Has it been a year since I started doing this? Dang, man, time passes. I’d like to think I’m getting better at articulating why I like some stories better than others, but who knows? Also, I think I’ve finally gotten some kind of handle on wordcount and POV. A story of mine, “Nutshell” will appear in an upcoming episode of Escape Pod, on that note. I’m pretty sure my reading a year of Asimov’s and working to articulate what I liked and what I didn’t has had a major effect on my own writing.
Also, this Asimov’s review was delayed by ReaderCon 24, where I had the pleasure of meeting (among many others) Shelia Williams, that inspirer of astronauts.
There are no novellas in the September 2013 issue of Asimov’s, and a couple of the short stories are flash or almost flash, leading to a total of eight titles. Overall, they make up an especially strong issue.
First in the issue is “The Discovered Country” by Ian R. MacLeod. In a future defined by income inequality, Jon Northover explores a virtual world lavish even by the standards of heavenly afterlives. The story balances a sedate plot and unspooling of backstory with plenty of attention to the details of “Farside,” the virtual world that seems so much more comfortable that “Lifeside.” Though a novelette it felt like a short story, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
“What We Ourselves Are Not,” by Leah Cypress. Cultural heritage, responsibility, and in particular appropriation are all thoughtfully examined through the lens of one literalized-to-all-heck metaphor. The sheer audacity of the literalized metaphor amazes me; you can get in touch with your cultural heritage and really understand the Holocaust, say, through a cybernetic implant containing a curated reservoir of memories. The story looks at the issues it raises from at least four different angles, before resolving into a bipolar argument. Neither party in the final scene comes across as terribly wise, maybe because they’re both high school students, which I thought was a nice touch.
Another excellently-paced novelette comes next, “the Unparallel’d Death-Defying eats of Astoundio, Escape Artist Extraordinaire,” by Ian Creasey. Its onion structure mirrors Astoundio’s multi-layered tricks, as sequential reveals expose the nuts and bolts of Astoundio’s marriage alongside his escape. The ending was maybe five percent more pat than I’d have liked, but that’s more than outweighed by the clever imagery and the very likable first-person voice.
The flash piece “As Yet Untitled,” by James Sallis, had enough going on I wouldn’t have minded seeing it unpacked into an entire short story. It’s a look at the experiences of, apparently, a professional freelance fictional character, and in keeping with the conventions of flash fiction it sketches its cosmology too loosely for me to do more than blink and start to wonder, before it ends.
Short story “A Stranger From A Foreign Ship,” by Tom Purdom, likewise possesses a neat central conceit, as its protagonist puts his unusual superpower to various uses. I enjoyed its play with various hardboiled noir tropes, as well as the slow and careful unpacking of body-switching as a superpower. The pacing didn’t work as well for me as that of some of the other stories in this issue.
“That Universe We Both Dreamed Of,” by Jay O’Connell, initially put me in the mind of the recent story “Today’s Friend,” in the essential ineffability of the aliens. That may be an odd thing to say, given how generally effable the aliens seem by the end of the story. While at the outset we’re assured they can’t be effed even a little, likable narrator Joel pries secrets from likable ‘Zena’ (the least-alien alien I’ve read in while, which feels deliberate) with remarkable ease. Coupled with the assertion that thousands or millions of human/alien interviews have occurred by the story’s beginning, it strains at consistency. In retrospect I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised to learn the aliens were essentially human: time-travelers or dimension-hoppers or Atlanteans from the ocean floor. That said, once you accept the central conceit that the aliens are effable after all, the story hangs together perfectly well.
“What Changes You, What Takes You Away,” by Dominica Phetteplace, a piece of flash or near-flash, is one of those stories that confuses me enough I feel confident I fall outside its target audience. Every other issue or so, I read a story and just go “huh?” a la “the Black Feminist Guide’s to Science Fiction” and many others. This time it’s a mash-up of Flowers for Algernon with Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (both of which get a shout-out) as well as notes of James and the Giant Peach, Alice in Wonderland, and whatever the heck is up with Mr. Stranger and the albino cheetah who used to be Mozart… I might have gotten more out of the story if it were thirteen pages instead of three, but as is I just didn’t know what to make of it.
Finally the novelette “A Hole in the Ether,” by Benjamin Crowell, features the single most dystopian future I’ve ever read, in Asimov’s or elsewhere, to my memory, which is saying something. DRM beyond the dreams of avarice, surveillance court decisions the stuff of nightmares, and nerve stapling presented as the humane alternative to prison. “Hole in the Ether” is a little loose and it took a while for me to get a handle on what the story was about (there’s a timeskip, and before and after could be two different stories, except that the second assumes the events of the first. Plus the cast is larger than maybe strictly necessary, with multiple viewpoint characters, and I had to go back scouring through to get a handle on who Isaac was when he came in at the end… but frankly these are picking nits. The revelation of the final paragraph was extremely satisfying; I wouldn’t want it to end any other way.
All three novelettes are very strong; in particular “Discovered Country” and “Hole in the Ether,” which bookend the issue, inspire me to curse my inability to write anything half so good. The shorter flash pieces didn’t work for me so well, but that’s structural as much as anything and not a knock against the stories.