The March 2013 issue of Asimov’s arrived in my mailbox last week. My biggest complaint about it is its review of Year Zero, the recent novel by Rob Reid, which Peter Heck enjoyed and which I, to put it mildly, didn’t. I’m smack dab in the middle of its target audience, given my cultural and political leanings, but I prefer my humor to be funny rather than painfully unfunny, repetitive, and smug. But I digress.
“Uncertainty” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Novelette, ~24.5 pages. Third person limited (two POV characters), past tense. In and around Europe in World War II, a time traveler tries to restore the timeline from damage inflicted, probably by time travel, maybe by her own time travel. She’s got an organization helping her, some academic think tank turned “Home Base,” and everyone’s general inability to foresee or comprehend temporal paradoxes, timeline shifts, the observer effect, the butterfly effect, has her turned every way. The question of when and how the first atomic bomb is used — Hiroshima? Moscow? London? — is backdrop for smoke and mirrors and espionage, and other agents whose origin, much less agenda, is unclear. Usually time-travel stories make a point of clarifying the author’s chosen rules of time travel immediately; here that lack is the central thrust of the narrative. That sounds like a thin frame for a novelette, but I didn’t realize until I went back to count the pages just now that it wasn’t a short story; it reads and flows very well, without getting bogged down the way I’ve found some novelettes to do in the past. Maybe it’s just because I’m a sucker for time-travel stories.
Conversely, “Brother Swine” by Garrett Ashley (~11.5 pages, third person limited, past tense) didn’t do it for me at all. After an unspecified disaster (climate change?) there’s famine in (probably) the southeastern US, and also the karmic cycle of rebirth is much more explicit. Plenty of memories of past lives, to the point that if your brother dies in war and gets reincarnated as a pig, that pig will travel cross-country to your family home as fast as its little pig legs will carry it. So on the one hand you’ve got the famine, and on the other hand you have former family members now present as livestock, and you can see where this is going. I found the main character and his family singularly uninteresting, for no reason I can put my finger on. Perhaps the story’s lack of context, or perhaps the limited description of just what they spent their time doing, or maybe I just had a headache. Generally I don’t object to stories that leave you wondering about the mechanics of their various fantastic conceits, but in this case I was frustrated by the many ambiguities. Was it a future, or an alternate present? Had the nature of reincarnation changed and become more explicit recently, or a generation ago, or had the “Returned” always been among folks? Were the Returned born to parents, or did they pop into existence, animal bodies spontaneously generated around loose souls? One or two ambiguities too many; I think if I’d been a little more clear on the why of it, the family’s tensions and problems wouldn’t have failed to rouse a response.
“Needlework,” by Lavie Tidhar (~5 pages, third person limited with two POV characters, past tense) worked somewhat better for me. It’s the glorious transhuman space-travel Fifth Wave future, as seen by two members of the working class. The story’s short, but in the handful of scenes presented, we get a good sense both of this setting’s riches and of our protagonists’ very limited access to those riches. Short and sweet: it tries for a thing, achieves that thing, then ends before wearing out.