Asimov’s, April 2003

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"Nightfall" by Charles Stross
"The Madness of Crowds" by Paul McAuley
"Hard Times" by Neal Barrett Jr.
"June Sixteenth at Anna's" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Legions in Time" by Michael Swanwick
"Here's Looking At You, Kid" by Mike Resnick
"The Reign of Terror" by Robert Silverberg

With its April 2003 issue, Asimov's Science Fiction celebrates its twenty-sixth anniversary. Appropriately enough, editor Gardner Dozois populates the issue with fiction by some of the magazine's most popular and acclaimed authors. Also on hand is the usual poetry, a Robert Silverberg editorial, and a book review column by Paul Di Filippo.

The inventive Charles Stross leads off the issue with the latest in his popular and acclaimed Accelerando series. Taking up where last year's "Router" left off, "Nightfall"–the sixth story in the series–is the third to feature Amber Macx. Awakening millions of years after the events of the last episode, Amber finds herself recruited by a ghostly AI into doing away with a dangerous alien. Of course, in the decidedly weird, posthuman milieu of this series, nothing is ever quite as it seems, and what follows is a typically dense and creative adventure rife with complicated futuristic politics, multiple, time-distorting artificial universes, virtual worlds and entities, dramatic left-turns, and scads of neat skiffy invention. At times Stross' world can be so fast-paced and complex that it threatens to alienate the reader, but then fast-paced complexity is integral to Stross' vision in this series, and part of the reason it is so fascinating and memorable. Ultimately, "Nightfall" may not be as strong as some of the earlier entries in the sequence, but as an entertaining continuation of this landmark work, it is certainly worthy of your time.

Paul McAuley turns in an enjoyable, brief tale of scientific conspiracy with "The Madness of Crowds." This is the story of Bill McAbe, a neurotic fellow with an unusual hobby: collecting and studying pheromones. In spite of his crackpot style and ne'er-do-well ways, McAbe stumbles across a dangerous secret. This is a well done, fun tale of the "premise-is-story" variety, and if the conspiracy plot seems a bit too pat, the story at least expedites its idea entertainingly, without over-lasting its welcome.

It's been a while since I've read the work of Neal Barrett Jr., and his novelette "Hard Times" hit me as an outrageous reintroduction, a healthy dose of gonzo quasi-futurism that reads like a devious collaboration between Rudy Rucker and Dr. Seuss–read aloud, perhaps, by Scatman Crothers. Full of clever wordplay and invention, this story feels rather like a somewhat old-fashioned SF idea-romp in the style of Philip K. Dick, complete with a zany societal status quo and lots of creative brand-namery. But that doesn't make the story any less contemporary, as the SF scenery is most definitely a scary-funny reflection of modern American culture, exaggerated to ludicrous extremes. An edgy, humorous, and effective satire. (On a side note, I wonder if it was inspired by a certain King Missile tune…?)

Contrasting the energy and bite of the previous story, "June Sixteenth at Anna's" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is considerably more subdued. Taking place in the mid-twenty-first century, the story involves a man who is attempting to cope with the death of his wife, a woman made famous by her involvement at a popular "conversation" that took place in June, 2001; in the world of this story, a kind of time travel exists that enables people to virtually "film" moments of the past, and the event of the title is one such famous recording. I have to admit that time travel as a trope is growing rather long in the tooth for me, but as time travel premises go, this is a nifty one–imagine a world where people can market choice, virtually viewed moments of history as a new kind of ultimate reality television. In the end, however, I didn't feel as though this rich concept was all that satisfactorily explored. The world's fascination with the June Sixteenth at Anna's recording is never really justified or experienced in the story, which makes the whole phenomenon feel hollow; the off-hand invocation of 9/11 feels a bit manipulative; and the reader is teased into expecting a momentous revelation that doesn't come, which is perhaps the point, but not a terribly enjoyable one. It's well written enough, with a strong central idea, but I found this one frustrating.

As my comments above about SF's most popular subgenre might indicate, I was primed to dislike "Legions in Time" based on the title alone. Fortunately, Michael Swanwick takes what opens as an amusing but fairly standard time travel jaunt and spins it into something refreshing and timely. It opens in 1936 with Eleanor Voight, a woman who has fallen on hard times in the Depression, whose peculiar and amusingly depicted situation–her job is to stare at a locked closet door to, uh, watch for anything "unusual"–eventually snowballs into adventures in time and space. The closet is, of course, a time portal, and Ellie travels through it only to be thrown into a dismal far future where the masses have been subjugated by an all-powerful ruling class of "Aftermen." Up to this point having come across as a breezy, vivid, but familiar time-jumping rehash, the story hooked me shortly after the introduction of a young woman from 2004; the humorous time-clash that results shifts the story from well executed flight-of-fancy to biting commentary about current political trends and their potential, worst-case-scenario aftermath, as these characters from a simpler past, chaotic present, and frighteningly repressive future are thrown into conflict. It's no coincidence that Swanwick invokes H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and Fritz Lang's Metropolis in this story, since "Legions in Time" is clearly treading in similar territory–and holding its own. I enjoyed this one in spite of myself, predispositions be damned.

Mike Resnick reinterprets the film Casablanca in the next story, "Here's Looking At You, Kid." A brief interior monologue of what the famous Humphrey Bogart character was really thinking during the movie, this story may be amusing to those familiar with the film. For me, it was a one-note story that didn't really go anywhere, the slick premise's potential not fully realized.

"The Reign of Terror" is another entry in Robert Silverberg's long-running alternate history series, Roma Eterna. This episode depicts the empire's political turmoil of the mid-nineteenth century, and the efforts–often very drastic and horrible–of various important imperial figures to rectify the unrest. While I've found individual episodes of this saga effective in the past, I'm getting a bit burned out by it lately. This particular outing, while it does powerfully make its point about escalating societal tyranny, seems like another tromp over old ground in terms of its genre content. I think this one's mainly for fans of the series.

Overall, a pretty good issue of Asimov's, with the Barrett, Stross, and Swanwick stories really standing out.

Christopher East is a regular Tangent contributor who lives in Iowa. His short fiction has seen print in a number of genre publications.