Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, Nos. 4 & 5 (April/May 2010) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
The Union of Soil and Sky by Gregory Norman Bossert
Mindband by Pamela Sargent
Jackie's-Boy by Steven Popkes
Alten Kameraden by Barry B. Longyear
Unforeseen by Molly Gloss
Adrift by Eugene Fischer
They Laughed at Me in Vienna and Again in Prague, and then in Belfast, and Don't Forget Hanoi! But I'll Show Them! I'll Show Them All, I Tell You! by Tim McDaniel
Malick Pan by Sara Genge
Pretty to Think So by Robert Reed

Poems included:
Kitchen Deities by Ruth Berman
Martian Opal by Ruth Berman

Full review: In general, the double issues of Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact are often disappointing. It seems that the requirement of filling a double length issue with high quality science fiction stories strains the editorial staff to the limit, resulting in issues filled with mediocre stories leavened with a few good ones. Happily, the April/May 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction bucks this trend, with only a handful of lacklustre stories surrounded by a collection of very good ones.

The cover story in the issue is The Union of Soil and Sky by Gregory Norman Bossert, a fairly standard xenoarchaeology story featuring hardworking xenoarchaeologists in a race to unearth traces of a lost civilization on a faraway planet (and thus save the heritage of the seemingly primitive inhabitants). They are, predictably, pitted against the commercial interests of a mining company that wants to exploit the mineral wealth of the planet. As one would expect in this type of story, the inhabitants are not as primitive as they seem, and the xenoarchaeologists uncover some interesting things in their digging. The story is okay, but doesn't have anything that I would consider to be particularly noteworthy, treading well-worn ground again.

Unforeseen by Molly Gloss is one of the few fairly original stories in the volume, despite dealing with the pretty frequently covered topic of resurrection. In this case, the ability to return dead people to life merely serves as the backdrop to the story, which revolves around the question of what is exactly is a foreseeable risk and what is not. Told from the perspective of an insurance claims adjuster tasked with determining if a woman's freak death was or was not foreseeable (and thus whether she would or would not be covered by her resurrection insurance plan) the story is dark, depressing, and quite good. Mindband by Pamela Sargent is another dark story, this time dealing with the unintended consequences of a telepathy experiment. While secret research causing trouble and cautionary tales concerning telepathy are not new subjects in the genre, this story is well-written, and comes at the topic from a modestly unusual angle that keeps the reader guessing throughout. I thought it was good.

Adrift by Eugene Fischer is a refugee story dressed up in science fiction drag. Other than the modestly unusual nature of the method by which the refugees in the story set out to travel to their intended asylum, the story doesn't really have much to do with science fiction at all. The story itself could have been recast with wooden boats filling the central transportation role without changing anything of substance. The story itself is adequate, but seems to be the obligatory "not really science fiction" story in the issue.

They Laughed at Me in Vienna and Again in Prague, and then in Belfast, and Don't Forget Hanoi! But I'll Show Them! I'll Show Them All, I Tell You! by Tim McDaniel officially wins the prize for having the longest title of any short story that I have read. It is, as one might guess, a fairly humorous tale about a mad scientist who, despite the repeated failures of demonstrations of his discoveries keeps trying and, in the end, gets a modestly unexpected supporter. It is funny and sad at the same time and despite the silly premise it is my favorite story in the issue and amidst the dark stories that surround it, it is a breath of fresh air in an issue that could have been dragged down by the heavy subject matter of many of the stories.

Alten Kameraden by Barry B. Longyear is yet another dark story, this time science fiction is left behind for a story set in the Fuhrer bunker in 1945 during the final days of the Third Reich. The story follows Kurt Wolff, a German Jew serving in the Wehrmacht and in a strange twist, an old army buddy of Hitler's. He is summoned to the dictator's personal service and events unfold leading to a not altogether unpredictable albeit satisfying ending. It is hard to classify this story without being too spoilerish, but it is definitely worth a read.

Malick Pan by Sara Genge is a post-apocalyptic science fiction take on the Peter Pan story. Like Unforeseen and Mindband the story is dark and sad, which seems to be a theme of this issue. Set in a wasteland at the fringes of a city, the characters subsist by hunting rats, and only children are small enough to hunt the rats. The central character is kept small by his "nanners", who also give him an edge when hunting. The story is about fear, child abuse, and sexual violence, but unlike the other dark stories in this issue it has a more upbeat (although not entirely happy) ending. Jackie's-Boy by Steven Popkes is also a post-apocalyptic story, set in the central United States after society has collapsed. The central character is taken off the streets in by an automated zoo and given a job and later strikes up a fairly unusual friendship. It is more or less a classic road buddy story, but the road buddies are not the usual, and the troubles they face are fairly unique. Overall, this is probably one of the two best stories in the issue.

Pretty to Think So by Robert Reed deals with what is one of the hot issues in current science fiction: dark matter. The story deals with a crisis engendered by experiments dealing with the unseen bulk of the Universe, and is mostly told from the perspective of a small boy who thinks that his family's desperate flight to avoid the danger is a trip to Disneyland. In terms of writing quality and originality, this is a superior story and shares the top spot in the issue with Jackie's Boy. (While I liked They Laughed at Me in Vienna, . . . the most, it is silly and not particularly noteworthy, hence Pretty to Think So and Jackie's Boy share the designation of "best story").

Though many of the stories in this issue are dark, most of them (with the exception, oddly, of the cover story The Union of Soil and Sky and the "not a science fiction story" Adrift) are quite good despite their often depressing subject matter. I had begun to worry that the double issue format was becoming a problem for the magazine, which I think would be serious trouble as I consider it reasonably likely that Asimov's and Analog will be forced to follow Fantasy & Science Fiction into a bimonthly publishing schedule. However, this very strong double issue gives me hope that this potential shift in format will not damage the quality of the magazine.

Previous issue reviewed: March 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: June 2010

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