Asimov’s Science Fiction #488, September 2016

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ISFDB link

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

Fiction:
The Mind Is Its Own Place • novelette by Carrie Vaughn ♥♥
Dome on the Prairie • short story by Robert Reed ♥♥♥
Epitome • novelette by Tegan Moore ♥♥
Academic Circles • short story by Peter Wood ♥♥♥
The Whole Mess • novelette by Jack Skillingstead ♥♥♥+
All that Robot • short story by Rich Larson ♥♥♥+
The Visitor from Taured • novelette by Ian R. MacLeod ♥♥♥♥

Non-fiction:
Cover • by Michael Whelan
Editorial: Thirtieth Annual Readers’ Awards’ Results • by Sheila Williams
Reflections: “Darn,” He Smiled • essay by Robert Silverberg
Poems • by Chris Wozney, Jane Yolen, Robert Frazier, Bruce Boston
Next Issue
On Books • by Peter Heck
The SF Conventional Calendar • by Erwin S. Strauss

The last issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction was a strong one and so is this, with most of the good stuff at the back end of the magazine.

The first of the novelettes is The Mind Is Its Own Place by Carrie Vaughn which is an initially intriguing story about a M-space navigator who finds himself in a space station hospital but can’t remember why. As matters develop there are hints from other patients/inmates that he may have the facility to travel to any point in existence without the use of an M-drive. Later, after several other events, he makes an unauthorised visit to the docking area to see the ships that are there as he feels these may trigger key memories. When he arrives (spoiler) he remembers that he tried to set the co-ordinates of the last attempted jump to inside his spaceship, and caused the death of twenty shipmates. At this point he realises he is delusional. This isn’t much better than a sophisticated ‘and then I woke up and found it was all a dream’ ending, which rather spoiled the story for me.
The other story that didn’t entirely work for me was one of the other novelettes, and a debut story, Epitome by Tegan Moore. This is set in the near-future and is about Shelby, who has a badly injured roommate called Vivian. Shelby is in love with Vivian but she cannot bring herself to tell her. While Vivian is recovering, Shelby starts to spend ever more time with Vivian’s online persona, which she augments with neurological  ‘scans’ of Vivian making it a much more complex AI. Eventually, she starts a ‘physical’ relationship with the AI who she calls ViiP. This is all developed well enough but there is something about this that doesn’t quite convince, and I think it is probably the virtual reality aspects. Not a bad debut story, though.

The rest of the fiction ranges from good to very good so I’ll take it in that order.
Dome on the Prairie by Robert Reed begins in the midst of a family of aliens who are building a dome near Chicago, having appropriated a nuclear reactor and fuel. The ‘father’ is now working on building multiple fusion reactors to provide the energy to create new ‘children.’ Meanwhile the human military have been unsuccessful in their attempts to prevent this and have embarked on an intelligence gathering exercise. To that end they get one of their soldiers to engage one of the younger aliens in conversation, a feat that requires a huge amount of real-time computing power. Their conversation has unexpected consequences.
Little House on the Prairie is referenced in both the introduction and the story but I have no knowledge of that book so I’m not sure what the read over is. It is not necessary to enjoy this piece, which provides a good depiction of an alien culture.
Academic Circles by Peter Wood is a smart and amusing story about time travel that involves, amongst other things, English professors going back in time to steal their colleague’s articles on Philip K. Dick. I have one niggle which is that I think the ending might violate one of its own time travel ‘rules.’

The next two stories are another rung (or half a rung) up in quality. The Whole Mess by Jack Skillingstead is another entertaining tale, this time about a professor of mathematics who is given an equation to complete by a strange young man. Initially the professor is determined to ignore the man and his equation but he eventually becomes intrigued. When he solves it he finds that it triggers the invasion of the ‘Masters,’ terrifying and gigantic squid-like beings which appear through a rent in space:

The wind dropped as if a plug had been pulled. I looked up. A maple leaf see-sawed out of the air and landed on the others. The atmosphere became electric. Lisa looked at me. I saw fear in her eyes before I quickly glanced away. Behind her on the path a ragged hole opened like a rough doorway or the mouth of a tunnel. Its face rippled with an oily iridescent sheen. The hole expanded and acquired depth. An elephant could have passed through it.
For a moment I couldn’t credit what I was seeing. The brine-and-sewer stench familiar from my dream wafted out of the tunnel. Instinctively, I took Lisa’s arm and pulled her back, only to stumble over my own briefcase. She grabbed hold to keep me from falling, and we ended in an awkward embrace.
A shape moved inside the tunnel, something huge, dragging itself toward us. My flight response seized me, but I couldn’t move.
p.70

As these events occur the professor and Lisa are transported to a parallel world where they find they have the memories of different lives mixed in with their original ones. Just as they are trying to come to terms with this the Masters appear again and once more they are transported to another world and even more different lives:

After a moment I replaced the hat and descended the steps in a daze, my dirty white sneakers feeling strange after years of loafers. This iteration’s identity slowly rose to the surface. By the time I reached University Avenue and the six-year-old Ford Focus I’d left parked there, I knew perfectly well that I didn’t belong on campus, except as the slightly sad figure I now inhabited, a man well past thirty ignorantly in search of entry into the higher-education structure. My appointment with the admissions counselor hadn’t gone well. I was woefully under-qualified, and my paltry community college credits were non-transferable.
The whole thing was an ironic counterpoint to my original arrival, a decade and a few iterations ago, when I was the over-qualified applicant for a teaching position that would ensure insulation from the cries of Genius! that had hectored me since grade school. Now I fell short even as an aging freshman looking for validation in the form of a degree in the humanities.
Yes, the
humanities. p.72

In due course Cthulhu, sorry, the Masters turn up through another portal and he and Lisa are once again transported. He realises he needs to formulate another equation to close the portals before he is subsumed into his new identity and forgets about what he has initiated.
All that Robot by Rich Larson is about a group of robots and a man who are marooned on an island after an unspecified apocalypse. Carver Seven is the only robot that has any interaction with the man, and even he does not entirely understand some of the man’s communications or actions. After a couple of establishing scenes with the man, and also with another robot called Recycler, Carver Seven (spoiler-ish) eventually goes to the man with the head of Carrier Three, a largely destroyed robot Carver Seven appears to have been emotionally involved with:

The next day, he goes to visit the man again.
“Hey, look who it is,” he warbles from a distance, because the man startles easily, like a bird. It looks up at him. Its photoreceptors are pink and glassy.
“Hey, yourself, robo-parrot,” the man says, then returns to its work. There is a storm-felled tree between its soft feet, and it is using the sharp appendage to strip away the branches. Carver Seven looks around and sees remnants of fire, burned pieces of animal. The man has hunted, how Recycler hunts. Beyond the mess, there are two more trunks already stripped smooth. He wonders what the man is building.
But his original query is much more important.
“Can you do me a favor and fuck off?” Carver Seven asks.
That gets the man’s attention. Its audio port opens and it makes the clipped noise that repeats, over and over, sometimes when the man is pleased but more often when it leaks lubricant.
Carver Seven scans up and down the beach. “Can you do me a favor and fuck off and look here and fix it up a bit?” he asks. Then he opens his main cavity and pulls out Carrier Three’s caved-in head.
“Whoa.” The man’s photoreceptors enlarge. “Did you do that? This some Lord of the Flies type shit?”
“Lord of the Flies type shit?” Carver Seven echoes, trying to parse the new sound units.
The man shakes its head. “Who is it?” it asks.
Carver Seven thinks hard. He knows what this latest question means, but he does not know how to communicate Carrier Three’s name, the beautiful arc of click-squealclick, into the man’s ugly wet language. Then his subroutines dredge up the sound unit the man used to wail at the sea, used to punctuate long rambling speeches with.
“She is Anita,” Carver Seven says.
p.84-85

The man agrees to repair Carrier Three if Carver Seven will help him build a raft to leave the island. Meanwhile, Recycler tells the rest of the robots of a blasphemy that the man has uttered about their life-giving sun (the robots are largely solar powered).
This is an inventive, witty and affecting story with some sections, such as the one above which illustrates the story’s clever pronoun switch, that are excellent. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that I have a weak spot for stories where robots exhibit signs of humanity and/or try to come to terms with it. I may have scored this one lower than I should have.

The last story is The Visitor from Taured by Ian R. MacLeod, the best in the issue and one for the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies. This (spoiler-ish story description follows) is about two young students, Lita and Rob, who meet at university in the future. Rob is the self-contained bright young thing and Lita, initially at least, is in his shadow. Rob studies astrophysics while her course is in the very niche field of analogue literature:

I was already aware—how couldn’t I be?—that no significant novel or short story had been written in decades, but I was shocked to discover that only five other students in my year had elected for An Lit as their main subject, and one of those still resided in Seoul and another was a post-centarian on clicking steel legs. Most of the other students who showed up were dipping into the subject in the hope that it might add something useful to their main discipline. Invariably, they were disappointed. It wasn’t just the difficulty of ploughing through page after page of non-interactive text. It was linear fiction’s sheer lack of options, settings, choices. Why the hell, I remember some kid shouting in a seminar, should I accept all the miserable shit that this Hardy guy rains down on his characters? Give me the base program for Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and I’ll hack you fifteen better endings. p.92

In time their friendship deepens and they end up sharing a house with others. Rob takes Lita to one of the university labs and shows her a diffraction-slit experiment and goes on to explain his obsession with the many worlds theory. Later, Lita introduces him to the field of analogue literature and, initially, their tastes largely coincide:

Perhaps inevitably, Rob’s and my taste in books had started to drift apart. He’d discovered an antique genre called Science Fiction, something that the AIs at An Lit were particularly sniffy about. And, even as he tried to lead me with him, I could see their point. Much of the prose was less than luminous, the characterization was sketchy, and, although a great deal of it was supposedly about the future, the predictions were laughably wrong.
But Rob insisted that that wasn’t the point, that SF was essentially a literature of ideas. That, and a sense of wonder. To him, wonder was particularly important. I could sometimes—maybe as that lonely astronaut passed through the stargate, or with those huge worms in that book about a desert world—see his point. But most of it simply left me cold.
p.96-97

After they leave university and go their own ways they still keep in touch by meeting in a virtual bar modelled on the one they used to frequent; occasionally they also meet in person. While Lita gets a job as an ideas person in media company Rob ends up completing a series of physics research contracts while all the time trying to get the money and resources for the many worlds theory he is obsessed with:

He’d settled into, you might almost say retreated to, a sub-genre of SF known as alternate history, where all the stuff he’d been telling me about our world continually branching off into all its possibilities was dramatized on a big scale. Hitler had won World War Two—a great many times, it seemed—and the South was triumphant in the American Civil War. That, and the Spanish Armada had succeeded, and Europe remained under the thrall of medieval Roman Catholicism, and Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet had grazed past President Kennedy’s head. I didn’t take this odd obsession as a particularly good sign as we exchanged chaste hugs and kisses in the street outside the Eldon and went our separate ways. p.97

In the final section Rob’s father dies and he gives up his science career and returns to run the family marine farm in Harris on the Isle of Lewis. Later, Lita uses Rob as a presenter in a science documentary series where he finally accumulates enough money and fame to quit and pursue his experiment. At the end of the story she joins Rob on the island and they wait for the wait for the gravitational waves from one black hole colliding with another to reach the multiple data observation points that Rob has set up.
This is a superior piece that is convincingly told; it has a verisimilar future that other writers rarely match. Also, unlike the SF described in one of the quotes above, the prose is elegant—and yes, at times luminous—and it has that rare British voice that you seldom hear in SF nowadays. As to the characterization, it is far from sketchy, in fact this is less a story than the account of two people’s lives and how, after multiple intersections, they finally come together.

The Editorial is about a recent readers’ awards breakfast that Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog hosts each year. I didn’t read the magazine in 2015 so I can’t tell how egregious the readers’ choices are, but next year I’ll be foremost amongst the Monday morning quarter-backers.
Reflections: “Darn,” He Smiled by Robert Silverberg is an amusing essay about Damon Knight and James Blish’s critical work. He concentrates on Blish’s dislike of ‘said bookisms’ in particular, referring to one damming review:1

[Blish] devotes considerable space to his “said-bookism,” a term of literary opprobrium that I think was one of Blish’s coinages. This is what he says: “About half of the fifteen thousand words of this story are dialogue, at a minimum estimate, and in the seventy-five hundred words of miscellaneous yatter, the characters actually say something only twenty-seven times. For the rest of the yarn, they shout (six times), repeat, snap (twice), order (four times), stammer, observe (five times), ask (sixteen times), lecture, argue,’half-whisper,’ muse, call, sigh (four times), nod, agree (four times), report (three times), cry, yell, command, bark, scream (twice), guess, state (twice, both times ‘flatly’), add, suggest, chide, propose, announce, explain, admit, growl, chuckle (twice)….” p.7

On Books by Peter Heck covers several books, the most interesting of which sound like the new Paul Di Filippo collection, A Palazao in the Stars, and Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Space Flight Before NASA by Amy Shira Teitel.
Nice Cover by Michael Whelan.2
Finally, I actually liked one of the poems in this issue for a change: Autosexuality by Chris Wozney, probably because it is as much a joke as a poem.

Another highly recommended issue.

  1. The review, One Completely Lousy Story With Feetnote, is in The Issue at Hand by James Blish, p.92. The story is Final Exam by Arthur Zirul (Astounding, March 1954).
  2. Thomas Wagner pointed out on Twitter (@SFF180) that this is an alternate version of the cover he did for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge.

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