Wakers • short story by Sean Monaghan ♥♥♥
Toppers • novelette by Jason Sanford ♥♥♥
The Mutants Men Don’t See • short story by James Alan Gardner ♥♥♥♥
KIT: Some Assembly Required • short story by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz ♥♥
Patience Lake • novelette by Matthew Claxton ♥♥♥+
Kairos • short story by Sieren Damsgaard Ernst ♥
President John F. Kennedy, Astronaut • novelette by Sandra McDonald ♥♥♥
Cover • Kinuko Craft
Poetry • Michael Meyerhofer, Robert Frazier, Andrew Paul Wood, Ken Poyner
Discovering Women of Wonder • editorial by Sheila Williams
The Software of Magic • essay by Robert Silverberg
Thinking About Dinosaurs • essay by James Patrick Kelly
On Books • by Paul Di Filippo
SF Conventional Calendar • essay by Erwin S. Strauss
This issue’s cover is pleasant enough but looks like it should adorn Asimov’s Romantic Fiction. A quick check of covers appears to show a preference for women or astronomical views over the last eighteen months. Are the women subject covers are a conscious decision to target a particular demographic?
The fiction this month gets off to quite a promising start with three stories that, initially at least, had me reaching for the superlatives jar. The first, Wakers by Sean Monaghan, is about a starship where the crew are in cryogenic suspension. There has been an accident en route, and the ship has been knocked off-course. As the ship AI has been partially damaged one of the crew needs to be awake at all times to assist it. It materialises that there have been a number of crew members awake during the last five hundred and fifty years and it is time for Grayson to wake another before he dies. The woman he chooses to wake does not accept the status quo; she revives another two crew members with the objective of diverting to another star system.
I thought this was an engaging story and found it quite good for the most part. However, Grayson longs to wake up his partner before he dies, even though there is now a large difference in their ages. The ending (spoiler) has the computer doing that, which I really didn’t find credible. Good start to the issue, nonetheless.
Next up is Toppers by Jason Sanford. This is an original and vivid piece about ‘Toppers’ who live at the top of high rise buildings in New York safe from the strange swirling mist below:
We be toppers. Toppers we be. Hanging off Empire State as cement and limestone crumble and fall. Looking down the lines and pulleys strung between nearby buildings. Eyeing the green-growing plants and gardens on the tall tall roofs. And below, the mists. The ever-flowing mists. They wait, patiently. As if time is theirs alone to worship. I was born in a slug, an insulated bag of canvas strung to our highrise’s limestone facade by people without the power to live inside. Momma always said life in a slug was the closest we toppers came to being free, and I believe that. But too much freedom is also bad, so Momma stitched our slug with care, making it last when others fell during winds or storms. p.26
The story follows Hangar as she works as a scout and courier. To operate in the mist she needs to wear a pressure suit and a blindfold—looking into it drives people mad. Hangar can sometimes hear voices in the mist, in particular the voice of her mother who committed suicide by jumping off the roof into it. Hangar does not talk to anyone about this for fear of being thrown off the roof herself.
One day Dougan, the building super, asks her to undertake a particularly perilous mission to the Plaza hotel where she meets an older woman in a wheelchair who gives her new information about this strange phenomenon.
This first half of the story is quite intriguing, and in due course it materialises that the mist is the result of a temporal catastrophe caused by a scientist. The problem with this latter section is that the more the explanation about the accident and the rather complex properties of the mist are explained, the more the original sense of wonder from the start of the story is diminished. I think it is only fair to say that if the writer hadn’t explained enough, I’d be moaning about that instead. A difficult balancing act.
The Mutants Men Don’t See by James Alan Gardner starts with this:
At 10:04 A.M. on a Thursday in November, Jason Foote slipped something into Matthew Stein’s beaker during Grade 10 chemistry. No one ever figured out what the substance was, but the result was an earsplitting bang. At the next lab table, Julia Boudreau was startled enough to drop a test tube. It hit the floor and shattered, spreading glass and dilute acid over the tiles. Other students shrieked or swore, but the most extreme reaction came from Tamara-Lynn Eubanks: she grew nine feet tall, sprouted tree-bark all over her body, and smashed a hole through the wall of the classroom. She ran through the hole at the speed of a sports car and was not seen again until two years later, when she was caught on video fighting Blue Mechathons during the Rainbow Invasion.
Everyone in the class understood what had happened: Tamara-Lynn’s DNA must have included the so-called “Spark gene.” The shock of hearing the bang had pumped the girl full of fight-or-flight hormones. The adrenaline flood in Tamara-Lynn’s bloodstream had combined with the glandular turmoil of being a teenager, and had “sparked” the gene out of dormancy. Every cell in the girl’s body underwent spontaneous mutation; in the blink of an eye, Tamara-Lynn Eubanks joined the ranks of Earth’s superhumans. p.40
The story then cuts to Ellie and her teenage son Liam. He is approaching seventeen and is brooding about the fact that he hasn’t ‘sparked’ and may never do so—if it hasn’t happened by your late teens it never will. Worried about the fact that Liam may put himself in a perilous situation to force the change Ellie starts following him around.
The ending is uplifting and surprising, but is also consistent with what has gone before. Best story in the issue and one for the ‘Year’s Bests’.
The next entry I didn’t find as successful as the first three. KIT: Some Assembly Required by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz is about an AI that has the memories and identity of the Elizabethan Christopher Marlowe. It is being used to analyse net metadata and strike at terrorists. This is a densely told story—it alternates between our current time and the intrigues of Elizabethan England—but I am not sure these two threads add up to anything more than their constituent parts.
A similar observation could probably be made of Kairos by Sieren Damsgaard Ernst. The narrator in this one is with her second husband in a museum in Aachen that has Charlemagne’s remains. Her husband’s venture business has discovered a way to prevent aging and he is about to undergo the treatment and wants her to do so as well. However, she agonises about the choice, and then agonises some more, cries for a bit, does some more agonising, etc. There is no doubt this author can write and there is a lot of knowledge packed into this story, science, history, Greek myth, etc. The problem is that it reads like an extended lecture and I found it quite dull.
Patience Lake by Matthew Claxton has a protagonist who is an ex-military veteran and a vagrant. Casey was caught in a bio-attack that resulted in nearly all his body being replaced by bionic implants.
As he is walking across the Canadian countryside to his next destination his knee packs up, and he has no spare parts or money to fix it. Casey ends up filling his water bottle at one of the local farms and the owner Sandra takes him in. This occurs against a background that involves a dubious private contractor policeman in the shape of Terry, who has better and considerably more expensive bionic implants than Casey has. Casey meets Sandra’s teenage son, sorts her various drones and machinery, and eventually manages to replace his cracked artificial femur—the end had broken off and jammed his knee. He also learns of the shakedown racket that Terry and his police colleagues are running. Casey eventually leaves to continue on his journey but needless to say this isn’t the end of this situation.
This is a gritty, compelling story which I hope is going to be part of a series. Whether this happens or not, I would note that Matthew Caxton’s previous two writing credits were in Ellen Datlow’s SciFiction in 2004, and I hope we don’t have to wait another twelve years for his next one.1
The last piece of fiction in this issue is the promising sounding President John F. Kennedy, Astronaut by Sandra McDonald. This is an entertaining and sometimes light-hearted story of a parallel world where JFK went to the moon after his second term and recovered an alien obelisk. This backstory is embedded in the main narrative which is set in a future drowned Earth (the polar ice-caps have melted) where a man called Rendezvous has hired Ma and her amphibious vehicle to go to the undersea NASA Vehicle Assembly Building in Florida to search for and recover the obelisk. Needless to say this mission isn’t straightforward, especially when other parties—including one of Rendezvous’ daughters—appear.
The story is narrated from the point of view of Petra, Vera’s feisty daughter (her brother Kacey is onboard too) and has a lovely final few paragraphs.
There is the usual non-fiction this issue: Discovering Women of Wonder by Sheila Williams is a short piece about the editor’s childhood reading of comics with female superheroes; The Software of Magic by Robert Silverberg is about a couple of antique books and their various magical spells; Thinking About Dinosaurs by James Patrick Kelly is a comprehensive collection of dinosaur-related weblinks: On Books by Paul Di Filippo looks at a number of promising books, including a collection of Judith Merril’s criticism:2
She not only charted the ups and downs of the genre marketplace, but the penetration of genre into mainstream venues, her main pioneering focus.
In her book columns from F&SF, she dealt fairly with everyone from old-schoolers like Clifford Simak to the up-and-coming New Wave icons like Ballard, Disch, and Zelazny. It’s interesting to see where she very occasionally went wrong: she fails to understand or appreciate The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, for instance. But she was never averse to changing her mind and altering her critical opinions. Having not seen anything too promising in Delany’s The Ballad of Beta-2, by the time of Nova she is fully onboard the Delany bandwagon.
As for charting the Zeitgeist, just read her column for June 1968. It anatomizes the turbulent era brilliantly, in words that apply just as appropriately for today’s milieu. If we only had Merril still with us, to give us her savvy guidance. p.104
The best issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction this year.
- Matthew Caxton’s short entry at ISFDB.
- The Merril Theory of Literary Criticism (Aqueduct Press, trade paper, 360 pages, ISBN 978-1-61976-093-6) here at Amazon. Barry Malzberg recently wrote a column with quite a different view on Judith Merril, There is no Defense (Galaxy’s Edge #20, May 2016, to be reviewed here in due course).