Asimov’s Science Fiction February 2011

Sci-fi shorts, I admit, are not my best subject, but I took the reviewer position to familiarize myself more with today’s up and coming science fiction authors. Asimov’s Science Fiction is one of the leading science fiction magazines in the market, and the selection they choose is said to be the best of in the short story market. Of course, many names are collected in this volume. The highlighted author of this issue is Paul McAuley’s novella “The Choice;” his latest book is the recently-published sci-fi thriller Cowboy Angels. Other rising stars and sci-fi veterans in this issue include contributions from Aliette de Bodard, David Ira Cleary, and Jane Yolen. This issue has been a solid introduction for me as a science fiction reader, and it provides a range of different subgenres and styles. While I didn’t 100% enjoy every single story in this issue, I was never bored by the stories and the issue as a whole had enough of an interesting selection to have me keep reading.

The novella of this issue is Paul McAuley’s “The Choice,” a biopunk tale where two boys make dramatically different choices when an alien machine is found beached in their seaside community. McAuley’s scavenger, post-industrial world is plagued by relics both physical and political. The Earth was nearly destroyed by pollution, until aliens made first contact with us and an agreement was made to open up intergalactic trade in exchange for the tech needed to help clean up the environment.

Like the floating debris that the alien tech cleans up, Lucas and Damien are two boys whose lives seem to be discarded in the wake of progress. The town they live in is destitute and rural. Lucas lives on a sinking island with his bedridden mother, a political activist who is part of a dying movement against the use of alien technology to improve their planet. Lucas himself spends his days harvesting food any place he can and taking odd jobs to support the both of them. His best friend Damien is the less sensible, more desperate of the two; he puts up a tough-guy attitude to cover for the physical abuse his father deals out at home. Both their lives change when they hear about a “dragon” that has washed up upon the beach. They join other townsfolk to help crack open this mysterious piece of tech, but when they do, they suffer grave consequences.

McAuley has a readable style. Lucas is a reliable, likeable narrator and tells the story straightforwardly. The results of discovering the dragon tech essentially ruin both the lives of Damien and himself, and McAuley sends a message that technological and scientific process will always be hindered by fear, self-interest, and social privilege. Technology is not the be-all, end-all solution to life’s problems when people forget to factor in the human element to the equation.

In this issue’s novelette, David Ira Cleary’s “Out of the Dream Closet,” a woman trapped in the body of a child deals with the news that her inventor father is now dying. Sasha (who prefers to refer to herself ironically as Little Girl) is sixty-seven years old and roams a post-apocalyptic, cluttered wasteland spending her time gathering souls and conducting mischievous experiments with them. Her only company is the cloudmind above, which can rain down turbulent moodstorms when upset, and an unusual boy born from this cloud named Alistair Jones. It is a bleak yet colorfully described existence, where biology and mechanics exist side by side, where Little Girl can tinker with DNA codes in the same way mechanics tinker with machines.

“Out of the Dream Closet” has a disconnected, lyrical atmosphere that gives off a steampunk/New Weird vibe (and also reminds me of the writing of Felix Gilman). Cleary reveals the ambivalence Little Girl feels about the “Papa’s” impending (and scheduled) death in how she reacts to the Living Will, a pleasant automaton send to inform her of her father’s last wishes, and a sphinx named Hector, a creature that she has implanted a soul inside as a final act of rebellion against her father’s orders. An enjoyable, intriguing read for its playful and dark vision.

The first short story combines the idea of Catholic guilt and liberal guilt in one tongue-in-cheek swoop in Sara Genge’s “Waster Mercy.” Brother Beussy is a traveling priest repenting for the past historical sins of his people. When he is confronted with a life-or-death situation, the crux of the plot centers on his interactions with a “Waster” named Patrice, a victim of past injustices by his people. Sara Genge poses a great intellectual and ethical dilemma for Brother Beussy, who refuses to die “as a martyr” if the Waster should kill him, but not wanting Patrice to help him either, feeling it is his duty to die as part of God’s will. The ethical questions posed in this situation reveals the flaws in Buessy’s self-centered morality, and question the line between intentions and outcomes when it comes to people addressing historical guilt. This is a great piece that resonated with me in many ways, and would provide plenty of food for thought.

The characters are digging for valuable resources in Jeff Carlson’s “Planet of the Sealies” in the unlikeliest places on a futuristic Earth. Carlson’s structure for this story leaves a lot of the details about this world unexplained or left to the reader to gather. As a result, though I was sure about some details—like the protagonist Joanna being a digger at an evacuation site—I wasn’t exactly sure what her place was in the social hierarchy of this world, and why she was worried about her standing. Most of the story talks about an incident on the excavation site and Joanna feeling the need to prove her usefulness as a worker. Carlson also touches upon the theme of utilitarianism when he reveals near the end what exactly the “sealies” are and why these people are looking for them. The uneasy tension that Carlson tries to establish between Joanna and her co-worker Hel—presumably over which worker is more valuable—comes across as cold and mechanical, and though Joanna is worried about her own ability, her predicament left me uncaring for her as a character.

Aliette de Bodard has received a lot of crucial praise for her work, but this is the first time I’ve ever read anything by her. “Shipbirth” is set in an Aztec science fictional universe several centuries from now. Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld, which came out recently, also takes a look at Mesoamerican culture, and she returns to her world-building strengths in this short story.

She explores the gender roles of this Aztec culture she works with by looking through the perspective of Acoimi, a transgender doctor who comes aboard an “unborn” ship to assist Huexotl, a woman who is assigned to give birth to a “mind” to control the ship. Already, Bodard sets up very interesting ideas about their space-travel technology: that these ships are partly organic, and won’t be able to fly without a living being to control it. What is kept tantalizingly unexplained is whether these minds are human or alien, but their importance to space flight defines the women who must give birth to them. Born a woman, Acoimi chose to switch genders after seeing his sister not survive her own mind-birth. He doesn’t fit this society’s definition of manhood, either, since he has not sacrificed anyone, and works as a doctor, not a warrior.

Acoimi is an example of the “symbolic Other” that comes up in science fiction stories, a character whose unique trait (whether it be racial, religious or cultural, or in this case, biological) becomes more than a single quality, but the defining quality. I don’t like how Acoimi constantly refers to certain actions or decisions he makes as being from his male side or his female self, simply because I don’t agree with a gender binary, or that his character hinges on the fact that he is genderqueer and nothing else. In this story, however, all three characters – Acoimi, Huexotl, and Xoxo the midwife— believe they are ineffective as people because they are unable to perform the tasks expected of their gender. An interesting exploration by Bodard, but the world’s strict adherence to conservative gender roles makes me uninterested in reading more stories set in this universe.

In “Brother Sleep” by Tim McDaniel, Horse is a Thai university student in the near future where standard hours of sleep are optional, cured by new medical technology that sustains the body’s for long periods of time without nightly rest. His roommate, Increase, however, does not have the cure, and while Horse wrestles with life where sleeping isn’t a necessity, he comes to envy the luxury of sleep his roommate possesses.

Tim McDaniel’s style for this story is first-person and conversational, dedicated to the perspective of a young man and all of the drama it entails (the family he’s ashamed of, the girlfriend that cheated on him). The story is readable and relatable to anyone who’s been 18 and in college. I appreciated the simplicity of the story and the cultural details that showed the protagonist was a non-Westerner in a non-Western country. The problems he faces, however, are familiar to the West, with the added layer of pressure to live up to a standard higher than his own common life: both as a lower-class youth at an elite school and as a Thai representing his people in an international university.

“Eve of Beyond,” co-written by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg is a near future “domestic” sci-fi story that addresses the idea that everything is ephemeral, down to the very clothes you wear. The narrator, a CEO of a company that specializes in disposable funeral-wear, is put to the task of saving his legacy in the face of multinational corporations and an uncaring son. Pronzini and Malzberg keep the premise of the story in a very mainstream light; I can see the themes of this tale play out in literary fiction. There is a sense of inevitability about what happens to the narrator, and the message pretty much is something I’ve seen in other cyberpunk novels, stories, and media in the past. Pronzini and Malzberg’s story, though it has some novel concepts, runs the same “evil corporations swallowing the everyman” point, though their example is prevented from feeling too trite by its short length. Overall, I finished this story feeling unaffected by the ideas presented or its execution.

“Flicker” by Uncle River was the only poem available for me during the time of review, though this issue also contains “Entanglement, Valentines and Einstein” by W. Gregory Stewart and “Tower” by Jane Yolen. “Flicker” structures a metaphor about choices in language and warns how the speed of the world and its technology can leave speakers adrift, speaking without depth or insight.

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