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Asimov's Science Fiction, March 1999

Asimov's SF, March 1999
Asimov's SF
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A review by David Soyka

The dilemma (although perhaps the editors don't see it as one) faced in Asimov's March issue is aptly summarized by Norman Spinrad in his always intriguing On Books column. In discussing "The Pulp Tradition," Spinrad notes that the so-called classic SF stories collected by Gardner Dozois in The Good Old Stuff are:

"Like one's first experience of sex, one's early adolescent encounter with the wonders of science fiction is a uniquely profound one, the profundity of which is independent of the artistic level of the performance... Re-reading most of these stories now was for the most part a saddening experience. They just do not stand the test of time and maturity, speculative fiction's and my own."
So what's a leading science fiction magazine supposed to do? Continue to print crude pulp stories to attract sufficient numbers of unsophisticated readers as paid subscribers under the assumption they will eventually grow into the more challenging stuff and, consequently, allow magazines such as Asimov's to continue publishing -- both the good and the bad? Or, take the high road and publish only the, if not literary, then at least intellectually mature fiction that perhaps builds on the pulp tradition while transcending its juvenile world view? The answer may, unfortunately, be illustrated by the fate of the late lamented Crank!, whose commendable efforts to resist the mainstream perhaps in part explains its demise.

On the other hand, maybe editor Gardener Dozois, who is widely admired and praised for a more inclusive definition of science fiction that graces the pages of Asimov's and the many anthologies he edits, believes that the Pulp Tradition can continue to be honored, despite its limitations.

Of course, that's a bit like saying your record collection can include Kenny G. alongside John Coltrane.

All of which is preface to my problem with Asimov's lead story of "Diana by Starlight" by R. Garcia y Robertson, which features all the essential elements Spinrad ascribes to the form:

"The 'Pulp Tradition' and 'Space Adventure' are generally recognized as... a set of commercial constraints and not a set of literary values. A heroic figure with whom the unsophisticated reader can psychologically identify. Evil antagonists for the hero to overcome. Exotic settings. A plot-line heavy on physical confrontation and fight scenes. A climax resolved through combat of one form or another."
Spinrad leaves out one particularly annoying characteristic: a sexist attitude in which women -- even a strong female protagonist such as the one in Robertson's story -- are essentially the subject of jejune masturbatory visions of pimply-faced boys whose eye glasses are held together by masking tape.

The illustration for this story warns us immediately of the terrain ahead. A space babe clad in a skin tight costume that accentuates her breasts and buttocks with a phallic probe on the verge of penetration from behind. I can't blame Robertson for this, as the costume doesn't look at all like the one he describes for his character (the front cover at least gets Diana's uniform right, although why the illustrator has her gesturing as if asking for help towards the air vehicles in pursuit of her doesn't make sense to me). What I can blame Robertson for, though, is featuring a female of remarkable strength and courage (it helps to be the 30th clone in a line of incarnations that have mastered various high-level athletic skills -- such as precision flying, acrobatics, and martial arts -- that kick in whenever needed to get her out of a tight spot) who nonetheless "desperately needed someone to care for her."

That someone being a semi-human Neanderthal "surface barbarian" bred to populate an "Outback" planet where Peace Corps emissary Lady Diana has been sent to mediate a dispute. The pair are by circumstance thrown together, hunted by the treacherous Baron Guy D'Montjoy, an "offworlder" who hopes to frame the assassination of Diana on the surface dwellers as an excuse to break the existing accords and provide an opportunity to more fully exploit the planet's resources.

Of course this barbarian has all the noble savage looks (heavily muscled, broad chest and probably other proportionately large appendages) bound to make him attractive to a crack lady diplomat, and, guess what, there's even some intelligence to be uncovered beneath his heavy brow. So it's no wonder our girl falls for this guy. Even if it's right after she's finished vomiting, a condition caused by a slight concussion suffered in a clash with unfriendly surface tribesmen. And the fact that in this life, Diana is a virgin (though she has memories of the sex lives of her previous cloned counterparts). And that the barbarian is such a good fellow to want to have intercourse with her even though he finds her ugly ("but in the dark, that is not so bad.") This rape fantasy then not unexpectedly concludes:

"Clinging to his broad chest, she stared up at the stars she had come from, enjoying the powerful way he heaved inside her. Her first man in this lifetime. Who could have guessed? Certainly not her. Afterward, she lay secure and happy, listening to his deep breathing. He was right. She did feel better. Immensely so. And tomorrow she would tackle the woes of this misbegotten world."
At this point, it's the reader who has to vomit.

You have to wonder who reads this stuff nowadays. After all, back in Edgar Rice Burroughs' day there wasn't any Internet porn or late night adult cable. Besides, forget the underlying sexual content -- isn't formulaic fiction boring?

Obviously not, as a visit to any bookstore's Romance section or the marquee of your local cinema megaplex will attest to. For whatever reasons (and this is an ongoing discussion in SF as well as larger literary and cultural circles that you've probably heard before, so we needn't get into it here), the stuff sells.

Some would argue what's the harm with that? What's wrong with pure entertainment? And, to be fair, Robertson is very good within the limitations of what he sets out to do. There is some two-dimensional characterization, the action is fast-paced, if sometimes silly (in free flight, Diana maintains a tight grip on the safety belt of her ejector seat so she can reach out far enough to grab the surface barbarian from falling), and there is an unfolding, if predictable, plot. He's also good at writing badly ("Having his bath-cum-blow-job cut short by an off-planet diplomat and an outraged Neanderthal had to be a shock.") At times I wasn't sure if this was supposed to a joke, or just adherence to the formula.

So if you're into this kind of stuff, I suppose this story is as good any other (which I guess is the whole point). But contrast "Diana by Starlight" with the story that immediately follows, Stephen Baxter's "Spindrift": an intentionally marooned Soviet cosmonaut whose unacknowledged death on the Moon serves as a metaphor both for humanity's unawareness of the greater meaning of the cosmos and the relative worth of individual sacrifice over the long term. Now this is more like what SF can potentially achieve as a literary form. And to counteract Robertson's sexism, two other stories feature strong women (even if one is an android) that are believably characterized in dealing with larger issues of the human condition. In Miriam Landau's "Allies," a human woman must prove her worthiness to the asexual race of Kailas by completing a rock climb (though I suspect you might have to be a rock climber yourself to really get into this story). Much more successful, I think, is Esther M. Friesner's "Chanoyu," which represents a significant contribution to the tradition of Mary Shelley, C.L. Moore, and Isaac Asimov himself in a story about the misuse of artificial life by its creators. Freisner presents a clever blend of notions that contrast strict traditions of proper cultural behavior with a failure to see the moral implications of technical accomplishments in improving human fertility.

Finally, two other works are grounded in the same Golden Age traditions of Robertson's space opera, but manage to extend the form a bit rather than merely imitate. In "Alien," Rick Shelley provides yet another take on a "First Contact" story. It's a nice variation, although I think he plays unfairly by dropping misleading comments that, while they serve to make the ending more of a surprise, come at the expense of narrative logic. "Gallo" by Mark W. Tiedemann provides a contemporary spin on the atomic bomb mythos understandably popular in the 50s and 60s -- something that if the old Twilight Zone were still around would have made for a good episode.

So I think the March issue is worth buying. You just have to be willing to take the bad with the good.

Diana by Starlight R. Garcia y Robertson
Spindrift Stephen Baxter
Gallo Mark W. Tiedemann
Chanoyu Esther M. Friesner
Allies Miriam Landau
The Alien Rick Shelley
Pioneer's Song William John Watkins
Dog Star Joe Haldeman
Reflections: More Thoughts About the End of the World Robert Silverberg
On The Net: Which Way James Patrick Kelly
On Books: The Pulp Tradition Norman Spinrad

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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