Today I finish up my survey of the issue, and make note on some trends. Warnings from Monday and yesterday still apply: they can be summed up as I’m terrible at this.
“Chromatophores” by John Alfred Taylor. About 4000 words. First person, past. Janice is a teenage Popular Girl in future with phone-tattoos and deadly UV-tainted sunlight. There’s a sprinkling of slang — “sofun,” “sumfun.” The blurb at the start indicated that the author is a professor Emeritus, which means, old, which means, a long way from a teenage Heather. There are some odd inconstistences, unexpected bits — like, the girls communicate with subvocal phones, but only when they’re in the same room apparently; they never communicate by text messages or emails or actual normal phone calls either. The schtick for the future is that nanotechnology permits cosmetic coloration of the skin, an implanted chameleonic system. This hi-tek wonder does no good when one of Janice’s friends gets skin cancer, though; she dies slowly after a lingering hospitalization. Janice feels guilt, as she didn’t know that the chromatophores don’t protect against UV, and went out with Anne once without other protection; she doesn’t have cancer, but vows to become an oncologist instead. Okay, so, this one felt very by-the-numbers and the Heathers felt more like an old man’s idea of Heathers based on pop culture from a decade back than actual people. Janice wonders how the school computer can recognize her when she comes in, even through chromatophres that ought to foil facial-recognition; it’s as though RFID doesn’t exist in the future (along with all the other ways that could work with today’s tech). Really, it feels Jetsonsy-retro, a old era’s vision of a future without cellphones or internet. Even the UV solar thing feels archaic; the ozone layer hasn’t been talked about in decade or two.
“The Ghost Factory” by Will Ludwigstein. About 6500 words. First person, past, with a fillip of second-person at the end. A nameless psychiatrist living in the ruins of an abandoned Florida state mental institution recounts his experiences with his last patient there, a troubled woman about twenty years younger, with whom he’d had an affair. When the state closed the institution, she and its remaining inmates vanished into some spirit world; the psychiatrist haunts the ruins and waits to one day join them. Story is framed as a written message he writes after the hospital closes. “You know Valerie and I slept together, right?” Story structure reminiscent of a television show with a framing device between commercial breaks: ruins, flashback, ruins, break; ruins, flashback, ruins, break. Flashbacks in chronological order. Valerie described in expositon first, then in scenes with the psychiatrist. In the scenes she recounts her past, nested flashbacks. Very little supernatural element; at the end the inmates vanish and the psychiatrist thinks that Valerie led them into some version of Yetzirah. Mostly about the mood.
“The Shattering” by Steven Utley. About 3000 words. First person, past, except for a dash of third-person at the end. An astronaut on a ship with an experimental FTL drive dreams nightmares as the ship speeds through hyperspace. In the character/situation/change rubric, seems to lack change: the astronaut is a pro-space-exploration zealot, as you’d expect from someone who’d actually want to be an astronaut, but other than that we don’t learn much about him and less about his three fellow-astronauts or his absent wife back on Earth. The astronaut dreams nihilistic dreams of an endless hostile void, he’s unhappy, the end. Nearly total lack of plot; it’s just a description of a situation, really. That said, it’s certainly a good read.
“The Stars Do Not Lie” by Jay Lake. About 18 000 words. Third person, past, limited, with two POV characters who aren’t in the same scenes until the climax, which scenes are wholly from the perspective of Morgan, not Quinx. It’s an annoying story; it has something that I’d forgotten I disliked, which is an (apparent) secondary-world story featuring language specific to Earth idiom, foods and drinks that are distinctly Terran, et cetera: gin and coffee and Iberian looks. I’m okay with coffee in a secondary world, and gin is a stretch (since it’s juniper-flavored liquor) but “Iberian” is right out. I feel the same way about the Five Maidens in Exalted having Roman names, though I’m okay with Luna and Gaia. Anyway. There’s also a racial element that gets touched on four or five times, about how the white northern people are the foolish/oppressed underclass, and the dark-skinned people are the desirable/upperclass/educated ones. When I first came across it, I stopped my reading and went immediately to the author’s Wikipedia page, because I’d decided he must have been born before 1970 if that element seemed transgressive and intriguing enough to be worth hitting so hard; Jay Lake was born in 1964. The story is also kind of preachy: it’s Galileo recast in steampunk, and I don’t think you can tell the Galileo story without it coming across as preachy. It’s also not really secondary world, though it makes an effort to pretend; presumably the “Earth” where the story takes place (which has a big tidal moon) was visited by colonists six thousand years ago, and along with dropping off humans, they left juniper bushes and coffee plants. The young colony collapsed and rebuilt with a religion that presumed they were natives of their planet, and six thousand years later their technology has reached steampunk, precipitating an incipient Nightfall-style crisis. The language frustratingly mixes invented proper nouns with familiar phonemes and idiomatic allusions. I freely admit this is a matter of personal taste.
So, having examined the contents of the magazine: two stories in the 15 000 to 20 000 word range, one about 10 000 words, one at about 6 500 words, and a whopping seven in the 3 000 to 4 500 range. Four stories with supernatural/fantastic elements, six with overt sci-fi elements, and one without any overt SFF. The editorial at the start of the issue identifies it as the annual “slightly spooky” issue, which suggests that the 4:6 ratio is unusually high for Asimov’s. Every story is first person or third person, though a couple flirt with other forms: “A Handsome Fellow” shifts between first and third, and “Ghost Factory” starts to drift into a sort-of second towards the end. Almost entirely past tense. (Did I tell you I’ve written a novel that’s second-person present tense? I should probably just burn it.)
Four stories set in a future I won’t live to see (one of which initially presents as secondary-world), two set in a future I might live to see, three set in various parts of the 20th century, one set in the present, and one set who-knows-where, with vampires and werewolves going to middle school. Zero actual full-on secondary-world stories. The two longest stories rubbed me the wrong way, one for subjective word-choice reasons and the other because not enough happens in it. Not much happens in several stories: “Shattering” and “This Hologram World” eschew plot entirely. Stakes are higher in the other tales, but “Ghost Factory” and “Handsome Fellow” are mainly mood pieces, and “Lion Dance,” “Second Engineer,” and “Antarctica Starts Here” seem first and foremost to be character pieces. Formal plot structure dominates “Mongolian Book of the Dead,” “Chromatophores,” and “the Stars Do Not Lie,” comparatively speaking anyway. I don’t know where to place “Results Guaranteed.”
I thought I’d be comfortable putting stars or thumbs up or down on the stories, but not so much; I’m well aware of how subjective is my dislike of “the Stars Do Not Lie” and “Chromatophores.” I think “the Mongolian Book of the Dead” really could have been substantially shorter, but it suffered for being the first one I read. Favorites were “Antarctica Starts Here” and “Lion Dance,” both of which present halfway-plausible views of futures no more than a generation or two off; am I just prejudiced in favor of near-future SF? Probably.
Future issues of Asimov’s will mostly be shorter; this was their biannual double-length issue.