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Asimov's Science Fiction, March 2001

Asimov's SF, March 2001
Asimov's SF
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A review by Nick Gevers

In his "On Books" column in the March 2001 Asimov's, Norman Spinrad complains with a measure of justice (complaining is something he does professionally well) that the SF genre has gone predominantly "retro". Which is to say that, in accordance with the postmodern aesthetic, SF has become the reverse of progressive, content to recycle its commoditized tropes rather than innovate, and prone to a grievous kind of pasticheur's nostalgia. SF now feeds off its own corpse, and is unlikely to interest a wider readership while it does so; meanwhile, its territory is usurped by superstitious reactionary literature infected by the dreaded New Age sensibility.

Spinrad's essay is pessimism of an astutely entertaining kind: we thrill to its horror, and then look about us in the growing realization that perhaps it is all true. Perhaps SF is decaying into self-referential compost; perhaps a sad sort of steampunk-sclerosis has overtaken it. If the touchstone of the genre is now the comfortable past, evidence should be readily forthcoming. And lamentably it is: the same issue that prints Spinrad's effusion bears a cover on which World War II aircraft cavort in dogfight mode, its single nod to the future a crudely-executed flying saucer which is hardly the soul of novelty either. The novella thus illustrated, "Shady Lady" by R. Garcia y Robertson, is retrospective bilge of the most execrable sort, the tale of how a bunch of stock period flyboys venture backwards and forwards in time in company with a wet-dream Soviet aeronautical bimbo, the past and future places they visit anodyne and anonymous. Garcia y Robertson manages the airfield atmosphere of 1944 competently enough, but from there achieves no take-off; Asimov's should ground him until he can do much, much better.

March's other stories are a good deal superior to "Shady Lady," certainly far more forward-looking; but Kage Baker's "The Dust Enclosed Here" is still haunted by the past, reviving as it does the spirit of Shakespeare in a future of barren censorial virtual-realism. Spinrad would no doubt gripe at the creative habits of Baker, whose protagonists invariably wander and plunder the aisles of history; but Baker at least is explaining critically how such analeptic appropriations can invigorate us, how Shakespeare has much to impart yet. Nisi Shawl designs the far future of "Shiomah's Land" as a reiteration of the pagan past, and yet this is less nostalgia than a reminder that historical cycles repeat themselves, that history is the future's testing ground. Indeed, the sense grows that the better SF authors are not so much accepting the "retro" ethic of postmodernism as they are waging war on it from within, fighting on a field of its choosing but with weapons of their own. SF is at heart mimetic and moral, and never more so than in Robert Reed's superb "Past Imperfect," which savages postmodern heedlessness in terms Spinrad could only endorse, terms that resign the past to subjectivity but claim the present and future for rational understanding and right action. If Spinrad would only look around him with a less jaundiced gaze, he would find many SF novels with a similar imperative, many SF writers for whom history is merely a foundation to aspire from.

Two further stories are unambiguously set in the future, but of course they bring their baggage with them. Lisa Goldstein's "The Go-Between" is a rather ordinary tale of human-alien diplomatic relations, these relations being mediated by dogs, which Goldstein maintains are intelligent (questionable in the extreme) and forgiving (possible). With vastly more atmosphere and sense, Allen Steele in "The Days Between" narrates the experiences of a communications officer awakened from hibernation while the rest of his starship's crew sleep on; there is a real quality of nightmare here, cogently rendered, further confirmation of the quality of Steele's ongoing "Alabama" sequence, of which this is the second episode. We may go to the stars, but we'll take our loneliness with us.

March's poems are quite impressive, forming a kind of triptych surrounding the ambivalence towards space travel that Steele explores. Linda Addison's "The Reluctant Astronaut" contends that we already have all we need on Earth; "On Balance" by Timons Esaias hesitantly asserts that going out there is worth the price; and Geoffrey A. Landis' "Gulliver's Boots" is a bracingly comic reminder that the excursion may not be voluntary. Indeed. SF exists to remind us of that fact. History is our launching pad, the stars our destination. Pace Norman Spinrad, we can still Hope. Or Fear.

Copyright © 2001 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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