Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 7 (July 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
A History of Terraforming by Robert Reed
Haggle Chips by Tom Purdom
The Jaguar House, in Shadow by Aliette de Bodard
The Other Graces by Alice Sola Kim
Eddie's Ants by D.T. Mitenko
Amelia Pillar's Etiquette for the Space Traveler by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Poems included:
The Gears of New August by Bruce Boston
Neosaur by Robert Borski

Full review: The July 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is something of a mixed bag. Containing a couple of fairly ambitious stories that simply didn't quite work, a couple of good but somewhat strange stories, one very bland story and one story that just doesn't work, the entire issue gave me a mixture of frustration and enjoyment. Overall I think the issue is still pretty solid, as I think that a publication like Asimov's should try to publish work that is a little experimental, but it would have been even better had the stories had just a little more polish on them.

I would call The Other Graces by Alice Sola Kim an ambitious failure. The story is about a teen struggling to make something of herself who apparently starts getting help from a version of herself from an alternate future timeline. The story is told almost entirely from the perspective of the teenage Grace (and the bits that are told from other perspectives probably would have been better left out) as she wrestles with whether accepting this sort of help cheapens her accomplishments, all the while realizing that she depends upon the unexpected aid. The story is very disjointed, making it difficult to follow, but it is an interesting idea and is put together in an ultimately interesting manner, which makes it a mess, but a kind of beautiful mess. Another story that was something of a mess, albeit for different reasons, is Aliette de Bodard's The Jaguar House, in Shadow, set in her alternate historical timeline in which the Chinese found the Americas first and changed the course of history. The story, such as it is, covers political infighting in the nation of Greater Mexica as religious issues drive the rise of a theocratic and bloodthirsty ruler and the opposition his reign engenders. The problem with the story is that if one is not familiar with the Xuya version of alternate history (and I am not) the story doesn't really explain what is going on or why we should care very much about the various characters. The story itself is readable, but I was as confused at the end as I was at the beginning. It did make me want to read more about Aliette's alternate history, which means I think one could call it a success, but as a stand-alone story it just doesn't quite work.

Haggle Chips by Tom Purdom, which follows immediately after The Other Graces, is a much more conventional story. It is basically a science fiction kidnapping with a few twists and quirks, as the main character is held hostage by a radical religious group seeking concessions from the planetary government. The main character in the story is both the titular "haggle chip" and the user of such chips to try to get his freedom. There's nothing particularly groundbreaking or noteworthy about the story, but it is a solid adventure story with a little humor, a little romance, and just enough science thrown in to fit the magazine. D. T. Mitenko's story Eddie's Ants, on the other hand, is somewhat bizarre, but mostly interesting due to the speculation it engages in concerning the nature of collective intelligence, and how such an alien being might be socially dysfunctional by nature. The story itself, detailing the humorous efforts of a frustrated ex-boyfriend to kill his former girlfriends nigh indestructible alien paramour, is moderately humorous. However, it is deadly serious when it comes to exploring alien psychology, how truly alien it might be, and why. Overall, Eddie's Ants was, to me, the most thought-provoking story in the issue. Also humorous is Amelia Pillar's Etiquette for the Space Traveler by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, written in the form a guidebook that gives "helpful" tips to travelers embarking on an extended space cruise. The tone is intended to be silly and farcical, but a lot of the jokes came off as somewhat forced, and the entire story was simply flat where it should have danced.

The cover story of the issue, and the one that is probably most likely to figure in awards season, is Robert Reed's A History of Terraforming. The story is built around the life of Simon, a single, long-lived but mostly otherwise unexceptional man who lives through much of the terraforming of the solar system. The story is as much about transhumanism, and how "terraforming" the solar system might change us as much as it is about how we might change it. Through all the upheaval, Simon remains hardworking, and just smart enough to have important jobs, but not so brilliant as to be caught in the focal glare of the political struggles concerning the destiny of humanity. like most truly insightful stories about the possible future courses of humanity, the story is more than a little disturbing, but Simon's bland everyman nature keeps things from getting too alien to be accessible to the reader. This wasn't my favorite story in the issue, but it is probably the one that most people will remember.

Overall, this issue had more ups and downs that most, but even the downs are mostly the result of an author trying to do something difficult rather than an author just turning in a bad story. In the end, the overall issue is worth reading, so it gets an average rating.

Note: This volume contains The Jaguar House, in Shadow by Aliette de Bodard, a 2011 nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

Previous issue reviewed: June 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: August 2010

2011 Hugo Award Nominees

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