Asimov's, January/February 2017
"Crimson Birds of Small Miracles" by Sean Monaghan
Reviewed by Jason McGregor
This is the first of the new 208 page bi-monthly issues and an exceedingly frustrating issue it is. There's little bad or lacking in interest here and several stories that have aspects of excellence but there's also no story that is thoroughly excellent and completely works for me. I don't feel there's a theme (nor should there be in magazines, to my way of thinking) but the issue is rife with stories of irony and two things being sides of the same coin and the former, at least, fits the issue as a whole. Specifically, though, the Chase is relatively modest but quite good, and the Purdom, Goldstein, and Reed have the most aspects of the greatest excellence (along with major drawbacks).
"Crimson Birds of Small Miracles" by Sean Monaghan
Penn has taken his daughters, Matilda and Jessie, to Ariosto, which is a world on which an artist has designed an attraction of robot birds who randomly flock across an artificial lake. Jessie has a degenerative condition ("Babbington's" chorea) and these trips, though expensive, seem to help her. Most readers of fiction will know there are basically two available "miracles" and the question is simply which will occur.
This tale is basically done well and seems emotionally authentic but there's no reason for it to be science fiction. If the girl had some other chorea, was touring various countries of Earth, and saw a great work of nature and/or art, it would take very little twiddling to produce the same basic story and it wouldn't suffer from an uneasy mixture of 19th century and futuristic elements.
"Tagging Bruno" by Allen M. Steele
In another of the many stories in Steele's Coyote universe, former general Sawyer Lee has been talked into being a guide for a drunken jerk of a professor and his two assistants as the quartet heads into the wilds to tag some Boids, the large aggressive avian predators native to the moon. This is ostensibly in the name of science, enabling them to track the increasingly endangered creatures but can also be used to make the flocks easier to hunt to extinction. However, when they run into Bruno, the leader of a large flock, the hunters become the hunted.
Oddly, this is the second story in a row to feature birdlike critters (albeit vastly different ones) and to suffer from not needing to be science fiction (Hemingway—and Twain—in space) and from being pretty predictable (albeit in a poetically just way). Still, this was competently and elaborately conceived, as is natural in a setting as lived in as Coyote, resulting in an exciting, if minor, safari adventure tale.
"Still Life with Abyss" by Jim Grimsley
An apparently unnamed pilot and "Dr. Melinda" are the main viewers of this still life, which involves living outside the universe while studying a multitude of timelines, somewhat in the fashion of Fritz Leiber's The Big Time, only with spiritual science instead of the girls and the R&R. The specific object of Melinda's study and devotion is Austin Gregory Bottoms, a solitary J. Alfred Prufrock-like person who is the only example they can find of a person who never creates a universe by ever varying a decision. This remains true even when the researchers come upon a riot of forking universes brought about by the detonation of a nuclear bomb in North Carolina (inspired by a real event), where Bottoms lives. Bottoms, as an inexplicable invariant, stresses some people's devotion to facts in a couple of different ways. When Melinda's bias regarding Bottoms is noticed by the higher-ups and they try to replace her, matters come to a head.
The difficulty of concisely summarizing this story is ironic given that it has the least action. Bottoms is an interesting concept, there is some evocative description and existential angst, and this may well suit some folks but it seemed insufficient to me. It's a technically "correct" story, given its philosophical underpinnings and the fact that this is its basic focus, but that prevents it from being especially dynamic.
"Fatherbond" by Tom Purdom
According to the story of a "custodian," a race had settled the galaxy over a million years ago before regretting its colonialism. Through the custodian (presumably one of many) it now exercises a paradoxical anti-colonial rule over practically everything. As such, the custodian allowed one group of passive, collectivist human settlers only a small region of the custodian's world on which to settle. When the second group, containing our primary protagonists Yang and Rostoff Nabalto, arrives, they are granted a small plot as well. Rostoff, who has been engineered to be very aggressive, does not accept the limitations of the custodian, leading to somewhat muted conflict, not only between Rostoff and the custodian, but between the two groups of humans and even within the second group of humans. When Rostoff's wife, Capri, discovers something about the nature of the world and the custodian targets her directly, the conflict becomes more pointed.
I have a couple of significant problems with this story. First, it isn't clear to me why the custodian seems to be able to see and hear almost anything but not the key parts of the protagonist's planning and why the custodian is able to target Capri but doesn't target Rostoff directly. Second, this novelette has such a slow-paced and sedate narrative that it made it hard for me to engage with. Many readers may also have a problem with the tale's type of ending, though it didn't especially bother me in this case. On the other hand, there are several virtues. This deals with virtually immortal and engineered humans so could be seen as an almost "posthuman" tale but avoids the worst cliches and disconnections such stories sometimes contain. It features "contract marriages" but this isn't just a term thrown out to make it seem "futuristic"—it conveys a complex extended family in some plausible detail and shows how, despite some extreme differences, some key elements remain essentially the same. It also includes nice touches regarding interstellar finance in an almost Strossian way. One of the core conflicts regarding extended lives and conservatism vs. rebellious and expansive youth isn't exactly original, but is nicely handled. And, as mentioned, the main issue of the "fatherbond" is even less original, but the eternal verities can be seen in a new light when set against this backdrop and take on a larger scope.
"Winter Timeshare" by Ray Nayler
This is a love story about Regina and Ilkay in which the gimmick is a high caste of which they are a low part being able to put their minds into other people's bodies to go for a ride, such as in winter (cheaper rates) in Istanbul. It deploys the gimmick and the milieu to address love, fanaticism; good, bad. That sort of thing.
This story is part of a micro-genre of "techno-possession" stories—I read at least four of them a couple of years ago. This one isn't the most striking of them. It is even more slowly and sedately narrated than the previous tale, only perking up momentarily for a splash-punch-stab fight "scene" and, of course, a brief climactic line prior to an extended denouement. It's not otherwise especially flawed, though, and will likely have its fans.
"The Catastrophe of Cities" by Lisa Goldstein
When Beth and Lila were kids, they stumbled into a network of odd houses (sort of like multiplied combos of van Vogt's The House That Stood Still and Heinlein's “—And He Built a Crooked House—”) but Beth and Lila grew apart and away from weird-house exploring and eventually Lila (the outgoing wild one) disappeared. Now middle-aged, Beth has decided to find out what happened.
Much like the Purdom, this has glaring issues and excellences. I'm not normally into cutesy narrative gimmicks and this is a present-tense story and, while first-person, is addressed to "you" (which, is to say, Beth speaking like she's speaking to Lila). This almost works in the sense of a friend wanting to make her lost friend more immediate but leads to a lot of "As you know, Lila" and to frequent dissonances such as the description of a wild sequence of events, including Beth getting stuck in a magic door, being captivating through paragraphs of straight first-person, until it's ruined with "Finally you pushed me through and I fell to the other side." Further, the story starts with Beth wondering things she shouldn't be wondering given what she finds out by the end of the story. More importantly than any of this, the nature of the "city" in question will probably immediately occur to most readers but didn't occur to me until the description of a chess set, for some reason, and I immediately groaned and thought to myself, "She doesn't mean the city is actually [Spoiler], does she?" But it seems she is indeed going for the Great Cliche. That said, it was a fun, exhilarating novelette that had an energy the previous stories of this issue have been noticeably lacking and is in Goldstein's usually strong wheelhouse of contemporary urban semi-fantasy/semi-SF.
"Pieces of Ourselves" by Robert R. Chase
During a terrorist attack, Joan Carter of Moon gets some guidance from a security officer which not only saves her life but changes it in surprising ways.
The only significant problem I have with this short story is that, while the foreground action and the core idea (a variation of the "meme" concept) work perfectly well together, they aren't fused—it's too clear that the plot is just there for illustration of the idea. Still, it's a nifty idea and an excellent plot, so I enjoyed it.
"Destination" by Jack Skillingstead
Brad Ott is a game designer working on "Ratattack" in his rich person's enclave when an order comes down from TTP (Training Temperament Priorities) via his supervisor which forces him to play "Destination." This involves surrendering all ID, money, etc., and getting into a self-driven car, being taken somewhere, and only being able to return after having secured some artifact proving he's been somewhere. That somewhere turns out to be outside the enclave, where the poor folks live, where he learns a little more about his world.
This feels like a lot of stuff in a mostly good way. Primarily, it's 50s Galaxy-type social commentary but it also specifically draws out the Ratattack element until you can't help but think of stainless steel rats (or cyberpunk silicon rats, at least) and, in a disappointing way, also brings to mind things like Ben Bova's City of Darkness. The disappointing part is that I was expecting this to be darker and scarier (partly due to the excellent ominous closing line of the opening section) and more pointedly and complexly sociological than it was. It ultimately felt like a Town of Dusk or something, though it did have some clever comments about social media and pointed up the income inequality gulf. A good enough read but not as special as it might have been.
"The Meiosis of Cells and Exile" by Octavia Cade
In this short historical novelette set in the 1950s Soviet Union, a Jewish anti-fascist scientist is exiled to Siberia after her companions are shot. She imagines splitting into facets of herself and part of her has three conversations with her other selves about science, freedom, survival, etc., before the story ends.
While much use is made of meiosis on a symbolic level and a couple of trivial reactions from other people are thrown in to show that she's "really" splitting, this is fundamentally just psychological metaphorical historical fiction and essentially non-speculative. It is overwritten and repetitive (we go through the admittedly traumatic "gunshots" six times in seventeen pages and repeat a few other motifs to excess) and was hard to finish (and only was so due to the ethical obligations of reviewing) despite its seemingly inherently dramatic and moving source material.
"Starphone" by Stephen Baxter
In 2120, Keeley Casella (the Casellas being a branch of the Pooles) is given the gift of a holographic "robot" AI by a sort of black sheep aunt which she uses to help her explore the mystery of the so-called "Fermi Paradox." She does this while held with many other former residents of the former Miami under a dome which partially obstructs contact with the outside world. She then visits with the aunt, learns about a possible alien artifact on the edge of the system, and concocts a scheme to try to contact it. Amid these goings on, we get a love letter to an earlier era of science fiction and its impact on our reality along with a hope that such happy days may be here again.
The synopsis doesn't seem to quite hang together because, as near as I can figure, the story doesn't quite, either. Except for two things, it all makes sense, but seems rather arbitrary. The first of the two things is that I find it impossible to believe that, "since the emergence of human-level machine sentience in the 2040s, [Keeley's asking where the aliens were] was the first instance in which that particular question, known to the philosophers as the Fermi Paradox, had been directly posed to an AI." The second is that, despite Keeley asking the AI directly and repeatedly in one scene, it ducks the question and never explains why Keeley and the rest are trapped in a semi-permeable dome and I was unable to figure it out. Perhaps this is explained in another Xeelee story I haven't read or have forgotten. Those things and the arbitrariness aside, this was okay but not up to Xeelee par.
"Blow, Winds, and Crack Your Cheeks" by John Alfred Taylor
A married couple heads out to their vacation home for perhaps the last time and rides out the edge of a storm in a climate-ravaged future.
Another present tense story. Another cli-fi tale. Readable and actually pretty effective in describing the storm when the protagonist is out declaiming the title but not a whole heck of a lot going on and adds nothing to the million other cli-fi tales of late.
"The Speed of Belief" by Robert Reed
In this Great Ship story, we follow the mortal putative "sacrifice" Amund, the posthuman exobiologist Mere, and the posthuman diplomat Rococo, as they try to make their way over a blasted landscape to their exit ship in what was supposed to be a physical contact and negotiation with a species of giant protoplasms called "rivers," but which actually live (partly) in them. The plan was to trade a few of the worlds in the rivers' system for the human, which the rivers want for a sort of ceremony, but with the idea that the deal could be renegotiated to save the human. What seems to have gone wrong is a failure of nerve on the part of some or all of the rivers which resulted in a war and in an attack on the Shippers' entry ship and an antagonism toward the Shipfolk from the survivors. The primary focus is on philosophical thoughts and character interrelations as they make their difficult, scary, and near-hopeless journey. And there are further twists in store before the end.
Perhaps there is a way in which the ending legbone is connected to the hipbone in this story that I missed but which will delight many readers because, certainly, the bulk of this novella is superb. The slicing and reordering of the timeframes is very well done; the characters are well-drawn and the thoughts and psychosexual dynamics are strong; all this is done in a time-constrained survival story which (bar a slight drag in the eighth of twelve sections for some reason) always keeps moving and keeps the parts well blended. Most importantly, this is a story jam-packed with ideas in which the fate of entire species like the bal'tins is handled in a phrase. Like the best of the Great Ship stories, this paints on a canvas of huge time and space in which even gods take many years to travel from Ship to planet and make colonial plans on scales of centuries in an infinite journey of 300,000 year "years." I was thinking this was one of the very best tales I'd read recently, with my only complaints being Reed's sometimes unnecessarily gory moments (but there turned out to be only one) and his scatological bathos exemplified in:
She was a grim, all-knowing god, talking to tiny entities who couldn't appreciate the shitty choices that she had to walk through.
I was even impressed at one point that, while I thought I'd guessed the essence of the ending, I was distracted from that for a time, before it wrapped around to it again. But it's specifically in the manner of wrapping back around that the story fell apart for me. I thought the river creatures were fascinating and wasn't pleased with one of the twists but came to accept it as fascinating in its own way, but the story's final twist just seemed to invalidate, rather than confirm, most of the preceding story. I'm still recommending this because the bulk of it is a hell of an experience but it comes with the massive caveat that the story doesn't even ultimately work for me in the end. As I say, perhaps it's just me and others will love it through and through.
More of Jason McGregor's reviews can be found on his Featured Futures blog.