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Asimov's Science Fiction, December 1998

Asimov's SF, December 1998
Asimov's SF
Asimov's SF Website has excerpts from upcoming issues, book reviews, online interviews and chats with many favourite writers, Isaac Asimov's famous Editorials, Robert Silverberg's controversial Reflections column, reprints of classic Asimov's stories, puzzles, letters, and cartoons.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

The cover of the December Asimov's declares that it is a "Special Holiday Issue." I'm not quite certain what distinguishes it as such -- there are no extra pages or bonus stories and, other than the very clever and funny "Fruitcake Theory" by regular contributor James Patrick Kelly, there's no overt Christmas theme (which is probably a good thing). What Asimov's does provide is a selection of stories in which situations of despair are, if not entirely overcome, at least offer hope of redemption. Overall, readers get a pretty good package for their holiday reading.

Unlike last summer's pair of predictable special effects Hollywood extravaganzas, William Barton's lead story, "Down in the Dark," is a thoughtful examination of the "asteroid hits the Earth" motif. What happens to humanity's offworld outposts when their lifeline to the home planet is destroyed by a devastating cosmic strike? Hard SF fans will be attracted to the vivid descriptions of a hard life on Saturn's moon, Titan, in which the narrator has succumbed to the despair not only of losing his wife back on Earth, but also the seeming inevitability of humankind's extinction. A chance meeting with a solitary, and at first encounter possibly deranged, woman reveals a secret that changes not only their lives, but the fate of their race. (Feminist note: I'm not quite sure what the author intended by presenting the female character, Christie Meitner, as an androgynous, dumpy, and perhaps even sexually repulsive woman who, it is implied, has chosen to remain fertile. While it's a nice contrast to the clichéd "space babe," with the underlying message of appearances not being the sole criterion for attraction and love, I suppose a feminist might ask why couldn't it be the handsome woman who takes up with a guy who has a less-than-ideal physique?)

Robert Reed's "Building the Building of a World" portrays a cynical teacher working with disturbed adolescents on a class project that takes some unexpected turns. The class is divided into two teams tasked to play God by fabricating a computer-generated world and defining the culture of its inhabitants. One team creates an aggressive race, while the other a passive sort of hippie/New Age realm of pacifists. How these two worlds collide, and how it affects not only the narrator but the student leader of the pacifists, makes for a highly inventive story that doesn't end up quite how you'd expect.

"The Game this Year" by Lisa Goldstein is a fantasy about a group of good wizards who over the centuries keep losing an intricate game of chance to the bad wizards, which evidently has some dire ramifications for us mortals. Though this tale could easily have turned into dreck, and maybe I'm suffering from an overdose of holiday cheer, I actually find the story quite charming.

No matter how many good presents we find under the tree, there's bound to be one ugly tie or useless gadget foisted upon us. Such is the case with "Archaic Planets: Nine Excerpts from Encyclopedia Galactica" by Michael Swanwick, which presents nine vignettes, each related to a planet in our solar system (Swanwick's son, Sean, came up with the idea for Jupiter), that lead to how humanity survives a galactic calamity. Although some of these short-shorts are mildly amusing, the obvious attempt at profundity just didn't work for me.

The big gift here, is Tony Daniel's "Grist," the title of which refers to a substance that provides humans and animals with extrasensory perceptions of other beings, things, and general surroundings that comprise this alternate reality. This story isn't always easy to follow, in part because of its alternate narrators as well as some of its leitmotifs -- such as the physical connections among the inner planets of the our solar system that facilitate not only travel, but political domination. My concern is not so much with the immense engineering problems, but the metaphoric purpose this scheme is supposed to convey. However, the minor role of this particular detail may become manifest in the two-volume saga recently sold to HarperPrism from which this story is presumably excerpted.

There was an interesting reaction to Lucius Shepherd's recent cranky commentary in Events Horizon that there just isn't any interesting "world-building" like there used to be. According to Shepherd, most fantasy series continue to rely on the medieval conventions pioneered by Tolkien, which he says has become a bit tiresome. This generated some heated discussion along the lines that Shepherd is just another old fart. It would be interesting to see what either side of this debate may think of "Grist" and its eventual full-length series. Certainly the story in this issue of Asimov's leaves more than a few threads left to explore (thereby whetting the appetite of future consumers -- a certain holiday tradition in that). Although it also bodes well for an interesting excursion, there's also evident danger for the characters and plotline to fall into fantasy convention and cliché.

But that's a gift for a future Christmas. With the December issue, there's more than enough under the tree to keep us happy.

Tony Daniel Grist
William Barton Down in the Dark
Robert Reed Building the Building of the World
James Patrick Kelly Fruitcake Theory
Lisa Goldstein The Game This Year
Michael Swanwick with Sean Swanwick Archaic Planets: Nine Excerpts from the Encyclopedia Galactica
Bruce Boston Curse of the SF Editor's Wife
Robert Frazier and James Patrick Kelly Eating the Mystery
Robert Silverberg Reflections: Hast Seen the White Whale
Paul Di Fillipo On Books

Copyright © 1998 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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