REVIEW SUMMARY: This week’s Short Fiction Friday features a review of the December 2013 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.
BRIEF SUMMARY: Aliens visiting Earth, teenage rivalry, lingerie sales, frightening creatures on other worlds, frog deformities, discrimination…a wide variety of subject matter and style exists in 2013’s final issue.
PROS: Similar themes are examined in dissimilar fashion in a couple of the stories, offering much to provoke thought/discussion; one short selection showcases sfnal humor done well; the cover story provides the opportunity for Western readers to experience science fiction from a different culture; nonfiction offerings are engaging.
CONS: One novelette and one short story are slow-moving and overly long for the story being told, diminishing their effectiveness.
BOTTOM LINE: Science fiction comes in many forms, as this selection of stories proves. The trope of aliens visiting Earth is examined in two very different stories, one humorous and one quite serious and the theme of intra-species discrimination is also present in two of the stories and while they couldn’t be more different in tone, both offer interesting commentary on existing problems. Overall the December issue is a fine way to end the year. Two great stories, a few good and two that ultimately do not deliver opened by the kind of passionate editorial one expects from Sheila Williams and the educational article written by Robert Silverberg make this one worth picking up.
“Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters” by Henry Lien
How odd the Western reader finds Henry Lien’s first sale will depend, I believe, on how familiar the reader is with storytelling from an Asian cultural perspective. The idea of a school for troubled girls that helps them perfect a form of kung-fu on skates as they glide across the area’s pearl surfaces may seem pretty far out, but if you have had the pleasure of partaking of entertainment from really any culture different from your own, the you are well aware that what may sound odd in description can be quite fun in execution. Such is the case with “Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters”.
The story is told from the perspective of Suki Jiang, or, as she prefers to be known, Her Grace, Radiant Goddess Princess Suki. From the opening lines Lien reveals the self-absorbed, grandiose personality of his main character and while the story she unfolds in this essay about her time in the colony demonstrates a character arc, she also remains very much herself. The story is all the better for it because she is quite the pill. I initially had a hard time wrapping my head around the visual imagery of Wu-Liu, the aforementioned kung-fu-on-ice (or pearl in this case) and every time Suki wrote “piss me off to death” it threw me but the more I got into the story the more I found myself wrapped up in the competition between herself and her rival, Doi Liang, and by the pivotal moment of the story I was smiling with anticipation of what was about to unfold.
As I examined my reactions afterwards I realized that had I seen this in a live-action film or anime that I wouldn’t have blinked at the wacky (and I use that term affectionately) ideas being presented–I am used to experiencing foreign storytelling in that medium. This is the first time I recall reading a story portraying Asian culture that was as imaginatively creative as the films I’ve viewed. It is a fun and sometimes darkly funny story, I recommend giving it a try.
Lien will be expanding this universe into novel form, so if you like this novelette there is more to come.
“Vox Ex Machina” by William Preston
Karen is recovering from the ending of a relationship. When she finds the head of a robot on an airplane she inexplicably secrets it away to her home. Guilt and fear compete with feelings of loss and loneliness as she begins to dialogue with this functional piece of a robot built as an homage to a prolific science fiction writer. The creators of the robot are asking for the missing head to be returned, and as time passes it gets harder for Karen to understand exactly how this can be accomplished without her losing her job and possibly facing jail time.
Preston’s story provides a creative way to look at grief and loss in a story with science fictional trappings. Karen’s motivations and crippling grief read authentically, making her a very real character in an unreal story. Given the robot’s level of functioning it is apparent to the reader that Karen is in essence working out her feelings with herself and all this works very well in the story. Ultimately the story falls short for me because of an ending that, while unexpected, did not give me a sense of what the story was meant to convey. Had the story been shorter it may have read differently, but given the novelette length the time investment was not met with a rewarding payoff.
“Entangled” by Ian R. MacLeod
Martha is the adult daughter of talented doctor, a man whose work in brain repair eventually saved her life after a terrible accident left her with severe cerebral damage. Her father is now long dead and Martha lives on, and though she has a purpose and is surrounded by others, she is very much alone. In this indeterminate future a virus has infected humanity, one which worked on the brain in a way that created a manner of communal living, known as entanglement. Unfortunately the fixes in Martha’s brain do not allow her to be one of the entangled and so she goes through life being treated well by those who know her but without the sense of connection they all share.
MacLeod’s story is beautifully told, unfolding with a glimmer of information here and another there so that the reader is slowly drawn into Martha’s world, understanding dawning slowly as to this new and different world and how Martha does not fit in. The novelette length gives time for this story to develop at just the right pace which makes events near the end surprising in their revelation. This is the final story in the final issue of the year and it combines just enough sense of wonder with feelings of melancholy that it could not be more fitting as a way to say goodbye to another year.
“Dignity” by Jay O’Connell
Those who haven’t experienced how a few thousand words, a mere handful of pages, can incite emotions are missing out on one of the many reasons that short stories are so special. If you happen to be one of those people, Jay O’Connell has crafted one for your initiation. In the future of O’Connell’s story, young Melissa is being lectured by her father for doing the unthinkable–feeding and caring for a “hopeless” girl. This girl, Lena, is described by Melissa’s father as being “worthless” because she is unenhanced and proposes to send her off somewhere that she won’t be a “stupid, dirty little girl growing into a stupid, dirty woman with nothing to offer”. I tell you, this story will get you riled up. Asimov’s very wisely points out in the introduction that the genesis of the story was a piece of flash fiction with an axe to grind and that knowledge is helpful in allowing the story to unfold as O’Connell intended.
Melissa’s order are to rid herself of the girl and if followed she will be given a reward. It is not hard to see exactly where Melissa’s thought train is going as her options are placed before her but that knowledge in no way lessens the impact of the story. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the ending leaves you with some very conflicted feelings. It reminded me of a statement in the Andre Norton Award winning book The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman in which a slave was sharing that just because the master of the plantation treated them well did not make him a good man. If I remember correctly the idea was that he was more of a wise man, taking care of his investments.
“Dignity” is a great story because it has applicability for a lot of what continues to go on in today’s world socially, politically, and economically. This one begs to be part of a group discussion.
“The Fitter” by Timons Esias
The one alien race to finally visit Earth turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. The Thaliamajorans resembled large sea anemones and brought nothing of value with them upon their arrival. Many had found work in Hollywood, but Mr. Throgmorton, a late arrival, was having difficulty finding any gainful employment, and his interview with Miss Douglas at Randi’s Bustique Boutique was not going particularly well. But when he demonstrated the ability, by virtue of his very oddity, to make a sale, Miss Douglas decided to give him a try.
Esias’ humorous take on aliens-come-to-Earth is as delightful as his main character, Mr. Throgmorton. While Miss Douglas has an eye only for profit, Mr. Throgmorton’s good-natured personality offers him the uncanny ability for things to work out well, both for him and the cast of characters who inhabit the Boutique. The humor is clever and the characters are entertaining. The one-dimensional nature of the various players in this tale adds to the comedic atmosphere and the reader cannot help but enjoy them all. “The Fitter” is never over-the-top, it plays for smiles and not guffaws and in so doing makes for a fun read.
“Bloom” by Gregory Norman Bossert
This story opens with its principal players all one step away from death. Ki, Ben and Andrea have all ventured out into the pitch dark night and have run afoul of the particularly deadly organism dubbed the “Bloom”. Any significant or sudden movement could result in their death, a particularly gruesome death as recounted by Ki, who has witnessed the occurrence firsthand. Bossert’s story is told over a series of intervals which allow for the characters to go through a series of emotions, fill in vital back story in a very natural way, and also up the suspense as time progresses and the trio get more and more exhausted as they wait for the day to dawn so that they can fully assess the danger.
The way in which the story unfolds is very successful in opening up for the reader the bigger picture of who these characters are while never letting the reader forget the dire circumstances of their current predicament. The ending was not wholly unexpected, though it felt incomplete, as if vital pieces of information were not shared with the clarity necessary for the ending to have its intended impact. Though this is indeed a short story it left me with the impression that it took too long to achieve the end it delivered.
“Grainers” by R. Neube
In the decades after the destruction of Earth, unwanted refugees exist and travel in comparative squalor in converted grain ships, hence the derogatory description of them as “grainers”. The rest of humanity tolerates and trades with the grainers but have not offered to provide them with a new home. Neube’s story follows two main characters: Handy is the grain vessel’s repairman, and when he detects a nearby military vessel he sets in motion a scam to get a new vital piece of equipment; Tech Seven Marquez is the unfortunate person chosen to be sent to deal with Handy, with strict instructions that this is her shot at redemption. The story alternates between each character’s point of view which allows the reader inside the mind of each character as they maneuver through an intricate dance of trying to outwit the other. Both characters have something they wish to achieve and each has plans upon plans for how to achieve those ends.
“Grainers” works particularly well because of the interplay between the two characters. Elements of this universe are unveiled skillfully within the settings where the action/dialogue take place as well as within the thought trains of each character. The story has a definitive ending though I could not help thinking that it felt like the kind of story that belonged in a larger universe, similar to what James S.A. Corey are doing with their Expanse series.
“Frog Watch” by Nancy Kress
Meg Knowles is on her own, her husband Jason lost in the line of duty, and she is not coping with it well. In order to get away from those with good intentions but no true commitment to being her support, she decides to move to a lonely area to live in a house near a swamp. Despite her sister’s protestations, she knows that this is what she needs. While there she will continue the work of the FrogWatch, a passion that her husband introduced her to. FrogWatch involves cataloging the presence of and any deformities of the various species of frogs in the nation, many of which seem to be disappearing from even stable ecosystems for no apparent reason. To appease her sister she eventually decides to approach the house of one of her only neighbors, an exercise which nets her a cursory introduction and brush-off. Meg understands she is just going through the motions, until she receives a letter from FrogWatch indicating that her numbers are abnormally high with a plea to double-check what she is reporting. Soon Meg becomes aware that not only are her numbers correct, but try as she might she can find no indication of any deformities in and around her living area. This is not only highly unusual, but ought not to be so.
Like “Vox Ex Machina”, this story deals with loss by bringing in science fictional elements and Nancy Kress, who is no stranger to writing a good story, handles this very well. I would have liked a more drawn out ending with a little more detail, but it works and is supported by the story as it unfolded. The weaving in of true facts regarding the various frog populations gives the story an extra layer of interest.
Sheila William’s December Editorial, “Living in a Science Fictional Universe“, lightly examines the weird occurrences in everyday life that stir science fictional imaginings and in the course of so doing she shares her love of genre fiction with a passion shared by many readers of science fictional literature.
In his “Reflections” column, author Robert Silverberg references a decade old article in which he lamented that all the stories he has written about a future in which there is proof of an interaction with other people on other worlds have just been that–stories. He goes on to offer his reasons for why he believes there is intelligent life out there but why he also firmly believes that these separated groups of intelligence will never get together. It is a fascinating article which, while disheartening on one hand, stirs the imagination about what might be out there.
Peter Heck closes the issue with a variety of book reviews.
December 2013 was another satisfying issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. Though we are just in mid-November, the January 2014 issue is out on store shelves which includes another Nancy Kress story and the continuation of Robert Silverberg’s Reflections article. Be sure to check it out. Magazines seem to be one of the few ways in which we can time travel: witness being able to read January’s work a month and a half early.