Another issue of Asimov’s! Join me, won’t we?
This issue starts off solidly, with “The Fountain,” by G. David Nordley (~16.5 pages, first person past tense). In a distant future with a plentitude of intelligent species but no FTL travel, an alien diplomat comes to Earth circa 3000 CE (give or take a couple of centuries, near as I can tell) to make formal contact with the Empress of all humanity. The POV hive-queen possesses a peculiar mix of experience not entirely satisfying: she brings up contract bridge, Glory Road, and a few idioms that seem out of place, coming from an inhuman intelligence visiting Earth for the first time. My disbelief suspenders were stretched, but not quite snapped; on her (very long) trip into the system she could have studied all those aspects of midcentury popular culture and many more besides. Earth’s political system, as presented, likewise creaked. It’s foolish to judge a story harshly for not being the story you would have rather read, but while the hive-queen ambassador’s interactions with the Empress and the crown princess intrigued, I found myself wishing for a broad focus. The diplomatic crisis nominally sparking the meeting is dealt with perfunctorily; the real meat is in the relationships among the Empress, her daughter, and various courtiers. Not a bad story by any means, but one that left me wishing for something a little different.
The blurb at the start of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Skylight” (~13.5 pages, third person limited present tense) includes the sentence ‘[a]n exciting new character must pick up the pieces of her life in the author’s latest story for Asimov’s.’ I mention this only because the sentence simultaneously reveals very little about the story, and describes it to a T. The character is exciting and her life is in pieces. I suppose it’s also legitimately the author’s latest story for Asimov’s, unless one of the authors listed later in the issue are Rusch writing under a pen name. In an extremely vague and wholly unimportant space-opera setting, the title character spends her formative years in a school of assassins; this goes great for her until she realizes what she’ll be expected to do after she graduates. On the one hand, Skye’s moral objections to assassination come from the daughter of space pirates (more or less) who has spent more than a decade in Assassin School, and I found myself wondering where her self-righteousness came from. On the other hand, I remembering being full of myself as a teenager. Skye’s situation is simple: she’s in deep for her education and she doesn’t want to work off the debt. Her method for dealing with the problem, and the ultimate solution, left me hoping for another story or six starring Skye as an iconic space-opera wisenheimer, which is about as strong an endorsement as I can give “Skylight.”
“Hypervigilant,” by Eric Del Carlo (~9 pages, first person past tense) describes a future wherein mass murders and shootings occur with frightening regularity. Empathic mutants work security, sensing would-be gunmen before they start firing, but no system is perfect. Bob, the POV empath, plays a peculiar game of cat-and-mouse with a woman who may or may not start shooting people at any moment. Like many Asimov’s shorts below a certain wordcount, “Hypervigilant” performs competently but not memorably; it lasts just long enough to present its thesis and take a bow.
Similarly, “A Love Song Concerning His Vineyard,” by Megan Arkenberg (~4.5 pages, first person past tense) lasts just barely long enough to sketch in its main themes (race, Martian colonization, wine snobs, and the bewilderment of love) before sticking the landing. Isaya reminisces about her white father’s disappointment with her black mother, recalls her mixed successes with his husband and their vineyard on Mars, and then the story ends. Despite its brevity, the story touches on many elements, all the while maintaining a pleasantly wistful tone. Long ago, when I was an Asimov’s-reading neophyte, I claimed that some short stories describe characters, some exist to explicate settings or events, and some serve as a vessel for a mood. I’m less confident in that sweeping declaration lo these months later, but “Skylight,” “Hypervigilant,” and “A Love Song Concerning His Vineyard” fall neatly one into each of those categories.
Finally “Precious Mental,” by Robert Reed (~44 pages, third person limited with multiple POVs, past tense) is a big monster of a novella, taking up almost half of the pages of fiction in this issue. This is the third story by Reed that I’ve read since I started these reviews, but while the other two (“the Pipes of Pan” in December 2012 and “the Golden Age of Story” in February 2013) were fairly short pieces concerned with relatively near-future Earth, “Precious Mental” takes place in a crowded space-opera universe, as part of (the blurb at the start of the story tells me) Reed’s ongoing “Great Ship” series.
It’s also complex enough I’m not entirely comfortable trying to sum it up in just one or two sentences. The “Great Ship” is apparently a massive planetoid full of caves and living spaces, long ago discovered and colonized by humanity as it hurtles through interstellar space. FTL travel doesn’t exist, but a kind of nanotechology halts aging and enables people to recover from grievious wounds up to and including liquefaction brought about by g-forces from acceleration. Humanity is far from alone, with several alien starfaring races mentioned and the implication of dozens or hundreds or thousands more out there.
This specific story, “Precious Mental,” concerns a former member of the Great Ship’s officer caste, now living quietly as a technician, and how he’s shanghaied for a salvage operation. The ancient derelict he’s obliged to recover appears worthless, his abductors are well-meaning children with under a thousand years of life experience each, and the operation’s mastermind is an alien with an age somewhere in the eight digits who may or may not be mad. There’s a lot to unpack. When I sat down to read it, I wasn’t planning on doing it all in one sitting, but things got away from me. The stories I think I’m going to find most compelling aren’t always the ones that drive me to visit their author’s web page to determine whether an ebook reprint of the “Great Ship” series of stories is available (not yet, apparently it’s forthcoming).
This issue presented a very strong batch of stories. Usually there’s at least one in the pack that I don’t enjoy (generally for entirely subjective reasons) but this month the spectrum runs from “enjoyed a great deal” to “enjoyed quite a bit.” I may come across as damning “the Fountain” and “Hypervigilant” with faint praise, but in fact they’re both very good stories. There have been past issues of Asimov’s in which any of these stories would have been my favorite of the issue, had they appeared there.