BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Humans and aliens in settings reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs and a police procedural that evolves into a discussion of string theory and Egyptian mythology are offered up in the three reviewed novelettes included in the April/May 2013 double issue of Asimov’s.
PROS: Greater story length allows for richer character studies and strong world-building; jungle settings in two of the novelettes provide a heady nostalgia for fans of fiction by Edgar Rice Burroughs; last story in the magazine is a tension-filled story that ends the issue on a high note.
CONS: One novelette disappoints after a strong, creative mystery ends with thinly-disguised scientific info-dumping and esoteric theorizing; the better stories end with the feeling that a sequel is in the works rather than being entirely self-contained.
BOTTOM LINE: I’ve never been fond of the Asimov’s double issues and the reasoning is faulty at best: I think the roughly 100 page format of the standard issue is just perfect, offering up the right amount of story to keep the reader from feeling overwhelmed. There is truth to the idea that there can be too much of a good thing. And while I realize I could simply read half of it one month and half the next, it does not ever work out that logically. That being said, there was a preponderance of really good storytelling in this issue and if future double issues continue that trend I might find myself looking forward to their twice-a-year arrival. The novelettes were particularly enjoyable, even when they did not fully deliver, because the length allows the author to build a more firm foundation for the story they are trying to tell.
Individual story reviews follow…
“Julian of Earth” by Colin P. Davies
This is the first of two stories set in a dense forested area that stirs up nostalgia, as if the authors chose to combine ideas from Edgar Rice Burrough’s most well-known characters, Tarzan and John Carter. In Davies’ story, Tarn Erstbauer is a young man living on Niselle V, a planet far distant from Earth, who takes care of his aging, infirm mother by conducting tourists around the planet to see sites associated with the mythical Earthman, Julian. When the latest Earth-ship arrives Tarn is surprised to discover that a distant grand-daughter of Julian, Anna Walcot-Winter, has arrived with a small film crew to shoot a documentary about her legendary ancestor. Tarn is surprised, and also worried. For Tarn himself is wrapped up in the mythology of Julian from the time when he was kidnapped at age 8 by Julian and the native alien savages he commanded, an event that made Tarn famous and is the primary source of his livelihood. The only problem: everything about Tarn’s story is a lie.
Davies’ story has something of a Lost World feel to it and the mysterious alien species, the Primes, who inhabit Niselle V are intriguing for the reader because Tarn himself knows very little about them and thus the reader discovers facts right along with Tarn, Anna and the film crew. Issues of how one culture sees another are lit upon briefly through the story but in the end it is a story about Tarn’s self-discovery and it acts as a really solid pulp-inspired adventure tale.
“Spider God and the Periodic Table” by Alan Wall
Wall’s story is a present-day police procedural in which Inspector Joe Banks’ first case in his new assignment turns out to be the death of a scientist by means which defy scientific explanation by any current testable standards. Banks arrives on the call to find a scientist, Dr. Frank Beers, has passed away with no obvious signs of violence but with a strange, never-before-seen pattern on his forehead that looks as if parchment was somehow sewn directly into his skin. Later that evening when pathologist Renata Dibdin calls Joe Banks to her office she adds to the mystery by revealing that Beers was killed by some unknown force which crystallized the area above his brainstem. In addition to that the letters T H A mysteriously appeared on Beers’ arm while he was lying on the examination table.
Dibdin and Banks find themselves thrust together on the case as Beers turns out to be merely the first of other deaths under similarly suspicious circumstances. As the investigation continues Dibdin and Banks start to theorize about the scientific possibilities and the implications of these ideas, including a lengthy discussion about string theory, which makes them question the place of humanity in the universe and the held beliefs about what the universe is made of.
This was a very interesting and engaging story right from the start because Wall has created two characters in Joe Banks and Renata Dibdin that draw the reader in. It is unfortunate that what begins as a police procedural with good scientific discussion devolves into an info-dump style conversation about string theory and a somewhat confusing integration of Egyptian mythology. The mythological elements are introduced early but I didn’t feel like they were explored to the degree they should have and their inclusion made for an unsatisfying, mystical ending that did not work for me juxtaposed against the factual, detailed elements of science and detection.
“Warlord” by Tom Purdom
In this, the second jungle-setting novelette, a relatively small colony of humans have settled on a distant world inhabited by two warring species. Harold Lizert is a near-sighted and not particularly aggressive human who left, along with his wife Joanne, when a man named Emile and his group of thugs killed Harold’s father to take leadership of the colony. Harold and Joanne ended up in a battle between the itiji and the Warriors of Imeten. The battle had reached a stalemate and Harold took the bold step of fighting a battle to the death that ended with him bringing the two people together into a mutually beneficial relationship. “Warlord” opens with Emile and a group of human colonists traveling in small ships towards the city of Imeten, with Harold, Joanne and the Warriors all believing their intentions are anything but good.
“Warlord” examines man’s aggressive tendencies against the idea of various cultures coming together for a greater good. In addition it turns out to be a tense, and intense, page-turner of a story. Once it gets going there is no stopping until it is all over. “Warlord” is not the first story Purdom has set on the planet of Delta Pavonis II and despite it having an ending it is obvious that it will not be his last. I look forward to seeing a future issue with Purdom’s next story. This was a good one, and not only because I, as a near-sighted man, enjoyed cheering for an equally handicapped hero.