Asimov’s Science Fiction #194, December 1992

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Alfred • short story by Lisa Goldstein ♥♥
Sepoy • novelette by Tom Purdom ♥♥♥
The Man in the Red Suit • novelette by Diane Mapes ♥♥
The Walk • short story by Greg Egan ♥♥♥
Thanatrope • short story by Mark W. Tiedemann ♥
Second Chance • novelette by Mary Rosenblum ♥♥
The Sound of the River • short story by M. Shayne Bell ♥♥♥
The Nutcracker Coup • novelette by Janet Kagan ♥♥♥

The Nutcracker Coup • cover by David Cherry
Interior artwork • by Laurie Harden, Steve Cavallo, Alan M. Clark, Bob Walters, John Johnson, David A. Cherry
Poetry • by Robert Frazier & James Patrick Kelly, Bonita Kale, Lawrence Schimel
Next Issue
On Books • by Baird Searles
SF Conventional Calendar • by Erwin S. Strauss

In my initial Xmas covers post I omitted to list a number of festive efforts by Asimov’s SF. This magazine regularly had/has a ‘Special Holiday Issue,’ and I remember Connie Willis contributing seasonal stories to several of these but couldn’t remember any Xmas covers. Well, I found eight of them.1
This one was the third of the Asimov’s Science Fiction titles (the magazine had recently changed its name from Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine) and appeared after a double-size November issue, which was a Isaac Asimov tribute issue (he had passed away earlier that year).

The first short story is Alfred by Lisa Goldstein, and this is a low-key account of a twelve year old girl who meets a man, or rather ghost, in the park. Their occasional conversations alternate with scenes from her family life: the parents are concentration camp survivors, and she has a perpetually scared younger brother. At the end of the story she figures out who the man is.

Sepoy by Tom Purdom is set on an Earth that is dominated by the alien Tucfra. A disabled man called Jason is the subject of a recruitment attempt by Marcia, who is a ‘seep,’ a human who works on behalf of the aliens. The word ‘seep’ is a corruption of ‘sepoy,’ and we get a rather clumsy historical data-dump about how the British in India managed to rule the continent with a limited number of collaborators: I would suggest that is what they would be called in this situation, i.e., collaborators, not seeps.
Shortly after her visit Jason is visited by two agents of the Confederation of New England who ask him to implicate her as an agent of the Tucfra. Or else….
This is a competent if fairly straightforward story.

The Man in the Red Suit by Diane Mapes is about a woman taking her drunken husband’s place as a department store Santa, and the strange photographer that is taking the kids’ photographs.
After she is discovered and sacked the photographer finds her in the mall bar, and it becomes apparent he knows a lot about her. As their conversation develops (spoiler) it becomes obvious he is an agent or aspect of Satan. He then shows her what the world would be like if he granted her wish of having never being born. First they visit her parent’s graves, where she sees her sister, and then they go to her house, to find her husband happily married.
The introduction describes this as a ‘nasty little Christmas story’ but it isn’t that—by the end it’s just depressing. The best Xmas stories have a good measure of grit in them (It’s a Wonderful Life) but this one is nearly all grit (mentioning that she caught her seven year old daughter drowning kittens is a particularly unpleasant detail in a Xmas story). Nice last line though.

The Walk by Greg Egan is a philosophically interesting but not entirely convincing story about a hitman called Carter taking his victim into the woods to kill him. During the walk Carter tries to convince his victim that it is inevitable that he is going to die but that it doesn’t matter:

For a moment, I just can’t speak. I’m fighting for my life—and he’s treating the whole thing like some abstract philosophical debate. I almost scream: Stop playing with me! Get it over with! But I don’t want it to be over.
And as long as I can keep him talking, there’s still the chance that I can rush him, the chance of a distraction, the chance of some miraculous reprieve. I take a deep breath. “Yes, other people will live on.”
“Billions. Perhaps hundreds of billions, in centuries to come.”
“No shit. I’ve never believed that the universe would vanish when I died. But if you think that’s some great consolation—”
“How different can two humans be?”
“I don’t know. You’re pretty fucking different.”
“Out of all those hundreds of billions, don’t you think there’ll be people who are just like you?”
“What are you talking about now? Reincarnation?”
“No. Statistics. There can be no ‘reincarnation’—there are no souls to be reborn. But eventually—by pure chance—someone will come along who’ll embody everything that defines you.”
I don’t know why, but the crazier this gets, the more hopeful I’m beginning to feel—as if Carter’s crippled powers of reasoning might make him vulnerable in other ways. I say, “That’s just not true. How could anyone end up with my memories, my experiences—”
“Memories don’t matter. Your experiences don’t define you. The accidental details of your life are as superficial as your appearance. They may have shaped who you are—but they’re not an intrinsic part of it. There’s a core, a deep abstraction—” p.85

Finally the hitman offers him a neural implant to prove his point….

Thanatrope by Mark W. Tiedemann tells of a woman called Chloe who is living with an organic robot that is a copy of her dead husband Victor. The relationship isn’t working and a third party called Peter, who was involved in Victor’s construction, visits to see if he can sort the problem.
This is well enough told but the reality portrayed in the story doesn’t convince.

Second Chance by Mary Rosenblum is about a doctor in Antarctica who is summoned to a Mars-mission training base that is located nearby. There she finds a woman called Sara who has severe frostbite to her hands and feet. The reason for her not having already been medevaced later materialises: (spoiler) the team have discovered an alien sphere. Sara tells the doctor she wants to go back out to it so she can return home….

The Sound of the River by M. Shayne Bell places an American in a town near a Niger River that has dried up and where there is a water shortage. While he is waiting to buy water from the water-sellers he goes to the local museum and discovers music by an artist that he liked as a boy.
He later tracks down the musician and goes to his house for coffee. While he is there he discovers the reason the musician never rerecorded his first album, and the explanation gives the story a satisfying holistic arc. I don’t think this is SF but it may be set in the near future (I didn’t notice).

The last story in the issue is a second seasonal tale by Janet Kagan. I can’t remember reading anything by this writer previously but note in passing that she was very popular with the Asimovs SF readership. Her ‘Mirabile’ series was a favourite of theirs and she placed in the top three of the annual readers’ awards no less than eight times.
The Nutcracker Coup is a Xmas story set on the planet Rejoicing, where the dumpy natives have quills on their head and tails. The main character is Marianne, a member of the human diplomatic staff on the planet. When she goes into town (with an alien called Taleb to order glass balls from one of the other natives for her Xmas tree) she notices an alien who has had his quills clipped. Taleb informs her that this is because he said something that offended their ruler Halemtat.
The rest of the story tells of the developing civil unrest caused by Halemat’s oppressive behaviour, from the proliferation of glass balls similar to the ones Marianne ordered (which are adopted by the affected aliens to decorate the tips of their trimmed spines) to nutcrackers carved in an unflattering or satirical likeness of Halemtat or his Vizier.

He ripped away the paper as flamboyantly as Nick had—to expose the brightly colored nutcracker and a woven bag of nuts. Marianne held her breath. The problem had been, of course, to adapt the nutcracker to a recognizable Rejoicer version. She’d made the Emperor Halemtat sit back on his haunches, which meant far less adaptation of the cracking mechanism. Overly plump, she’d made him, and spiky. In his right hand, he carried an oversized pair of scissors—of the sort his underlings used for clipping quills. In his left, he carried a sprig of talemtat, that unfortunate rhyme for his name. Chornian’s eyes widened. Again, he rattled off a spate of Rejoicer too fast for Marianne to follow … except that Chornian seemed anxious. P.150

There is more unrest when the Earth team celebrate Martin Luther Day, and matters come to a climax the next Xmas.
This is a pleasant, feel-good story, but I didn’t think as highly of it as those who voted it the 1992 Hugo Award for best novelette.

The Cover by David Cherry is, obviously, for Janet Kagan’s novelette, and there are several pages of Interior artwork in this era of the magazine, none of which, sad to say, is that striking. Too many of them fill the page and seem rather dark and muddy, as if they were done with charcoal, or are just plain amateurish. The best is probably by Bob Walters.2
The Letters column starts with as an interesting letter from Jose E. Santiago of Waltham, Massachusetts, about Isaac Asimov’s editorial The Queen’s English. He tells of arriving in the country at age 18 and picking up a copy of Valley of the Dolls and reading it with the help of a Spanish-English dictionary. He later moved on to SF after being given a copy of Ringworld by a friend. Having started as a pot-washer he says he subsequently graduated school and works in electronics. He goes on to say ‘I’ll never speak or writer the Queen’s English.’ He is far too modest.
Other letters are on various topics, including a couple of extended responses to the annual reader ballot, one of which is by a current ‘Best of the Year’ editor Rich Horton.
I quite like one of the three poems, Christmas Day, Give or Take a Week by Lawrence Schimel, which places the Gods and Goddesses of Valhalla in Central Park after a meal in a hotel:

They spilled out of the Plaza Hotel into the soft white of Fimbulwinter.
The women first, clustering on the sidewalk:
Frigga in mink, Freya sable over feathers, imposing
silhouettes carved from the pale air,
the Lady Sif a heavenly face, blurred around the edges,
her ermine melting into the snow.
Their escorts joined them, having neatly dispatched the bill
with the razor-sharp edges of their Visas and American Expresses.
They adjusted 100 percent virgin wool scarves, rabbit-fur
    lined gloves,
buttoned cashmere overcoats against the cold, Hugo Boss,
    Emporio Armani.
Their stomachs full and warm, their minds
surfeited with dinner conversation,
they were oblivious to the weather, coming down
light and slow for now, like muted television static
shown at half speed.
Ragnarok had barely begun;
there would be plenty of time for blizzards later on
when the giants came out of Jotunheim. p.90

It continues in an equally absorbing way.
The Next Issue column states that the mid-December issue is on sale November 10th, which made me wonder why this issue was the Holiday/Xmas one (further research shows it was on sale October 13th). It doesn’t seem to make much sense having your Xmas/Holiday issue on sale a fortnight before Halloween….
On Books by Baird Searles starts with a review of Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, which he didn’t seem to like that much. Of his other reviews, the one of Unwillingly to Earth by Pauline Ashwell made me want to seek it out, and his comments on the ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy by Mervyn Peake made me want to pick it up and give it another go (I got to the end of the first volume last time).

Overall, this is an OK issue, with nearly all of the fiction in the middle ground in terms of quality.

  1. The Asimov’s SF Xmas covers can be found on the December 1987, 1988, 1992, 1997, 2001 (? two bright stars/novas/novae on the cover), 2004 & 2007, and Mid-December 1992 (two festive covers in 1992, although the second one is, like several of the others, quite restrained).
  2. Artwork by Steve Cavallo: Artwork by Bob Walters:

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