I continue my story-by-story look at the most recent issue of Asimov’s! Warnings from yesterday still apply: I spoil and I’m extremely subjective in what I like or dislike. I’m sure Alan Smale can write circles around me, even if I didn’t care for the pacing of “the Mongolian Book of the Dead.”
“The Second Engineer” by Gray Rinehart. About 10 000 words. Third person, past, limited. Annalise is a mid-ranked military officer on a spaceship in a universe with hyperspace travel and very nebulously defined telepathy. She experiences the ship’s AI communicating telepathically with her, which impairs her ability to do her job and her judgement; she gets assaulted by another crewman who’s also working under the stress of being in telepathic contact with the ship’s AI. The AI has somehow foreseen an attack by a mysterious other ship — explicitly not the human pirates who are the only force Annalise thinks might attack — and by acting on the AI’s fear, Annalise prevents the ship from being entirely destroyed. Lots of questions are raised over the course of the story, without explanations. Annalise’s husband is mentioned early on, but only at the end of the story is it revealed she also has a daughter (neither of whom are aboard the ship). Descriptions of Annalise’s disruptive contact with the ship’s AI, a mystery eventually addressed and solved, are good. The sequence where Annalise positions herself to deal with the damage the ship sustains, and deals with the damage, is a good bit, too. It’s refreshing to see a story in the tradition of unexplained psychic powers, FTL travel, military ships out in space, that kind of thing; if I didn’t like Star Trek: the Next Generation I wouldn’t be reading SF at all, much less Asimov’s. But it’s annoying that not all mysteries are solved, or even addressed again, by the story’s close: who moved materials during Annalise’s shift, and why? My suspicion is that this is the first chapter of a novel that’s been reworked, but I’m not at all confident in my ability to recognize that sort of thing.
“Lion Dance” by Vylar Kaftan About 4500 words. First person, past. Bo is a 23-year-old San Franciscan and ethnic Chinese, who gets drunk on Halloween night with his friends; they put on Chinese New Year lion costumes and parade through the city. Trouble is, the world is in month eight or so of a global flu pandemic; it’s not totally clear that civilization will survive, though the odds seem good. The whole lion dance is a pretext for Bo’s brother to get to a nearby hospital and tell a dying friend (Gary) that his late husband (Gary’s husband Steve, who’s already dead of the flu) didn’t blame Gary for Gary’s infecting Steve with the flu. At the end of it, Bo decides he’s been cowardly, staying in his apartment, and plans to volunteer at the hospital. The descriptions are vivid and engaging; I was actually smiling, reading about the initial stages of the lion parade (until it goes south against a zombie flashmob, the very existence of which paints civilization’s future as brighter than global extinction at least). Bo’s change of heart felt pretty tacked-on, as though the author had finished his story with Jian delivering his message, and then realized he needed a good concluding note (guessing what the author was thinking is a terrible habit, of course).
“This Hologram World” by Eugene Mirabelli. About 4000 words. Third person, past, omniscient (!). Henri is a widower who mourns his wife; his gradual re-entry into the world is punctuated by some factoids and trivia about black holes, superstring theory, and Feynman’s biography. I don’t have a lot to say about this one. I noticed at one point Henri is giving lectures to “post-doctoral students,” which is wrong in a weird way. The timeline is also a little confusing; at the end it says his mourning process took no more than two years, which is about half what I’d have guessed from the text. It’s basically just a character sketch about a widower, though. The central image — the world feels flat and unreal and fake to a widower, and he tries to use theoretical physics to prove that it’s so — is more pleasant than it sounds; Henri is reassuringly human in his interactions with others.
“A Handsome Fellow” by Ekaterina Sedia. About 4500 words. Third person — but really first person! Past — but really present! Limited — but really omniscient! Svetlana is a young woman, a factory worker, in Leningrad sometime in World War II. The city is being firebombed, many are starving, but children are being evacuated and it’s fashionable among the children to say that their father died fighting in Germany. So, not clear on the timeline there. The Siege of Leningrad from ’41 to ’44, so presumably it’s late in the siege, after a land corridor was opened in 1943. Anyway. Svetlana is going about her life in wartime, and she’s accompanied sometimes by mysterious man named Illya, who is actually a cannibal-ghoul. The ghoul kills her neighbor and her mother and she drives it off by calling it a ghoul (this is a Russian folklore thing apparently). But the POV is actually one of Svetlana’s younger brothers, who was nearly killed by the ghoul, Svetlana believes he was killed, but in fact he was transformed into a ghoul himself and now he longs for death. It’s not bad, even if it is built around the twist at the end that doesn’t really make much difference. Illya’s ghoulishness is well-telegraphed, as is Svetlana’s obdurate refusal to see it. The setting is one of the bleakest I’ve read in recent memory — it seems unlikely that anyone will survive the siege, and Svetlana is left alone in the darkness, crying for her brother. The other brother maybe gets away, maybe doesn’t — the ghoul-brother doesn’t know if he survives the trip out through the land-corridor. Svetlana: more compelling a character than Tanner.