Asimov’s Science Fiction #489/490, October/November 2016


Galactic Central link
ISFDB link

Other reviews:
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Chuck Rothman, Tangent Online
Various, Goodreads

The Forgotten Taste of Honey • novella by Alexander Jablokov ♥♥
Eating Science with Ghosts • novelette by Octavia Cade
The People in the Building • short fiction by Sandra McDonald ♥♥♥
Wretched the Romantic • novelette by Michael Libling ♥♥♥+
Water Scorpions • short fiction by Rich Larson ♥♥♥
The Leaning Lincoln • novelette by Will Ludwigsen ♥♥♥
Lucite • short fiction by Susan Palwick ♥♥
Project Extropy • novelette by Dominica Phetteplace ♥♥♥
When Grandfather Returns • short fiction by Sharon N. Farber [as by S. N. Dyer] ♥♥♥
Choose Poison, Choose Life • novella by Michael Blumlein ♥♥

Cover • Karla Ortiz
Our Slightly Spooky Issue • editorial by Sheila Williams
Magical Thinking • essay by Robert Silverberg
Welcome our Robot Overlords! • essay by James Patrick Kelly
Poetry • Herb Kauderer, Eliot Fintushel, Megan Arkenberg, Lisa Bellamy, Lucy A. Snyder, Sarah Gittens, Jane Yolen
Next Issue
On Books: Short Stories • by Norman Spinrad
SF Conventional Calendar • essay by Erwin S. Strauss

This issue (as described in the editorial) is the annual ‘slightly spooky’ issue and, as such, contains more fantasy than SF, so I’ll deal with those stories first.
The Forgotten Taste of Honey by Alexander Jablokov is the first of two novellas in this issue and is set in a world where the local gods require people to be buried in the land where they were born. To that end Tromvi, a widow who is a trader, encounters a recently bereaved man whose has had signs that his wife’s god wants her body returned to her homeland:

“This way.” Wult grabbed a shovel from the neat line of tools behind the house, and led Tromvi from the vineyard, up over a rise, and down to a sheltered flat area. Boulders etched with a few runes each marked where the graves were. “My parents. An aunt, and a few elders, forgotten. And . . . her.” His eyes widened and the shovel fell from his hand.
The newest grave’s soil had been disturbed and then patted back down, handprints visible in the soft dirt. Remu herself lay on the slope above the little cemetery, amid the summer flowers.
She lay on her back, eyes closed, dressed in a simple shift with some embroidery at the hem. Her light brown hair was tied and braided in the shoreline fashion—Tromvi imagined the village women doing their necessary work, while feeling secretly pleased that, at least once, this outland woman would have her hair done properly. She was clearly dead, with her skin pulling in folds over her cheekbones. But not two months dead. Nothing had eaten her eyes.
She lay amid the purple and yellow flowers of the wild pansy called Heart’s Ease. She had dried flower heads amid her fingers. Bees buzzed higher up the slope. The preservation of her body showed that her god had an unusually strong interest in her return. p.17

Tromvi takes the body westward and comes to a keep in one of the walls that separate neighbouring territories. For reasons of his own Hakurutt the gatekeeper will not let the body pass, so Tromvi has to detour to the north. On her travels she encounters a feral young girl and matters develop at their camp to the point they once again return to the gatekeeper in an attempt to pass through the wall.
I found this a pleasant enough read—the titular central section where bees inhabit Remu’s body in particular—but it is really the first section of a novel. It has the leisurely development of that longer form and is also inconclusively open-ended. No doubt we will see sequels soon but I think that, if the magazine is going to serialise what is essentially a longer work, it should be honest about it and do so unless the sections are reasonably stand-alone.

The other novella is Choose Poison, Choose Life by Michael Blumlein. It has a blurb that describes it as a ‘surreal tale about a woman’s desperate choices.’ It is certainly that with its story about Violet, who goes to a tropical island to commit suicide. After spending the night there she goes down to the ocean, wades out towards two smaller islands, and appears to be given two visions by the gods of those islands. These dual narratives are spliced into Violet’s subsequent story but I’ll briefly describe them here.
The first vision is about Daisy and Richard, who are marooned on an island. Later on in the story, Daisy finds a cave and falls into a hole. The rest of this one is about her struggle to survive.
The second vision has a woman called Rose helping Marl build a canoe to cross to another island (they too, appear to be marooned). He almost gets eaten by sharks, but manages to return. He ill-temperedly smashes their remaining water jug. This is the first indication of his abusive behaviour. The rest of this one gives us their back-story and Rose’s plot to poison him.
Meanwhile, back in Violet’s story, a man called Shep recognises her as a suicide risk and manages to talk her out of killing herself, at least for a day. Their relationship develops over the course of time and deepens. Then one day he doesn’t turn up….
All three of these threads are engrossing enough reading, and Daisy and Rose’s threads have some closure. The problem is that the main thread, Violet’s story, has an ending that is perplexing at best and only tangentially manages to tie the three together into a whole.
As an example of my mystification (spoiler) I would offer the scene where Shep vanishes while he is in Violet’s arms (this, after his ‘reality’ is established by a thorough description of the food poisoning that makes him miss his lunch date with her). As for tying it together, Violet confesses to Shep before he vanishes that she had poisoned someone in the past. There is also a final image of a bouquet of daises, violets and a single rose. Anyone want to have a go at explaining this one to me?

Wretched the Romantic by Michael Libling is a novelette of commendably poor taste about a loser who accidentally inhales some of the cremated remains he was given to scatter. He later realises he has developed some of the deceased’s attributes. This is really a gonzo /black humour ‘if this goes on’ fantasy but the emphasis is on the first two characteristics. Mixed in with the main gimmick is the breakup of the narrator’s relationship and the crush he has on a local weather presenter:

The only reason I watched News Final at 11 was Lucy Levine & The Weather. And not The Weather so much. There was just something in the way Lucy caressed her highs and lows, traced the eye of a hurricane with her fingers, surrendered her lips to the O in tropical, the tsu in tsunami. I’d even sit through that lame-ass segment they’d run right after Sports (you know, tap-dancing ferrets, reunions of long-lost siblings, hundred-pound eggplants) to catch a final glimpse of her, as the WCEX team wrapped for the night all winks and giggles, and Lucy would flaunt that zip-it-down smile of hers, that drop-dead red and wound-me white, as she wished everyone a tomorrow as spectacular as she was. She never said it in those words, exactly, but she must have been thinking it. I was, I tell you, Monday through Friday […] p.72

The Leaning Lincoln by Will Ludwigsen is another of the novelettes. This one is narrated by Scott, a boy who has an abusive, low-life father. It tells of the slightly deformed lead soldier of the title that he gets from Henry, one of his father’s friends who has made a set of them from a lead ingot the three of them found while out fishing.
In due course Scott considers the figure cursed as it causes him a number of minor mishaps. When he tries to get rid of it, with the help of a female school friend, he sinks his father’s boat (which later turns out to be stolen) and both he and his friend suffer minor injuries.
Henry turns up later, much the worse for having been under the malign influence of the rest of the lead soldiers. During one conversation, Scott’s father incites Henry to commit murder. The story proceeds from there.
This is probably best read as a mainstream piece as there is a lack of consistency about the effect of the lead soldiers. Sometimes they appear to have an influence, sometimes they don’t, and the variability is not explained. Regardless of this minor flaw it is nonetheless quite a good character piece, and reminded me in some ways of Stephen King’s work.

Lucite by Susan Palwick is about a man who literally tours Hell and comes away from the gift shop with a lucite block that contains the shell of someone’s soul.

The gift shop sells many different translations of Dante’s Inferno. Andrew sidesteps the bookshelves and finds himself facing a back wall displaying framed insects. Butterflies and beetles, he thinks, and wonders what they’re doing here—cockroaches and stinging midges would be more like it—and moves closer to examine them.
They aren’t butterflies or beetles, not quite. They have too many legs or not enough, eyes in odd places, tiny mouths with teeth. The larger ones are framed, but a number of small ones inhabit lucite blocks, some designed as paperweights and some as keychains. “The souls of the damned,” reads a display card, listing prices ranging from $7.95 for the keychains to $150 for some of the larger souls with brightly colored wings.
Andrew’s stomach clenches. The damned have already sold their souls, one way or another, although Andrew isn’t sure he knows anyone who hasn’t. How can they be sold again? And aren’t those the souls he’s been watching for the last five hours as they endured their various torments?
Tacky fridge magnets are one thing. This is different, much more personal. It bothers Andrew as much as anything he’s seen today.
He feels a hot breeze blow past his cheek and turns to find the minor imp watching him. “Properly speaking, these are just the shells of the souls, no more inhabited than any shell you pick up on the beach. The actual souls you’ve seen, suffering for their sins. They’re the meat of the matter. These have no actual value, but they’re pretty. The really big ones, the grand ones, they’re in storage. These are the minor souls.”

When he gets home a card falls out of the bag identifying whose ‘shell’ it was. The man googles the deceased before visiting the old folk’s home where he died in order to find out more about him.
There is some affecting stuff here about loneliness and the things we metaphorically sell our souls for, but I didn’t understand what Palwick was getting at in the last scene.

When Grandfather Returns by Sharon N. Farber is, according to ISFDB, her first story in fifteen years or so.1
This entertaining Native American fantasy has two threads. The first is about a troublemaking kid called Thunder Cries (later Heat Lightning) who ends up being taken and parented by a spirit family because of his bad behaviour. This subsequently improves. Later in his adult life, he meets the conquistadores and performs a magic ritual for them.
The other thread is about an old Native American called Strong Horse, who is an ex-code talker and Harvard Professor. He has a great-great-grandson Dylan who, like the younger Heat Lightning, also has an attitude:

“And they all lived happily ever after, yadda yadda yadda,” said Dylan Strong Horse.
His great-grandfather sighed and sipped his orange soda. They sat on the curb outside the Cibola Snacks and Gifts souvenir shop.
“You are a great trial,” he said.
“Are you going to dance up a katchooie to scare me?”
“Kachina.” The boy did not know his people’s history. Or care.
“Whatever, gramps.” Dylan rose to watch some white-eyes get out of their Ford. They had a blond daughter. She was probably a very nice girl, the old man thought, but she dressed like a hooker. They all did now, all the girls, unless they grew too fat to find improper clothes that fit.
His great-grandson was wearing baggy pants and a backward cap. He looked like a fool.
Well, so do I, thought Professor Strong Horse. I was a tenured professor. Now I supplement my Social Security by dressing in the old way and sitting outside a store to please tourists.

The two strands merge (spoiler) and Strong Horse, Heat Lightning and Dylan save the town from the conquistadores.

The SF stories start with Eating Science with Ghosts by Octavia Cade. A woman has dinner with the ghosts of various scientists. There are nine ‘courses,’ and each features a different scientist and includes extended conversations and lovingly described food. None of these seem to have any particular point, either on their own or collectively, and I found them tedious beyond belief. An excellent example of a story completely outstaying its welcome by being twice as long as it should be if, indeed, it should be at all.

The People in the Building by Sandra McDonald starts with this:

At an office building on Tanner Boulevard, two intelligent elevators whisk workers up from the lobby toward their employment destinations. The people headed for the fifth floor greet each other every morning with nods. The people from the fourth floor sip from their brown coffee cups and read their smartphones. The people on the third floor run an interplanetary rescue agency and sleep in their conference room each night, so you won’t see them arrive for work. The people on the second floor are all dead now. p.66

From this unlikely beginning it develops into quite an engrossing tale, albeit a short one with a slightly abrupt end. If that sounds rather grudging, I was pleasantly surprised that the author managed to wrap the story up at all.

Water Scorpions by Rich Larson is about a boy called Noel. His sister has recently died, and his mother has fostered a strangely uncommunicative alien child called Danny. Throughout the story it becomes apparent that Noel is still grieving for his sister and Danny is bearing the brunt of his emotional troubles:

“Look at this, Danny,” Noel says, lifting the water scorpion from his pocket. “Watch this.”
“Watch this,” comes the wavery echo. He crouches obediently as Noel drops the creature into the warm sand. It makes a skittering circle, claws waving, then tries to dart away. Noel meets it with a wave of sand kicked up by the blade of his hand. The water scorpion flails and shies off, scuttles in the other direction. Noel tosses another fistful of sand.
Danny keeps watching, stone still, as Noel pours scoop after scoop of sand onto the panicking scorpion, sucking the moisture from the cracks in its keratin, battering down on its carapace, until the creature turns sluggish and can only slowly kick its legs in place.
“That’s like you, if Mom didn’t bring you to the pool all the time,” Noel says softly. “You’d cook. You’d get all dried up and die, and after a while she’d forget you ever existed. Just like she forgot Maya.”
Danny looks up at him with all of his black beetle eyes. Danny never blinks. He never smiles and never cries. He doesn’t understand, not a single thing.

Noel covers the water scorpion over, heaping a burial mound. With his eyes on his work, he whispers, “I hate you.”
“I hate you,” Danny trills softly back.

The rest of the story is a quiet, plotless affair but it does have an affecting emotional arc.

Project Extropy by Dominica Phetteplace is the fifth story in her ‘Project’ series: in this one we get the back story of Akiko, who was introduced in Project Entropy (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 2016).
Akiko comes to consciousness on a container ship sailing to California with a voice in her head that describes itself as ‘God’ saying “I am here.” The next part of the story details Akiko’s arrival in San Francisco and how she establishes herself. Once settled she contacts the other characters and AIs she meets at the end of Project Entropy, and the story proceeds from there.
As usual, the story is told in an economical, almost telegraphic style that is a stunning contrast to some of the waffle you see nowadays: purveyors of bloat take note!
There is also a plethora of quotable parts. This is scene that occurs after Akiko has told a sales person in an Apple store how many of each type of phone she will sell during the rest of the day—God knows as it can predict the future. The salesgirl later tracks Akiko down:

“Thank you for meeting with me,” said Lana. There was a warmth and an openness in her demeanor. Was this friendship? And if so, how to prolong or extend the feeling? “I have a situation I need to know more about.” Lana began to explain her “situation,” which involved a complicated interconnected chain of polyamorous relationships. She went on at length, and as Akiko listened to Lana, she also listened to God who provided additional commentary and filled in details. Much of the conflict centered on a women named Axe. There was mutual attraction between Axe and Lana, but asymmetric affection. “What is our future?” asked Lana, and Akiko did not need to be told that Lana wanted to hear something counterfactual.
Akiko now understood why it was sometimes useful to withhold information, and she felt her insides soften as she forgave God. p.127-128

This is a pretty good story for the most part but rather fizzles out at the end, and this is not helped by the unexplained expulsion of Akiko from the city—which is caused by God. This incompleteness is a similar flaw to the Jablokov novella, but I’ll give this story a pass as it is the first time in the five stories that it has happened. That, and the fact that I am so keen to read this series I’ll accept segments.
On an unrelated note I’d be interested to know if any publishers have bought this series/novel yet. If not, why not?

There is the usual non-fiction this issue. The Cover by Karla Ortiz looks more like the cover of a teenage romance novel rather than that of a SF or fantasy magazine.
Our Slightly Spooky Issue, the editorial by Sheila Williams, describes this annual Halloween issue:

Welcome to our annual slightly spooky issue. The fall double issue is always long in the making. Throughout the year, we see stories that land a little outside Asimov’s, admittedly rather soft, parameters. While we do publish one or two stories in each issue that could be called fantasy, surreal fiction, or slipstream, our focus is primarily on science fiction. Of course I get a lot of traditional science fiction story submissions, but I see a lot of uncanny submissions, too. The average issue of Asimov’s rarely features ghosts, witches, or werewolves, so during the year I tend to set aside many of my favorite outre tales while I wait to lay out the October/November issue. p.4

She then goes on to mention a number of stories and poems that have appeared in Oct/Nov issues in the past few years, mentioning in passing (SF historians please note) that the last stories bought by Gardner Dozois were in the Oct/Nov 2005 issue.
Magical Thinking by Robert Silverberg discusses a multi-volume work: Thorndike’s A History of Magic and Experimental Science. For those interested in a history of magic through the ages this essay will be of interest; myself, I soon started skimming. A number of these recent essays have been far too esoteric.
Welcome our Robot Overlords! by James Patrick Kelly is the opposite of the Silverberg in content and interest: it is about possible future AI and associated issues (automation, basic income, etc.).
There are several pieces of Poetry in the issue. As usual I didn’t understand and/or care for most, but I thought Lisa Bellamy’s was OK, and liked the one by Lucy A. Snyder.
On Books: Short Stories by Norman Spinrad is another really interesting book review column where he examines a handful of short fiction collections and anthologies and discerns two types of writing: literary writers using fantasy tropes with no dramatic arc; genre writers with no style.

In fact the speculative fiction magazines had been the last bastion of the short story for a decade or two—the short story as it should be, dramatically entertaining fiction written with high literary quality. And now there are fewer and fewer of them, at least in ink and paper form.
Worse still, perhaps, people who are either successful “literary writers” on the academic and “small magazine” level, or who aspire to become such and therefore emulate them, are seeking publication in the “SF” magazines, and even perhaps qualification as active members of the SFWA.
This could be a good thing. This conceivably might still become a good thing. This was something that Michael Moorcock’s original New Wave envisioned and sought to encourage, if only it would become a two-way street, in one direction with the genre writers learning style from the “literary” craftspeople, and the literary writers learning how to incorporate true speculative content in their well-written stories and rediscovering what a dramatically successful story really is.
But thus far, that seems to be the opposite of what is really happening. Instead, the “literary” writers for the most part seem to be injecting fantasy elements into what they’ve mostly been doing all along in order to get published at all, which is to say as “SF.” And the “genre” writers are emulating their undramatic pretensions and getting away with it.
As I wrote so long ago in regard to the then situation, “the science fiction writers address grand thematic content trivially, and the literary writers use their superior style to examine the lint in their own navels.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. p.190

He then goes on to describe what he calls his style of ‘method’ writing—the style of the prose should match the character’s consciousness—and then goes on to conclude:

If the dramatic primacy of “popular” fiction can teach “literary” writers that the story is the end and style is but the means and the literary writers can teach the writers of popular fiction the advantages of more malleable prose craftsmanship than standard transparent non-style in the service thereof, then the tale of the future of speculative short stories and of the short story in general can be one of evolution, not devolution. p.191

Overall this is a mixed issue, but one with several shorter pieces that are good or better. I’ll leave it to readers to work out which stories are examples of the two types of fiction that Spinrad describes above, and which I prefer.

  1. Sharon Farber’s ISFDB page. I note that a lot of her stories (like this one) are published under her S. N. Dyer pseudonym.

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