Shelia Finch’s “A Very Small Dispensation” threw me dramatically back from the distant futures of “Memories of Earth” and “When the Rain Comin,” and the nearer futures of “Grounded” and “Adventures in Cognitive Homogamy” to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An old woman reminisces about her childhood, passing westward in a covered wagon across the Great Plains and the Rockies, and how bad that trip got when they wintered high up in a mountian pass. This story is the one this issue, and it seems like there’s always one, that didn’t work for me. I couldn’t get my head around the motivations or significance of the stranger who traveled with them; though the story didn’t keep his identity a secret, I was left at the end asking what was the point of his presence. Death will come, always out of season, after all.
Actually, no, “Waiting for Medusa,” by Jack Dann, was the story that really didn’t work for me this issue. A genetically engineered superdog wanders post-apocalyptic Australia in the far future, encountering mutants and gonzo madness and providing first-person narration that I just found too unpleasant to enjoy. As with a number of stories I’ve read in Asimov’s over the last year, I’m pretty sure this speaks more to a type mismatch between me and the story than to anything about the quality of the story itself.
“Quantum Orpheus, at the Light Cone’s Apex,” by Igor Teper, moves things back into territory I find more comfortable. In the near future, a widower working with a quantum computer makes a life-changing discovery in AI and struggles to repair his relationship with his estranged daughter. Good pacing, good characterization; the kind of story I expect to see published in a pro magazine.
Gregory Frost’s “No Others are Genuine” literalizes the old Edison gramaphone advertising about preserving the voices of the dead. In a turn-of-the-century Chicago boarding house, a little boy investigates the sinister gramaphone-owning man who lives across the hall and who may or may not be sucking out women’s souls and consuming them. That description is a little facile; the story starts off as a boy’s-own-adventure sort of mystery, and ends up in an unexpectedly dark place.
Reading “The Wildfires of Antarctica,” by Alan DeNiro, I struggled. Not with the story directly, which I enjoyed, but with whether it was going to make any sense by the end, and whether I would mind if it didn’t. Ultimately I landed on the sides of no, I wouldn’t mind, and yes, it did make some kind of sense. Far enough in the future that Antarctica is well-populated and the oceans are swollen, but not so far in the future that no one’s heard of Jackson Pollock, a rich man donates his favorite artwork to a museum and keeps tabs on it; this process is complicated by the artwork’s being a unique genetic chimera (like all avant-garde art in this future; art museums are necessarily also zoos) and its having some severe behavorial problems. The meat of the story is the gradual reveal of how the narrator feels about his art, and why. I liked it.
“Deep Diving,” by Joel Richards, presents a locked-room mystery aboard an interstellar passenger liner, complicated by politics and two different novel technological conceits. Conceit one is the titular diving, a sort of deep-probe telepathy practiced by a mystic order of cyborgs, which order includes in the first-person narrator detective. Conceit two is the Fury, an implacable robot vigilante used to maintain order in frontier worlds lacking human law enforcement. Two conceits (plus the usual AI, FTL travel, interplanetary war, etc) is generally one too many, but they work fine here, in part because solving the mystery ultimately takes a back seat to resolving the political crisis.
The short “Within these Well-Scrubbed Walls,” by Ian Creasey, tells the story of a man cleaning out his late mother’s home. As per usual for a short, it only lasts long enough to deliver its emotional payload (spoiler: the son’s relationship with his mother was conflicted). I’d call the story slight, but that seems unfair; it does what it sets out to do, and what it sets out to do is a pretty simple exploration of grief.
Finally “Encounter on Starbase Kappa,” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, may be meant as a companion piece to “the Application of Hope,” which I enjoyed back in early June and Asimov’s August issue. It’s set not only in the same universe, but sort-of contemporaneous with that story. “Application of Hope” concerned a woman struggling to solve the problem of a missing starship; “Encounter on Starbase Kappa” concerns that woman’s lover, the captain of the missing starship, and what happened to them. Without giving it away, Rusch plays with time travel in a way that reminds me (pleasantly) of Star Trek; I almost wonder whether her Diving Universe stories are meant as Trek pastiche or homage, or if I’m reading the connections in. “Encounter on Starbase Kappa” tells the story of some not-Starfleet officers a very long way from the not-Federation, struggling to apply or abandon not-Starfleet principles. I’m only being vague because I enjoyed the story so much.
In fact I might call it my favorite of the issue, though it would have to contend with “the Time Travel Club” and “the Wildfires of Antarctica.” This was a typically strong issue of Asimov’s; those stories that didn’t work for me (“Waiting for Medusa” in particular) failed only inasmuch as I wasn’t interested in picking up what they were laying down.