I bought myself a subscription to Asimov’s with birthday money this summer, on the grounds that I don’t read enough short contemporary SF. My vow: to read each issue as I get it, write a few thousand words about it, and keep track of some of the basic structural choices so I’ll make better decisions when I’m trying to write short stories. Is this interesting to people who aren’t me? Probably not. Is this going to improve your own reading of these stories? Again, probably not. I don’t worry about spoilers, either, so, really, you’re best served if you just quit reading now.
“The Mongolian Book of the Dead” by Alan Smale. About 16000 words. Third person, past, limited. Tanner is an American in Mongolia, abducted by a mysterious woman in the midst of a Chinese invasion. Due to a childhood heart condition, Tanner’s souls are divided and he’s a natural gateway to the spirit world, in the Mongolian mystic tradition. The mysterious woman, Khulan, has a sister, Dzaya, who’s a shaman; Dzaya uses him to reach backwards in time and draw Gengis Khan and his armies to the present, to repel the invaders. Tanner is not a very compelling character; we’re told how he reacts and why, but he doesn’t feel terribly three-dimensional. Other than “had a heart condition, lacked strong connections to old life, is American guy who doesn’t speak Mongolian,” we don’t ever learn much about him, what he wants, why. Maybe I’m mainly reacting to the length; the narrative feels a little overstuffed and I’d rather it had been half as long (does Dzaya need to do four different rituals? Do there need to be two separate groups of Mongols who pass Tanner and Khulan between them? Does Tanner need to travel by Land Rover, camel, foot, and horse, in that order?). For so much to happen, the characters are very flat; the only ones we get to know at all are Khulan and Tanner, and their motivations aren’t very well-communicated. Khulan tells Tanner a lot of expository backstory when there isn’t much reason for her to do so.
The narrative runs in mostly chronological order; the only exceptions are expository stories someone tells: Khulan bursts into Tanner’s hotel room, abducts him. In a car, Tanner hears on the radio about the Chinese invasion. Tanner and his captors hang out in the desert. Khulan tells Tanner about the Chinese invasion. Tanner and his captors wander through the desert. Tanner mistakes Dzaya for Khulan. Khulan keys him in to his mistake. Khulan tells him more exposition, then Dzaya does a magic ritual. Tanner responds to the ritual. Khulan tells the story of how Dzaya became a shaman. Khulan tells Tanner about his tripartite soul, and how Dzaya needs him to lead her into the spirit world. Dzaya does another ritual, which makes Tanner ill. Tanner buys into his role as psychopomp. More Mongols show up, and there’smore exposition about the Chinese invasion. Khulan explains how Dzaya intends to beckon Gengis Khan. They arrive in another camp, and Dzaya does another ritual, which nearly impells her into the spirit world, but Khulan accidentally disrupts it. Tanner further buys into psychopomp role. The Mongols accept Tanner as a respectable adult. They arrive at a holy site, and Dzaya does another ritual and vanishes into the spirit world. The Chinese army appears, tanks and trucks, and runs them down for being on forbidden soil (a national park / sacred mountain). Tanner leads the Mongols further up the mountain. Gengis Khan and his Mongol Horde appear, and defeat the tanks and trucks. Apparently history is broken. Tanner joins the Khan’s entourage. The end.
“Antarctica Starts Here” by Paul McAuley. About 4000 words. First person, past. BACDEF structure. Krish, the narrator, is an Antarctic bush pilot, a profession made possible by global warming. Climate change has recognizably reconfigured the world in a depressingly plausible way; it’s around 2060 or so and telepresence tourism and gas and oil mining are the main Antarctic industries. Krish and Dan spot a suspicious camp out on a glacier. Krish reminisces about how he came to be a bush pilot working with Dan, and Dan’s opinions about telepresence tourists via an amusing anecdote. Timeline moves up, past the introductory scene, and to the next season before picking up with a scene: Dan contacts Krish, and tries to recruit him for ecoterrorism against the suspicious camp. Krish declines; he’s left tied up in Dan’s apartment and the police find and question him. Dan’s raid is already over; it went badly and Dan is missing. Later Krish reads about vandalism against telepresence drones, decides Dan is still alive. The end. Enjoyed this one; Krish tells an engaging story and Dan is believable. Also not long enough to wear out welcome. The world is painted in very quickly in about a paragraph, one page in: oil wars, retreating glaciers, familiar brand names like Hyundai, a family business in data-mining.
“Results Guaranteed” by Kit Reed. About 4000 words. First person, present. Poor little rich boy Billy Mangold is a fifth grader who doesn’t fit in among the vampires, werewolves, and zombies of Occam Middle School; his domineering father Dirk verbally abuses him and withholds affection, and his mother is absentee. The plot is very simple: Billy is struggling at school because he’s not abnormal, his father tires a variety of tutors to teach him to be abnormal (Billy somehow manages to avoid becoming a vampire or a werewolf, I dunno how exactly), Billy’s saved by a troll or Santa or someone, who eats his father or sends him to South America or something. The through-line isn’t compelling, but the narrative voice and imagery sell it, character names: Wulphy Seronica, Dirk Mangold, Lloyd Ansible, Senorita Rita Flora, Twyla Therimen. Descriptions of Ms. Wong, the Guidance Counselor, teaching Billy to hypnotize folks into thinking he was a shapeshifter. Perfunctory conclusion.
(More of this tomorrow.)