Asimov’s Science Fiction #482, March 2016

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Other Reviews:
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
C. D. Lewis, Tangent Online
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Mark Watson, Best SF (forthcoming)

Fiction:
The Bewilderness of Lions • novelette by Ted Kosmatka ♥♥♥♥
The Ship Whisperer • short story by Julie Novakova ♥♥
A Partial List of Lists I have Lost Over Time • short story by Sunil Patel ♥♥
Project Empathy • novelette by Dominica Phetteplace ♥♥♥
Do Not Forget Me • short story by Ray Nayler ♥
A Little Bigotry • short story by R. Neube ♥♥♥
New Earth • short story by James Gunn ♥♥
I Married a Monster from Outer Space • novelette by Dale Bailey ♥♥♥♥

Non-fiction:
Age Diversity in Asimov’s • editorial by Sheila Williams
Writing Under the Influence • essay by Robert Silverberg
Seriously, Series • essay by James Patrick Kelly
Poetry • Ken Poyner, Mark C. Childs, Jane Yolen, Vincent Miskell, Robert Borski
Next Issue
On Books • Paul Di Filippo
SF Conventional Calendar • Erwin S. Strauss

The fiction this month is particularly good with three novelettes that I would rate as good or better. The first of these is The Bewilderness of Lions by Ted Kosmatka. This is an impressive story about a young woman who mines data and subsequently comes to work for a Senator after predicting that a scandal will break on a specific weekend:

Her contact slid the report across the table, and the manager leafed through it briefly as a layman might leaf through a mathematical proof of gravity. Page after page, sixty-four in all, she knew, until he started skipping ahead, and finally flipped the report, irritation showing on his ruddy face. “What’s the gist?”
“His numbers will go down midweek, then rise on the weekend. He’ll increase his chances of winning the election if he wears a red tie. He has a 32 percent chance of dropping out of the race and being driven out of office by scandal.”
“What?”
“He has a 32 percent chance—”
“I heard that. What scandal?”
“Any scandal.”
“What do you mean, any scandal?”
“It’s all in the report,” she said, “If you read it. We’re nearing a pinch point. By June fifteenth, there will be a scandal. Maybe the senator, or maybe someone else. But it’ll be something big. Unexpected. The story will surface early in the news cycle and by end of day, it’ll take over the networks. Someone will be driven out of office.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“It’s all in the report,” she said. “I found the pattern.”
p.13

She subsequently notices that scandals her data predict are not occurring but cannot explain the anomalies. That is until an old woman approaches her on an empty train and tells her to talk to a congressman who has been scandal-free for the last twenty years…
Alternating with this intriguing narrative are childhood memories of life at home with her father and autistic brother. These two threads develop and in both there is a good balance of what is said and what is left unsaid. Ultimately they come together in a satisfying, one might say righteous, ending. Overall, an impressive mix of data, politics, shady corporations, and personal as well as political scandals. One for the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies.

The Ship Whisperer by Julie Novakova is an OK short story about a ship-whisperer, a human that is neurologically linked to a starship. The ship and crew are on a mission to a black hole where a strange device has been found, one that can create a manifold of time.  Minor criticisms of this would be that the motivations of the Colonel in charge are not entirely clear or convincing, and also that overall it feels like a throwback to the 1980s.
A Partial List of Lists I have Lost Over Time by Sunil Patel is another short story, this time with the neat idea of telling a story with lists. It is a pity that the story about kale, a machine to get to another dimension, and the inventor’s duplicate is rather slight.

Project Empathy by Dominica Phetteplace is the second of the three good novelettes. This is a very information dense story about a teenager called Bel who is employed as a host by a company called Blue Cup. There are particular conditions of employment:

On her tryout, she took orders and served drinks with what her evaluators described as “warmth” and “grace.” Over a hundred teenagers auditioned, only Bel was offered a position. Blue Cup requires close surveillance on all its employees. They want access to every interaction, both in-person and online. This normally requires the implantation of a standard Watcher chip. In Bel’s case, she was fitted with a prototype of the newest version of the Watcher, the creatively titled Watcher 2.0. Not everyone can afford to care about rights and privacy. She agreed to the terms of use without even reading them. p.44

Bel goes to PCA (pre-collegiate academy) college in San Francisco where she goes from being a high achiever to finding it difficult to fit in:

At PCA, there was no dance team. Her classmates were aloof, hierarchies had been entrenched, sometimes going back generations. Bel had a name but not a “name.” Her influence score took a dive. She was not active on any of the social media that her new peers were into, so she had to start over with new accounts. Her influence ranking plummeted.
I sensed regret. She wouldn’t have come to PCA had she known what it was really like. But she was here now, with her own room in a shining and clean city. Blue Cup had secured her permits to live, work, and study here. Was it better to be royalty in Concord or a peasant in the city? There was an additional consideration of her mother’s anger and her father’s drinking. She was probably happy to have distance and a life apart from them, but she also seemed to miss them. p.45

The bulk of the story takes place while she is on a college arranged lunch-date with three other students; the Watcher chip is in the background commenting on her reactions and occasional faux pas in a future that is an exaggerated dystopian version of our social networking and corporate present.
There is a lot about surveillance, monetisation and future social mores in this piece, so much so that I think I’ll probably have to read it again. Further, at the end it felt like it should be the first part of a novella or novel.
While I’m talking about this writer I’d add that after reading and enjoying her last story in Asimov’s SF (Atheism and Flight, January 2016) I looked at ISFDB and found that she had produced five stories between 2011 and 2014, but this is her third published story this year. I note more are upcoming in the next couple of issues so I presume we are lucky enough to have her writing full time.

Do Not Forget Me by Ray Nayler is a vaguely Arabian nights-style tale, with one story nested inside another story inside another. The kernel of it is about a man who tells of never aging. This is well enough written and told but rather pointless.
A Little Bigotry by R. Neube tells of a veteran of a human-alien war, who has killed her husband and subsequently washes up on a planet far from Earth. Financially destitute she ends up accepting a job as an escort to an alien of the species she was fighting in the war. When she arrives at the home of this alien she finds its children are there, and a conversation about the war starts for their education. I don’t really think this works as a story—the hard boiled tone about her dealings with her ex-husband used early on doesn’t really convince, and neither does the bigotry she feels for the aliens. Also, the structure of this is pretty much non-existent, but notwithstanding all of the aforesaid I found myself liking it anyway.
The last of the short stories is New Earth by the veteran James Gunn. This is about a starship arriving at a new planet after leaving an Earth that has destroyed itself. The two characters cannot agree whether to wake the other crew members and proceed with colonisation or not. They revive a philosopher from deep sleep to help them make a decision, and he does, but not in the way they expect.

I Married a Monster from Outer Space by Dale Bailey is the third of the novelettes. This story starts with Ruby at her checkout in Wallmart and an alien Bug Eyed Monster arriving with a basket of shopping which it can’t pay for:

“Forget your wallet?” I say.
Bug-Eyes just stands there.
“I’m sorry, sir,” says Margo, who has somehow closed the distance between the customer service counter and my chute at the speed of light. “We’ll have to void your order.”
So that’s what I have to do. Drag each item out of its bag, scan it, and dump it back into his empty basket, like a time-lapse film run in reverse. The whole time the two of them stand there staring at me, Margo with this thin-lipped sneer and the alien with no expression that you can discern. Who knows what he’s thinking? He’s an alien. But in that moment, I could have clawed that smug expression right off Margo’s face and peed on Sam Walton’s grave. What I’m saying is that I feel a certain sympathy for this big heap of ugly because it wasn’t too long ago that I’d come up short at the grocery store and had to look on as the cashier fished stuff out of
my bags and voided them one by one, until we got down to what I could afford, which was exactly $57.30. I ask you: is it too much to ask to have a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Boom Chocollata once in a while? p.87

After work she sees the alien sitting under a tree and decides to take back to her trailer-park home, husband Donny, dog and two cats. As the story progresses the alien is seldom offstage but doesn’t do much apart from sit, eat, drink and make the occasional buzzing communication:

After a while—I don’t know how long—he buzzes at me again, and I say, “It’s nothing, really.” And then, because that’s obviously a lie, I say, “It just made me sad, having to drag all that stuff in your basket back across the scanner. Don’t you have any money?” I ask, which is kind of a stupid question. He’s an alien, after all.
Gort buzzes.
I pretend I know what he’s saying, and I say, “We get by, I guess.”
But we didn’t, hardly. There was always something. I was seventeen when I got pregnant, and here we are five years later. It might have turned out different, I guess, but everything went wrong at once. First the doctor put me on bed rest. Then I was too sick for homebound, and then the baby and all that.
Blah, blah, blah. Everybody’s got trouble. Mine is nothing special, and I know it, but here I am on the verge of tears all over again. Gort buzzes at me, and this time I can’t help it, I start to cry a little. “It’s nothing,” I say. “I just get weepy when I’m tired.”
Gort buzzes, and I pretend I know what he’s saying.
p.92

As we can see from the paragraphs above the alien in this story is a foil and/or mirror to Ruth’s life of quiet desperation. Her life is limned by these exchanges: she is married as a result of an unplanned pregnancy to a man who may or may not love her; their baby girl died and they are crippled by huge medical bills.
Donny, a skilled auto mechanic, finds Gort’s spaceship and decides he can fix it, while Ruth spends more time in the company of her mostly silent companion.
This is at times a rather sad and melancholy story but (spoiler) ends with a ray of hope. It is an affecting story and one for the ‘Best of the Year’ collections.

Moving onto the non-fiction, I can’t say I am a big fan of this month’s cover by Fred Gambino but that is not the artists fault, more that I don’t think that a BEM on the cover is a good ‘look’ for a modern SF magazine.
The issue’s editorial, Age Diversity in Asimov’s by Sheila Williams, is about age diversity in fiction and, specifically, young people featuring in the magazine’s stories. Writing Under the Influence by Robert Silverberg is a column about the influence of other writers and books. He discusses the works of his that have been inspired and/or influenced by Walter de la Mare’s The Three Mulla-Mulgars (these include Son of Man, Lord of Darkness, At Winter’s End and Kingdoms of the Wall). In James Patrick Kelley’s column Seriously, Series he looks at the writing of series works with comments from Alan Smale, Carrie Vaughn and Walter Jon Williams. There are a number of poems that range from OK to so-so (I can’t say any of the items in the last three issues have really spoken to me so maybe it is the reader and not the poets at fault here). Finally, there is an interesting On Books by Paul Di Filippo where he reviews books by K. J. Parker (Tom Holt), Carolyn Ives Gilman, Fran Wilde and Samuel Delany. Unlike the recent columns I read in F&SF, there is background information and context.

This is a good issue of the magazine so don’t miss it.

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