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Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine 30th Anniversary Anthology
edited by Sheila Williams
Tachyon Publications, 349 pages

Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine 30th Anniversary Anthology
Sheila Williams
Sheila Williams is the Executive Editor of of Asimov's SF and the Managing Editor of Analog.

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SF Site Review: Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine 30th Anniversary Anthology
SF Site Review: Isaac Asimov's Solar System

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A review by Paul Kincaid

There is a reasonable case to be made for tracing the history of 20th century science fiction through its keynote magazines. Such a history takes us from Amazing to Astounding to F&SF, across the Atlantic to New Worlds, and then into the curious asteroid belt of the 70s original anthologies. By this reckoning, science fiction during the last quarter of the 20th century was defined by Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. Since it was launched in 1977 it has generally had higher circulation figures than its rivals, it has produced more stories that have won or been shortlisted for awards, it has produced more stories that have featured in the various Year's Best anthologies. These factors, of course, may not be unconnected (and it is surely more than coincidence that, for much of its history, the magazine was edited by the editor of the biggest of the Year's Best anthologies). I'm not convinced that all of this adds up to greatness, but it certainly adds up to success. Asimov's has, quite simply, mastered the trick of either setting literary fashion or, more likely, keeping up with the fickleness of popular taste. And if it is now past its best, if sales are slipping, if new rivals (particularly on the internet) are emerging, it has still enjoyed longer at the top than any other magazine in the history of SF.

Any retrospective of the magazine's first thirty years, therefore, should be a celebration of what was best, or at least most popular, in science fiction over the period. And so this book is, to an extent. Though there are curious omissions. Perhaps most noticeable is the fact that there is no cyberpunk. Can it really be the case that the most electrifying movement in science fiction over the ten years from 1984 did not find a place in the leading market for SF stories throughout that period? I haven't gone back to check, but I really can't believe that. Though, come to think of it, cyberpunk is not something I automatically associate with Asimov's. Indeed, of the 17 stories gathered here, the only one with a technologically-oriented cyberpunk aesthetic is the much-anthologised "Lobsters" by Charles Stross, which strews about references to the digital cutting edge with an abandon absent from every other story here. "Lobsters" feels very much the exception, not the rule.

If we are to look for the story that most closely represents the basic Asimov's aesthetic, perhaps the best place to turn is to Isaac Asimov himself. His story, "Robot Dreams," is the shortest in the anthology and by some way the most clunkily written, but in what it does it is archetypal. On the surface it is as functionally technological as any of the early robot stories: tight focus, very limited cast (old woman, young woman, robot), brief timespan, all revolving around one single simple episode. Virtually everything is done in dialogue concerning the nature of the positronic brain and long words are thrown about; this is mechanistic SF of the old order. But underneath that surface is a sentimental little tale about becoming human, about humanity being the highest aspiration of life. (That's another reason why "Lobsters" feels exceptional; alone among the stories here it does not regard humanity as the end point of our aspiration but as no more than a way station to something else.)

The archetypal character of Asimov's story is demonstrated by the fact that, just a little later in the anthology, there is another story that almost precisely replicates its structure and intent: "Ancient Engines" by Michael Swanwick. The cast is small (old man, young woman, robot), the timespan is brief (all takes place over a drink in a bar), and it is nearly all told in dialogue. For all the cosmic vision and the technical language, this is a sentimental little tale of a robot wanting to live forever, and as the story progresses that translates as becoming human.

This, then, is what Asimov's does: science fiction in which the science is often little more than a veneer and the fiction frequently shades into fantasy; in which the sentimental is more important than the technical; in which the human effects take precedence over the invention, the glitter, the gosh-wow. Which is not a criticism, such choices can produce some excellent fiction, and is very clearly popular. Though sometimes it is possible to follow this recipe right out of the genre. "Cibola" is one of my favourite Connie Willis stories, but the translation of the Seven Cities of Gold into an effect of sunrise in certain atmospheric conditions does not directly tell a story of the fantastic. Other than the author's track record, there's nothing to say this story belongs in Asimov's rather than in any of a host of mainstream journals. And then there is "Over There" by Mike Resnick, which tells how Teddy Roosevelt bamboozled his way into the American army in 1917 and died in a futile military adventure. Now Roosevelt did not take part in the First World War and did not die in battle, but other than this twist in the historical record Resnick does nothing with this story that is remotely science fictional. His portrayal of the front line is rigorously realistic, the slight alteration in history has no effect on the course of events. To be honest I couldn't work out what Resnick was trying to do with this story (apart from the blatantly obvious), why it should have been picked up by a science fiction magazine, and why on earth it should have been republished in an anthology such as this. But then, Resnick's story is human and sentimental, so it does fit the pattern.

Even that most unsentimental of writers, Octavia Butler, allows sentimentality to creep into her powerful story of failure of communication, "Speech Sounds." It is a brief vignette of life in a world where people have been suddenly robbed of their ability to either utter or to comprehend speech. Without communication, the glue that holds us together, civilisation has crumbled. Our narrator meets a man, falls in love, then sees him killed all in the space of an afternoon, then right at the end rescues two children who can speak and thus hold a promise for the future.

In fact, the only story here that totally avoids sentimentality is the one that directly addresses sentiment, "Ether, OR" by Ursula K. Le Guin, which also happens to be, by some way, the best story in this collection. It all takes place in the little town of Ether, Oregon, but Ether is a town that moves, shifting its geographical location mysteriously and randomly so it never acquires the moss of shopping malls and the like that have entangled other American towns. But that's not the point of the story, just something that happens obliquely somewhere in the background. The story is a series of first-person narratives by various townspeople exploring their emotional and social lives, and it does so in a way that is fresh, direct, honest and moving.

It is also, of course, a very familiar story. Most of the stories gathered here are. Given the number of awards that Asimov's has picked up over the years it is remarkably restrained of Sheila Williams to include only one Hugo winner here (the Octavia Butler story), but "Air Raid" by John Varley, "Dinner in Audoghast" by Bruce Sterling, "Robot Dreams" by Asimov, "Cibola" by Willis, "Ether, OR" by Le Guin, "Flying Lessons" by Kelly Link, "Itsy Bitsy Spider" by James Patrick Kelly, "Lobsters" by Stross have all been anthologised elsewhere, often several elsewheres. And that's just to pick around half of the collection.

Of course there is always going to be such a problem with a collection like this: which stories can or should you pick as a representation of an enterprise like Asimov's? One story per year would end up with a collection as unwieldy as one of Gardner Dozois's Year's Best anthologies. All the award winners would be too predictable, probably too big in the case of Asimov's, and certainly too familiar. Of course if you don't pick the familiar stories, you might argue that the result wouldn't be representative of the magazine; but if you pick all familiar stories then you might wonder: what's the point of the anthology. Sheila Williams has compromised, mixing in less familiar titles with the ones everyone might expect. But her introduction is loaded with reminiscences yet light on explaining her choices. Why, we have to wonder, pick a fairly routine Majipoor story by Robert Silverberg, "The Time of the Burning," when he has contributed many better stories to the magazine. And Lucius Shepard has done much more interesting work than "Only Partly Here," a competent ghost story but it acquires its resonance only through the fact that it is set among the people cleaning up after 9/11. If it had been set in any other time or place, it is unlikely it would have aroused any interest whatsoever.

It is too soon to tell if the last two stories in the collection are going to become as familiar as some of the other stories included here. Robert Reed's "Eight Episodes," about a discontinued television show that just might be a factual record of alien contact, is quirky enough that it might get reprinted. I'm less sure about Stephen Baxter's "The Children of Time" because, although it's well written, its episodic account of the decline and eventual extinction of humankind across future geological time really covers ground he has already covered elsewhere and I don't think this iteration is different enough to attract attention. And that's the problem, really, the magazine is probably best represented by the stories that are already so familiar we hardly need yet another anthology. But a more accurate reflection of the magazine has to take into account the fact that for every one of the stand-out stories that have helped to make it for so long the most important short fiction venue in the genre, there are many others that have been forgotten, most of them deservedly so. I don't imagine it's that aspect of the magazine that Sheila Williams set out to represent, but it's what she has achieved.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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