Asimov’s, Dec. 2006

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"Lord Weary’s Empire" by Michael Swanwick

"Yellow Card Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi
"Plausible" by Robert Reed
"Immunity" by Susan Forest
"Safe!" by Brian W. Aldiss
"A Dying Fall" by Christopher Priest
"The Golden Record" by Ian Creasey
My Asimov’s reviews did not get off to a good start. The October/November double issue, from which I reviewed seven stories, frustrated me with the many promising but mediocre stories. Accepting that not every magazine can be consistently superb, I waited in hope for the December issue, which, I am happy to report, offers much better stuff than what I read for the previous issue.

Starting with a sudden and inspirational bang, "Lord Weary’s Empire" by Michael Swanwick mashes up the worlds of fairyland and cyberpunk; the characters draw from a variety of European magical traditions, but their turf wars occur in a perilous, abandoned network of subways and sewers. Lord Weary recruits Jack in an attempt to create an Army of Night to push back interlopers from the Lord’s territory.

Every magazine or anthology, without fail, contains one story in a league of its own for its hold on the imagination. This issue of Asimov’s has "Yellow Card Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi. Set in a future Thailand so overrun with immigrants that people compete strenuously for yellow cards allowing them to work, this story tracks one man, Tranh. He used to be a prosperous businessman, but now his energy is devoted to reaching the head of the yellow card line.

With meticulous worldcraft, Bacigalupi weaves together the scents, sights, and sounds of the dingy, overcrowded metropolis to immediately immerse the reader in Tranh’s world.  Such rich sensory impressions make the story so realistic that it seems to be a slice of life occurring right now, just around the corner of the globe. I’m not going to say that Bacigalupi whisks you off to an exotic locale because, even though the city may be unusual to a reader who has not visited a similar Asian development, Bacigalupi writes Tranh so that he comes across as a sympathetic Everyman.

"Plausible" by Robert Reed is, by the author’s own admission, an extended sketch of an unusual parade. This colorful vignette gets inside the head of a little boy celebrating the Winter Solstice with his family. The pageantry of the parade, where the cultural values are writ large and symbolic, provides a clever entrée into the boy’s society, where Cousins, or human-like aliens, are casually accepted. Animated by a combination of the boy’s youthful energy and the narrative’s nostalgia, "Plausible" has a touch of the wondering, elegiac Bradbury to it.

In the thought-provoking "Immunity" by Susan Forest, Trine has a dilemma. She can inoculate her suffering baby girl against the plague, or she can use the serum to ensure the health of one of her colony’s members, which she, as a medical admin, is responsible for. Forest’s clean, stark style drops you right into the setting of Trine’s colony, where drama seems all the starker because of the isolated setting. "Immunity" reminded me favorably of the late, lamented TV show, Firefly, in which denizens of an intergalactic frontier confront moral choices with no easy answers.

With tongue in cheek, "Safe!" by Brian W. Aldiss muses: Who’s nuttier—the genius [?] astronaut on Ganymede who murders his sole companion or the confused, agitated people back on Earth? In speedy, amusing, alternating segments, Aldiss charts what happens on the Jovian moon and at home after Darnley offs his compatriot. Of course, Aldiss points out with his humorous twist that both Darnley and the Earthly folks are off their rockers, but in a very human way. Probably the second best of the bunch…It grows on you.

The set-up for Christopher Priest‘s "A Dying Fall" is very simple. A man is about to get squished by an oncoming subway. In the moments before he dies, his life flashes before his eyes. Predictable, right? All been done before in Ambrose Bierce‘s "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Yeah, well, Bierce was messing more with the flash fiction form and the shock ending than with the actual content of the dying man’s mental images.

Priest takes the moment of death as an opportunity to develop the unfortunate guy’s character, which he does with such levelheaded realism that you accept the twist at the end and speculate about whether it could really happen. Neither really science fiction nor fantasy, "A Dying Fall" seems more like realistic fiction.  Or possibly a sneakily down-to-earth horror story.

The issue ends by blasting off into the unknown with Ian Creasey‘s "The Golden Record." Named for the disc aboard Voyager 2 which contains sounds and pictures documenting the human race, "The Golden Record" occurs in a future where space travel has ended with the solar system’s borders. Independent collector Andrew wants to put Voyager 2 in a museum, while idealistic Belinda, representative of the largely ceremonial United States, pushes to keep the dream of space travel alive. Add a rabid conspiracy theorist to the mix, and you’ve got a swiftly written, passionate love letter to the [astronomical] stars that touched a chord even in my cynical heart and just may convince you to write to your Congress rep for increased NASA funding.