Short Fiction Friday: Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 2013

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REVIEW SUMMARY:  One strong short story and two fair novelettes stand out in comparison to a novella and short stories that never fully reach their potential.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:   Time travel, the afterlife of nanotech, tactical warfare on a moon orbiting Mars, and an intimate look at two space-inspired young people and more await readers in the pages of the latest issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: One highly creative, thought-provoking short story; two novellettes that are fair; entertaining reflection on year’s best anthologies and their history by Robert Silverberg; nice editorial honoring early female astronauts.
CONS: A novella and short stories which felt like they could go somewhere interesting but never arrived.
BOTTOM LINE:  The March 2013 issue sits at the mediocre end of the spectrum in considering it against some of Asimov’s better offerings.  This is disappointing given the past quality of some of the included authors’ stories and the potential that almost every story appeared to have at the start.  Fans of the authors included should seek out the issue.  Those considering trying Asimov’s for the first time would be best served tracking down the January 2013 issue which set the standard impossibly high for the rest of the year.

“Uncertainty” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I get excited when I see the name Kristine Kathryn Rusch on a magazine’s cover.  She consistently proves to be a skillful practitioner at all three levels of short fiction.  Even when her efforts are not as fully realized, as is the case with the novellette “Uncertainty”, the results are worth seeking out.  Here a group of time travelers in an indeterminate future have decided to use the technology to go back in time and eliminate the use of the bombs detonated over Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  Their intention is to ensure that the allies win the war but without the massive amount of devastation caused by those dark days in history.  Their noble aims have the unintended consequences of causing elements of time to splinter off of the main time stream, resulting in the need to send operatives back and forth through different periods surrounding the events of WWII to ensure that Hitler does not stand victorious.  Leah Hammerschmidt is one such agent, whose first successful mission brings her into contact with a man who later recognizes her in an earlier time line.  As Leah’s confusion grows she discovers that her side might not be the only one privy to the technology to allow for time travel and that their actions may not be as singular as originally supposed.  “Uncertainty” is a good story that falls short of being great in part because it invites comparison to the work that Connie Willis has achieved in this same playground, but largely because it fades at the end.

“Brother Swine” by Garrett Ashley

This is Garrett Ashley’s debut appearance in Asimov’s and will hopefully be the first of many. In an impoverished and increasingly desolate rural community the people scrounge for what food they can while waiting on government trucks to deliver foodstuffs and they watch the hills for the Returned, those relatives who have passed away who often return to their families in the form of an animal. The animals may be exotic or domestic and it is felt that those who have acted wrongly return in the forms of animals that are commonly slaughtered for food, causing their family to have to weigh bonds of love against the need to survive.  Straub’s brother Etgar has returned, creating a rift in the relationship that had been slowly forming between Straub and Helen, who had been Etgar’s fiance before his death.  Worse yet, Etgar, who was by all accounts a good man, has returned as a pig, causing his family consternation in regards to the reasons why as well as the stress of having to hide him from the neighbors for fear of how they would react, for the trucks have inexplicably stopped coming and families are slowly beginning  to starve.

Ashley’s is an interesting story on so many levels.  It works on the surface level as a fascinating examination of cultural beliefs regarding reincarnation and the karmic actions of one in life.  On a deeper level “Brother Swine” examines the burden of relationships, and how in this culture the burden of caring for loved ones may not only continue past death but may become more burdensome upon their return. Ashley does not provide a scientific explanation for this cycle of death and rebirth which may lesson the story’s impact for some readers despite its thought-provoking nature.

“Needlework” by Lavie Tidhar

This issue also marks the Asimov’s debut for multiple award-winning author Lavie Tidhar. In “Needlework” Tidhar presents the lives of a young man and a young woman in what appear to be very traditional career paths whose aspirations are to take their training into lives spent traveling among the stars. Bobby is a young man studying to be a chef, learning not only the skills necessary to be a master in the culinary arts but the science needed to translate those Earth-bound talents to the varying conditions one would encounter in outer space. Nhu is a seamstress, working alongside other girls to create high quality garments that can endure both the fickle nature of fashion and the various gravities, or lack thereof, in the Up and Out. This short story cuts back and forth between the lives of Bobby and Nhu as their paths eventually intersect on the road to the fulfillment of their dreams.

Tidhar has created a culturally-interesting near future world with two likeable characters. The story is far too short to do anything meaningful with all of the positive elements and left me wishing that he had, at the very least, chosen a longer format in which to bring about a more rewarding result. Tidhar provides an engaging snapshot into the lives of Bobby and Nhu and little more; a vignette of a tantalizing future that leaves one wanting more.

“Monday’s Monk” by Jason Sanford

Author Jason Sanford’s time spent in the Peace Corps working with monks in Buddhist monasteries inspired him to pen the novellette “Monday’s Monk”.  Somchai is admittedly not the shining example of the Buddhist tradition that his teachers hoped he would be and yet he tends to his duties with faithful intentions.   Somchai maintains the vigils and performs the rites over funeral pyres of the dead in his village, a duty far more dangerous than it would appear to be as the dead brought to Somchai are often those murdered by the Blues, a guerilla force bent on purging humanity of those who have been corrupted by the presence of nanotech in their bodies. Seh Naam is the leader of the Blues and it is primarily through the interactions of Somchai and Seh Naam that the story unfolds. Somchai’s is an existence filled with fear and compromise which becomes harder to bear when he has to perform the rites over Nong Tam, a young girl that he rescued long ago and had grown to love. As Somchai tries to meditate on the impermanence of life and bring honor to Tam, he starts to have vivid dreams that turn out to not be dreams at all–the bodies of the murdered may no longer live but the nanotech within them has a life of its own. Somchai is soon living two lives, one in which he performs his daily duties and another in which his previous hopes and dreams are coming true.

I have to wonder how purposeful the inclusion of Sanford’s story was in the issue with Garrett Ashley’s. They both examine the concept of life after death in unique ways and yet there is an interesting kinship between both stories. Sanford’s leans more towards a scientific explanation of how life could continue after one’s mortal body has ceased to function and reading them together in the same issue makes for a rewarding comparison of how different authors handle a similar theme in their work.

“Pitching Old Mars” by Michael Cassutt 

This reads more like a writing exercise than a short story.  This brief entry shows one side of a conversation in which a writer is pitching an idea for a Mars-based science fiction story to producers.  References are made to Burroughs and to Disney’s poor handling of the recent film John Carter.  I find little to recommend it other than the fact that it is only a few pages long. ‘

“Feral Moon” by Alexander Jablokov

The issue closes with Alexander Jablokov’s novella “Feral Moon”.  Kingsman is a disgraced military man who has recently been released from prison to assess the situation on Phobos, one of the moons orbiting Mars.  The people inhabiting the complex world built within Phobos are at war with the Union forces which attacked them.   The reason for the attack is not specified, the reader is dropped into an ongoing war situation and given to understand that war is as complex in this fictional world as it is in real life.  The leader of Union forces knows that Kingsman is there to order a withdrawal and welcomes this as an alternative to the ongoing loss of life of his troops, however Kingsman is a tactician whose desire for redemption and admitted skills means this will not be as easy a venture as it sounds.  As Kingsman explores the world with the second-in-command they discover a way in which some of the Union’s objectives may be achieved and while this may not result in a victory, it would also not be an admitted defeat.    “Feral Moon” is a novella written in the tradition of recent successful novels like those of James S.A. Corey in that a future is postulated in which humanity has branched out within our solar system, inhabiting various orbiting moons and asteroids, with the unfortunate result of creating factions between those who live at these various locations.  In other words, the advance of technology and the ability to carve out life outside of Earth has done little to curb the war-like tendencies of the human race.   Embedded within the battle scenario is the story of Kingman’s failed marriage and the manner in which is current path will eventually intersect with that of his ex-wife.

I have enjoyed Jablokov’s work in previous issues of Asimov’s and his skills are apparent here but “Feral Moon” never quite seems to get off the ground, if you will pardon the pun.  The story is initially disorienting in the manner in which Jablokov puts the reader down in the midst of the action.  While I applaud him for the “show don’t tell” efforts of the beginning, the results are that a clear picture of the inner workings of Phobos is never quite achieved. That lack of clarity filters through what is trying to be a complex tale not just of tactics and warfare but also that of one man who is skilled at navigating the battlefield but has not been able to translate those skills to his interpersonal relationships.  I could never quite generate enough compassion for Kingsman, or for any of the other characters, to achieve the immersion a story of this length should allow.   Readers who are attracted to the nuance of battle would probably get more out of this story than I did.

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One constant I have when it comes to Asimov’s is that I am sure to enjoy the editorial by Sheila Williams and the “Reflections” column by Robert Silverberg.  In this issue Williams has a really nice tribute to some of the women involved in the early space program.  Silverberg discusses a number of science fiction and fantasy anthologies and reaches back to a 1948 anthology to discuss which of the stories might be published today.  The history of the short story field offered in these few pages works well in giving an overview while at the same time whetting the appetite to sample some older short fiction alongside the works being published today.