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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Asimov's -- December 2016

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Asimov's, December 2016

"They Have All One Breath" by Karl Bunker

"Empty Shoes by the Lake" by Gay Partington Terry
"HigherWorks" by Gregory Norman Bossert
"How the Damned Live On" by James Sallis
"The Cold Side of the Island" by Kali Wallace
"Where There Is Nothing, There Is God" by David Erik Nelson

Reviewed by Jason McGregor

Historical note: this is the last "monthly" issue (counting the eight issues plus two "double" issues as monthly) for both Analog and Asimov's, as they go bi-monthly in 2017.

The December issue of Asimov's seems to focus almost entirely on higher powers or the lack thereof. While the issue as a whole left me somewhat flat, there's a good story, two near-misses for me that may hit for others, and even the lesser half mostly have some qualities that might draw some fans.

"They Have All One Breath" by Karl Bunker

James the sculptor and Ivan the mostly-painter are friends who hang out and reminisce about the old days when the AIs had just started to rule the world and "there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air" (to quote our most recent Nobel laureate of literature). Interspersed with their conversation, triggered at appropriate moments by chains of association, are recollections of James' past, including some about his mother, who loved nature's creatures and hated nature "red in tooth and claw" (which is James quoting Tennyson) and many about his wife who despised the AIs and their control over humanity (which is simultaneously minimal and all-encompassing). For a variety of personal reasons, James saw merit in their rule and this revealed a gulf between the couple which only grew wider. The story concludes with James' emotions regarding the AIs and his wife (and life, the universe, and everything) coming to a head.

This is an interesting story because it does so many things I don't like and yet gets away with them and because it compares directly and favorably with some more amateurish stuff I've read lately. One thing I don't like is that this is Yet Another Story About AIs Ruling the World but, by conceiving it in a fairly original way and carrying us through the arrival of our robot overlords, it feels different and fresh, "making it new" as Ezra Pound would say. It's also Yet Another "Hard to Do Art in a Utopia" story but, by defining art broadly and only focusing on it directly to a relatively small extent, that also takes on a different feel. I'm also not big on stories that, in a direct sense, are minimally plotted and which rely on a lot of reverie, but this story makes the characters fairly complex and believable, triggers the recollections appropriately, invests things with emotional significance, and sets the personal drama against a huge backdrop which ramps up with a sequence of stakes-raising revelations, making everything interesting and seemingly immediate. This contrasts with lesser stories which go into random reveries, have no characterization or emotional intensity, and just seem aimless and dull. Plus, James' reaction/words at the conclusion seem pitch-perfect. My only real criticism is that this uses a large science fictional apparatus to address some issues which can occur without that apparatus but at least there's a couple that can't. Usually, I recommend stories with a sort of excited enthusiasm. This is with more of a sober air, but still requires a recommendation.

"Empty Shoes by the Lake" by Gay Partington Terry

Becca and Rafi have grown up in an Appalachian town together (after Becca moved there) but she became a teacher, stuck in the town, while he escaped it and its concrete reminders of his abusive father in order to become a wandering artist. One day he experiments in pottery, making his first bowl (which cracks) and sends it to Becca. It turns out to be a magic bowl in which she can "see" things from the water that runs out of it. And, naturally, magic and change ensue.

This short story (listed as a novelette in the ToC) could very well appeal to some. It is narrated in alternating sections of Becca and Rafi. I didn't care for Becca’s "voice" at first and her opening section seemed to go on a bit. However, I did like Rafi's voice and was impressed by her handling of the two quite distinct ones. I also found it a bit easy and pat but others might find it pleasant and apt.

"HigherWorks" by Gregory Norman Bossert

In 2042, the US has mostly collapsed, creating a flood of economic refugees in, e.g., the UK, and they aren't happy about it. Also, corporations aren't happy about having what they consider their IP stolen, which is what one corporation feels the protagonist has done, so they send an IP bounty hunter after her. Meanwhile, she's part of a sort of band and they're about to have a sort of rave. Once they finally get that going and the players come together, things take a half-heartedly transcendent turn.

This is, I guess, a nanopunk story in that it's yet another cyberpunk story, but with an emphasis on nanotech as the "rapture of the geeks" mcguffin. If you haven't read this story a million times for a zillion years then you may enjoy it as it's fairly well structured proportionally, but you may not as it's entirely too long and clogged overall and I had a hard time slogging through it. But then, I'm also exhausted from such stories so there may be a cumulative effect, too. Still, one gets the feeling that being paid by the word was also a factor. If you want some easy wordage, give one of your secondary characters (who does very little) the pseudonym of "Mrs. John Dee" and refer to her that way 52 of the 69 times she's referenced in the 21 page story (and call another "the Wayward" and reference him 29 times). Also triple your words for, ahem, trippy effect (which I'll quote some of to give a flavor of the cyberpunkitude):

"The image flickers and fades as the inks burn out, but streaks of blue and silver ghost ghost ghost across her vision like echoes. During the gig tonight the Wayward will be nudging those echoes via the network, riffing on the images like visual jazz, tracking Dee's beats, the two of them playing off each other, playing the crowd-become-one, like sex, like the crowd in the crossing when the cameras blew, made one motion motion motion by a hypersensitivity that transcends identity triggered not by lust or fear but by design, by a higher working working working. Which is the second test passed; the nano is certainly working.
"Dyer taps the tablet on, swipes the network off, colors fading as the screenlight fills her little box nest under the table. She scrolls through the data, diagnostic software already parsing the logs into graphs [sic] points spreading across the screen and into the air around her like stars falling like light on water like what had the Wayward said this morning you go all scattered scattered scattered."

Other things that bug me are that there's a bit of "as you know, Bob" to some of the dialog. Also, this presents as a story of reasonable extrapolation but people being punk in 2042 is odd: not many people wear zoot suits in 2016 and that would be comparable. More significantly, in sociopolitical terms, I think this story would more likely be set in 2020 or so. It also portrays music as an almost revolutionary DIY thing which people may have believed in the 60s-80s but which everyone should now by know ("we won't get fooled again") only funnels money into the multimedia multinationals who write the IP laws and hire the bountyhunters. Further, (put vaguely to avoid spoilers) the ending tries for a sort of "meek shall inherit the earth" otherworldliness but then cops out. But these points, even if valid, are just grumbling. It's mostly competently done if it's your cup of tea.

"How the Damned Live On" by James Sallis

This is 849 surreal words about the cast of Sinagain's Island and a spider named Mmdhf. And two kinds of time.

I'd rather read Sartre or Beckett, I think. But a flash of that sort of thing is presumably what he was going for. (For a different sort of pertinence {or impertinence, as the case may be} I'd rather read Isaac Asimov than this page and a half of the magazine which bears his name.)

"The Cold Side of the Island" by Kali Wallace

Lacie grew up on a Maine island and returns there due to the death of and funeral for her friend Jesse, but she's late, misses it, and feels very guilty. She stays with her aging mother. She has brought her share of an item with her and meets up with Thea, an old friend she's had no contact with for years who has another share of the item. They go to the dead friend's house to get his final share of the item to return it all where they found it, as Thea had suggested doing years ago, whenever one of them eventually died.

Doesn't sound much like SF/F, right? Well, the "item" is a skeleton of an unidentified dying object they found in the woodsy half of the island when they were kids which emboldened the teenagers in vaguely described terms. It has horns and claws but they're pretty sure it's not a demon—not sure it's an alien, either. I'm pretty sure it's a symbol. The depiction of the island and of age and estrangement and all these things are well done and people who like this sort of thing may well like it, but people who want more actual SF or F in their SF/F may be left dissatisfied, despite the fantastic mcguffin being, in a sense, the absolutely central and overwhelming part of the story since, in another, it's virtually irrelevant.

"Where There Is Nothing, There Is God" by David Erik Nelson

In a future in which time travel is a normal FDA-approved thing (but is oddly underutilized, generally), a waiter/actor (primarily voice) is sucked into a mob caper involving that actor pretending to be a priest and bringing a physical sacrament to the people of Massachusetts in 1770 (which is to say, of course, getting them hooked on crystal meth) in exchange for items made by Paul Revere, which have quite a market among some shady characters of the story's present. The story primarily hinges on the main character's motivations and intermittent efforts to escape the bind he's gotten himself into.

I've read a million time travel stories, which I'm not an intrinsic fan of anyway, and even read a million variations on time travel stories that try to be "different," but I don't think I've ever read any that are different in quite this way. While it settles uncomfortably next to very serious and even tragic things, the story's humor is quite pronounced. I think my favorite line was when the time-traveling actor/preacher decided to go barefoot because making plausible old shoes was difficult and one of his handlers reacted with "This is your shtick? Shoeless Joe Parson?" And it does an excellent job of creating an air of danger, and thus interest, due to the well-realized sense of actual traveling in (and perhaps getting lost in) time, as well as the criminal aspect and what they're doing to the people in the past and how those people might react. It's also a good vehicle to address issues all the way from existential bad faith to religion possibly being the amphetamine of the masses. However, there do end up being problems. This story would have benefited from being much shorter because part of the attraction of the story is the wild premise and comedic tone. By the end of the novella, the premise's novelty has worn off and the comedy has dissipated, partly by an intentional (if awkward) darkening of tone and partly just from length. And there are several questionable plot points, even giving the whole premise a free pass: a character says something that perplexes the reader and should perplex the protagonist but it is only late in the story that the protagonist refers to it again, weakly saying, "I'd dismissed his claim as tweaker's confusion." The main "villain" plays hardball when the main character wants to get out and that point comes smack in the middle of the story which is either too early or too late. And a critical plot element hinges on a "head honcho" type doing something he'd send an "underling" to do. Further, as many themes as this can address, the author seemed to go off on tangents regarding manufacturing and gay marriage that just seemed wedged in and disrupted the flow of what seemed to me to be the main thematic elements. Ultimately, while I mostly enjoyed the story and can see how others would, this falls more in the "honorable mention" category for me.


Jason McGregor's space on the internet can be found here.