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Asimov's Science Fiction, May 1999

Asimov's SF, May 1999
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A review by Ken Newquist

Some speculative fiction stories promise a bright, shining, optimistic future. You won't find those kinds of stories in the May edition of Asimov's. Ranging from melancholy to all-out depressing, these tales are not for those seeking a pick-me-up from the trials of everyday life. However, they are thought provoking.

One of the best is "The Oracle" by Brian Stableford, in which the protagonist is cursed with a cloudy kind of foresight. Caxton is an escaped member of a government project with the goal of letting a select few see into the future. There's a problem though -- each of the chemically-enhanced psychics is driven to near-insanity by visions of an apocalyptic future. Will the future come to pass? Or are the visions nothing more than a drug side-effect? Caxton doesn't care. All he wants to do is use his curse to bet on race horses and to use his winnings to buy the uppers and downers that keep him sane. The government does care, and recaptures Caxton in the hopes that he can help see past the future's fuzzy veil.

The novelette reads well, and Stableford does a good job of addressing a question that's always haunted psychics -- if you can see the bad things coming, why can't you avoid them?

"Soldier's Home," a novelette by William Barton, continues the dreary streak with a nostalgia-driven future in which super soldiers are all that remains of humanity. In the tale, Barton's humanity has been augmented by one group of aliens to help in a war against another group. Humanity gladly accepts its new powers, fights the good fight, and is nearly destroyed in the process. One of the survivors travels to an abandoned human colony in search of his vividly remembered, but ancient, history. He finds discarded intelligent toys which are lost without their masters.

Barton's story is reminiscent of the Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, and the writing style is enjoyable. Unfortunately, the story doesn't seem to go anywhere: the main character arrives, explores, remembers, fights a brief fight, and leaves.

The novella, "Son Observe the Time," by Kage Baker takes her readers -- and her time travellers -- back to turn of the century San Francisco on the days before the city's destruction by earthquake. Time travel is just a tool in this story; the real meat of it revolves around the nature of men... and the ability of higher powers to manipulate that nature.

Sea serpents and other oddities populate Robert Reed's "Human Bay." The story is based on the age old idea of a hero who is given a warning and promptly ignores it, with disastrous consequences. "In Old Glory," civilization collapses after exposure to a virus. The survivors rally around a recorder-of-deeds and the American flag as they try to re-kindle civilization. The ending of "Human Bay" has a nice fantasy-meets-Twilight-Zone feel and "Old Glory" is enjoyable in an end-of-the-world sort of a way.

On the non-fiction front, there's the monthly editorial, several book reviews, and an excellent piece on websites dedicated to writing speculative fiction.

The May edition is up to Asimov's usual high standards, although readers should be prepared for its interesting, but melancholy, fiction.

Copyright © 1999 Ken Newquist

Kenneth Newquist is a confessed science fiction/fantasy addict living in Easton, Pennsylvania, and working as a webmaster at a small university in New Jersey. He's regular contributor to Science Fiction Weekly and is the editor of the speculative fiction webzine Nuketown.

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