Thursday, December 4, 2014

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 33, No. 8 (August 2009) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
The Qualia Engine by Damien Broderick
California Burning by Michael Blumlein
Creatures of Well-Defined Habits by Robert Reed
Blue by Derek Zumsteg
The Consciousness Problem by Mary Robinette Kowal
Two Boys by Steven Popkes
Turbulence by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Poems included:
Chicken from Minsk by Karin L. Frank
Osteometry by Erin Hoffman
Doing Splits by Ruth Berman
And My Sinuses Are Killing Me by Tina Connolly
Human Resources by F.J. Bergmann

Full review: The August 2009 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is a decent issue, but lacks a great anchor story that would raise it above the merely ordinary. None of the stories in the issue are bad, but none of them stand out as being particularly noteworthy.

The two novellas in the issue, The Qualia Engine by Damien Broderick and California Burning by Michael Blumlein both tackle the question of how well we truly understand those who share our lives, but from very different angles. In The Qualia Engine a collection of hyper-intelligent children take on the question of "qualia", or how to truly understand experiences from another's point of view. Along the way they build an engine that allows the user to experience the memories of another person, and the central character in the story learns things about one of his companions that he might rather not have known. The ending is ambiguous as to what impact the new technology will have, which I think is the weakness of the story. In California Burning a man is told that his recently deceased father's bones simply won't burn, and is left with the dilemma of how to cremate him. While trying to solve this problem, he discovers that he didn't really know his father very well, although he finds no answers to his father's true identity. Set against the backdrop of raging California wildfires, the story is mysterious, but ultimately unsatisfying, content merely to pose a bunch of questions, but hesitant to actually try to answer any.

The remaining stories range from the trivial to the pretty good. Turbulence by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is the flimsiest of the bunch: A man takes airplane flights a lot, a woman next to him says that every flight she rides experiences turbulence, the flight experiences very rough turbulence, the man ends the story scared to fly. This is one of those stories that is okay, albeit somewhat pointless, but one wonders why it is in a science fiction magazine. Creatures of Well-Defined Habits by Robert Reed centers around a rather elaborate prank played by the friends of an old gentleman (or rather a replacement robot with an old gentleman's memories) intended to get him to tell new stories and not just rehash old ones. It is diverting, but not much more. Two Boys by Steven Popkes is a story about two neanderthals growing up in the modern world (the neanderthal bloodline having been revived via genetic engineering), set in two different time periods. While nominally about prejudice against those who are different, the story really comes to the conclusion that humanity needs an outside force to help mediate its insoluble problems, a conclusion I find somewhat dubious.

The two best stories in the issue are Blue by Derek Zumsteg and The Consciousness Problem Mary Robinette Kowal. In Blue two survivors are trapped in a spacecraft orbiting a blue black hole (hence the title, the blue effect would result from the light drawn into the hole being blue-shifted). The story focuses on the strained relationship between the two as they fight over minor irritations all the while threatened by the looming power of the black hole that holds their craft in thrall. As the characters struggle to come up with a plan of escape that gives them the best chance of survival, the two clash over food selection, use of exercise equipment, and the hundred other petty concerns two people trapped in a limited space cut off from the rest of the world would have. The story ends just as they begin their attempted escape, which might seem like ending the tale just as the story gets good, but in the end the story isn't about the escape, but rather the isolation.

The Consciousness Problem is told from the perspective of a confused narrator suffering from a debilitating brain injury that has made her unable to focus for any length of time, causes hallucinations, and otherwise interferes with her ability to live a normal life. The action of the story takes place mostly offstage as her husband works to complete a project they had shared before her injury: The cloning of humans complete with the intact memories of the original subject. The purported reason is to allow powerful busy people to clone themselves to get more work done, but it seems somewhat less than plausible that someone would agree to this. It also seems that no thought or consideration is given to the question of whether the clone would be agreeable to this sort of life. In fact, the narrator's husband does successfully clone himself, but the resulting clone, complete with all his memories (including the memories of loving his wife) is treated as little more than a lab experiment. Naturally, the clone regards this as a problem and turns his considerable intellect to finding a way to change his situation. The clone's solution is unexpected and interesting. The story raises serious questions about identity, both from the perspective of the narrator, whose injury has changed her entire mental make up even though she occupies the same body, and the clone, who remembers and feels everything the original did, but isn't the same person simply because he does not occupy the same body his memories were made in. This is the best story in the issue.

Overall, with a few hits, a few moderately engaging stories, and a few modest misses, this adds up to a decent but unspectacular issue of a generally fine magazine.

Previous issue reviewed: July 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: September 2009

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