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Asimov's Science Fiction, January 2001

Asimov's SF, January 2001
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

You know I really do fully intend to read all these magazines I get during the month they appear. But, sometimes, I fall behind. In this case, really behind. But for anyone who, like me, devotes a certain amount of reading to "catching up" on back issues, here's my take on Asimov's start-of-the-new-year issue, though the year that it's starting is now a year old.

Asimov's has a well-earned reputation as an eclectic publisher of work that, with the exception of slipstream, largely defines the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre in almost all of its permutations. Indeed, the index of the previous year's stories that traditionally appears in the January issue is replete with "heavy hitters" both new and longstanding -- from Arthur C. Clarke to Greg Egan to Cory Doctorow to Jane Yolen -- who mine the field from various angles. In setting some pretty high standards for itself from month-to-month, it shouldn't be surprising that at times it falls a wee tad short. Such is the case with the inaugural issue for 2001, despite the presence of such established regulars as Allen Steele, Robert Reed, and Kage Baker. In fact, it's probably a back-handed comment to say that the most intriguing piece here for me wasn't prose but poetry, "January Fires," Joe Hadleman's meditations on personal sacrifice and bravado in the context of the two major tragedies of the Space Age.

I'm impressed by most of what I've seen of Reed's work, and while "Mirror" is certainly far from being shoddy, it ultimately didn't work for me. It's a take on the "man with the beautiful wife who's never really sure she's gotten over the high school rival who became rich and famous" story. In this variation, the rich guy has enough mad money to buy a device that lets him bring over other versions of himself from alternate universes into ours, all of which our hero suspects have designs on his wife. The narrator's confrontations with the various manifestations of the object of jealousy and, ultimately, the "original" -- if that's the right word -- serve to instruct the insecure narrator in the actual reality of his relationship. Now, it's not that I'm opposed to happy endings, but putting aside the logic of why all the replica universes (as well as the self-centeredness of the notion that there is an original "first among equals" universe -- ours presumably -- the others diverge from) are concerned with ensuring the gladdened state of one in particular version, I just didn't get the point of how, as a character puts it, "luck is inevitable." The more I think about the story in writing this review, the more I want to like it, but at a visceral level it just didn't click for me.

Another tale I wanted to like more than I really did is Steven Utley's "Half a Loaf," a meditation upon the human propensity to always want more than it has got, blindsided to the simple beauty of existence. The setting is a late evening confab among members of an archeological expedition sent back in time to the Paleozoic era. The work-related small-talk mixed in with some religious speculation is supposed to make you ponder humanity's innate yearning to continually explore and challenge its natural universe (at least I think that's the point), but, it didn't provide any particular insights to me.

More successful is "From Here You Can See the Sunquists," by Richard Wadholm, the best story in the issue, though it is perhaps marred by treading familiar ground covered way back in such classics as Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder." In this allegory about the danger of "living in the past," a man and his pregnant wife make what they agree will be their last trip to a favorite resort located in a time warp so they can voyeuristically revisit themselves at various stages in their courtship. The woman is a bit more reluctant to stroll down memory lane, and a stray turn into the future has tragic consequences that change the past. The moral here how the overly nostalgic miss out on the here-and-now and don't be too haughty about your fortune, because fortune easily changes.

I'll be quick to admit that failure to get into any of these tales in any enthusiastic way may very well reflect my own limitations rather than the shortcomings of the particular author. I'm less ambivalent about the contributions of Kage Baker and Laurence Person

Asimov's plays an obvious role in Baker's marketing strategy for her Company novels, as she manages to place a related story at about the time she's about to release the next book in the series (in this case, The Graveyard Game). The previous year it was "Black Smoker," which shares with the current issue's "Studio Dick Drowns Near Malibu" the probability that it will be of little interest to anyone who is not already familiar with and engaged in the Company conceit. Which is to say that it is not so much a story as a device to whet your interest in the upcoming book. Baker has shown that she can write an impressive standalone story in the Company setting -- see "Son Observe the Time" from the May 1999 Asimov's, which also gets a deserved billing in the 17th edition of The Year's Best Science Fiction, compiled by Asimov's editor Gardner Dozois. This is not one of them.

In Person's "Getting Ready for Prime Time," aliens eavesdropping on our mass media seek to communicate with us by dubbing themselves into an episode of Gilligan's Island, thus providing a Rosetta Stone for us to understand their language. It's an amusing idea, but of course it's also the premise for the highly entertaining movie Galaxy Quest. Unfortunately, Person doesn't do more than suggest how exposure to some of our films -- from Casablanca to War of the Worlds -- might affect alien perceptions of our species and lay an unsettling groundwork for a subsequent encounter. That's the difference between a vignette and the full-blown story line, which explains why this is one of the few times where I could honestly say I liked the movie better.

Now I have to admit that I did enjoy, for what it was, "Stealing Alabama," the cover story by Allen Steele (and what has become a continuing series in the magazine -- the latest installment, "Across the Eastern Divide" is in the February 2002 issue -- and the basis for a full-fledged novel, Coyote, to be published by Ace in November), in the same sense that while you might enjoy eating cotton candy, it offers nothing remotely nutritious. The great thing about Asimov's is you get to sample stuff you might otherwise ignore, though in the case of a cliché-ridden potboiler such as Steele's, that might not be a great oversight. Taken for what it is, though, it is fun.

What we have here is the steely good guy hero who rebels against the oppressive agents of evil. Captain Robert E. Lee, as the name obviously implies, is a high-ranking officer whose code of honor leads him to choose rebellion against loyalty to an oppressive government (we'll just have to ignore the fact that the actual Lee fought for a side seeking to preserve the oppression of slavery). Lee heads a conspiracy to hijack the spaceship Alabama from its stated mission by the United Republic of America, Steele's take on a what an ultra-right-wing version of America might look like. I must admit that I initially smiled to references such as the Newt Gingrich Space Center and the Patrick J. Buchannan Education Center (a concentration camp for dissidents) as well as vessels named George Wallace and Jesse Helms. But upon further reflection I think they're kind of superficial cheap shots. But you're not really supposed to think too much about such stuff, because this isn't really political satire (and if there was any intention of satire, it doesn't work). It's just an excuse for a rip-roaring adventure, featuring good guys versus bad guys, with a surprise about who is on whose side of that line, and a plot that depends on the hero's unbelievably incredible stupidity that tips off the forces of evil and create some suspense. Add to that a set of bad guy stowaways which promises something for the sequel, and such stirring hackneyed banter as:

"Skipper, I've got Houston. They..."

"Mr. Gillis... You have my permission to tell them to go straight to hell."

"Yes, sir!."

Well, I guess he told them!

So, all in all, you could do worse things with your time than spend a couple of hours with this issue. On the other hand, you could probably also do better.

Copyright © 2001 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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