Asimov’s Science Fiction #480, January 2016


Other Reviews:
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
Jason McGregor, Tangent Online
Alastair Reynolds, Approaching Pavonis (forthcoming)
Lois Tilton, Locus Online
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Mark Watson, Best SF (forthcoming)

The Baby Eaters • short story by Ian McHugh ♥♥♥
Chasing Ivory • short story by Ted Kosmatka ♥♥
Atheism and Flight • novelette by Dominica Phetteplace ♥♥♥♥
White Dust • short story by Nathan Hillstrom ♥♥
Conscience • short story by Robert R. Chase ♥♥
The Singing Bowl • short story by Genevieve Williams ♥
Einstein’s Shadow • novella by Allen Steele ♥♥

Cover • Donato Giancola
Interior Artwork
Poetry • Robert Frazier, Wendy Rathbone, Martin Ott, G. O. Clark
All the News that Fits • editorial by Sheila Williams
Fimbulwinter 2015 • essay by Robert Silverberg
The World of Series • essay by James Patrick Kelly
Pushing the World in a Certain Direction and Other Acts of Submission • essay by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Paul Di Filippo
Next Issue
On Books • essay by Paul Di Filippo
Thirtieth Annual Readers’ Awards
SF Conventional Calendar • by Erwin S. Strauss

One of the things I wanted to do this year was get back into reading the current SF magazines: one day you are reading them all religiously, then it’s three decades later. Hopefully I’ll make more progress with this resolution than I did with my plan of reading all of 1940’s SF&F magazines…

If you are at all familiar with the SF magazine field you’ll obviously know about the digest-sized Asimov’s Science Fiction, one of the handful of must-read publications. The January issue has a nice, eye-catching cover by Donato Giancola. Although you could say it takes liberties with what might be the actual scene of White Dust it illustrates, it is a striking image.
If I have a minor criticism of the cover it is not about the artwork it is about the layout: I think I would have probably left justified the title story and moved it to the left, and moved the author block below it down and left, and lost the second lower title. This would have given the central image more room to breathe. I have a certain amount of sympathy with magazine designers though. Decades ago they were forced to put a bar-code (missing on the Kindle cover above) in the lower left hand corner of the magazine which means any cover from that date on is going to be horribly compromised.

The stand-out story in this issue is the novelette by Dominica Phetteplace, Atheism and Flight. The editorial introduction that tells us that the author wrote this story while their grandfather was dying of cancer1 and this caused some trepidation on my part, but it is an original, strange, hopeful and, in its final scene, you might even say transcendent story.
It starts with a narrator who has lost his arm in a motorcycle accident and who does not have the money to get stem-cell regrowth therapy or a cybernetic arm. Nor can he house himself which is why he is living with his friend Jimeo and partner Cleo. While he stays with them he watches School of Flight videos, which have students of a guru called Wang Lee ‘fly’ across a canyon, although his roommate Jimeo is working on a paper to show it is all a matter of optimum biomechanics. When he is not watching these videos or doing a correspondence course of the School’s, he feels sorry for himself, goes to an amputee support group, tries a yoga class, etc. In the middle of all this his arm starts regrowing…
The rest of the story charts this strange development and his desire to fly across the canyon, which he subsequently attempts in its striking last scene, although only after applying for and being rejected by the School.
The other thing I would note about this story is that its telegraphic, slightly gonzo style suits the story completely:

The yoga class was full of pretty girls. Sometimes Jimeo is smart. The teacher wanted me front and center so she could help me modify. To my surprise, I assented. “Any injuries?” she asked before class. I raised my nub of an arm and everyone laughed. The class was not too challenging for me. Thanks to Wang Lee, I knew my way around a yoga mat. The teacher, Chrys, short for Chrysanthemum, checked up on me every other pose. She wanted to make sure I was doing the mods right. I was pretty sure I was, no need to hold up the whole class. After class, she told me what an inspiration I was. “You don’t know that. I could be a serial killer. Maybe I lost my arm in a chainsaw massacre mishap.”
“You are so funny!” She handed me her card.

One for the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies.

There is one other story I liked in this issue, The Baby Eaters by Ian McHugh. This tells of a human on an alien planet looking to negotiate a trade concession and how he has to cope with the badhar-krithkinee’s strange physiology, culture, and attitudes. As well as thinking themselves superior to other spieces the badhar-krithkinee have a prohibition on twin births as they believe that a soul has been separated. The narrator’s perpetual worry of upsetting or offending these creatures permeates the story and an air of faint menace is never far away. If I have a minor criticism of this work it is that it seems to end rather abruptly and I think I would have preferred this as part of a longer and more substantial work.

The rest of the stories are solid enough also-rans. Chasing Ivory by Ted Kosmatka is a brief piece about a scientist dropped by helicopter in British Columbia near a mammoth herd, which she proceeds to stalk.
White Dust by Nathan Hillstrom is a clever story about alien technology being used to send a copy of a special ops soldier to the ‘far remote’ to repair shielding damage in a heavy radiation environment. Once the copy gets there they only last a few minutes and the woman running the project is beginning to have problems with them. She eventually decides to send herself to see if she can solve the problem, but the copy that comes to consciousness in the remote is furious with her.
There are one or two other points of information about how the transfer process works (spoiler) that make it quite a clever biter-bit story, but if it has a failure it is that it just doesn’t quite convince and I found myself at the end of this thinking I should have liked it more than I did.
Conscience by Robert R. Chase tells of Constanza Hernandez, who is a conscript in a US-Russian war against a future Caliphate. She is the pilot of a VTOL stealth aircraft (a future-helicopter analogue) who is given repeated missions to covertly insert or retrieve an operative into the battle space. She eventually becomes curious about who or what the operative is and starts making enquiries. I didn’t really buy this part, or her actions subsequent to that, even though similar events have happened in the real world. Further, the entire story is a too thinly veiled version of current conflicts, so as you read the story you have the distraction of wondering what kind of axe-grinding is going on.
The last short story is The Singing Bowl by Genevieve Williams. This story tells of aliens called ‘gis’ whose singing has become popular across the galaxy and tells of the events that unfold when an ethnomusicologist and group of tourists gather to listen to them sing. Similar to the McHugh story, this sets up the rules of alien behaviour and then an incident occurs that invokes said behaviour. Unlike that story though, I didn’t think this one succeeded, probably because there is no additional depth to the story: it is just a one scene play. I’d have to add that two stories predicated on specific alien behaviours in a single issue of a magazine seems like an editorial mistake to me, regardless of whether you think the stories are any good or not.

The final piece of fiction is a novella by Allen Steele, Einstein’s Shadow. This is an OK potboiler set in a parallel world 1933 where Hitler has died but the Nazi party is intact. In this world Albert Einstien has decided to seek sanctuary in America and an American private investigator is recruited by a Scotland Yard detective to be his bodyguard on the way over the Atlantic. They are to fly the 33 hour trip on a massive German-operated 20-engine machine that is more like a flying ocean liner than an aircraft.
The story has a superficial level of verisimilitude2 but nothing of any depth that really convinces. Also, the characters are all pretty much two-dimensional, though they are put through the motions well enough, I guess.

There is quite a bit of non-fiction in this issue. Some of it is almost administrative stuff: the SF Conventional Calendar and Thirtieth Annual Readers’ Awards—the accompanying Index to the last piece is useful.3
The editorial, All the News that Fits, is about the Annual Reader’s Award, the possibility of the finalists being posted online, and the brand-new website with author blogs, podcasts, etc.
Robert Silverberg’s Fimbulwinter 2015, is an essay about the severe winter in Boston in 2015, Fimbulwinter and climate variation over the centuries. I’m not quite sure what this has to do with SF but he has been doing the column for so long now I suspect he writes about what he wants to.
The World of Series by James Patrick Kelly is an internet column about author series in fantasy and science fiction and some of the realities behind their publication.
Pushing the World in a Certain Direction and Other Acts of Submission by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Paul Di Filippo is an article that perhaps takes longer than it needs to rebut the idea that all novels are political novels (I think—at one point I may have started skimming). I’m not sure that this needing rebutting, but there you go. Paul di Filippo also contributes a book review column which reviews a couple of big novels by Liu and Smale, a Strugatsky brother’s translation and an anthology by Mike Ashley.
There are also several poems in this issue, none of which I cared for bar Wendy Rathbone’s piece about building rocket ship models, which I thought was OK.

So, what did I think of this modern SF magazine? Well, overall, the fiction is solid enough material with a couple of notable contributions, but I would have to say that I found the non-fiction quite dull and I am curious to see if this interests me more in future issues.

  1. Rather than raising the grandfather in the introduction which is a bit of a bum steer for the story, I think it would have been better to have had a dedication at the end of the piece.
  2. Apart from poor verisimilitude there are parts where you don’t even get that. At one point a British detective pulls out his gold shield rather than a warrant card. And I could get started on this huge aircraft probably taking off downwind but won’t.
  3. I was struck by how few of last year’s fiction contributors have more than one piece listed. I think I counted three or so that have two stories or more.

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