Asimov’s, March 2009

This month’s Asimov’s is a mixed bag, with some excellent short pieces, but with the longer works trying to carry novel-weight heapings of characters and plot in their novella word-counts.

“Act One”, by Nancy Kress, a novella about natural and artificial genetic change (she doesn’t say “mutation”), how they affect their carriers, and how society reacts to them. The story is narrated by Barry, the business manager of Jane Snow, a Hollywood star who is now no longer young enough to get the bulk of movie roles for women. Barry is afflicted with achondroplasia dwarfism, which causes many of the people around him to react unpleasantly. When a shadowy organization called “The Group” begins introducing a genetic “enhancement” to the children of the willing rich, and then later a disease that causes genetic modifications in adults, Barry’s condition gives him a special viewpoint on these developments. The story is cleanly written, and the many characters well drawn, though perhaps the sheer number of characters is more appropriate to a novel than this shorter piece.

“Intelligence”, by R. Neube is a somewhat dark comedy that explores what happens when artificial intelligence turns out to be just as limited as the natural kind. Both the somewhat slow-witted human narrator, and his nearly-as-dense computer friend dig themselves progressively deeper into trouble through a series of wrong moves. This one is worth it for its uncommon look at AI.

Holly Phillips’s “The Long, Cold Goodbye” is the story of a woman trying to meet up with an old friend before leaving her home town in the face of some unexplained approaching catastrophe. The story leaves much unexplained, perhaps trying to keep its fantastic elements mysterious in the way of Gene Wolfe, but it ended up leaving me more confused than enchanted.

“Slow Stampede”, by Sara Genge, presents a finely-imagined world of bandits raiding caravans of immense “swamp elephants” on a low-gravity planet. The main character is well developed and very realistic, as a young bandit chafing at the authority of his tribe; but maybe he’s too self-confident and amoral to win our sympathy. He is also the only character to really be developed (perhaps reflecting his own self-centered point of view). The story ends with his marrying a character who has not been developed beyond a brief sketch. This, and other loose ends, makes the story feel incomplete. On the other hand, if this is an excerpt from a novel, there is plenty to build on here.

“Whatness”, by Benjamin Crowell, is an excellent short-short piece about efforts to clean up after a small mistake that manages to destroy all of space and time.

Finally, Harry Turtledove’s “Getting Real”, is a turnabout on history set in near future L.A. The turnabout is a replaying of the origins of the 19th century opium war, but now the USA is the backward and inward looking fading power, and China is the more-advanced superpower forcing vice on its victim. The plot moves along well, but is somewhat heavy-handed in linking up with history. As in Kress’ story, there are more characters than can be adequately developed in this story, though here the various p.o.v. shifts are handled more adeptly. Finally, the references to Chinese culture are somewhat clumsy, for example in naming the main Chinese character “Hu Zhiaoxing”, neglecting that zhiao is not a valid Mandarin syllable, (jiao is possible). So this name becomes a really uncommon three-syllable form: zhi-ao-xing, more easily pronounceable by Americans if written as “dzr-ow-sying”, which is really a mouthful. There seems to be a trend going to give characters names beginning with “zh” to gain that currently trendy exotic Chinese feel.

Of course, Asimov’s also has poetry, with “Cabaret” by J. E. Stanley being the standout this month, and columns, including further reflections on the work of Olaf Stapledon by Robert Silverberg.

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