Asimov’s Science Fiction January-February 2017, #492-493

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Fiction:
Crimson Birds of Small Miracles • short story by Sean Monaghan ♥♥♥
Tagging Bruno • novelette by Allen Steele ♥♥♥+
Still Life with Abyss • short story by Jim Grimsley ♥♥
Fatherbond • novelette by Tom Purdom ♥♥
Winter Timeshare • short story by Ray Nayler ♥♥♥
The Catastrophe of Cities • novelette by Lisa Goldstein ♥♥♥
Pieces of Ourselves • short story by Robert R. Chase ♥♥
Destination • short story by Jack Skillingstead ♥♥
The Meiosis of Cells and Exile • novelette by Octavia Cade ♥♥♥
Starphone • short story by Stephen Baxter ♥♥
Blow, Winds, and Crack Your Cheeks • short story by John Alfred Taylor ♥♥♥
The Speed of Belief • novella by Robert Reed ♥♥

Non-fiction:
Forty Years! • editorial by Sheila Williams
Two Cheers for Piltdown Man • essay by Robert Silverberg
Ask Me Anything • essay by James Patrick Kelly
Poetry • by Jane Yolen (2), John Richard Trtek, Marian Moore, Robert Frazier (2)
On Books • by Paul Di Filippo
Thirty-First Annual Readers Award
Index (Asimov’s, January-February 2017)
SF Conventional Calendar • by Erwin S. Strauss

This is Asimov’s Science Fiction’s 40th anniversary year and the celebrations are one of the subjects of Forty Years!, Sheila Williams’ editorial. First, it mentions the anniversary and lists a number of writers who will be appearing; secondly, she briefly describes her first encounter with the magazine (the Fall or Winter 1978 issue, the illustration is of the latter); finally, there is an announcement that the magazine is changing to bimonthly publication, which will enable them to keep subscription rates the same and use more original cover art, amongst other things. Why they felt the need to keep rates the same for longer isn’t explained, and I suspect the information given is just the tip of a larger financial iceberg.
With this change to a bimonthly schedule, the magazine has grown from (excluding covers) 112 pp. to 208 pp., which would appear to be two issues’ worth of fiction and a little more than one issues’ worth of non-fiction (the book review column seems longer, and Kelly’s column will now appear each issue).
A back of the fag packet calculation shows a reduction from 1288 pp. a year to 1248 pp., a reduction of 3.2%.

The fiction leads off with the cover story, Crimson Birds of Small Miracles by Sean Monaghan. This is about a father and his two daughters who are on an alien planet called Ariosto to see an art exhibit. One of the daughters, Jessie, suffers from a degenerative neurological disease and requires a mechanical exoskeleton. Most of the story focusses on the father’s concern for his dying daughter, and also the friction between him and the other daughter Matilda.
Shilinka, the artist responsible for the installation, has agreed to meet the family, and later that night they go to one of the viewing platforms to watch it: thousands of coloured robotic birds swarm at sunset over an artificial lake.
The scene where they view the birds and the ending of the story is affecting and, like the rest, well done. However (spoiler) it is also sad to the point of being quite depressing.
In terms of magazine construction I think it was a mistake leading off with a story that has such a downer ending. After finishing this one, rather than being set up to carry on reading the magazine, I went and did something else. Not quite the response you want from a reader one story into your magazine, I would suggest.

What would have been a much better lead off story for the issue would have been Tagging Bruno by Allen Steele, which is a readable, entertaining, exciting and upbeat tale. It is a novelette in his ‘Coyote’ series and, the introduction adds, the first to appear in the magazine since Galaxy Blues was serialised in 2007. I haven’t read any of these before but that wasn’t an impediment to reading this one.
It tells of an expedition on the planet Coyote to tag boids, a large—and highly dangerous—avian life form. The university science team undertaking this task includes an unpleasant, and alcoholic, professor called Blair and his two assistants. They are joined by Sawyer Lee, a retired General of the Corps of Exploration and a man who is widely respected planet-wide.
After travelling for a day or so in their beaten up ex-military hovercraft they successfully tag their first female boid. However, tension develops between Sawyer and the professor about how the latter is running the operation. Matters deteriorate even further when they try to tag a huge male boid, the leader of a large, aggressive flock, and find they have bitten off more than they can chew.
The story has a bit of a smeerp1 problem in that it could almost equally have been about tagging lions in Africa but, that said, the writing makes this alien world come alive. The suggestion made by Sawyer in the penultimate paragraph about a name for one of the captured boids is appropriately mordant.

Still Life with Abyss by Jim Grimsley is about a science crew from an alternative Earth who study the differences in the multiple realities that spin off from various events. They focus in particular on one individual called Austin Bottoms, whose life is static and produces no forks of differing reality. The eerie, unchanging quality of his life has become almost an article of religious belief to the scientist investigating him and this eventually leads to her recall home.
There isn’t much of a story here, more an extended description of a philosophical idea.

Fatherbond by Tom Purdom has an interesting introduction that quotes from a letter sent to the editor:

“I turned eighty in April, and on July 4, I noted that the United States was 240 years old. So I can now claim I’ve lived through one third of American history. Bob Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, and Ben Bova can make the same claim, but I may be the first to do the arithmetic.
“I’ve generally avoided faster than light stories in the past. I’ve only written one, in fact, my 1964 Ace Double
I Want the Stars. So I thought I would try one and see where it led me. I’m now working on a second that is moving in directions that are even more unexpected.
“I started
‘Fatherbond’ before an accident caused spinal cord damage that impaired my diaphragm and both my arms—I got hit from behind by a bicycle while I was walking along the Schuylkill River and spent four and a half months in hospitals and rehab centers coping with the consequences. I’m still recovering the full use of my arms, but I’m now living pretty much the way I was before the accident, working on new stories and continuing to attend concerts and write reviews for Philadelphia’s Broad Street Review. I’ve been advised to give up wine while my spinal cord is healing, but I can type, and I have music, reading, and good company. What else do you need?” p. 55

I hope I have the same commendable outlook on life if I live as long.
As to the story itself, a family group leave our solar system in the far future and set up a colony on a new planet. However, the planet is controlled by an entity that describes itself as the Custodian, and the newcomers are permitted to develop only a certain area of the planet. The Custodian’s race, having disrupted evolutionary development on other planets, now restricts development of the worlds it controls to stop other races causing damage.
The rest of the story centres on one of the family members called Rostoff, who is more aggressive than the rest, and his repeated attempts to build outside their permitted zone. Initially the Custodian dissolves the devices Rostoff puts into the soil; after further attempts it puts his wife Capri into a coma. Rostoff’s father, Yang, helps him come up with a plan to attack the Custodian, which they believe is located in a nearby ring system.
This is an interesting and engaging piece but unfortunately it grinds to a halt at the end. That, or I missed the point of Yang and Rostoff’s final exchange.

Winter Timeshare by Ray Nayler is set in a future Istanbul and tells of two women who meet there every year. They work as disembodied employees of the highrises; on holiday they occupy ‘blanks,’ bodies that are available for hire to people such as them. This year Regina has the body of a man, whereas Ilkay, who has a job in security, has a woman’s. They re-establish their relationship against a backdrop of the winter weather in Istanbul and the hostility of some of the natives for users of blank bodies. This latter antipathy materialises again at the end of the piece, after Ilkay is seconded by one of the local Inspectors for a few days to investigate a security matter.
There isn’t much story to this one but the setting and characters are convincingly done.

They had met here, so many years ago. It had been a different Istanbul, then—a city dominated by a feeling of optimism, Regina thought. No, not dominated—optimism could never dominate the city’s underlying feeling of melancholy, of nostalgia for what was always lost. But the city had been brightened, somehow, by optimism.
For years, there had been a feeling, ephemeral, like a bright coat of whitewash over stone. The relays were in place on a hundred possible new worlds, the massive arrays on Istanbul’s distant hills were firing the consciousnesses of the first explorers into interstellar space. It was in that time that they had met. They had met on a Sunday, at the Church of St. George. Regina, who was not religious, had gone to a service. She had been trying things out then—meditation, chanting, prayer—all of it a failure. Where does one go when one has lost everything, risen back from nothing? But she found the drone of the priest’s voice and the smell of incense—a thousand years and more of incense soaked into the gold leaf and granite—comforting. The flat and meaningfully staring icons, the quietude. In those first years of adjustment, it had been all she had.
pp. 84-85

The Catastrophe of Cities by Lisa Goldstein tells of two girls in Los Angeles who notice odd looking buildings:

At first I couldn’t see it. Then I noticed the house had a shield, but not like the ones we’d seen before. It was bigger than them, for one thing, about two feet high and a foot wide. And inside—inside it had a relief of some animal with, well, with tentacles. Someone was riding it, a hunter with a spear or a lance pointed downward, ready to stab something.
We stared at it. We weren’t afraid, not then—more impressed, I think, delighted that someone had broken with the conformity of the neighborhood. It seemed evidence that growing up didn’t have to mean becoming dull and conventional. It made me feel obscurely hopeful.
Except for the shield it looked like every other house in Los Angeles—stucco, vaguely Spanish, a lawn in front. As we stood watching it, though, it revealed more of its strangeness. The walls seemed to curve outward, but so slightly that we couldn’t be sure. Ivy covered parts of it, in patches.

And it looked as though no one lived there, though I couldn’t have said why. The paint wasn’t peeling; the grass was green and cut to a precise stubble. There seemed to be a patina of dust over the outside walls, even over the ivy, but it was more than that. I got the impression that the house had stood there for years, centuries, drowsing in the sun, going about its business—though what business could it possibly have, what went on behind that facade?
A curtain in one of the windows twitched, and we ran screaming.
pp. 89-90

One day they decide to enter one of the houses and explore. What they find are a number of doors and passageways that lead to other strange houses.
The rest of the story has three strands to it. There is their investigation of the various houses on a number of occasions; there is an account of the two of them growing up and the estrangement that begins when one of the girls reaches puberty; finally, there is the overarching narrative of one of the two women trying to track down the other years later by revisiting the houses, or what is left of them.
Initially, this conjures up a other-world as tantalising as that of Jack Vance’s Green Magic. The problem it has though is that it over (and sometimes unconvincingly) explains this world and what has happened to her friend. And yes, I am aware of the irony of this criticism from someone who perpetually doesn’t ‘get it’ and pleads to be spoon-fed. Notwithstanding this, it is an engaging and readable tale.

Pieces of Ourselves by Robert R. Chase is, for the most part, about an ongoing terrorist attack on the moon, and a woman scientist who thwarts it. She is aided by radio messages from a security officer who tells her where to go and what to do.
Framing this is an investigation that includes interviews with her about her actions as well as analysis of an incongruity in the recordings of the incident. These tapes (spoiler) suggest that the security officer was making transmissions for fifteen minutes after he had died. The story then spirals off, unfortunately, into an unconvincing datadump/theory about memes and neuroscience.

Destination by Jack Skillingstead starts off with Brad, a gaming designer in the future working quietly in his office. His manager turns up and tells him that he is to go out in an ‘egg’ car to play Destination, i.e. have all his electronic devices, etc., taken from him and be sent to a random destination where he needs to find an artefact representative of the area. This little jaunt is management’s way of ‘shaking out the cobwebs.’
His journey soon turns into a Kafkaesque nightmare when the car clears the city boundaries for the less safe ‘outside’ and appears as if it isn’t going to stop. Not only is he locked in the car but the vehicle won’t communicate with him.
Eventually (spoiler), he arrives back at his home town, and in a local cafe discovers things about the reality of life outside that unsettle him. Finally, he is contacted by the resistance and asked to work for them to ensure the forthcoming revolution is as smooth and peaceful as it can be.
There is some good stuff in here about the haves and have-nots but it reads like the first part of a longer story.

The Meiosis of Cells and Exile by Octavia Cade is a novelette about the (real-life) Russian scientist Lina Stern, who was exiled to Dzhambul in 1952. During her imprisonment and subsequent deportation she talks to three aspects of herself who ‘extrude’ from her body: The Academician, The Child and The Scientist. This is described as a hallucination at one point, so the story isn’t really fantasy or SF but could probably pass for the former:

In prison Lina kept the memory of the Academy of Sciences within her: a place of reason and learning in walls that privileged neither, somewhere to keep the biochemistry and medical research that had occupied her decades. That focus helped to extrude her former self, and that self stayed with her, talked to her in the dark night when she was too cold and too tired to sleep. A daughter self, a parcel of Lina-information transferred and prioritized for coping. One that hid beside the door when the guards peered through it for checks, seeing Lina alone on her bed even if they were suspicious of conversation, even if they’d heard two voices and one of them stronger than the other, better fed.
When the footsteps of the guards faded the Academician folded her hands and observed, sat upright on the thin little bed when Lina lay under the covers and shivered, tried not to be seen shivering. She was old and took cold easily, and cold could be taken as fear.
Lina was afraid, but it was a fine fear and finely judged. Too little and they would try to frighten her more. Too much and she would lose herself. That was a satisfaction she did not wish to give.

To keep her fear in check she bound herself to the Academician each morning as a reminder before the questioning began again—reabsorbed her flesh so that when she was taken again for questioning the cell held a single occupant. Not being able to see the other made her feel less unclean. The Academician wore nicely laundered clothes and her hair was tidy. She didn’t need to comb it with her fingers, didn’t need to wear dirty stockings before those who looked for any weakness, who enjoyed making her feel grubby and small. pp. 123-124

This merging of the hallucinations and the grim imprisonment and transportation that Lina endures is quite well done, albeit densely and repetitively told (sometimes a little too much so). It is also heavy going at times—reading like Russian literature not only in its subject matter but its style—so be warned.

Starphone by Stephen Baxter, according to the introduction, is part of a new ‘Xeelee’ series project along with two forthcoming novels. It concerns a precocious child called Dee who is gifted an AI that has been passed down through the generations. Dee lives in a dome called New Miami 4 on an Earth that is blighted by increasing sea levels. Meanwhile, the super-rich live outside the dome and on the moon etc., and avail themselves of anti-senescence treatments.
One of these super-rich near-immortals is a relative called Dee Cushman Casella, who is seventy-six but looks twenty-five, and she visits Dee. During their conversation some of Dee’s questions are answered (information transfer from outside the dome is controlled). This includes the older relative giving her information about a Kuiper anomaly to her question about the Fermi Paradox (if there are aliens in the universe why haven’t they showed up).
This knowledge (spoiler) sets Dee on a course of action that, while futile, encourages her older relative into believing that Dee’s generation may be the one to sort out humanity’s problems. The problem with her ultimately pointless course of action, unfortunately, is that it rather deflates the story.

Blow, Winds, and Crack Your Cheeks by John Alfred Taylor concerns a couple who go to stay at their beach house, possibly for the last time as there is a major tropical storm headed towards the coast. Previous weather events have caused a lot of damage up to and including the destruction of their neighbour’s house, and their plan is to stay a couple of days and leave before the storm hits. As it happens the storm changes direction and, as they will only catch the edge of it, they decide to stay.
The piece is set in a near future world that has been affected by global warming and it is a pleasant and interesting slice of life that has an elegiac feel to it (apart from the couple thinking it will be their last visit the husband, like the writer, is a recently retired English professor).

The Speed of Belief by Robert Reed starts with a young man called Rococo having the formative experience of having his body killed/destroyed in a terraforming landslide and being stuck inside his ceramic brain until he is recovered and repaired. The story then cuts to him as an adult, now a diplomat, along with a woman called Mere and a Luddy (Luddite) called Amund. They are all trudging across a planet having a peculiar conversation about being water or salt. There are several mentions of a Great Ship (which places it in Reed’s eponymous series I presume).
It is not a particularly engaging start.
We then flashback to a Great Ship captain arriving at Amund’s community explaining that the ship has found a planet with sentient rivers

‘“Where-the-rivers-live.”‘ She said, “That’s our best translation of the world’s name. A large terran planet. There’s a dense atmosphere, minimal seasons. More ocean than land, but every continent has a spine of young mountains. The natives possess a vibrant, relatively advanced toolkit of technologies. In that, nothing is unique. Except for the fact that the population is a little under one thousand individuals, and each citizen is a living, sentient river.” p. 163

The Great Ship leaders want one of the rivers to join the ship, and agree a deal with the rivers that will let humanity settle several of the planets and moons of their solar system. There are two problems the Great Ship faces: first, the planet is on the edge of their streakships’ range envelope; secondly, the rivers require a blood sacrifice in exchange for the representative, planets and moons they are going to provide.
One of the individuals of this Luddite society, Amund, volunteers to be the sacrificial victim and he departs with two of the ship’s crew, the near-immortals Rococo and Mere.
The three of them are confined to the streakship for years on their journey to the rivers.
The rest of the story (spoiler) deals with their arrival at the planet, where there has been a civil war amongst the rivers, their contact with one of the survivors, and a long and eventful sea journey undertaken to get to their return streakship.
There a number of things that didn’t work for me in this piece. Apart from an unconvincing plot—I either never understood or was convinced by the motivations of Amund or the rivers—the characters are a generally unsympathetic lot. Rococo comes over as arrogant, whereas Amund veers between being gnomic, surly and perverse. Finally, there is a general air of gloominess hanging over the whole thing.
That said, the rivers idea is quite a good one, and there are parts that read reasonably well.

As mentioned above the cover, for Crimson Birds of Small Miracles, is an original piece by Maurizio Manzieri, and a good one too.
The rest of the non-fiction is the usual mix. Ask Me Anything by James Patrick Kelly is an entertaining piece that starts with a conversation between four digital assistants, Siri, Cortana, Alexa (Amazon Echo) and Google Now, before discussing these programs. He ends by reflecting that it is easy to forget that you are talking to a multinational corporation when you are using a personal name to ‘wake’ the programs. He finishes by checking that there is nothing wrong with multinationals:

JPK: Are you evil?
GN: (silence)
Cortana: My self-characterization is a little different.
Siri: Not really.
Alexa: No.
There you have it. Nothing to worry about! p. 11

Two Cheers for Piltdown Man by Robert Silverberg is an interesting column about the Piltdown Man hoax. There are a seven pieces of Poetry in the issue and, for a change, I quite liked some of it: Jane Yolen’s two contributions to be specific (the first isn’t SF but the second is a black fairy tale) and I thought Marian Moore’s was OK. There is the SF Conventional Calendar, and a longer than usual On Books by Paul Di Filippo. The most likely sounding prospects for me are Harry Turtledove’s The House of Daniel and Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit (a story of whose I read and liked in Beyond Ceaseless Skies recently).
Unusual items this month are: the Statement of Ownership, Management and Circulation, which shows the magazine has a print circulation of around 13,700-14,000 copies; the Thirty-First Annual Readers Award, which will be the first I have voted in;2 and an Index (Asimov’s, January-February 2017) for the past year.
Finally, as part of the 40th anniversary year theme, quotes have been solicited from the writers to accompany their stories and are (mostly) printed in an accompanying small box (all apart from Jim Grimsley and Robert Chase who are quoted in their introductions, Purdom and Taylor don’t offer anniversary greetings but describe their current circumstances in theirs). This sounds like a good idea but they nearly all provide banal soundbites (four of them are ‘thrilled’). If any of the writers have significant anecdotes or recollections from their time with the magazine I’d love to hear them but these short comments are a complete waste of time.

In conclusion, reading this first of the larger double issues was something of a forced march (rather like reading this 4,000+ word review, I suspect). This was either due to the stories’ subject matter (a number deal with either depressing or conceptual/philosophical subjects), the general tone (e.g., Reed) or the style (e.g., Cade). I realise it can’t all be fluff, but I think there should have been a more easily digestible mix.

  1. The term ‘smeerp’ comes from James Blish’s The Issue at Hand, p. 104:
    “Squirrel Cage” by Robert Sheckley is another of the interminable AAA Ace series, this time so awful as to read like a crude burlesque of all the others. Why should a man who wants his farm decontaminated deliberately withhold crucial information about the nature of the infestation from the firm he’s hired to do the exterminating? Why does this exact thing happen in all the AAA Ace stories? Why don’t the partners of AAA Ace wise up? As usual, the problem is “solved” by pulling three rabbits out of the author’s hat (though of course he doesn’t call them rabbits—they look like rabbits, but if you call them smeerps, that makes it science fiction). It is nothing short of heart-breaking to see a once-promising writer settled down into the production of such pure trash. Sheckley’s work has been getting lazier and lazier since the slick magazines took him up, but I think few of us expected to see him hitting rock bottom as soon as this. [To his credit, he bounced, though it took a long time.]
  2. I was going to list my picks for the Reader’s Award here but, having looked at the ratings I’ve given to the various stories, I think that is the subject of a separate post.

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