Asimov’s Science Fiction #485, June 2016


Other reviews:
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank (forthcoming)
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu (forthcoming)
Coleen Chen, Tangent Online
Various, Goodreads
Mark Watson, Best SF (forthcoming)

Clearance • short story by Sarah Pinsker ♥
Unreeled • short story by Mercurio D. Rivera ♥♥
Rambunctious • short story by Rick Wilber ♥♥
Project Symmetry • novelette by Dominica Phetteplace ♥♥♥+
Rats Dream of the Future • short story by Paul J. McAuley ♥♥
What We Hold Onto • novella by Jay O’Connell ♥♥♥

Cover • Dominic Harman
Poetry • Emily Hockaday, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Tony Daniel , G. O. Clark, Andrew Darlington, Geoffrey A. Landis
Behind the Scenes • editorial by Sheila Williams
My Trip to the Future • essay by Robert Silverberg
There’s Something About Mars • essay by James Patrick Kelly
Next Issue
On Books: Very Hard Science Fiction • by Norman Spinrad
SF Conventional Calendar • by Erwin S. Strauss

I was going to say that the cover layout is better this issue than some I’ve seen recently—and indeed the type does complement the artwork better than some of the recent examples—but then I noticed a couple of other things: first, the title and story title lettering has jagged edges, which I thought may have been a function of a low resolution image being used in the Kindle edition, however when you zoom the image it doesn’t pixelate particularly but the type edges become badly serrated; secondly, the title is off centre for some reason: there is about fifty percent more space to the right of the title than there is to the left (I’m talking about the original Kindle cover image here not the slightly cropped version above).
I know this all sounds like I’m off my OCD meds but I think it is something worth mentioning at least once.1

The short stories in this issue are the usual average to below average mixture that I am beginning to expect from this magazine. Clearance by Sarah Pinsker is a peculiar story about a woman looking for a seaside souvenir for her daughter and all the different ones she considers. Half way through the story she starts doing this again at another location and this time her daughter is there. The SFnal element to this is that they are at a location where four oceans come together as if in a kaleidoscope, perhaps some kind of spatial anomaly:

“How do we get to the other ones?” she asked after a minute.
“We don’t.”
Her face fell.
“We don’t this time. It’s a different permit, with a vetting process. And a waiver for that one over there.” I pulled out the pocket map they’d sent, and pointed in the direction of what was labeled AtlanticP1. Ours was AtlanticP4, so I didn’t really get the numbering. Or what the P stood for. “And that sunny one has an age restriction. But we’ll be allowed to travel to the one on the upper left after two more visits, if we don’t get in any trouble while we’re here.”
She drew back into herself, shuttering her excitement. Despite the fact we were looking at something utterly impossible, that I’d brought her someplace better than anything she could have imagined.
“I can rent you a wetsuit if you want to go in the water,” I said. “Or we can go on a glass boat tour.”
“I think it’s more like a submarine or a bubble or something. Glass all around.”
A patrol gull winged past us, flapping hard against the wind. A patrol gull, so close we heard its wing hydraulics. It landed on a beer can in the sand, crumpled it with metal talons, tossed it into its mouth. There was a grinding, a smell of hot aluminum.
Maya looked at me. “That’d be cool, I guess.”

This phenomenon is never explicitly explained, so perhaps the story here is supposed to be about her relationship with her daughter.
Unreeled by Mercurio D. Rivera is about Jonathan meeting his returning wife. She works as a ‘streamer’ and has just had her brain patterns returned to her body after exploring a black hole. The story is then about their son, who was involved in a car crash and now has ASD—Acquired Savant’s Disorder—and the changes that Jonathan starts noticing about his wife. Later, at a party he also notices that the other crew members seem to be different as well. At the end (spoiler) it all ends up a bit Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I wasn’t entirely convinced.
Rambunctious by Rick Wilber is told from the point of view of a precocious ten year old. It is set in a near-future world where a Yellowstone volcanic eruption has badly disrupted the environment. Emma lives with her grandparents, and her grandmother says that they are shortly going to be picked up by aliens. As well as this Emma is different: she can read very quickly, hold her breath for sixteen minutes under water, etc. The story has a slight whiff of Zenna Henderson’s ‘The People’ about it, and ultimately promises more than it delivers in the end but it is pleasant enough.
Rats Dream of the Future by Paul J. McAuley tells of a scientist who works for an investment bank networking rat’s brains together to create a stochastic computer to predict the financial markets. Unfortunately they create a tesseract of altered reality that traps two humans. Then there are rumours of super smart rats in the area. This has an ‘if this goes on’-ish ending.

Project Symmetry, the novelette by Dominica Phetteplace, is the third instalment of her ‘Watcher/AI’ series. In this one the point of view changes from the AIs to Bel, the seventeen year old with the Watcher chip installed. At first I didn’t really get on with change of voice from the cool detached AIs to that of someone who superficially sounds like a teenage Valley girl. Nor did I really buy how quickly she comes to terms with the fact that she has a Watcher chip installed:

I looked down at the piece of paper. Actual paper, how quaint. “How to Kill Your Watcher Chip.” The instructions had been sent to me by a well-meaning adult. I wadded up the paper and tossed it into my wastebasket. What’s the point of living if no one’s going to see? “Nice to meet you,” I said. I curtsied to the empty room; it seemed appropriate to the occasion. “I have some auditions tomorrow.”
“Will you help me run lines?”
“Indeed.” P.41

However, it didn’t take me long to get past this and, as with the previous entries, there are some striking scenes about the social mores of the plutocratic future society she lives in, such as when she visits Angelina, a hostess at the Reserve who has been ill:

 “Wow,” I said. I couldn’t imagine getting cards from Blue Cup guests, but most of my guests were tourists.
“I mean, these were sent by assistants of course, but still very nice.” She handed me a card. I opened it up and a tree grew out of the center. In the margin was a haiku that had nothing to do either with trees or getting better.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“Me neither, but it’s composed by Jade,” she said. I saw it there, in the lowermost corner of the card. JADE, burned into the paper with a laser.
“I don’t know who that is,” I said.
“She won the Pulitzer. She’s also the staff poet of the St. Vincent-Williams-Carollo-Van Buren family.” p.47

Or when she agrees to meet Vincent, one of the programmers of the script-writing algorithm of a show she has a minor part in. They go for drinks at a strange kind of club:

“Do you like this place?” he asked.
“It’s unusual,” I said.
“I thought you might say that,” he said. “It’s a speakeasy.” “
What is that?”
“It’s a black-out site. A place under no surveillance,” he said. “Get it? Speak. Easy. You can speak easy if you’re not worried about being listened to.”
I laughed, I couldn’t help it. “Is that what they told you?” I asked.
“It’s true,” he said. “That’s why they make you surrender your phones and wristbands by the door.”
“Do they? I still have mine.” I took my phone out of my pocket and flashed my wristband.
“Wow, that is a very primitive phone,” he said. That was true. After I found out about Watcher, I downgraded my phone to save money. You don’t really need a phone when you have a computer implanted in your head, but I still carried one around so I could fit in. I laughed again. He smiled because he thought I was laughing with him. Really, I was laughing at him. And his naivety. I may be the suburban teenager, but he’s the one that believed in invisibility. Watcher was watching him right now. p.48

The general drift of this story is that Bel gets a minor role in a TV show while also dealing with her dysfunctional parental relationships. The best story in the issue, and I am looking forward to next month’s Project Entropy.

I quite liked What We Hold Onto by Jay O’Connell, but wonder if it is really much more than a tale of a female mid-life crisis in SF-nal drag. Sophia Bauer has a mother in a coma, and two children who have left the nest. She is recently separated from her husband. Into this mix comes a ‘Nomad’ called Concord who she hires to ‘Simplify’ her mother’s belongings. This turns out to be a process where all physical possessions are scanned and uploaded to the cloud before being disposed of: at one point in the story Sophia wanders around a VR simulation of her childhood house that Concord has created from all the material that her mother had in storage.2
While this is going on she finds herself attracted to Concord. She also has to decide whether or not to let her mother die or put her into ‘storage’, a process that will leave her in suspended animation for a decade at considerable cost. Subsequently (spoiler), her mother comes out of her coma but later dies. Concord leaves to do relief work, and Sophia ends up disposing of most of her material goods and starts travelling and working in different parts of the USA. Towards the end of the novella she meets up with Concord, who has been sorting out his own issues.
In the background there are mentions of climate related disasters at which the Nomads, a stateless tribe that seems to have grown out of various disparate organisations and groups, do relief work. They have body modifications that mean they need little food.
Those readers who are happy with relationship driven/minimal plot material will quite like this; those who want a more SF-nal read will probably find it frustrating as they will want to know a lot more about this future world.

In this month’s editorial, Behind the Scenes, Shelia Williams talks about three of her co-workers and their jobs: production artist Cindy Tiberi, editorial assistant Deanna McLafferty, and Emily Hockaday, the assistant editor, who also has a poem at the end of this piece. They all seem to be kept quite busy with their numerous responsibilities.
My Trip to the Future by Robert Silverberg is about his irrational dislike of smartphones despite a lifetime of having the newest gadgets. However, he and his wife Karen were recently lost in France and the iPhone she had insisted on buying before the trip helped them with guidance to their destination. Silverberg recounts how listening to the spoken instructions from the phone seemed like something out of a 1942 issue of Astounding.
There is a shocking admission in this essay:

I’m in my eighties now and much less interested in reading instruction manuals. p.6

A man reading an instruction manual? Burn the heretic!
There’s Something About Mars by James Patrick Kelly is about various novels and films concerning Mars, several of which I really should have read and/or seen by now.3
Finally, Norman Spinrad’s On Books column looks at three works by David Walton, Ted Kosmatka and Kim Stanley Robinson, and finds them all wanting to a greater or lesser extent. He writes about these novels in a very perceptive and cogent way which puts this review column head and shoulders above all the others I’ve read so far this year both here and also in F&SF.

Overall, this a solid issue thanks to the two longer works.

  1. Looking again at the recent covers all the titles seem to be slightly off-centre for some reason.
  2. The mid-1960s house she explores in virtual reality has a TV that has a remote control. According to Wikipedia this is possible but I’m pretty sure that we didn’t see a remote control in our house—admittedly not cutting edge—until the IR ones came out much later. I am curious as to how widespread TV remote controls were in mid-1960s US households.
  3. FWIW, I did watch Robinson Crusoe on Mars recently….

Leave a Reply