Saturday, February 26, 2011

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 6 (June 2010) edited by Sheila Williams

Stories included:
Earth III by Stephen Baxter
The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele
Petopia by Benjamin Crowell
Monkey Do by Kit Reed
The Peacock Cloak by Chris Beckett
Voyage to the Moon by Peter Friend
Dreadnought Neptune by Anna Tambour

Poems included:
Human Potential by Geoffrey A. Landis
Crushed by Susan Abel Sullivan
Of Lycanthropy and Lilacs by Sandra Lindow

Full review: The June 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is a bland and uninteresting affair, with mostly adequate stories that bob up and down between "just a little better than average" to "just a little worse than average" and nothing particularly noteworthy in either direction.

The longest story in the issue is the novella Earth III by Stephen Baxter, which returns to the same fictional reality that Baxter's novel Ark and his short story Earth II are set in. The story is set on a tidally locked world that has one pole perpetually facing its sun (so that one side of the planet is forever in daylight, while the other is perpetually in darkness). The inhabitants of the world share a common religion that asserts that the entire world and everything on it is merely a virtual reality simulation enforced by a somewhat ruthless theocratic elite surrounded by fractious and hungry mercantile states kept uneasily under its heel. This volatile situation is sparked into open war by the actions of a headstrong young woman and the more or less foolish man who falls in love with her. Events push the characters into exploring the lost knowledge of their ancestors and threatens to shake the very foundations of the religious establishment. The only true weakness of the story is the about face done by one of the major characters at the last minute which seems completely unexpected, against his own interests, and completely out of character. Like most Baxter stories, the characters are almost all entirely too reasonable, but even still the setting and plot are interesting enough to make for a decent read.

The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele seemed to me to be somewhat of a Heinlein-influenced story, discussing events from the early years of the colonization of Mars. The plot explores the mental healing process of one of the colony workers following extreme personal tragedy, resulting in his retreat into written science fiction (by then a mostly forgotten genre). The story is replete with references to the vast collection of science fiction stories contained on the disk sent with the Phoenix lander which landed on Mars in 2008. Like many science fiction stories today it is filled with nostalgia laden references to earlier works, which I find to be a mixed blessing. It is nice to see an author paying homage to the stories he (and probably most of his readers) grew up on. It is, however, distressing in the sense that it seems to be a potential sign that the genre has become moribund and inward looking. I'll go (in this case) with the theory that it is a fitting tribute to the genre, as the story itself is pretty good. But I'll still worry.

Both Petopia by Benjamin Crowell and Monkey Do by Kit Reed deal with precocious pets. However, that is more or less where the similarities end. While Petopia has some comic elements, it is a mostly straight story about the struggles a young woman faces living in a third world country while saddled with an alcoholic father and a shiftless younger brother. In her routine and dreary life she comes across a toy robot, the Petopian of the title, which had somehow been mistakenly shipped from California to be found by her. This tiny bit of technology falling into her lap allows her to change her life, and the lives of her family, although certainly not in a manner that the creators of the toy would have approved. Monkey Do on the other hand, is a purely comic tale regarding the travails of a bad writer and his pet monkey (which he acquired when writing the commercially unsuccessful book Rhesus Planet). He purchases some writing software to keep his monkey occupied, and the results are not exactly what he planned. Although the two stories are markedly different in tone, they are both pretty good.

Both the The Peacock Cloak by Chris Beckett and Voyage to the Moon by Peter Friend are also thematically similar, being stories about artificially created worlds. They are, however, quite distinct, as one is told from the perspective of the creators of the world and the other from the perspective of those living within it. Of the two, I found Peacock Cloak to be the less effective story. Told from the perspective of Tawus, a deific figure and the last of his numerous siblings who had fought for control over the world they made, the central element of the story is Tawus' confrontation with his own creator. The story is very symbolic and wants to be full of deep meaning, but never quite hits the mark. Voyage to the Moon, on the other hand, is told from the perspective of scientists living on an alien world. The protagonist proposes using an animal that resembles a natural gas balloon to reach the moon, a notion that is scoffed at by his "scientific" colleagues. The expedition sets out, and things don't turn out like any of the participants expected. It is quite a good story, set in a world that is fairly different than what the reader would have expected at the outset.

The only story that was fairly weak in this volume was Dreadnought Neptune by Anna Tambour. The story takes place amidst the rush of people to journey to Neptune on a ship that pops up randomly on the street. In the mad rush, everyone crowds aboard until they are packed shoulder to shoulder inside. The story tries to make a psychological statement about humanity and the relationship between a father and son, but it never explains why random people on the street would rush in to a randomly appearing spaceship until they were packed in like sardines. Because of the flawed premise of the story, the remaining material just isn't very convincing. The writing isn't bad, but the story just doesn't make sense.

Overall, this issue is not particularly good or bad. With mostly average stories and none that are particularly noteworthy, it serves as merely a placeholder issue until a better one comes along. There's nothing really wrong with the issue overall, there's just nothing to recommend reading anything in it more than once.

Note: This volume contains The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele, winner of the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

Previous issue reviewed: April/May 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: July 2010

2010 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Island by Peter Watts
2012 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders

Hugo Award Winners for Best Novelette

2011 Hugo Award Nominees

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