Asimov's: Year in Review
In November I started reading through the year’s worth of Asimov’s magazines. There are many stories I did not finish and/or did not care for; my purpose here is to highlight stories I particularly liked and not to fix much attention on works I might have less positive things to say about.
"To me, the scientific point of view is completely satisfying, and it has been so long as I remember. Not once in this life have I ever been inclined to seek a rock and refuge elsewhere." -H.L. Mencken
The jewel of the January 2005 issue of Asimov’s, for me, was "Inside Job", by Connie Willis. To those well versed in Willis’ work, the structure of the story will feel very familiar: a comic romance in which two people delve into a mystery and in the process discover each other. The particulars of the story feel appropriate to this year, however — a supposed spirit channeler appears to be channeling H.L. Mencken (a skeptic and debunker of charlatans best known for his coverage of the Scopes Monkey Trial), who proceeds to make unflattering remarks toward her and her profession. Is it real? Willis takes advantage of this vehicle to comment on the resurging tendency for "Boobus Americanus" to believe all kinds of scams and frauds while failing to value or apply scientific reasoning. She peppers the story with quotes from Mencken and supposes he would be disappointed in current affairs.
He couldn't believe there were still addlepated ignoramuses around who didn’t believe in evolution, and what the hell had they been teaching in the schools all this time.
I bet he would too. Let’s hope for more journalists who aim to tell it like it is. Enjoyable as it is inspiring, Willis’ story should not disappoint her fans. It is also available as a chapbook from Subterranean Press should you wish to purchase an individually bound copy.
February’s novelette "The 120 Hours of Sodom", by Jim Grimsley, is a very adult exploration of the emotions that stimulate us to feel truly alive. The protagonist, Figg, is turning 300, and his friend Sade, who has recently renamed himself after a certain Marquis, wishes to throw him a huge, high-profile party. This will not be just any party: it will reproduce orgiastic scenes and themes from the literary piece The 120 Days of Sodom over four days, culminating in the licensed suicide of Cherry, a young woman from the Reeks, one of the Third Tier areas crammed with people who mostly have no hope of escape. Cherry’s dream is to purchase the escape of her brother with her death. She and Figg connect over the course of plan-making and the party in a way that seems all too rare in post-Transit society. That connection is threatened in an unexpected way by Sade’s plans, and Figg finds himself aroused to a strength of emotion he’d despaired of ever feeling again.
This is a story that earns Asimov’s new warning that it contains scenes some people may find disturbing, but I thought the narration did a perfect job of reflecting the jaded detachment of the protagonist, and I was delighted by many imaginative constructs. Figg has a cybernetic spider that lives on him and acts as bodyguard and pleasure stimulator in a nicely twisted relationship that, as he observes, is not that distant from the pairing of the bloom slave in the Marmigon restaurant and the plant that is slowly consuming her. Penelope feeds on Figg even as she protects him and is as much of a companion to him as Sade. This is a more mature story than the sexual themes alone suggest and I commend Grimsley for what he accomplished with it.
In the March Asimov’s I appreciated David D. Levine’s "Tk’tk’tk", about a salesman struggling to stay afloat on an alien planet where the culture spins him so off-balance he finds himself re-orienting. Do you ever find out what "Tk’tk’tk" means? Read it and you may see; sometimes you have to let go of your goals in order to accomplish them.
Asimov’s was a double issue for April/May. For all that, the only story that caught my attention and rewarded it was "California King", by Michael Jasper and Greg van Eekhout. That was an accomplishment because it is an example of what some call the New Weird — a Tim Powers-style hallucinatory fantasy of geographically resident magic and a power struggle between generations in a bleak, possibly future landscape — which isn't one of my favorite sub-genres. For what it is, it’s done well. Since I didn’t expect it to be Deeply Meaningful, my only issue with it is the ending, where it shifts narrators without a noticeably good reason; clearly the authors were playing with the structure of what roles the narrators have in the story, but I found it a bit jarring. Still, if you like the New Weird, you may enjoy this for its imagery and characters. The cast members are few, but colorful.
In June, Kage Baker presents "Bad Machine", a story about how Alec Checkerfield’s AI "Playfriend" attempts to guide and protect the lad as he discovers (and takes good advantage of) his ability to woo young society women into activities his elders would investigate and punish. Grown bold and wily, the pirate Captain AI (a character whose nature was defined when his master was but five) acts outside the bounds of society yet takes full advantage of being integrated into society’s infrastructure. Slightly black comedy as all good pirate stories are, this novelette leaves the reader eager for more about Alec and why he is curiously long in the tooth and "endowed" with abilities that give the ladies no end of pleasure.
In the same issue, James Van Pelt takes us into the truck of "The Ice Cream Man" in a story about both crossing and preserving borders in a society torn apart by mutation and scarce resources. For its creativity and humanity I could see this one making the Hugo ballot. (No really, it’s about an ice cream man. The title is straightforward. Now go read it and think about the tranquility and continuity suggested by the ice cream bell’s return.)
James Patrick Kelly also had a good story in the June issue. His novella "The Edge of Nowhere" is one where it’s all set up and laid out in the wonderful first paragraph.
Lorraine Carraway scowled at the dogs through the plate glass window of the Casa de la Laughing Cookie and Very Memorial Library. The dogs squatted in a row next to the book drop, acting as if they owned the sidewalk. There were three of them, grand in their bowler hats and paisley vests and bow ties. They were like no dogs Rain had ever seen before. One of them wore a gold watch on its collar, which was pure affectation since it couldn’t possibly see the dial. Bad dogs, she was certain of that, recreated out of rust and dead tires and old Coke bottles by the cognisphere and then dispatched to Nowhere to spy on the real people and cause at least three different kinds of trouble.
What follows is in part about imagination itself; Kelly does an excellent job of drawing this small town called Nowhere and its inhabitants, who transcend its limitations in their own ways.
Good stories come in waves and I found just about every story in this issue interesting. If you’re into Third World Cyberpunk, check out Ian McDonald’s "The Little Goddess" too.
"The Real Deal", by Peter Friend, was my favorite story in the July issue. The ending is a little weak given the rest of it, but Friend presents a well-realized relationship between the physically variable and slightly mysterious "Picasso" aliens and the "Monkeys" who accompany them on their collecting explorations. Jayk is an Earth-born assistant to five-legged Flegg. They meet Flegg’s three fiancées and their two humans on an Artifact that the alien quartet is hoping will make their fortune. While the Picassos dance, the humans compare notes on their employers; an unexpected find stands to change all of their lives, and their understanding of one another.
Michael Swanwick’s short fiction, which has already won him many Hugos, hardly needs more promotion, but I have to admit the pheromonally-implemented deities and genetically modified nymphs, satyrs and other characters in "Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play" present an interesting and fun if stereotypical milieu. If you’re into male masturbatory science fiction, replete with eager and nubile young women and an insane
sorceress female scientist, by all means check it out. The symbolic importance of the wicked witch’s sexual inaccessibility in her genetically-ensured childlike body (with its companion young brain, still able to absorb knowledge at a rapid pace) is something I will let the reader ponder on his or her own.
I rather prefer the emotional sensitivity of Kristine Katherine Rusch’s admittedly saccharine "Killing Time", about an old woman's decision whether to retire into a replay of a single decade of her younger years or to stay in the present day and see what may lie ahead. Staying active in life (or rediscovering a reason to do so) is also the theme of Samantha Ling’s "Waking Chang-Er", an "and then what happened?" continuation of a classic Chinese folktale about the immortal woman in the Moon Palace, told by her jade rabbit companion.
August was another issue dense with quality reading, starting with the second story in it, "Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck", by Neal Asher. Though there are no editorial warnings at the beginning, some may find the frankness of the narration and the perversions of a couple of the characters disturbing, perversions like incest, and killing sentient life forms. Sentient life forms whose loss will not go unnoticed in the jungle. The cruel nastiness of the bad guys is matched by the sturdy determination of their guide as he tries to pull himself and another employee through a bad situation gone horribly worse. The descriptiveness with which the creatures and struggles are depicted in this literal cliffhanger of an adventure gives the admittedly much-revisited theme of Mysterious Alien Justice a good run for the money.
Catherine Wells’ "Point of Origin" is about another character who knows what it’s like to face mortal danger. Ozzie works for the Department of Wildland Resources (DWR, pronounced "Doo-Wer"). The only survivor of a recent fire, Ozzie is summoned to investigate a similar fire by a grizzled Forestry Service veteran. She tells him it was arson and that she believes she’s seen the perpetrator’s work before. Initially suspecting she’s wasting his time, he starts to appreciate how much use she hopes to make of the DWR-level toys he has access to, like satellite surveillance and image pattern recognition. Unbeknownst to him, she is planning to draw on a more personal aspect of his position and experience. Struggling to deal with flashbacks to his last fire, Ozzie must overcome emotions and apply all the resources at his disposal if he hopes to see justice applied. This is near-future science fiction that extrapolates from current technology very effectively in support of an engagingly personal conflict.
Tim Pratt’s story "Bottom Feeding" is also very personal, but harder to describe. Pratt riffs on an ancient story (really, there must be many) about a fish that’s old and full of knowledge that will be imparted to the person who catches and eats the fish. The fish in this story is a huge and very odd catfish, being pursued by a man who’s suddenly lost his brother and returned to his hometown in the absence of any other direction to go in. He rents a house and, sorting through his brother’s leftover things, finds a fishing rod and remembers the tranquility of going fishing. Thus, seeking peace, he finds action and confrontation, not only with the fish but also with what he’s lost in life.
The last impressive story in the August issue is "The Summer of the Seven", by Paul Melko. Think you know what pod people are? Think again. Melko composes a world in which many humans have evolved off-planet in a singularity-style jump, and the majority of those left behind are pods — individuals who are actually a combination of multiple siblings, genetically engineered with the ability to communicate most intimately (almost telepathically) through coded pheromones. Enjoying a summer of chores and biological experiments on a family farm, a teenage sextet has to deal with their own jealousy and confusion when a septet — a larger pod than ever before achieved — joins them at the farm and threatens to compete with them in the science contest. Many themes of adolescence and responsibility are explored in this marvelously imagined story. Pheromonal messaging may be a popular topic in SF for a while, but I expect Melko’s work to hold its own in an expanding field.
I feel I should also give a nod to Sandra Lindow, whose poem "An Alternate Universe Alphabet" was one of only two that I liked all year, the other being "Velocity", by Tracina Jackson-Adams, also from the August issue. And Liz William’s spiritual sojourn, "A Shadow over the Land", is nearly poetry itself, so I’ll give it a nod here as well.
September was comparatively slim pickings for my taste. "Second Person, Present Tense" by Daryl Gregory, was certainly interesting, especially for the "parliament and the queen" metaphor for the brain and the conscious mind. (Since the body may follow commands such as "move your hand" before the conscious mind has issued them, this is comparable to parliament’s deciding something should be law, and the queen’s declaration of the law that follows. The conscious mind is thus a titular head.) But I’m not sure I would say I enjoyed the larger story. Similarly with William Barton’s alternate history "Harvest Moon". Both stories are about losses that are side effects of risks willingly taken. In the first a girl has lost her memory by overdosing on a drug. In the second a man has lost years and certain aspects of his family due to an unexpected extension of his time on the moon when the space program is struggling after its initial successes. I think Barton underestimates the resource issues caused by an unplanned-for extended stay on the moon, but other aspects of the story are well done, if bleak.
October/November is another double issue, with a ghastly cover by John Allemand. The cover is for "Nightmare", by M. Bennardo, a story about a man who doesn’t want to accompany his kids to see the exhibits in a sort of ghost zoo, full of poltergeists and banshees and such. Well, based on the cover, I didn’t want to enter this magazine, either, but when I did I was rewarded with Ted Kosmatka’s short story "The God Engine", about variations in an experiment to recreate a brilliant scientist who never finished his most important work. The variations all start as little boys, and the person who has helped them all grow and learn, and seen them all fail and burn out in their own bright ways, now tells the stories of them to the youngest, who will also be the last. This is a fabulous and touching story by a geneticist who knows that anyone who believes "what you see is what you get" has a lot to learn about genetics.
In that same issue, "Overlay", by Jack Skillingstead, is also worth a read. It’s about a curious sort of timesharing, as the intro says; we follow a man who is trying to come to grips with how he’s being used by a "patron" who "rides" his body while he’s asleep. What, if anything, do the results of the other man's activity have to do with him, and is there something he should do about it? A noir sort of story, with an old-fashioned shutters-and cigarette-smoke detective story kind of feel.
And that brings us to December. Liz Williams returns with another inward-looking piece, "Ikyryoh", about a kappa, a guardian of children, who struggles to understand her new charge. The troubled little girl was brought to her from the goddess’ palace, but the tiger-woman who delivered her would not explain her origin, saying only that she is ikyryoh. She eventually learns of the technique that created the child, a clone to carry the darkest elements of someone else’s self. Then the kappa has to decide if she will take on the burden of dealing with the child’s cruelties and fits, and why.
Chris Becker’s "The Perimeter" explores how the world might look if most people’s minds ran around a digital overlay on a city nearly empty of real life. A young man follows a mysteriously high-res hart through the city, leading to disturbing revelations about himself and his world. Awkward in its representations of class and economy in a digital system where one can imagine no reason for false resource scarcity, the interaction between the digital youth and some actual people makes this an interesting picture of an improbable future path.
The story I would like to leave you with is James Maxey’s "To the East, a Bright Star", and not just because the title is appropriate to the season. Even more appropriately, the story is about an ending — the end of all life that isn’t well-bunkered, anticipated for years by our man Tony, who has carefully selected where he’s going to sit to watch the deadly comet’s approach. He has hoarded a dose of the perfect drug, he’s narrowed his music options down to a few selections, and when the day comes the sky is clear, just as he hoped it would be. He flips down into his boat (he was raised a circus acrobat, and the city’s been flooded since the earthquakes) and makes his way through the nearly empty city toward his chosen perch, but not all goes as planned. At the last minute, he has to rescue a young woman who has been left behind.
Tony opened the door to the roof. The sky was black and silver, with a thin sliver of moon. A dozen comets streamed from the direction of the vanished sun. And to the east, a bright star, brighter than the moon, with a halo filling half the sky.
"Wow,"" he said.
He looked back. Esmerelda was halfway up the stairs, looking at him.
"Come on," he said. "You don't want to miss this, do you? This is the kind of sky I dreamed about as a kid. A sky full of mysteries and wonders."
All of us have only a limited time here. Maxey reminds us that the wonder of life is simply experiencing it, eyes wide open. Eternities can be hidden between seconds. You can't always be in control; something will inevitably be interrupted, left unfinished. Lessons from walking the high wire are brought to bear throughout this story, and I thank Maxey for the reminder that sometimes you just have to relax into the fall.
Once you have read all the stories that interest you from this year's Asimov’s, take the 2005 Reader's Award poll. You have until February 1st.