Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 33, Nos. 4 & 5 (April/May 2009) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
The Great Armada by Brian Stableford
The Spires of Denon by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The Armies of Elfland by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick
This Wind Blowing, and this Tide by Damien Broderick
True Fame by Robert Reed
An Ordinary Day With Jason by Kate Wilhelm
Atomic Truth by Chris Beckett
Human Day by Jack Skillingstead
Cowgirls in Space by Deborah Coates
Exegesis by Nancy Kress

Poems included:
Small Conquerors by Geoffrey A. Landis
We Ignore Him by P.M.F. Johnson
Bridges by Peter Roberts

Full review: The April/May 2009 double issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is also the 400th issue of the magazine, and it is clear that the editors tried to get a collection of stories by somewhat notable names in the science fiction field. As a result, this issue features stories by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kate Wilhelm, Robert Reed, Nancy Kress, Brian Stableford, and Michael Swanwick. Unfortunately, this seems to have required some shortcuts in the editorial selection process, so several of the stories in the issue are simply not up to the usual standards of contributions by these authors.

The Great Armada by Brian Stableford is the latest in his "fleshcore" series of stories, all set in an alternate 16th century England in which Jane is Queen of England and the greatest threat faced by humanity comes from beyond the stars. Humans, with endoskeletons, are the rarity as invertebrates in the form of alien analogues of mollusks and arachnids dominate the galaxy. The stories all feature famous individuals from history: This one features Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, Rabbi Low, and Doctor Faust, all of whom who deal with an etheral being they regard as an angel and a machine intelligence they regard as a golem as they fend off an invasion of etheral creatures and finally return to meet the "Great Fleshcore" which is the ruling intelligence of the invertebrate empire. I've never been a big fan of this series, as it wanders and meanders about in a confusing manner, but this installment was better than most of the others. This Wind Blowing, and this Tide by Damien Broderick also takes on an alternate history idea, but this time the alternate history is so far in our own past that it could plausibly be true. The story follows a scientist in the future who is a proponent of the idea that saurian life had evolved sentient intelligence tens of millions of years before the rise of humanity and set about exploring outer space. An unknown spacecraft is found that may support this idea, and the lost crewmembers of this ship bring back the scientists own memories of his lost child. It is interesting both for the speculative history and the personal connection that the author infuises into the story.

The Spires of Denon by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is the story of an archaeological expedition hunting through the ruins of an ancient alien city that has huge, beautiful crystal spires over it. Characters with competing interests try to drive the exploration in differing directions until an expedition into an unexplored area under the city triggers a crisis that reveals the answer to some key mysteries. The story highlights the danger that archaeologists exploring technologies that simply don't understand might have to confront. The story is decent, but I wasn't that impressed by it overall, simply because there wasn't much to the story except for the exploration of this self-contained fictitious city. The Armies of Elfland by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick is a bizarre fantasy told from the perspective of a child that has grown up after the invasion and conquest of the Earth by elves. The protagonist must learn to deal with the truly alien thought process of the elves and (with the aid of an eager suitor for her hand) figure out a way to exploit their weaknesses. The elves in the story operate by rules that make internal sense, but bear limited relation to human thoughts, which makes the story compelling in a horrible (but good) way.

True Fame by Robert Reed is a short but convoluted story about how the paparazzi might be replaced by direct action by fans, with a strange twist at the end. The story is an interesting commentary on fame and what people do to be near it, as well as how one betrayal might be foiled by an even bigger one. An Ordinary Day With Jason by Kate Wilhelm is a tale about a particular brand of heritable magic, told from the perspective of a woman who has married into such a family. Wilhelm's writing is always good, and this story is no exception, but there's no real deep meaning to this tale: It is just a glimpse into the world of a quirky family. Atomic Truth by Chris Beckett is also a story that takes currently emerging technology to a logical conclusion, as the lives of two individuals - one completely linked into modern society and the other standing mostly outside it - interact accidentally. The story takes the modern proclivity towards replacing actual human contact with connections via technology to an extreme, with somewhat disturbing results. Human Day by Jack Skillingstead also tackles the question of technology replacing human interaction, but in a rather more direct and disturbing manner. When a story causes one to question whether anyone in the story is human or not then I would consider that to be an eerily effective tale.

Cowgirls in Space by Deborah Coates revolves around a quasi-magical alien device and a group of female rodeo performers who found it as teenagers and discovered its power, and the price is exacted. Years later a second device is found in China which reunites the girls, all of whom have differing attitudes concerning their own use of the device they found so many years before. The questions concenring what the device is and where it came from are never resolved, but that's not so important to the story, rather the critical theme is how the girls view using the device and that is really well-presented in the story. Exegesis by Nancy Kress is a brief story told via the evolving interpretations of Rhett Butler's famous last line from Gone With the Wind. Kress imagines how future generations of overly analytical scholars might deconstruct this simple phrase and how it gets distorted through the lens of time and successive overlays of academic cruft that has built up over the years. It is funny, and at the very end, briefly touching.

Although I consider it likely that my lukewarm response to Stableford's "fleshcore" series of stories is probably idiosyncratic to me, coupling The Great Armada with the other somewhat weak stories in the issue (including the other novella in this issue The Spires of Denon) results in a less than impressive issue. This is all the more disappointing given the anniversary status of the issue, and the clear editorial decision to try to pack the issue with notable authors. While there are some less than impressive stories in this issue, there are still several good ones, so while this issue is not anything particularly special, it is at least average.

Previous issue reviewed: March 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: June 2009

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