Asimov’s Science Fiction #486, July 2016


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

Ten Poems for the Mossums, One for the Man • novelette by Suzanne Palmer ♥♥♥+
Filtered • short story by Leah Cypess ♥♥
Masked • short story by Rich Larson ♥♥♥
Project Entropy • novelette by Dominica Phetteplace ♥♥♥+
The Savior Virus • short story by Jack Skillingstead ♥
Nobody Like Josh • novelette by Robert Thurston ♥♥
Webs • short story by Mary Anne Mohanraj ♥♥♥+
Lost: Mind • novelette by Will McIntosh ♥♥♥

Cover • by Maurizio Manzieri
Editorial: The 2016 Dell Magazines Award • by Sheila Williams
Reflections: Persons from Porlock • essay by Robert Silverberg
Poetry • Robert Borski, John Philip Johnson, David G. Turner, A. E. Ash
Next Issue
On Books • Paul Di Filippo
The SF Conventional Calendar • Edwin S. Strauss

The fiction in this issue, perhaps the best of the year so far, leads off with the first of four novelettes, Ten Poems for the Mossums, One for the Man by Suzanne Palmer. This is a pretty good story about a poet who is the sole occupant of an alien world called Ekye, although there are support and scientific staff in orbit. Because of a species on Ekye called ‘nocters’, who swarm to electromagnetic energy, he is allowed no electrical equipment in the cottage and writes on a manual typewriter, has a fireplace, etc. Each of his diary entries starts with his newly written poetry and then goes on to detail his days observing the alien environment: the popish-weed, the stone-like mossums and an unexpected predator he subsequently names Red Rex…. This starts off slowly but turns into an intriguing, novel and exciting exobiology story.

Filtered by Leah Cypess is a story about journalists of the future and how their stories have to make it through users’ news filters before they can be read. Steve has an article that he can’t get his editor partner to run as no-one will want read it…. This is interestingly developed but I thought the ending, while an emotionally logical development of what had gone before, a bit of a cop out.
Masked by Rich Larson is another story that deals with current social and technological mores extrapolated into the future. Two young women visit a friend who has suffered a virus attack, except this virus attacked her ‘face’, the digital appearance she wears. The narrator describes getting ready for the meeting:

…so I deliberate forever doing my Face. In the end I decide to go subtle: an airbrushed conglom of three of my most flattering private snaps, plus Holly Rexroat-Carrow’s lips and Sofia Lawless’ cheekbones from that Vogue shoot she did on the Moon. Nothing too recent, nothing that’ll make Vera feel like she is way, way unsynched and missing out on all kinds of hot shit. Which she has been, obviously. I do the rest of my Face the same way, kind of sous radar. I set my wardrobe to cycle four or five outfits, one of which includes the Chanel inside-out jacket Vera gifted me a week before the accident. It is now kind of gauche, so she better appreciate the gesture like whoa. Boob-wise I go small, because obviously Aline is going to be there, too, and she always goes chesty and is way way more than welcome to the unsolicited profile taps, thanks. Lastly, I prune the digital cloud of updates shuffling around my shoulders. A few instant-regret purchases, plus the many many snaps of me and Aline and Estelle wearing our wetsuits in Venice, disappear in a drizzle of code. p.32

When the two women arrive at the reef house the narrator is surprised to find out that Vera doesn’t seem to care that she hasn’t got a Face. Matters progress.
I thought this was a good extrapolation of today’s digital life, but I found the ending rather abrupt and perhaps the magazine should take some responsibility for this. I’ve always thought that bullets • at the end of a story were quite a good peripheral vision hint to the reader that the end is coming. There is nothing worse than getting to the bottom of a page, turning over, and finding the story has finished….

The next novelette is Project Entropy by Dominica Phetteplace, another instalment in her fascinating series about a future San Francisco, its AIs and pampered billionaires.
In this episode we rejoin Angelina, the original host of the Observation chip AI that downloaded itself into another human leaving her seriously ill (Project Synergy, Asimov’s SF April/May 2016). She returns to work at the Reserve after her illness but does not stay there for long as she falls out with the management. This occurs after meeting Akiko, who is supposed to be a clairvoyant and who tells her she will change jobs. After both of these events she ends up in business with her boyfriend millionaire until, that is, he sells part of the company to billionaire Bryan, one of Angelina’s ex-boyfriends. Then she quits that as well. Threaded throughout all this are various encounters with Bell, her friend from the previous story, and Noah, the downloaded AI.
The pacing and development of this one is a little uneven, probably as there is quite a lot going on. However, as usual for Phetteplace, there are several nuggets of baleful social observation throughout that distract from this variability:

Angelina was wearing the lip gloss that Bel had given her and the moonstone necklace she’d received yesterday, even though neither were really her style. The problem with most gifts is that they are almost never given freely. Implicit is the expectation of use, and so most gifts are not really gifts but actions to be performed somehow, tasks appended on to an already too long to-do list. p.43

At the end this story bootstraps itself not once but twice with (definite spoiler) the revelation that Noah isn’t the only downloaded AI but one of a generation of Emergents appearing, and that there is also a more powerful being of limitless intelligence and surveillance, the ‘God of Information’. This ending, while enjoyably transcendent, is also a little abrupt, and if this is the end of the series then I would say very abrupt. Let’s hope there are more stories to come.

The Savior Virus by Jack Skillingstead is about a man who has lost his wife to a terrorist explosion and, subsequently, his daughter to religion. He (spoiler) releases a virus to kill religious belief in humanity but the results are not what he expects. The ending of this one, with its idea of racial targeting, didn’t convince.

When I first started reading SF magazines in the mid-seventies the byline of Robert Thurston was a familiar one to me and he returns this issue to Asimov’s SF after a period of over thirty years with Nobody Like Josh. This story is narrated by a retired school superintendent and is about the town alien—after a spaceship crash it stayed in the area, mostly helping in the school but also doing other odd jobs about the town. The story moves from the narrator’s childhood to his present position doing part time tutorial work and details several significant encounters with the alien along the way before rather fizzling out at the end. I don’t think I got the point of this one: perhaps it is less to do with the alien than the narrator’s own alienation (failed career, divorced, children who dislike him, etc.).
By the by, the second last paragraph on p.73 seems completely out of place.

Webs by Mary Anne Mohanraj is a grim tale about Anna, a woman who lives on the planet Ariel, and her genetically modified neighbours, ‘humods’, who have been altered so they can fly in the light gravity. They come to her one night with their daughter, asking to be hidden as a wave of anti-humod violence sweeps the population. Anna’s own back story about her sex-change and subsequent multiple miscarriages merges with the main story in a harrowing finish.
Lost: Mind by Will McIntosh is about a man’s wife suffering from Alzheimer’s and how she is converted into a neural network. The problem is that this is done in India as the process is illegal in the USA, and her consciousness is split into the thirty two pieces of a chess set so her husband can smuggle her back home. The chess set is stolen en-route, and the rest of the story details the recovery of the pieces until a problematic last collector refuses to sell the final nine….

The non-fiction in this issue starts with an editorial by Sheila Williams, The 2016 Dell Magazines Award, that describes her trip to the Conference on the Fantastic, where the Dell Magazines Awards for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction were presented.
Reflections: Persons from Porlock by Robert Silverberg is an interesting article about Coleridge being interrupted by a ‘person from Porlock’ while writing his poem Kubla Khan, and then, by the time he got back to it, having forgotten the dream he had had. It goes on to talk about PFPs more generally and how there are more instances of this nowadays with email, Twitter, etc., not to mention ourselves! It ends with mention of a very early Silverberg story that uses Coleridge and the poem in its plot (The Sacred River, The Avalonian 1952). I didn’t do this poem at school and had no knowledge of PFPs so I found this quite interesting, not least for the idea that it can be self-inflicted.
Finally, On Books by Paul Di Filippo discusses a number of promising volumes, including Collected Fiction by Lena Krohn. This book is 850pp. long and includes six novels as well as ten stories! I’d get nothing else read for months….

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