Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 33, Nos. 10 & 11 (October/November 2009) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
The Sea of Dreams by William Barton
Blood Dauber by Ted Kosmatka and Michael Poore
Wife-Stealing Time by R. Garcia y Robertson
Flowers of Asphodel by Damien Broderick
Flotsam by Elissa Malcohn
The Ghost Hunter's Beautiful Daughter by Christopher Barzak
Where the Time Goes by Heather Lindsley
Erosion by Ian Creasey
Before My Last Breath by Robert Reed
Deadly Sins by Nancy Kress

Poems included:
Derivative Work by Elissa Malcohn
For Ye, of Very Little Faith by W. Gregory Stewart
Monsters by Geoffrey A. Landis
Unghost Stories by Greg Beatty
The Hedge Witch's Upgrade by Sandra Lindow
Edgar Allan Poe by Bryan D. Dietrich

Full review: The double issues of Analog and Asimov's often struggle to fill the whole volume with the usual fare of high quality material. This issue suffers a bit in that regard, with a number of stories that, for various reasons, are simply underwhelming in quality. However, given the large number of stories in the issue, that is not unexpected, and is more than offset by the generally high quality of the remaining material in the issue. Among the high quality material is Mary Robinette Kowal's essay Thought Experiments: Almost Possible in which she examines what should qualify as hard science fiction and what should not based upon what physicists believe is possible and what is not. Interestingly, it turns out that very little is truly impossible, which might stick in the craw of hard science fiction purists, but to me seems to open up a whole vista of storytelling possibilities for the subgenre.

Four of the stories in this issue were pretty weak, all for very different reasons. Blood Dauber is a collaboration between Ted Kosmatka and Michael Poole. I always wonder about shorter length stories written by multiple authors, as it seems like there is so little space for each to work with, but it seems like the two each took on subplot and wove them together. The story links the crumbling personal life of a zookeeper at a dilapidated local zoo with the discovery of a bizarre insect that seems to mutate every generation to whatever form seems most advantageous when the creature is in the larval stage. The connection is fairly heavy handed, and the story doesn't seem to come together very well, which seems to be a problem for a fair number of collaborations.

Flowers of Asphodel by Damien Broderick is the weakest story in the issue. It aspires to be a deep meaningful story telling a tale of love and betrayal, but it crashes and burns under the weight of its own self-importance and pretentious language, making it almost unreadable. I kept turning the pages hoping the author would get to some kind of story or make some sort of point, but he didn't. Flotsam, by Elissa Malcohn is also a weak story, but much less so than Flowers of Asphodel. Flotsam has very little science fiction content, focusing on a child's memory of discovering a mermaid washed up on shore with a tide of fish killed by the polluted water of the ocean. She holds this memory, driven to clean up the environment, but unable to do much effectively due to her impoverished background until she discovers another one when she is much older. There is a bit too much serendipity in the narrative, and the only science fictional element is the undiscovered life form, so the story is pretty lightweight even though it is clearly intended to be a dire warning about environmental disaster.

I was generally unimpressed by The Ghost Hunter's Beautiful Daughter by Christopher Barzak, but mostly because I simply did not care about the characters. Both the ghost hunter and his daughter seemed to be cardboard cutouts, and the rest of the characters (including the ghosts) simply props to be hustled about the story. The story itself doesn't help much, as the ghost hunter's daughter has second thoughts about hunting ghosts and makes her father stop.

The remaining stories in the book more than make up for the weaknesses of those four. This issue marks the return of SinBad the sand sailor in R. Garcia y Robertson's Wife-Stealing Time. A denizen of a quasi-plausible artificially created version of Barsoom, SinBad is quickly becoming one of my favorite recurring characters in Asimov's. He is a sex criminal (consorting with lesbians among his many crimes), but no one in the stories seems to take this particularly seriously. It is unclear to me if this is a commentary on the overly broad sex offender registries in many part of the U.S., or on the condemn the sin but look the other way attitude of most religious groups these days, or if it is something else entirely. In any event, the story follows SinBad as he stumbles across a pretty young transplanted Crow Indian girl taking refuge during her tribe's annual wife-stealing time, and the troubles they both run into when they become entangled in the doings of an off-world hunting party. The story is humorous and recreates Burrough's Barsoom pretty well, but retains a core of science plausibility that makes it that much better.

Where the Time Goes by Heather Lindsley follows a pair of time traveling entrepreneurs who go into the past and harvest wasted time. One of their harvesting runs goes awry, and they find themselves having to scramble to avoid calamity. In the end, they come up with a creative way to make ends meet. Deadly Sins by Nancy Kress is also a humorous story about a scientific discovery that allows a person to detect the scent of people's emotions. The humor comes from the unusual array of emotions the creator decided to build into his detection system (which the astute can probably guess from the title of the story).

Two of the stories are hard science fiction tales about colonizing hostile worlds. Erosion by Ian Creasey is about a person who has been enhanced to survive the rigors of a mission to colonize an alien world testing out his new body. He acts recklessly, and pays the price while learning a lesson that will probably serve him sell in his future home. The story is both sad and hopeful. In Before My Last Breath by Robert Reed the hostile world is Earth, and the colonizers are aliens who crash-landed on the planet in the distant past. The story focuses on the discovery of the alien burial ground in the modern day, and the discovery that the alien culture slowly fell apart as they lost their technological know-how and descended into superstition in the face of the harsh and unforgiving Earth climate. Overall, this is probably the best story of the issue.

The longest story in the issue is The Sea of Dreams by William Barton, a bizarre time-travel tale that assumes that a branching alternate reality is created each instance that time is altered. The protagonist has been transformed into a reptilian creature as a result of anti-radiation treatments, and works with a computer pseudo-personality that is in love with him. He finds himself isolated with one of the pseudo-personality's cloned drones, who develops a personality of her own while they are traveling through their own distant future. Each hop through time alters things radically and seals off the reality they just came from. The story is just as strange as it seems, and the strangeness just makes a good story better.

This issue, on balance, is above average. While there were some definite misses, and some stories that were simply no more than adequate, several stories in this issue were quite good, with two (Wife-Stealing Time and Before My Last Breath) that stand out as superior. Overall, this is a good issue of a good magazine.

Previous issue reviewed: September 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: December 2009

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