Asimov’s Science Fiction #491, December 2016


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

They Have All One Breath • novelette by Karl Bunker ♥♥♥♥
Empty Shoes by the Lake • short story by Gay Partington Terry ♥♥♥
HigherWorks • novelette by Gregory Norman Bossert ♥♥♥
How the Damned Live On • short story by James Sallis ♥
The Cold Side of the Island • short story by Kali Wallace ♥♥
Where There Is Nothing, There Is God • novella by David Erik Nelson ♥♥♥+

Cover • NASA
Guest Editorial: That’s Far Out, So You Read it Too? • Sarah Pinsker
Reflections: Dead as a Dodo • Robert Silverberg
Poetry • Ada Hoffman, John Richard Trtek
Next Issue
On Books • Peter Heck
The SF Convention Calendar • Erwin S. Strauss

They Have All One Breath by Karl Bunker is about a world where AIs have created utopia for humanity: food, material goods, healthcare, etc. are all provided, and they have also destroyed all means of making war as well as preventing personal violence, vandalism, serious theft, etc.

Lisa appeared in my life right about the time of the world’s big tipping point. It was during the few days of the last war in the Middle East. The War That Wasn’t; the Fizzle War. I was in a club called The Overground, and the atmosphere was defiantly celebratory. The wall-sized screen behind the stage was showing multiple videos—scenes that have since become iconic, even cliched and boring: tanks rolling off their own treads and belly-flopping onto the desert sand, soldiers trying to hold onto rifles that were falling to pieces in their hands, a missile spiraling crazily through the air before burying itself in the ground with the impotent thud of a dead fish. And from other parts of the world, scenes of refugee camps where swarms of flying bots were dropping ton after ton of food, clothing, shelter materials. p.13

Paralleling the development of the AIs’ rise is a story concerning the lives of James the narrator and his partner Lisa. Their relationship is slowly being poisoned by their inability to have a child (the AIs have intervened and reduced the birth rate to one or two children for selected couples). Another constant irritant in their relationship is their differing views on the AIs’ domination: he views it, more or less, as utopia, she as a dystopia. No doubt these differing viewpoints will neatly mirror the views of readers, although I hope most will end up siding with him.
I have one minor criticism which is that the ending feels slightly abrupt, partially due to the phrasing of the last sentence, which should maybe have been cut, and partially due to my previously mentioned criticism of Asimov’s SF not using something like a ● at the end of stories. Notwithstanding this, I thought this was a pretty good and original treatment of AIs taking over the world, and one which convincingly portrays the altruistic and pervasive way this occurs. One for the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies.

Listed on the contents page as a novelette but actually a 3,700 word short story, Empty Shoes by the Lake by Gay Partington Terry is a fantasy about a boy and a girl who know each other at school, and whose lives diverge when they grow up. The boy Rafi sends Becca various items from his travels: one of these is a cracked blue bowl. Becca realises that she can see visions in the pools of water that leak from the bowl. Matters progress…. This is a neat fantasy with a particularly good last image.

HigherWorks by Gregory Norman Bossert is a densely written story about a USER (US economic refugee) called Leanne Dyer in the UK. The events take place on the day of a planned rave in the Camden Catacombs, and we follow her and a couple of her friends as she distributes nanoware to people who are invited to attend.

Dyer shifts against the wall—the bricks are rough and still night-cool in the shade of the bridge, and her jacket is thin across the shoulders, lining long gone and the leather worn smooth by years of brick stone iron concrete carbon—and breaks down the approaching couple without quite making eye contact.
The Wayward has got an eye out for cops or worse, blathering in his terrible Bert-the-chimney-sweep cod Cockney, sounds stoned but his brain is just like that. “—ghosts, you know? The nano, sometimes it don’t break down, it digs in, makes a nest in the parental lobe—”
“Parietal.” Dyer says. The couple are a matched Saxon blond—expensive haircuts, and the girl’s wearing Havilland genesplice chestnut wedges with live shoots trained around her calves, cost a thousand quid easy. Not cops, not dressed that way; more likely the sort that think that Drop parties damage property values, that nano should be reserved for medical and military purposes, that refugees belong safely sorted with their own kind in the camps in Dover. The sort to take a map now and call the cops later. But he has an active tat peeking out of the edge of his sleeve, and she’s got corneal implants, so Dyer risks it.
“Opt-in,” she says, quietly, and sees the guy’s teeth flash. The girl taps the guy’s thigh with one hand and reaches out with the other. Dyer slips a map from her jacket pocket, hits the girl’s hand—more a handshake than a slap, oh so proper British— and meets the girl’s gaze. Pixels swirl in her eyes, and recognition. “HigherWorks,” the girl mouths, and swats the guy’s leg again as they ramble on out into the sunlight by the canal.

As she moves around this future Britain she is being stalked by a bounty hunter for her IP violations, while seeing ghost images of herself (I think) which may have something to do with her previous pre-Crash work in the USA on independent self-repairing nanoware. I say ‘I think’ as this is not a story for the lazy reader and it was a few pages before it started making sense to me. Ultimately, I think I was more impressed by this than enjoyed it, and I was rather reminded me of those dense and convoluted cyberpunk stories of the eighties.

How the Damned Live On by James Sallis is a very short and inconsequential piece about people marooned on an island. One talks to a spider about their perception of time.

The Cold Side of the Island by Kali Wallace is a melancholy story about a woman called Lacie who goes back to her home town for the funeral of Jesse, a childhood friend. She misses the funeral because of the winter snow and a traffic accident.
As well as being a story about her childhood friends this is also about Lacie’s ageing mother, and how Lacie, Jesse and another friend called Thea found the corpse of a strange creature in the woods when they were teenagers. They spent that summer watching it decay until they finally boiled and divided the bones between the three of them. None of them ever spoke to anyone else about the creature.

It was wrapped in a faded Patriots T-shirt, soft threadbare fabric tucked around the horns and jammed into the eye sockets. The long jut of the jaw stuck out through the neck hole. The shirt had been Jesse’s. Lacie lifted the bundle, inhaled, but all she could smell was dust and her own perfume, still clinging to the funeral dress from the last time she had worn it.
One of the horns had slipped free. She brushed her finger along the clean white curve. It was the left horn, the crooked one that had been split and healed with a fungal mass of scar tissue. One eye socket was larger than the other; Thea had measured them after they brought the skeleton out of the woods. Jesse had dug through his mother’s sewing things to find a tape measure for her, and Lacie had recorded each number: sockets, teeth, jaw, horns. When they had measured everything they could think to measure, Lacie turned to a fresh page in her sketchbook to draw the skull while Jesse and Thea argued over what its asymmetry meant, whether there were others like it, what it was and where it had come from and how it had died. p.59

This is a well written, characterised and absorbing story but I am not sure it amounts to anything, and I suspect that it is much more about forgotten friendships than the strange creature they find—unless I’ve missed the point of course, and the rotting creature and its bones are a metaphor for something else such as the way relationships decay and fall apart for example. It also made me think about Norman Spinrad’s review column in last month’s issue and I wondered if this is the kind of story he meant when he said ‘literary writers [need to learn] how to incorporate true speculative content in their well-written stories and [rediscover] what a dramatically successful story really is.’

Where There Is Nothing, There Is God by David Erik Nelson is a ‘New Guys Time Portal’ novella but is completely self-contained as far as I can tell—I haven’t read the two previous stories, The New Guys Always Work Overtime (Asimov’s SF, February 2013) and There Was No Sound of Thunder (Asimov’s SF, June 2014), but after reading this one I wish I had. The movie pitch to the Sci-Fi Channel would be Breaking Bad meets Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book.
The story starts with a drug-dealer sending an out of work actor called Paul back through a time-portal to a late-eighteenth century Massachusetts village with crystal meth, the plan being to get the villagers hooked on the ‘sacrement’ of the drug and get them to provide various silver objects in exchange.

And then the other parishioners were upon us. I turned and greeted them, holding my arms broad and offering a brief benediction. They knelt in a semicircle around me.
Young Charles dropped to his knees mid-word, and clasped his empty hands in front of his mouth in supplication. Just as with Mr. Last of the Mohicans, I set my hands on the blacksmith’s head, mumbled something vaguely ecclesiastical, then brought out the snuffbox and administered a bump to each nostril. He shivered exultantly, but kept his supplicant posture. The man to his left held a spoon peeking up above the fingers of his clasped hands. This I took and used as a scoop, offering two small bumps before dropping the spoon into my satchel. I continued down the line, mumbling and scooping, juggling the little snuffbox awkwardly as I laid hands on each parishioner. One held a buckle instead of a spoon, so I pocketed that and gave him a single toot from my nail. He frowned when I stepped away, but didn’t open his eyes or say a word.
I didn’t notice, not until I was right in front of her, that the little girl held a spoon as well. I set my hands on her head. I’d assumed her hair—which was a frizzy, dull brown—would be coarse and greasy, but it was soft as bunny fur. I mumbled my blessing, gently took her spoon, and stepped away to her mother without offering the sacrament.
I don’t imagine that will earn me any points with anyone, not now, but I wanted to go on the record: I did not give a little girl crystal meth.

As you can see from the above, Paul develops qualms about what he is doing and these proliferate on subsequent trips as he sees the villagers rapidly become meth addicts, a puzzling situation as he is only visiting once every three weeks. Needless to say, when he tries to quit it is made very clear to him that there are some very bad mobsters in south Boston who will not tolerate that course of action. He decides he will have to come up with a plan to get rid of Chico the dealer and Peggy the university professor (who has been fencing the silverwork).
It is about this point in the narrative (spoiler) that he goes back to the village and sees his body strung up on a tree and realises that the reason the villagers are so far gone is that there have been versions of him visiting from other timestreams….
If this all sounds a bit grim it is anything but. Like Breaking Bad this has a strong streak of black humour running through it and is very entertaining. If it has a weakness it is the development of the multiple universe concept as this is all rather glossed over and distracts from the main story (why did all the copies of him come back to the same reality? Why were there only a handful rather than hundreds?) This and a couple of other little niggles stop it being a four-star story (why is the only apparent use of time travel this nefarious activity?)  Even so, a possible for the ‘Best of the Year’ collections on account of its brio.

The non-fiction includes the usual columns and leads off with a nice astronomical photo from NASA on the Cover.
Guest Editorial: That’s Far Out, So You Read it Too? by Sarah Pinsker is a short piece about how science fiction is like music: I was not convinced.
Reflections: Dead as a Dodo by Robert Silverberg discusses the process by which the Dodo became extinct before commenting about the possibility of it being brought back to life in the future. I agree with his conclusion that this would be a good idea but sincerely hope they don’t end up ‘waddling around in our zoos.’
There is less Poetry in this issue than normal. Ada Hoffman’s Million Year Elegies: Archaeopteryx, an speculative elegy for the creature, isn’t bad, and Relativistic Dicksinson by John Richard Trtek is OK. As regular readers will realise, this puts both head and shoulders above the bulk of the poetry published this year.
Next Issue states that it will be a double issue to celebrate the magazine’s fortieth anniversary. What is left unsaid is that, according to recent Locus news, both Asimov’s SF and Analog will be moving to a bimonthly schedule using the current double issue format. I guess the positives of this are reduced cover art, printing and mailing costs, the negatives a loss of casual news-stand purchases due to a higher cover price.
On Books by Peter Heck left me thinking that he is something of a menace as a reviewer. Heck has such a gift for enthusing you about the books he is reviewing it was a struggle not to go online and order several of them. Just as well: how would I get all these magazines read?1

This is a strong issue and worth picking up: all the fiction bar the Sallis is worth your attention.

  1. That said, I’m going to have to dip into Lois McMaster Bujold’s work. She is not only praised in this column but one of her books has been the monthly choice of one of the Yahoo Groups I’m a member of and I’ve been aware of people singing her praises. I could review Analog, May 1989, and read the Hugo and Nebula winning The Mountains of Mourning. I think I also need to go back and reread Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archive and catch up with that series, too.

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