BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Asimov’s June 2015 issue features two short stories and four novelettes that interrogate various nuances of science fiction in varying degrees, but while narratives are well-built and ideas in place – the short fiction presented here doesn’t leave any lasting impression and ultimately faded away in my memory.
PROS: Varied treatments of science fiction – from interstellar travel to near future; a focus on interactions between women, which is rare to encounter and greatly desired; fun conceptual ambition and richness in these imagined futures.
CONS: Authors more often than not pull back from digging into the emotional landscape of their characters, dulling the effect of their narrative and ideas; bland writing.
BOTTOM LINE: I’m more indifferent towards this issue, which more or less informs how I rate it – right in the middle. Your mileage will definitely vary, but for me, while competently enough told, the stories failed to hit the mark.
The great strength of short fiction is its length – a counterintuitive argument as it’s often the matter of length that has people champion novels as the superior form and dismiss short fiction as thin and shallow. But short fiction’s power lies in the ability to compensate for its brevity and conjure a full world rich in possibility, emotion and consequences in the confines of so few pages. That’s what’s so electrifying about short fiction. There’s a lot a short story needs to accomplish to truly be alive and that’s why the short form is hard to master.
Even experienced writers struggle with the short form and it takes one miscalculation or a missed opportunity to stump a promising story. It’s mostly what happens with the stories in this issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.
Ray Nayler’s “Mutability” and M. Bennardo’s “Ghosts of the Savannah” serve as example to illustrate how a story can have a perfectly serviceable progression, language and ideas, but fail to ignite all the elements into a synergic whole. I found the story of a man and a woman tracing their mutual history together in the future depicted in “Mutability”, where humans are incredibly long-lived and the culture has moved so far ahead the English of this period has become antiquated, rich in potential to explore, but the narrator’s seeming disconnectedness from life mutes this aspect. What we’re left with is the surface level where it’s easy to see the pattern of the plot and figure out exactly what’s going to happen at the end.
“Ghosts of the Savannah” also scratches on the surface, although I fell in love with the bit of worldbuilding concerning the virgin hunters that allow for orphaned girls to find purpose as well standing in the social order of the community portrayed. However, that’s all that I got out of the text, cause for all the warning of the dangers of the savannah for the hunters, Bennardo barely challenges Sedu and her fellow virgin hunter and narrator. The ending is telegraphed at the very beginning and all urgency or mystery is sucked out of the narrative, leaving a story that works but is ultimately flat.
There is a quality of thinness to most stories in this issue, although in varying degrees that I think has to do with the visual effect the writers emphasize on as a means to communicate a depth that a film format would better serve. Sarah Pinsker’s “Our Lady of the Open Road” is a terrific near-future road trip movie waiting to happen and Django Wexler’s “The End of the War” can rival Pacific Rim in glorious, feast-for-the-eyes action, but as works of fiction, they miss the mark. Let’s be clear here, I don’t necessarily hate the stories and I think both Pinsker and Wexler are good writers. It’s just that I expect a whole lot more.
In Wexler’s case, I find the combination of a blow-by-blow dramatization of the battles of these far-future, mech-wearing scavengers in contested space and the choice of first person point of view to work against the story. Miranda, or Myr as she’s known, spends a lot of time explaining peculiarities and details of her life in her line of profession that turn the story into a strange confessional when no audience is present and there is no real motive for her to lecture on things she already knows and understands. At the same time, I didn’t learn anything of any substantial worth about her as a person. All the information I received from the text served to illuminate the setting rather than the person, which resulted in a rather anti-climactic ending.
Pinsker does something similar in her focus on Luce’s commentary on the scenery and the consequences of further adoption of technology to the point of divorcing ourselves from our surroundings and very lives in “Our Lady of the Open Road”. The road trip element as means to illuminate social and urban decay has a strong effect on the reader, but the only problem here is Luce herself. The story is told in first person point of view and although the writing is competent, Luce comes off bland and not at all what I’d imagine the frontwoman of a punk band to sound while I’m in her head. There’s none of the anger and fire Silva, Luce’s friend and bandmate, says he sees in her and for a point of view that allows you claustrophobic access to a person’s inner life, there’s not enough rawness, intensity or deeper exploration of her personal history to turn this piece into one of the best stories of the year.
However, a stand-out moment in “Our Lady of the Open Road” is when Luce and the band make it to their gig and play alongside another band – Moby K. Dick. It’s there Luce shares a moment connecting with Truly, the bassist of Moby K. Dick, and comes full circle as she sees a new generation that has taken her music to heart and follows in her footsteps but with bigger changes ahead as physical touring is all but extinct now. This is the moment that Pinsker had me engrossed and invested and I wish the rest of the story had the same effect on me.
The strongest piece for me was “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” by Henry Lien – a seemingly light story with a sense of humor about the intense rivalry between two women for their standing in Newport polite society at the turn of the last century. The escalation of events reaches a dramatic high point that forever alters the course of human history. I’m a bit iffy on where to put “The Lady’s Aquatic Gardening Society” on the speculative spectrum as it more or less flirts with alternative history and climate fiction as the speculative element is presented as the resulting aftermath of the competition between Mrs. Howland-Thorpe and Mrs. Fleming. Some readers might object to this, but I’m quite satisfied with everything Lien did here. Lien’s writing is vibrant, energetic and self-assured in its use of a faux-Austen style, which imbues the acts of sabotage and undermining with electricity and tension. It helps that each polite altercation is announced as if the two ladies are fighters in a boxing match.
I don’t have a conclusion as I’m still conflicted even after having sat with my thoughts on these stories for a month now. There is also one more story “The Muses of Shuyedan-18” by Indrapramit Das but I could not finish reading the story.
If you think me too harsh and know you enjoy the work of the writers featured herein, then by all means – order your copy.