While I’ve read more issues of Asimov’s than Analog, it’s still a magazine that I don’t entirely have a handle on. Obviously it’s a science fiction magazine – it says so on the cover – but I get the feeling that Asimov’s isn’t so focussed on the hard SF side of the ledger. That’s not to say that the magazine doesn’t publish the hard stuff, Elizabeth Bear’s Dolly could probably have slipped into Analog, but based on the few issues I’ve read, Asimov’s is more likely to feature the sort of short fiction where the SFnal element provides depth of flavour rather than be the focus of the dish (Christ, I’ve been watching too much Great British Menu).
January’s Asimov’s provides us with a number of well written and entertaining stories, even if none of them are particularly memorable. We start with Chris Beckett’s Two Thieves, which is set in the far future where the two thieves of the title – Pennyworth and Shoe – have been sent to a penal colony to be rehabilitated. At the penal colony they get put on an archaeological dig, and it doesn’t take both thieves long to uncover a dimensional gateway masquerading as a dry well. I bet you can guess what happens next.
Two Thieves is a fun bit of writing. But the ending seems a bit aimless, as if Beckett was at a loss at how to tie up the story. I also got the feeling, while I was reading it, that I was meant to be finding the interactions of the hapless Pennyworth and Shoe to be hilariously funny – a sort of futuristic version of Oliver and Hardy. But other than one chuckle involving some diamonds and an anal orifice, the humour fell flat for me.
Dolly by Elizabeth Bear is a far tighter and more complete story. It tells the tale of Dolly the sex robot and the brutal murder of her boss. The plot is predictable, but then the story isn’t really set up as a murder mystery. It’s more an exploration of AI self awareness, and more importantly the effect that awareness has on other humans. Although I really loved the writing “… Peter King paused just inside, taking in the scene with a few critical sweeps with eyes so dark they didn’t catch any light from the sunlight or the chandelier…” but I’m not sure I took that much “crunch factor” out of the themes of the story. They felt well trodden and I constantly had this feeling that I’d read the story before.
Now, before I discuss the next story I need to make a confession, I’ve never been a fan of Steve Rasnic Tem’s (or Melanie Tem’s) writing. I must be alone on that one because they’ve been lauded and applauded by all sorts of people, in a number of genres, through their long career. It’s just I’ve often found myself bouncing off their work, finding something over-written and bland about their writing.
Unfortunately, for me, Visitors is no different. A mother and father go and visit their son who has been cryogenically imprisoned for the crimes he’s committed. The story questions the responsibility of parents whose children perpetrate terrible crimes. I should have found this piece heartbreaking and sad… and yet the words just washed over me. Lois Tilton, though, was suitably affected.
Interloper, by Aussie writer Ian McHugh, tells the tale of a circus coming to town in the Australian outback. The circus troupe, though, has the secondary mission of investigating the populace for people whose minds, configured in a certain way, may accidentally provide access to otherworldly creatures – the Interlopers of the title – that have already devastated most of the world. If that’s the worst description of a story ever, it’s because Interlopers is not an easy story to explain in a couple of sentences. Ian McHugh shoves about a bazillion ideas into this ambitious but over complicated and under explained piece. A part of me likes the fact that McHugh doesn’t provide slabs and slabs of exposition, expecting the reader to figure it all out. To be fair, there are enough clues, but I found myself struggling through the story because the motivations of the main characters never seemed clear – at least not until the very end. That said, with a bit more air for the ideas to breathe, Interlopers might have been a more satisfying piece.
Ashes of the Water by Gwendolyn Clare is a simple but layered story about religious custom and water conservation. Set in India, Riti is looking to honour her dead sister by performing the custom of sending her ashes to the water and subsequently out to sea. The problem is that water has become scarce and the Government has forbidden the water that remains to become polluted. What follows is Riti’s quest to find a large enough body of water so she can perform the custom. The writing is lovely, and I like how conservation and religious custom rub against each other. And while it did feel a bit too preachy and on the nose toward the end, this was still one of the stronger stories in the anthology.
The issue finishes off with Kirstine Kathryn Rusch’s murder mystery novella, Killer Advice. It’s set on a rundown resort / casino on a far flung outpost whose clientele mostly consists of survivors from ships that have broken down or crash landed nearby. When one such passenger ship catches fire the crew is forced to make an emergency landing near the resort. It turns out that not only was the fire deliberately lit, but that there was also a murderer on board the ship, a murderer who’s now loose in the resort…
The story is fun and lively, but never feels like it gets out of second gear. Most of the characters are basically murder mystery clichés with the odd quirk. Worst of all, I figured out who the murderer was pretty quickly – which is a first for me. Killer Advice isn’t a bad story. It’s got enough narrative momentum to ensure that you finish it and enjoy the experience. But on reflection it’s very slight, which is disappointing considering a third of the magazine is devoted to it.
Overall, then, a middling issue of Asimov’s. I say this based on the limited experience of reading the magazine and the belief (and hope) that things can only get better from here.