Asimov’s, April/May 2009

This month’s double issue of Asimov’s,their 400th issue, starts out only average, but ends strong with exceptional entries by Deborah Coates, Damien Broderick and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

First up is “The Great Armada” by Brian Stableford. This wraps up a sequence of four stories in which the intellectual notables of late 16th century England deal with an alien invasion. This highly divergent history is fascinating, and seems to be carefully constructed. Seeing characters out of history written as personalities rather than just names behind accomplishments adds to the enjoyment of the stories. However, having read two of the previous stories I no longer experienced the same fascination on reading this one. Stableford does a good job of wrapping up the alien invasion and tying up the plot, but now that the milieu has become familiar rather than novel the story didn’t grab me.

Next is “True Fame” by Robert Reed. This story riffs on the idea of anonymity in a world where our electronic footprints follow us forever. It ends with a moral dilemma for a somewhat amoral character. A thought-provoking story.

The third story is “An Ordinary Day with Jason” by Kate Wilhelm, about a woman who marries in to a family with an inherited ability to teleport. Since this ability initially manifests in childhood by the creation of an actual stairway in the teleporter’s vicinity, there’s great risk of discovery of this family’s special talent. The conflict is largely internal, in the wife’s decision whether to accept her husband and son’s unusual gift, and the husband’s roundabout way of informing her of it. However, the outcome never seems to be particularly in doubt, so there’s not much to draw the reader onward after the macguffin itself is discovered.

Next up, Chris Beckett‘s “Atomic Truth” enters territory not often covered in SF magazines: a realistic portrayal of the experience of the mentally ill. One of the two main characters is a schizophrenic(?) in a world where most of the population spends most of their time cut-off from those around them by virtual reality goggles. Unfortunately excessive direct exposition on the details of the goggle technology distract from the much more interesting story about people who either by choice or by nature are cut off from direct relationships.

“The Armies of Elfland” by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick is a stylistic thrill-ride through a world where elves have conquered the human world, keeping only a few children alive, more or less as pets. Gunn and Swanwick apparently wrote this as a sort of live action demo for a workshop, and as one crazy element is piled on top of another I can imagine one of these writers finishing a paragraph and turning the story over to the other with a “how are you going to top this?” grin. It’s fascinating and fun to read, wondering how the absurdities of the story can be jelled together, and in the end it is amazingly successful.

I might have been wrong to say SF rarely deals with mental illness; paranoia is certainly a common theme, and Jack Skillingstead’s “Human Day” continues that tradition. The story regards a man who’s locked himself in a bunker to wait out some kind of catastrophe, and who’s now built a remotely operated robot dog to return to the outside world and find out what’s happened. Throughout the story its unclear whether the catastrophe is real or a production of Raymond’s imagination or delusion. A Twilight Zone trick ending wraps it all up.

“Cowgirls in Space” by Deborah Coates begins the strong finale of the magazine. The story is about a group of childhood girlfriends and trick horseriding teammates who’ve drifted apart. Long ago they discovered a mysterious alien object, and now that another similar object has been found in China they’re drawn back together in their midwestern home town. The story is told in a voice somewhere on the edge between authentic dialect and hammed-up rusticism, but after a page that becomes less distracting and the characters of the five women and their challenge in dealing with the found object takes over. This is an excellent story.

Damien Broderick‘s “This Wind Blowing, and this Tide” is another fine read. The story is about Myeong-Hui Park, a unique character, a purveyor of alternate scientific theories and psychic of some kind, who must deal with orthodox scientists investigating a mysterious ancient spaceship found on Titan preserved blanketed in flowers in a “stationary field”. Broderick does a nice job dealing with, and thoroughly exploring, the non-western psychology of the central character, without overwhelming the story with cultural trivia.

Not really part of what I consider the fantastic finale of this magazine, but fun and short, Nancy Kress‘ “Exegesis” imagines how far-future generations might interpret Gone With the Wind. There’s no drama here, but its nice to see the science of linguistics brought into the world of science fiction.

Finally, “The Spires of Denon” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch finishes off the magazine on a high note. Like many of Rusch’s recent stories, this one again features cave diving as a plot element, but unlike in a few others, its not required to carry the whole story. This story centers on an archaeological dig run by an unscrupulous scientist, a security professional who’s much more than the flunky he’s hired to be, and an enigmatic outsider whose goals aren’t clear until the end. While this adventurous story is largely plot-driven, the characters too hold mysteries, as we’re not sure until the end just how unscrupulous our archaeologist is, or what the outsider is really after. Another fine tale to keep us waiting for the next issue of Asimov’s.

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