There are simply too many characters, too much back story, and too much going on in the plot to adequately tell the story in the eleven pages that it takes up. While it is clear that there could have been a really good story here, in its current form it simply feels too rushed as a short story, and should have been expanded into a novelette or a novella. It is, as a result, the weakest story in the issue.

Lightening up the somewhat heavy atmosphere of the issue is the poem Five Pounds of Sunlight by Geoffrey A. Landis, which compares a beloved pet to the entire weight of sunlight hitting the earth. You'll never look at a cat the same way after reading this poem. The other poem in the issue is Retired Spaceman by G. O. Clark, a work that deals with high aspirations and the wistfulness of failure.

With so much of the issue dealing with crime, imprisonment, and apocalyptic themes, the January 2011 Asimov's Science Fiction is a fairly dour installment of the magazine. Even so, the stories are all pretty good, and the only one that is weak is merely marred by the fact that it wasn't given enough pages to allow its interesting story to develop properly. Even though all the stories are good, none of them really rise above that level, so although this was a decent read, it isn't a great one. With this issue, Asimov's appears to have gotten off to a moderately good start in 2011 by delivering a selection of enjoyable and thought-provoking short science fiction to lead off the year.

Previous issue reviewed: December 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: February 2011

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