This issue of Asimov’s features a wide range of stories, from post-apocalyptic settings, to deep space, to plague-ridden colony worlds. Several of the stories cover grim material and feature disturbing characters.
“Burning Bibles”, by Alan Wall, follows the investigation by UK and US intelligence services into several fires suspected to be linked to terrorists. An undercover agent able to read people’s thought waves is sent to find out what is really going on. The characters are interesting, but the explanations for the thought reader’s abilities didn’t strike me as entirely plausible and the narrative pace is slowed down by big infodumps about the background of the thought-reading power. The story is overly long for the material it covers and the revelation at the end is anti-climactic.
“Shadow Angel”, by Erick Melton, features an international cast of characters. A Romanian starship pilot and his Korean ex-wife make a deal with the ship’s Chinese captain. There are mentions of hyperspheres, angels trapped in hyperspace, flashbacks, and doublecrossing deals, but I found the story very confusing. I never worked out exactly what was going on.
“The Observation Post”, by Allen M. Steele, is an entertaining story about US soldiers aboard a zeppelin in the leadup to the Cuban missile crisis. They are forced to take shelter from a storm on a Caribbean island and encounter a group who they suspect are East German spies. The story is straightforward, but the main character is likeable and the alternate history details are intriguing, making it my favorite story in this issue.
“D.O.C.S”, by Neal Barrett, Jr., is a short, grim piece about survivors getting a visit from the Department of Curative Science. The main character is a boy distressed at the seeming indifference of the doctors to the plight of his family. Bad thing after bad thing happens. None of the characters are at all likeable, nor interesting. The post-apocalyptic setting is generic in nature, resulting in a story that I found little to enjoy in.
“Danilo”, by Carol Emshwiller, is a character piece focused on a woman on a journey to find her husband and her friend who accompanies her. At first the story seemed set in a generic fantasyland. I found it jarring when Wal-Mart was later mentioned and it becomes evident it has a contemporary setting. There is little plot to speak of, but the strength of Emshwiller’s writing and the quirkiness of her characters meant I still enjoyed the story.
“Stalker” by Robert Reed, is well written, has believable characters, and has some interesting ideas about AI, but the violence in the story aimed at women may make some readers uncomfortable. The narrator is a “stalker”, an intelligent computer system designed to watch over its user. Unfortunately its owner is a rapist that takes particular delight in humiliating women. The bulk of the story relates what happens when the rapist meets a young woman more resourceful than his other victims.
The main premise of Ian Creasey‘s “Odor of Sanctity” revolves around the development of devices for the recording and release of smells. The story is set in the Philippines and involves a dying priest. The main character is presented with a difficult dilemma and the implications of the new technology are thoroughly explored, making the story an enjoyable read.
“Grandma Said”, by R. Neube, is set on a human colony world called New Prozac. The main character has taken on a job as a plague cleanser, collecting the bodies of victims of a disease that has devastated many human colonies. Even though it is dealing with a dark subject, the humor isn’t exactly black: in most parts it takes the form of weak puns (the main character Vic is dealing with “vics” or victims) and jokes such as the name of the colony world. Humor is of course, a very personal thing, but I found the humor in the story very uneven, and it just didn’t work for me. The folksiness of some parts of the story (Grandma’s secret remedy for surviving the plague) sometimes seems at odds with the futuristic setting. The future society also seems very much like our own. Even though humans are living on a distanct colony world, they are still spending much of their time in traditional schools and watching TV.