Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
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.

Asimov's SF Magazine Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Isaac Asimov's Solar System

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Richard A. Lupoff

Advertisement
Since 1977 the former Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (somewhere along the way they dropped the Isaac) has published something like 3,000 stories, at least by my very rough count. With this many candidates to choose among, Sheila Williams's task in selecting the contents of a retrospective anthology was mainly one of coping with an embarrassment of riches. Williams came up with a book of seventeen stories, the great majority of which range from excellent to absolutely breathtaking.

My only major complaint is my own absence from the book. But then, I only appeared once in what was then familiarly known as IASFM, now shortened to ASFM.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

The anthology kicks off with John Varley's superb "Air Raid" (1977), a story that became a mediocre feature film a few years later. Varley posits a nasty future, a polluted environment, a human species threatened with extinction and needing fresh blood to maintain itself. The solution is a time travel scheme and a solution to the problem of avoiding temporal paradoxes that is clever and even -- almost -- plausible.

"The Time of the Burning," by Robert Silverberg (1982) is set on his personal planet, Majipoor. On its face, the story deals with the problems of colonists encountering hostile indigenous people. But of course it isn't just science fiction and it doesn't apply merely to Majipoor. The story has widespread relevance. It's Europeans against native peoples in the Western and Southern hemispheres, it's Americans in Vietnam (or was in 1982) and it's invading forces in Iraq in 2007. Universality, I've heard Shakespeare scholars say, is what makes the Bard great. Silverberg may be no Shakespeare, but this story has universal meaning. And -- need I say? -- it's pretty damned depressing.

Octavia Butler's "Speech Sounds" (1983) is a study in the importance of language, and the devastating effect on society its loss would bring about. The story is set in a recognizable future, the catastrophe this time is caused by a plague. A fine story, another downbeat scenario.

In "Dinner in Audoghast" (1985) Bruce Sterling describes a dinner party in a Nineteenth Century African city-state. The people are literate and witty, their surroundings are lavish, their culture is advanced -- and they are doomed. Their end is prophesied and inevitable. The story has a wonderful feeling of the exotic and alien, the kind of thing L. Sprague de Camp could create at the peak of his career. It's certainly not science fiction and it's fantasy, if at all, only by the remotest stretch of the term. But it is brilliant.

The first letdown in the book is "Robot Dreams" (1986) by the sainted Isaac Asimov himself. A minor -- very minor -- postscript to Asimov's classic positronic robot series, one doubts seriously that the story would have passed the John Smith test. Id est, if the byline on the story had been John Smith instead of Isaac Asimov, would the editor have bought it in the first place -- and if he-or-she had used it in the magazine, is there a chance in Hades that it would have made it into this anthology? You've gotta be kidding.

"Glacier" (1988) by Kim Stanley Robinson is another downbeat glimpse of the future. This time, a new ice age is upon us, and ordinary folks -- in this case, a family of Boston academics -- are struggling to survive in a crumbling society.

Do you see where I'm going with this? If you do, fine. If not, hang in there. Let's look at the next few stories.

On the other hand, "The Happy Man" (1991) by Jonathan Lethem, is a stunning, ambiguous novelette. Lethem's protagonist seemingly dies and goes to Hell, but his body remains active and even functional in a dull, zombie-like condition. Then he returns from Hell and resumes a normal life. Then it's back to Hell again, then back to "normal" again. The reader is uncertain as to how much of this is to be taken literally, how much of it as objective reality, how much as a kind of psychic fugue. The story ends with an explanation that is a little too pat for comfort, but it's memorable nonetheless.

"Over There" (1991) by Mike Resnick is an incident from alternate history. If you follow such things you may know that then-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt had commanded a volunteer cavalry unit in the Spanish-American War of 1898. As former President Theodore Roosevelt, he offered his services to President Wilson in 1917. He wanted to revive his old outfit, the Rough Riders, to fight in the World War. In the real world, Wilson turned him down -- but in Resnick's story Roosevelt's Rough Riders did ride again. The story is cute but has a paint-by numbers feel and an inevitable downbeat ending.

"Itsy Bitsy Spider" (1997) by James Patrick Kelly is a smart, sad, touching story about autonomous robots acting as surrogate children for lonely oldsters. A far better robot story than the Asimov, with a haunting air of melancholy to it.

"Ancient Engines" (1999) by Michael Swanwick is another very smart story. It's one of those conversation-in-a-barroom things that seem always to work. What veteran science fiction reader can forget Gavagan's Bar or the White Hart or Callahan's Crosstime Saloon? Swanwick's version is a meditation on the nature of immortality, another favorite science fiction theme. Swanwick swings his tropes as skillfully as Will Rogers swung his ropes, with grace and skill that make the toughest trick look easy. Bravo!

"Only Partly Here" (2003) by Lucius Shepard is an example of a new genre that has been growing since the tragedy of 9/11. It is a powerful and compelling story, subject to interpretation as either mainstream narrative or ghost story. I think it works better as the former but is an excellent performance from either perspective.

"The Children of Time" (2005) by Stephen Baxter is cast in the mold of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, as we roll farther and farther into the future of our planet. Baxter sees technology as having failed as one population of savages after another paw through the puzzling artifacts of our ruined civilization.

"Eight Episodes" (2006) by Robert Reed is one of those stories in which the reader knows that's going on but the characters don't. A quarter-billion-year-old spaceship -- really more like a message in a bottle the size of a BB -- is humanity's only contact with alien races. The message is that there will never be significant space travel or contact with other species.

Now, patient reader, we've gone through these stories and if you're as bright as I think you are, you've drawn the same conclusion that I have. There is lots of talent here. There is plenty of terrific writing. There are many powerful, moving, effective stories.

There is no joy.

Author after author tells us that we are doomed. Civilization is crumbling. The universe is not a glorious, shining realm that beckons us to adventure and challenges us to greatness. It is a cold and forbidding place and life as we know it is a sorrowful cosmic mistake. We'll probably never get off the Earth, and if we do we'll only spread our virus of violence and voracity. Things are lousy and they're going to get worse.

Oh, I omitted a few stories. Okay, in brief:

"Cibola" (1990) by Connie Willis, is a well-written but utterly unimportant vignette about a crazed housewife and a newspaper reporter. Readable, trivial, forgettable. Neither science fiction nor fantasy, either, just in case you're counting.

"Ether, OR" (1995) by Ursula K. Le Guin is proof that even the best of us can come up with clinker now and then. LeGuin is certainly among the best of us, and "Ether, OR" is certainly a clinker. It isn't a story, it doesn't go anywhere, it is a series of pointless mainstream character sketches. Third rate Thornton Wilder we don't need in a science fiction magazine.

"Flying Lessons" (1996) by Kelly Link doesn't go anywhere either, and it isn't nearly as well written as "Ether, OR."

"Lobsters" (2001) by Charles Stross is an impenetrable maze of technobabble. If you've ever tried to make sense of a badly written software user's guide composed in Japanese and rendered into something only superficially resembling English by the Beta version of a failed piece of translation software, you know what it's like to suffer through this whatever-it-is.

I admired a lot of the stories in this anthology and I even enjoyed several of them, but reading this 30th Anniversary Anthology left me with a monstrous craving for a hearty dose of Planet Stories, Fantastic Adventures, or even, heaven help me, Captain Future.

Copyright © 2007 Richard A. Lupoff

Richard A. Lupoff has written a lot of books, some of them actually pretty good. His most recent is Marblehead: A Novel of H.P. Lovecraft; the next couple will be short story collections, Visions and Quintet: The Cases of Chase and Delacroix.


SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to editor@sfsite.com.
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide