Author Archives: paul.fraser@sfmagazines.com

Asimov’s Science Fiction #500/501, September/October 2017

ISFDB link

Other reviews:
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
Chuck Rothman, Tangent Online
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Various, Goodreads

Editor, Sheila Williams; Assistant Editor, Emily Hockaday

Fiction:
Wind Will Rove • novelette by Sarah Pinsker
Riding the Blue Line with Jack Kerouac • short story by Sandra McDonald
Universe Box • reprint novelette by Michael Swanwick +
First Contact • short story by Stuart Greenhouse
Dead Men in Central City • short story by Carrie Vaughn
Arriving at Terminal: XI’s Story • short story by James E. Gunn
The Ganymede Gambit: Jan’s Story • short story by James E. Gunn
Zigeuner • short story by Harry Turtledove
The Fourth Hill • short story by Dennis E. Staples
The Cabinet • short story by William Preston
An Incident in the Literary Life of Nathan Arkwright • short story by Allen Steele
Squamous and Eldritch Get a Yard Sale Bargain • short story by Tim McDaniel
Grand Theft Spacecraft • novelette by R. Garcia y Robertson
Disturbance in the Produce Aisle • short story by Kit Reed
Books of the Risen Sea • novelette by Suzanne Palmer

Non-fiction:
Cover • by Cynthia Sheppard
Thirty-First Annual Readers’ Awards’ Results • essay by Sheila Williams
Readers’ Award Winners
The Last Hittite
essay by Robert Silverberg
Remembering Bertie • essay by James Patrick Kelly
Poetry • by John Richard Trtek, Bethany Powell, Robert Frazier, Jane Yolen, Robert Borski, Leslie J. Anderson
Next Issue
On Books: Outside America
• by Norman Spinrad
SF Conventional Calendar • by Erwin S. Strauss

Wind Will Rove by Sarah Pinsker is about a history teacher on a generation spaceship who is a member of an old-time band (fiddles, guitars, etc.). There is one song, Wind Will Rove, that is particularly important to her, and an account of the song’s origins and its historical and current variants is used throughout the story as a metaphor, illustrating not only the fluidity of history but also the schism between those on the generation ship who think that Earth history is important and those who think it is no longer relevant. This latter conflict manifests itself in the story in two ways: one is is a disruptive pupil in the narrator’s history class; the other is repeated reference to a historical ‘Blackout’ on the ship, an event where all the ship’s media, literature, history, etc. data banks were wiped out.

This story is verifiable history. It begins, “There once was a man named Morne Brooks.” It’s used to scare children into doing their homework and paying attention in class. Nobody wants to be a cautionary tale.
There once was a man named Morne Brooks. In the fourth year on board, while performing a computer upgrade, he accidentally created a backdoor to the ship databases. Six years after that, an angry young programmer named Trevor Dube released a virus that ate several databases in their entirety. Destroyed the backups too. He didn’t touch the “important” systems—navigation, life support, medical, seed and gene banks—but he caused catastrophic damage to the libraries. Music gone. Literature, film, games, art, history: gone, gone, gone, gone. Virtual reality simulation banks, gone, along with the games and the trainings and the immersive recreations of places on Earth. He killed external communications too. We were alone, years earlier than we expected to be. Severed.
For some reason, it’s Brooks’ name attached to the disaster. Dube was locked up, but Brooks still walked around out in the community for people to point at and shame. Our slang term “brooked” came from his name. He spent years afterward listening to people say they had brooked exams and brooked relationships. I suppose it didn’t help that he had such a good name to lend. Old English, Dutch, German. A hard word for a lively stream of water. We have no use for it as a noun now; no brooks here. His shipmates still remembered brooks, though they’d never see one again. There was a verb form already, unrelated, but it had fallen from use. His contemporaries verbed him afresh.
p. 20-21

This is an engrossing story not only about how history is important, but why newer generations do not necessarily value certain ideas or information in the same way or at all and, in any event, how that information may change as it passes down through the generations.
Riding the Blue Line with Jack Kerouac by Sandra McDonald is an atmospheric, elegiac piece about a train driver in Boston and the writer ghosts who hitch a ride in his cab: Dickens, Plath, Poe, Kerouac, etc. The driver is a Vietnam vet whose Vietnamese wife died in the conflict. One small point: I was more than halfway through the piece before realising that ‘Lieu’ was his wife and not his platoon lieutenant in Vietnam.
Universe Box by Michael Swanwick (Dragonstairs Press, 2016, but see below1) is an original fantasy that tells of a cosmic thief who steals a very special box from an entity later identified as the Demiurge, who is effectively God’s assistant. After his escape the thief arrives on Earth in the persona of Uncle Paulie, and appears at the door of Howard, a nobody who is about to propose to his girlfriend Mimi. Paulie takes them to a top floor restaurant where he shows them the box he has stolen:

Uncle Paulie turned to Howard and Mimi and said, “I have something special to show you both.” He reached into an inner jacket pocket and pulled out an object that he solemnly placed on the table before him and patted with both hands. “There. What do you think?”
It was a cigar box.
Mimi clearly wasn’t about to say anything. So Howard cleared his throat. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Uncle Paulie, but I’m afraid I don’t smoke cigars.”
Uncle Paulie looked shocked. “This isn’t for you, child. No, no, no, I’m just going to let you see it.”
“Oh. Okay, I guess.”
Holding up a finger, Uncle Paulie made an owlish face and said, “Let me posit a question: What one thing does the world currently need most? Eh?”
“Um . . . love?” Howard ventured.
“World peace,” Mimi said firmly.
“Pah! I’m disappointed in you both. A good bottle of wine, of course!” Uncle Paulie flipped open the lid of the cigar box and reached within. “As you doubtless know, the very finest collection ever assembled was the legendary Wine Cellar of Alexandria. Destroyed in that dreadful fire, such a pity. But no matter. I’ll just have to dig deeper.” A puzzled look came over Uncle Paulie’s face as he reached within and further within and yet further indeed, until his arm had disappeared up to the shoulder. Then his expression cleared and, leaning back, he reeled in his arm, at the end of which was an unlabeled black glass bottle upon which were scratched archaic runes. “Ahh, Amarone della Lemuria! A ‘sea-dark wine, half as old as time,’ as that drunken sot Homer put it. There’s never been a plonk like it.”
Laughing, Mimi clapped her hands. Howard scowled and grumbled, “That’s quite a trick.”
p. 46

After Howard tastes the wine he experiences an almost transcendent effect, and asks:

“What’s in there?” he gasped.
Howard meant in the wine. But misunderstanding him (whether intentionally or not, who could say?), Uncle Paulie held up the cigar box as if it were a window and opened the lid. “Everything you could desire: castles in the air, mountains on a plate, treasury bills, wisdom . . . you name it. Voluptuous goddesses, glass moons, methane seas. Dinosaurs, if that’s to your taste.
“Look.”
Howard looked. And beheld:
Endless clouds of diamond dust glittering on the deep, black velvet of infinity. Stars exploding above the frozen husks of sunless worlds. A herd of Paras aurolophus trumpeting and feeding in a grove of dawn redwoods. Wise machines drifting between galaxies, carrying in their bellies clusters of civilizations, each written on a silver disk smaller than a dime. A drunken Elizabethan poet singing and urinating from a third-story window. Nanowars being fought endlessly on the surface of a single mote of dust. A stray dog in Milwaukee gulping down a hamburger foraged from a dumpster. Trillions of integers, deep in the heart of an irrational number, pledging their love and obeisance to . . . p. 47

Later, and just before a wild orgy begins in the restaurant, Uncle Paulie asks Howard to hide the cigar box and then forget where he has put it.
The rest of the story involves the kidnapping of Mimi by an assassin working for the Demiurge—an attempt at pressuring Howard into revealing where he has put the box—and a series of meetings Howard has with a number of characters as he attempts get her back. The way he reaches these is quite novel:

Uncle Paulie thrust a rubber-banded bundle of calling cards at Howard. “Draw one at random.” Howard did. It read:

[Name Withheld]
Underpaid Minion to the Stars
by appointment only

An icy knife of wind ripped through his clothing, skin, flesh, bones. Howard found himself before a turreted stone building completely surrounded by dark forest. The night was so cold that it drove all thought of Mimi from his mind. Desperately, he hammered on the door.
A sound that could only be the flapping of great wings came from inside. Then silence. Then the door opened. The hatcheck girl from the Top of the Tooz looked down at him. “Oh,” she said. “You. Sorry. I’m busy. Cutting my toenails.”
She shut the door in his face.
Howard threw himself against the door, drumming on it with fists and forearms. “Please! Help me! I can pay! Anything that you want!”
The door opened again. “Define ‘anything,’” the hatcheck girl said.
Howard shoved past her and made straight for a baronial stone hearth in which crackled and roared a fire as big as the Renaissance. Stretching out frozen hands toward its glorious heat, he began to talk. Turning a backside so cold that it stung to face the fire, he continued. Until at last he had explained all, his body had rotated a dozen times before the blaze, and that terrible cold had retreated bone-deep within his flesh, to become a memory he doubted would ever go away.
p. 53-54

For the most part, this comic and wildly fantastic story (the kind of thing you would find in a modern-day incarnation of Unknown) is of very good to excellent quality but, unfortunately,  the ending doesn’t match up to what has gone before. (Spoiler: Gloria the assassin lets Mimi go free without protest, which doesn’t make sense, and the reason that Paulie traps Shamkat in the box isn’t revealed either. Both these make for a sub-optimal ending.)
A flawed jewel.
First Contact by Stuart Greenhouse appears on the contents page as a poem, but it is really a half page vignette about an alien. It doesn’t make much sense.
Dead Men in Central City by Carrie Vaughn is about a vampire-like creature in the Wild West meeting Doc Holliday (the gambler/gunfighter/dentist friend of Wyatt Earp) and ultimately befriending him. Quite good until it peters out at the end.
There are two more sidebar stories from James Gunn’s Transcendental series in this issue: Arriving at Terminal: XI’s Story tells the story of Xi from his birth on Xifor, his perilous survival to adulthood, and his rise through the ranks to become an assistant to Xidan. He is finally selected as a representative to find the Transcendental machine. This one is rather condensed, open-ended, and overly similar to one of the stories from last issue, Weighty Matters: Tordor’s Story. Better is The Ganymede Gambit: Jan’s Story. This one is about a hollowed out asteroid that circles Ganymede, and the eight child clones that inhabit it. Their father has sent them there with a mission to terraform the planet, and the story is about how they try to do this. Along the way (spoiler) a number of them die, and the last three are later infected with an alien symbiote evolved from Ganymedean bacteria. Their father then tasks two of them to join the ship that is searching for the Transcendental machine. This an open-ended but interesting piece, and rather reads like a modern version of a super-science story from the 1930’s.
Zigeuner by Harry Turtledove is set in Hungary, and has an SS major and his men going to a gypsy encampment to round up the occupants for transportation. The alternate world twist comes at the end (spoiler) when the major talks to a German Army rabbi, and the latter comments that if history had unfolded differently they could be the ones being transported and not the gypsies. The story is persuasive, and you may be more convinced than I was by the twist.
The Fourth Hill by Dennis E. Staples is a bleak story about a fifteen year old boy on a Native American reservation whose drunken grandfather is dying of cancer, although the boy hasn’t been explicitly told this information. The boy’s estranged brother (he is gay and the grandfather does not approve) returns home after being injured in a work-related accident. He works for a company that cleans polluted land using new technology, one that leaves huge piles of soil behind. The process used by this company sounds vaguely SFnal, and it jars somewhat  with the story’s other thread, which is the boy’s dealings with a dwarf-like spirit creature called Little Loon that lives in the nearby stream.

A voice calls to me from across the stream. “Did you lose this, Callum?”
I look up and see a little man with wild white hair and saggy gray skin. He stares at me with a big, ugly smile and begins to cross the stream. He is holding a child’s shoe.
“Which one are you?” I ask.
“Maangoons nindizhinikaaz.” He passes the shoe to me.
I grab it even though it’s covered in dirt and say thank you in Ojibwe.
Miigwech. I’ve been learning it since I was in elementary school, but in ten years I’ve really only learned animal names and how to introduce myself. And a few immature phrases like nimazhiwemin ina dibikong?
“What’s it for, Little Loon?” I say. I think I heard him right.
Maangoons means little loon.
“It’s for your feet. Your grandfather will be so happy that you found it!” I’ve never told my Grandpa about the river dwarfs, but they have been watching me for a long time.
The shoe is white with blue stripes, both faded and smudged with dirt. On the bottom there are a few plastic bulbs that held multicolored lights when I was a kid. I don’t bother to check and see if they work.
“I lost these when I was eight,” I tell the dwarf. “I gave up looking for them long ago.”
“Oh, but your grandfather! He was so mad you lost them that he hit you and sent you to bed without supper! Remember? Remember?” He sits down on a nearby rock. It feels like I’m babysitting a toddler now.
p. 103

The spirit has given the boy random objects for small favours in the past; this time the boy asks a favour of it. Initially he wants the truth about his grandfather’s illness and, later, a cure for it.
I not sure these different threads of this story weave together, but it is an absorbing if bleak work, and a promising début.
The Cabinet by William Preston is a story about a junior clerk in a German office during what would seem to be the inter-war years. He goes to see a somnambulist act at the Jahrmarkt, and listens as the sleeping man answers questions from the crowd. Later the head clerk is murdered, and then another man. The doctor running the somnambulist act is implicated.
While he is with the police the clerk goes to visit the coffin like device the somnambulist sleeps in, and lies down in it and closes the two doors. While in the box he has an epiphany. Later, he barely escapes being burnt alive when the townsfolk set fire to the surrounding shed.
This is an engaging story to start with but it runs on for too long, and I had no idea what the point was.
An Incident in the Literary Life of Nathan Arkwright by Allen Steele is a story in his ‘Arkwright’ series2, none of which I’ve read, but that was not a problem even though it is essentially an outtake from a longer story or novel. It tells of a fictional SF writer, ‘one of the Big Four,’ who attends an SF convention in spite of himself:

At age fifty-four, he’d lately begun to feel a certain distance between himself and the younger generation of writers and fans. He belonged to a generation that had come of age during the Depression and World War II, and although he’d earned a revered position in the field, he was acutely aware that the New Wave writers who’d emerged during the sixties—Moorcock, Ellison, LeGuin, Spinrad, all the rest—had become the authors SF fans were most excited about. The cultural dissonance wasn’t quite as bad as what friends like Bob Heinlein and Sprague de Camp were experiencing, but still he was having trouble relating to the new breed of SF writer who didn’t know how to handle a slide rule, or to the fans who thought science fiction was invented by Gene Roddenberry. p. 127

After deciding to dodge the banquet (too many blue jokes in GOH Andy Offutt’s previous program appearance) he meets, and is later taken out to dinner by, two fans. Things turn weird as they drive to the restaurant when the fans (spoiler) say they are time-travellers. Arkwright thinks they are deranged and humours them until the car slows down, when he makes his escape.
I liked this for the SF insider detail.3
Squamous and Eldritch Get a Yard Sale Bargain by Tim McDaniel is a gently amusing story about two book collectors called Squamous and Eldritch who are attempting to buy an occult book from an awkward woman. They manage to convince her to sell it but then they make a discovery. A pleasant but minor piece.
I was a little way into Grand Theft Spacecraft by R. Garcia y Robertson before I realised that this was the promised sequel to last issue’s novella, The Girl Who Stole Herself. This provides an alternate view of some of that story’s events.
It gets off to a reasonable start with its story of Cole, who lives on Biforost Station, which is in orbit around Europa. He gets a message from an associate and they set off on a job. Unfortunately, I made the fatal mistake of putting the story down for a while and by the time I got back to it I just couldn’t get into it again. This was for the same reasons as the previous story, mostly endless waffle about Space Vikings, Mongols, the Jutes, Crown Princess Rylla, etc.
There is a story in there (I think) about buying some kids from outer solar system slavers and returning them to their mothers, who are all working as prostitutes. The one that Cole gets involved with sounds like the Happy Hooker, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Again, with the kids/slavers/prostitutes, it is tonally off, like a light comedy set in a concentration camp.
Towards the end of the story (spoiler) the Happy Hooker reveals herself to Cole as Crown Princess Rylla, or one of her many clones at least. It finishes with a space battle against the Vikings, with all the nastiness and dying off-stage.
All style, no substance; I’m not looking forward to the sequels.
Disturbance in the Produce Aisle by Kit Reed4 is about a married man who, after arguing with his wife, goes to cool off at a local store. There, and not for the first time, an entity that is probably the devil intermittently appears and tries to bargain with him. In between these episodes he sees the ghosts of various dead people.
Books of the Risen Sea by Suzanne Palmer gets off to a pretty good start with its protagonist, Caer, holed up in his flooded, ruined library in a post-Collapse, post-Wave America. When he is not doing the things he needs to do to survive, he tries to salvage fragments of books from the water-damaged library stock. The story improves even further after a storm which reveals a functioning robot in the flotsam washed up against the walls of the library. Caer manages to direct it to a place of safety, and later manages to help it climb up a ladder and into the library.

The robot lurched up another step, grabbing hold of the rung above more easily than before. The strain on Caer’s arms as the robot let go and tried to move up, and gravity tried to pull it back down, was something he knew he’d suffer for later, but Caer was not going to let go; he’d stubborned himself into worse hurt many times before this.
Finally, the robot could hook its saw arm over the railing to brace itself. Caer stepped in to free his rope, then backed up against the library wall as the robot managed to heave itself over the top of the ladder and railing to land on its side on the balcony. Water poured out between its metal and plastic plates and ran in thick streams down the slight decline of the roof back into the sea.
“Do you have a name?” he asked it.
“Yes. Orchid-Iridium-Zero-Hexagon,” it answered.
Caer barked a laugh. “Seriously?”
“It is a self-designation,” the robot said. “I chose it after my initialization. It was a privilege to be given that choice.”
“Oh.” Caer felt suddenly like an asshole. “I didn’t mean—”
“It is okay. There is understanding and not-understanding, always.”
Now
that was truth. p. 181

Later there is a rowboat that comes out from the nearby Old Town (also flooded) to salvage any useful material from the post-storm flotsam. There is something of a slanging match between the occupants of the boat and Caer, and it becomes apparent that (a) one of them is her brother-in-law Trevor and (b) Caer was originally a woman (Trevor and another man refer to Caer as ‘she’). Later on we discover that Caer has fallen out with her father over this matter, hence her solitary existence in the drowned library.
This second half of the story involves raiders attacking Old Town. Then, one of the men from the rowboat comes back to the library seeking help from Caer, specifically shelter for her pregnant sister and the other woman of the town. Later, when it looks like the library will be attacked by the raiders, there is an amusing line when Orchid goes into the library stacks and carves up the stuck-together and hopelessly damaged books for use as projectiles on an improvised trebuchet:

Once all the paper blocks had been stacked, the robot disappeared back down for more. Caer glanced at the blocks, considered, then after a quick glance toward oldtown—no boats heading into open water yet—went back inside and rummaged through his boxes of supplies. He didn’t doubt the blocks would hold together if thrown by hand, but the stresses of being flung at the end of a fast-moving chain were another matter, and raining loose fragments of old, moldy, torn science fiction down on the raiders was not likely to give them pause. p. 191

While this adventure/action section is well enough done it is more formulaic than I had hoped (I thought the arc of the story was going to be focussed on what the robot was going to bring to Caer’s life and the book recovery project). I concede that I don’t often complain that a story has too much action and too little reflection.

There is a good Cover this issue by Cynthia Sheppard—I don’t think it illustrates any of the stories.
Thirty-First Annual Readers’ Awards’ Results by Sheila Williams is an account of the winners and the award ceremony. Towards the end she adds:

Perhaps because she had so many stories competing against each other, none of Dominica’s tales finished in the top five novelettes. A couple of days before the Readers’ Award celebration, we learned that her story, “Project Empathy,” along with Ian R. MacLeod’s, “The Visitor From Taured,” are both finalists for the Theodore Sturgeon Award. p. 5

I was surprised not only at Dominica Phetteplace’s omission from the finalists but also MacLeod’s. They were robbed.5
The Last Hittite by Robert Silverberg is an essay that, for its first half, would be a better fit for History Today (it is about the Hittites). It finally segues into an account of a futuristic and deserted America in John Ames Mitchell’s 1889 novel, The Last American.
Remembering Bertie by James Patrick Kelly is a column about time travel that mainly concentrates on H. G. Wells and his work.
The Poetry in this issue is by John Richard Trtek, Bethany Powell, Robert Frazier, Jane Yolen, Robert Borski, and Leslie J. Anderson. There are a couple that are okay but, as per usual, none really grabbed me (well, maybe Anderson’s Sleeping Beauty variant).
Next Issue has this about Connie Willis’s forthcoming I met a Traveller in an Antique Land: ‘With all the twists and turns, you’ll soon be as lost as her hapless traveller.’ I hope not.
On Books: Outside America by Norman Spinrad reviews a number of promising sounding books including Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling, Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, Central Station by Lavie Tidhar, and The Devourers by Indra Das. He also mentions Nebula Awards Showcase 2017, which he seems less enamoured with:

I feel it my unpleasant duty as a former president of SFWA and current reviewer to warn potential readers that one third of this eighteen-dollar anthology is not complete stories but excerpts from novels, SFWA’s self-congratulation, the history of the Nebula, lists of past winners, pages and pages devoted to lesser awards. You pays your money and you takes yer choice, but as a critic I didn’t have to. But if I did, if what I was looking for was good fiction to read and nothing else, I wouldn’t. p. 204-205

For the most part though, and after a short introduction about the dominance of American SF, the column focuses on writers who are either physically or culturally located outside the United States.

This is a mixed issue, but worth getting for the better material.

    1. I’m not sure it is fair to call this a reprint as it appeared in an edition of thirteen copies, of which only ten were on sale. There is more information at ISFDB.
    2. The ‘Arkwight’ series consists of four earlier novelettes/novellas (that all did pretty well in Asimov’s SF’s annual readers’ polls). According to the author’s website they were revised and expanded as parts one through four of the eponymous 2016 Tor novel. The ‘Arkwright’ series at ISFDB.
    3. If I am allowed to nit-pick there is one line of Arkwright’s that appears rather inconsistent: “But Nathan barely knew the young new writers—George R.R.Martin, Joe Haldeman, and Thomas Burnett Swann . . .” Swann was born in 1928 compared with Martin and Haldeman’s 1948 and 1943, so he would have been 15-20 years older than the other two. As to ‘new,’ Swann first published in 1958 compared to 1971 and 1969 for the other two. Swann had been a Hugo finalist on three occasions before they had even broken into print (Where is the Bird of Fire?, 1963, Day of the Minotaur, The Manor of Roses, both 1967). I would suggest that Swann was another generation entirely.
    4. Kit Reed passed away on the 24th of September 2017, aged 85, shortly after this story appeared. According to Wikipedia her first story was published by Anthony Boucher almost sixty years ago (F&SF, April 1958). Her ISFDB page is here.
    5. I didn’t vote in this poll, but can’t remember why—looking at the results I wish I had (and will next year).

      I thought only the David Erik Nelson story was particularly noteworthy in the novella category, although I liked Jay O’Connell’s piece.
      In the novelette group, I thought both the Dale Bailey and Karl Bunker stories very good, but would have expected to see several other works keeping them company:  Atheism and Flight and Project Synergy by Dominica Phetteplace, The Bewilderness of Lions by Ted Kosmatka, Flight from the Ages by Derek Künsken, The Visitor from Taured by Ian R. MacLeod. There are another half-dozen novelettes I would have placed ahead of the Rusch and the second of the Palmer stories.
      In the short story category I thought the best two stories won, and would have added Webs by Mary Anne Mohanraj to the finalists.
      It was interesting looking back over Asimov’s SF’s 2016 stories: the magazine published many strong novelettes but, paradoxically, the novellas and short stories were weak by comparison. Is this because of Tor.com’s novella series, and the greater number of markets for shorter material?

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