I debated ceasing these Asimov’s reviews, now that I’ve had a story appear in Escape Pod. Every issue there’s a story, or two, that doesn’t work for me, and I have zero interest in dickishly bad-mouthing the work of others. The only story I’ve flat-out disliked, Jay Lake’s “the Stars Do Not Lie,” was later Hugo-nominated; I’m hardly a tastemaker.
But I don’t do this, particularly, as a service to others. My goal is to improve at writing short stories of the kind that appear in Asimov’s, and I think these reviews have been tremendously helpful towards that end. When I started, over a year ago, I had only a vague idea of what a good SF story looked like; now I’ve considered dozens of examples. So for another issue, at least, here’s what I thought.
The issue starts off strong with “the Time Travel Club,” by Charlie Jane Anders, in which a sort of role-playing club faces up to the full realities, maybe, of time travel. The narrator’s tone and characterization of her friends and peers in the club was very satisfying, in particular the enigmatic Jeroba. At times the pacing threw me off, when I wasn’t sure whether we had reached the story’s ultimate conflict, but the resolution satisfied. It’s the sort of story I wish I’d written.
“Memories of Earth,” by Neal Asher, had that same kind of feel to it. I wasn’t sure what the story was about, and whether what I was reading was build-up to the central external conflict, when really (like “Time Travel Club” before it) “Memories of Earth” concerns itself with the narrator’s internal conflicts. In a future long past caring (and in a timeline with some of Asher’s other fiction, though further along) a decrepit cyborg oversees long-term terraforming and dreams of his lost past. I admit I had to read the last scene twice to get it, though once I did I felt a little foolish for not grasping it sooner.
The short “When the Rain Comin,” by Ian McHugh, is a mood piece: in the far, far future the engineered successors of baseline humanity, adapted to their ravaged ecosystem, live and get by and sing songs. The characters speak a pidgin that reminded me of nothing so much as the Jamaican accents in the Grand Theft Auto series of video games, which I don’t mean in a bad way. As is typical of the shorter stories in Asimov’s, “When the Rain Comin” lasts just long enough to disburse its lyric melancholy tone, then ends.
Conversely, the issue’s cover story “Grounded,” by Meg Pontecorvo, reads to me like a good novelette that could have been a great short story. In the midst of a slow-motion ecological apocalypse, the teenage daughter of divorced parents rebels against her mother: no, I won’t wear a respirator; yes, I will roll around in the mysterious toxic slime! Her self-destructive behaviors would be hilarious if they weren’t so tragic; I especially admire her ingenuity in escaping her mother’s painstakingly sterilized and well-prepared house. I liked the ending, but felt the story took a little too long in getting there.
Reading “Adventures in Cognitive Homogamy: a Love Story,” by Paul Di Filippo, means first getting used to the authorial voice’s off-kilter cadence and word choice. I haven’t seen the word postprandial used (to pick an example) since the last time I read a Di Filippo story. The novelette is ultimately more straightforward than the style suggests at first. Once it settles down, it’s merely the tale of a busy and wealthy professional consultant who visits Columbia on behalf of his McKinsey-esque firm; worries about possible estrangement from his equally busy fiancé, another consultant; and drenches himself in the local nightlife. Hilarity ensues; the joy here comes from the language, which doesn’t get in the way of communicating the plot and character and whether a meritocracy wherein only the rich can afford good education is really a meritocracy. In the hands of a lesser writer than Di Filippo, the story would end up too cute, but he’s masterful enough to skirt the line between entertaining and annoying.