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Asimov's Science Fiction, June 1998

Asimov's SF, June 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.

Asimov's SF Website

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

The June issue of Asimov's SF marks a new larger look (an inch taller and a quarter inch wider) which editor Gardner Dozois points out results in 10% more content despite a 16 page reduction for a single issue. While this may help Asimov's SF distinguish itself from the crossword puzzle and soap opera digests with which it appears in the Wal-Mart magazine aisle, the still inexpensive stock won't draw eyes from the more glossy literary magazines in the book stores. The latter, however, are generally more expensive and published quarterly, which makes Asimov's SF monthly selection of everything from short fiction to poetry to novellas coupled with book reviews and commentary quite a bargain.

Then again, I somehow doubt that Asimov's SF and The Iowa Review share the same target audience.

Ironically, in his "On Books" column, Norman Spinrad worries about the continued commercial viability of the very type of mainstream SF you'd expect from a magazine christened for Isaac Asimov, namely:

" fiction and fantasy written in serviceable and accessible transparent prose, more or less conventionally structured, and featuring protagonists with whom the ordinary reader can readily identify on a psychological level, but informed by serious speculative intent ..."
Spinrad sees hope for "sincere, intellectually demanding, literally interesting, spiritually alive SF" out on the fringes of the genre, citing such authors as Graham Joyce, Paul Di Fillipo, and Tim Powers, as well as powerfully recharged work by an old straight-ahead SF writer, Damon Knight. Based on this issue, Asimov's SF is sending some probes to the fringe regions while maintaining a home base in the terra firma of the mainstream.

What comes closest to a fringe work here is Ian McDonald's "The Days of Solomon Gursky," while still keeping a foot in the "traditional" SF camp, i.e., speculation on the origins of the universe drawn from current cosmological theories, a likable protagonist, a happy ending. My favourite story of the issue, this is a wonderful riff on the "If I could do it all over again" theme. As you might expect with a character named "Solomon" and a novella that is divided into the seven days of creation, there are also biblical motifs about division and birth. The writing is wonderfully imaginative, although at times you have to work a bit to figure out what's going on (a characteristic of "fringe" work), but that's half the fun. The issue is worth the purchase price for this story alone.

A close second is "Lovestory" by James Patrick Kelly (who also inaugurates a regular column about surfing the web, a subject that should be of interest to SF Site readers). Kelly effectively portrays a society of furry humanoids who have three sexes, the result of a division in the female role between the conceiver and the gestater. Kelly draws a vivid picture of this tri-gendered society (much more successfully than, say, Ursula Le Guin's vaguely depicted hermaphrodites in The Left Hand of Darkness). However, his ruminations on the difficult decisions and sacrifices a mother makes on behalf of her child would strike me as more radical -- and hence more on the fringe Spinrad celebrates -- had it appeared during the New Wave era when feminist SF first began shaking some the genre's foundations.

But, enough of this academic posturing. Wherever they belong on the literary continuum (if you care about such things), these are two damn fine stories.

Equally worth attention is Paul J. McAuley's "17." More firmly rooted in the mainstream, it's a fine evocation of how the underclass is exploited by technocracy, featuring a character with the street cunning and opportunity to rise above her circumstances. The story ends with the character exchanging one form of exploitation for another, although one half-expects that she'll find a way to beat the system. This reads like the opening chapter of a novel -- if that's not McAuley's intention, I hope he's at least considering additional stories centred on this character.

"Red" by Sarah Clemens is a werewolf story set in the 1960s South which succeeds in establishing parallels between the end of a destructive monster and the emerging demise of institutional racism (at least de jure with the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act). You have to think a bit about this nicely written story before you get it (or at least I did), so in that sense it's a more "literary" work. Not SF in the traditional sense, but it reminded me of the type of story that would pop up among the legendary collections of Judith Merril. Again, the story's meaning would have had a more radical resonation had it appeared during that time (but, then again, wasn't everything more radical in the 60s?). I wonder if a reader who either didn't grow up then or hasn't at least passing familiarity with its gestalt will fully understand it.

Things go downhill a bit from here. "The Moon Girl" by M. Shayne Bell relates the narrator's discovery of an 18th century explorer's notes about an encounter with an alien. Needless to say, this has been done before, and unless I'm missing something, it doesn't add much to the literature beyond mimicking the form. Similarly, "Target of Opportunity" presents a "time travellers going back to the dinosaur age" scenario, and while there's some imaginative description by Stephen Dedman, I didn't find the denouement overly fulfilling or original. Besides, I think Ray Bradbury did this best way back with his "A Sound of Thunder," and without need of a bunch of techno-speak to make it interesting.

This kind of retread stuff fails to reinvigorate mainstream SF in a way that effectively evokes the "sense of wonder" that attracts new (traditionally male adolescent) fans and boosts circulation. Admittedly, it was easier to do this in the days before the Star Wars trilogy, PalmPilots, and NASA websites featuring the latest vidcaps from Outer Space. Thus in his regular "Reflections" column, Robert Silverberg in "The Science Fictionalization of Everything" echoes David Hartwell's complaint (from Age of Wonders -- recommended reading) that "When science fiction comes true, it's no longer fun":

"I've lived long enough, now, to see all these fantastic notions perfected and turned into the innate essence of our daily mundane reality... I was drawn to science fiction in the first place because I passionately cared about all those fantastic things... and yearned with all my heart to live long enough to see them turn into reality. The day I start reacting coolly and indifferently to the sight of a foot-high six-wheeled gizmo scooting around piles of sand on Mars is the day I put my cherished files of half-century old copies of Astounding Science Fiction out for the next Goodwill pick-up..."
The problem may be that generations raised on laptops, genetic manipulation, and interactive role-plays may not be astounded by some of the SF represented in Asimov's SF. More journeys to colonize the fringe, then, may be necessary to preserve the continued health of the species. Of course, periodicals like CRANK! pride themselves for living on the edge, but come out only quarterly, if that (I haven't seen an issue of CRANK! since 1996, unfortunately). After over 20 years, Asimov's SF remains a dependable source to take a regular pulse of the genre. Here's hoping it retains a vital beat.

Ian McDonald The Days of Solomon Gursky
James Patrick Kelly Lovestory
M. Shayne Bell The Moon Girl
Sarah Clemens Red
Paul J. McAuley 17
Stephen Dedman Target of Opportunity
Robert Silverberg Reflections: The Science Fictionalization of Everything
James Patrick Kelly You Can Get Everywhere from Here: Start
Norman Spinrad On Books: The Edge of the Envelope

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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