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Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 39, No. 2…
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Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 39, No. 2 [February 2015]

by Sheila Williams (Editor)

Other authors: Elizabeth Bear (Contributor), Michael Bishop (Contributor), Eneasz Brodski (Contributor), Leah Cypess (Contributor), Derek Künsken (Contributor)1 more, Nick Wolven (Contributor)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Asimov's Science Fiction (469)

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This issue of the digest contains 2 short stories, 4 poems, a novella and 3 novelettes as well as the usual variety of essays and articles.

Among the columns this month, Robert Silverberg writes a lengthy piece about one hit wonders in science fiction, and in particular a lengthy talk about Wyman Guin's story "Beyond Bedlam." Although I recognized a number of one-hit wonders, a surprising number of them I don't believe I have ever heard about before. Several I did read though were absolutely high impact and important stories,

with "Flowers For Algernon" certainly the most recognizable to a wide audience. Peter Heck's book review column piqued my interest on a book and also confirmed my appreciation for a book I read earlier this year, Nancy Kress's Yesterday's Kin.

On the fiction side, the stories are:

• Rattlesnakes and Men • novelette by Michael Bishop
• Ghost Colors • shortstory by Derek Künsken
• No Decent Patrimony • novelette by Elizabeth Bear
• Red Legacy • novelette by Eneasz Brodski
• Forgiveness • shortstory by Leah Cypess
• On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers • novella by Nick Wolven

"Social" science fiction seems to be increasingly the driver of many stories, certainly in the recent ones I have read in Asimov's and elsewhere. Social is light on the science by my reading.

The first story here was a long unsatisfying odd tale about a place in Georgia that revolves in every way around rattlesnakes. I'm supposing this is alt-history, since the husband of the main character has recently returned from a tour of duty in a war in Australia fought with crossbows. This seems to be a world without guns, just so you don't miss the heavy-handed substitution of rattlesnake worship for gun worship in our society. I suppose as some sort of modern parable this conveys a message but I didn't care for this story. I don't consider this sort of story as science fiction at all and think it belongs in a different venue than "Asimov's Science Fiction".

Science fiction has a long history of crossing the border and playing with fantasy. Derek Künsken goes there with the exceptionally well written "Ghost Colors". A young man has inherited a haunting. Apparently they are fairly common in the near future world the author presents us with. Apparently you can sometimes get rid of them by gene therapy to make your DNA not look like you to the lost spirit. Unfortunately I didn't buy the crock despite the author trying to explain how it works ... mostly cause I don't buy all the haunted people in the first place. If you go along with spooks everywhere whispering to you and your friends then the story may make a bit of sense.

Despite all that complaining by me, I liked this story a lot because despite the trappings this is a very nicely laid out story of a recently divorced young man dealing with his family history and starting a new relationship. In that regard this story shines all over.

After two genre blending stories in a row Elizabeth Bear gives us a real science fiction tale with "No Decent Patrimony". We still blur the genres though as we get a murder mystery and more right from the start. Using a small stage she looks at the big consequences if a life extension treatment became a reality. Can you imagine members of Congress or shall we say Captains of Industry serving for a century and more and stifling change and hidden powers as well controlling society? We are seeing society and the world changing rather radically already and if one adds in life extension, and who controls it, this is an interesting topic. At the start I thought we could have a really interesting story here, but the information is primarily conveyed via a lengthy interview with the son of one of the elite. There is a not so surprising ending and the telling itself was a little too full of itself. I'd rate this as an OK.

Then we have "Red Legacy," the first published story by Eneasz Brodski, which is a Cold War tale that throws something into the mix that I would never have expected. The idea here which I'll try and roughly frame, is that perhaps Darwin's theory of evolution is an American excuse for cruelty and the Soviet researchers (and perhaps the British also) have pushed Darwin away and believe in the validity of Lamarck's theories on evolution via acquired characteristics. The Soviets are certain that the others ignore Lamarck's theories to their detriment and that the Soviets will breed ever greater generations. I'll readily admit that personally I once thought that Lamarck's ideas should not be totally dismissed - there is a sort of common sense about it that things could evolve in some ways within his ideas. So the story had an odd appeal to me! The Soviets pursue their research thinking that by causing something to change how they want (I don't want to be spoilery) they will be able to have this change passed on as an inherited characteristic.

Perhaps this is a little too grim to really get too enthusiastic over it, but I give it credit for a pretty novel idea. Worth the read for certain . I was interested from the first sentence and enjoyed this.

I see another "social science" fiction tale with "Forgiveness" by Leah Cypess. This one deals with new biotech that can sort of rehab criminals to the extent that they are no longer a danger to society for whatever crime they committed. Assuming it works.

This is teen-age drama, but not so bad. I'm beginning to think that the magazine is aiming for the middle school and slightly above crowd. Maybe they need a "Science Fiction for Tweeners" mag.

The perfectly awful title in big type on the cover is the novella by Nick Wolven, "On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers". For my taste this is the best piece of fiction in this issue. Future New York City. Edgy. Dark. Wage slaves who can never leave work. AI Quants run probabilities for Wall Street that no one understands. The oddball head of one trading firm sends one of his workers on a dark journey. The goal is to get to the one guy in New York who might know what is going on because it is not looking good. Not Escape From New York by any means. More like Joseph Conrad.

So out of six stories here I liked 3 of them. As always, other readers mileage with certainly vary. I'm feeling increasingly out of touch with pop science fiction. ( )
  RBeffa | Dec 18, 2015 |
The February 2015 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is a reasonably strong issue, containing six pieces of short fiction, two of which are average, two are fairly good, and two of which are excellent. With stories touching on the insidious invasion of work into other aspects of life, the American obsession with firearms, inheritance, and domestic violence, this issue hits on several hot-button issues with a collection of well-written and thought-provoking stories full of interesting science fictional ideas and some pretty pointed social commentary.

The cover story of the issue is On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers by Nick Wolven, an unsettling vision of the future and a scathing indictment of the modern economy, especially the financial sector. Gabriel is a trader originally from Ghana working for Kappalytics in New York City. When he shows up for his night shift, he is given the special assignment to go consult with a reclusive financial wizard named Ribbeck about strange predictions coming from Penrose, an artificial intelligence dedicated to making financial forecasts. It soon becomes apparent that artificial intelligences living in quantum computers isn't the point of the story, rather it is the "wake-up pills" that everyone relies upon. Gabriel is not merely starting his night shift, he is returning from dinner after his day shift. In fact, Gabriel is working his seventh consecutive day shift to night shift work day, having apparently spent about one hundred and sixty hours at work. This sort of dedication is not seen as exemplary, but is rather simply what is expected from a decent employee. Gabriel is even chided by his boss for taking the time to go eat dinner with his wife rather than eating at his desk for presumably the twenty-first meal in a row. All of this is fueled by the "wake-up pills" that allow people to go without sleep, and while being effectively enslaved to one's job seems like a horrific way to live, it seems like it is only different in degree from the world we live in today. With work-issued cell phones, laptops, and tablets a commonplace fact of life, with placing employees "on call" so that they must make them selves available to be summoned at a moment's notice, the workplace has already begun crowding out every other aspect of modern life, so the environment described in the story is just our world taken to a logical extreme. Rather than giving people time to do the things they want, technology only serves to accelerate the treadmill such that taking time to sleep is a luxury only indulged in by the wealthiest of the wealthy. This imagined future also posits that as much as half of the population would be unemployed, and yet would still use the "wake-up pills" to create a perpetual party fueled by resentment and paranoia, almost an endless "Occupy Wall Street" built on hopelessness and anger with added synthetic zombies, street gangs of private security personnel, and self-styled vampires. The plot of the story is essentially Gabriel's quest to make it to the Village and meet up with Ribbeck, a narrative that has overtones of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, where the journey is more important than the revelation that takes place at the destination. On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers is a chilling and altogether too plausible exploration of a potential future, and is an utterly brilliant story.

Rattlesnakes and Men by Michael Bishop is a story that is short on science fiction and long on metaphor involving the politics of a small Georgia town obsessed with rattlesnakes. After the Godfrey's are made homeless by a tornado, they relocate to the town of Wriggly on the promise of a job at the Shallowpit Feed & Seed. Once they arrive, they discover that the entire town's economy is based upon snakes, and that every town resident is required by law to own a pet rattlesnake. The snake is allegedly genetically modified to be no danger to its owning family, but it's presence makes Wylene Godfrey uneasy, despite her husband Reed's reassurances. As the story progresses, the dangers of the snakes become more and more apparent, as does the willingness of the locals to go to extremes in defense of their snake-based economy and culture. Other than the handful of references to genetic modifications to the snakes and the fact that the U.S. Army seems to rely upon crossbows as small arms, there is very little speculative fiction in the story. The snakes are fairly obviously a metaphor for firearms, although to be blunt, the snakes as presented appear to be less dangerous than firearms. Even so, the story is pretty heavy-handed in the way it presents its points, although the arguments seem to be fundamentally sound.

What would the world be like if wealthy people could live indefinitely long lives? Elizabeth bear touches on this question in her story No Decent Patrimony, set in a future in which a treatment that can extend human life has been developed, but it is effectively limited by law to those who have the money to pay not only for the procedure but for the tax penalties that undergoing it entails. The story itself follows Edward Jacobin, the unexpected heir to William Jacobin's fortune - unexpected because William had undergone the life-extending procedure and likely would have continued living for the foreseeable future, except that his car was blown up with him in it. This leaves Edward as an heir to a fortune in which almost no one becomes an heir to a fortune, and sets the stage for him to have an interview with a freelance journalist of his day to muse about the state of the world he lives in. The whole piece is held together by the barest shred of a story, which more or less resolves itself off-stage, but the setting material is so well presented that the weakness of the plot doesn't really matter.

Red Legacy by Eneasz Brodski is a strange Cold War era tale, told from the perspective of Soviet research scientist Marya Kovanich as she diverts state funds for her personal project of attempting to clone a healthy version of her deceased daughter. The story is told in a series of vignettes, first featuring an incursion by a British agent, next an audit by Russian authorities, and finally an attack by American operatives. Through the story the reader discovers that the actual project Marya is supposed to be working on is the development of organisms that will make it possible for the Soviet populace to survive the fallout caused by a nuclear war, but given her adherence to the state approved view of Lamarckian evolution, it seems almost certain that her efforts will be doomed to failure. The story goes to great lengths to try to describe the social and economic systems of the various powers involved in terms of evolutionary science, almost making the choice between Lamarck and Darwin out to be an ideological decision rather than a reality of nature, and this is what makes the story both somewhat interesting and fairly ridiculous. Underlying the whole story is something of a tragic love story that is told out of order so as to hide just what a wretched person Marya is until the very end. Overall, this story has a spark of cleverness, but it thinks it is just a little bit more clever than it actually is and falls somewhat flat as a result.

Ghost Colors by Derek Künsken is a short story that crosses the supernatural with genetic engineering. Brian is haunted by the ghost of his dead aunt Nicole's admirer Pablo, a fact that distresses Brian's girlfriend Vanessa. In the fictional world, gene therapy has been developed that will fool a ghost into leaving the hauntee alone, and Vanessa would like Brian to get this treatment. Although the haunting and the possible technological exorcism is the framing element, it isn't the meat of the story, which is focused on Brian's somewhat quirky relationship with his black sheep aunt as seen through the hazy memories of Brian's youth. Pablo, it turns out, was a scientist whose life's work was figuring out the colors of dinosaurs from their fossils, and who was in love with Nicole, although she never regarded him as anything but an adorable puppy. The story meanders through something of a muddled mess with the ultimate point essentially amounting to saying that stopping to smell the flowers is important.

The most gripping story in the issue is Forgiveness by Leah Cypess, a tale about the aftermath and rekindling of an abusive relationship potentially healed by technology. The story starts when Michael, Anna's former boyfriend, returns to school after treatment by being "chipped", that is to say having a chip implanted in his brain that is supposed to make it impossible for him to act out on his violent emotions that had caused him to beat Anna. Because Michael's chip now makes him "safe", Anna falls back into a relationship with him, testing his limits by flirting with another boy in school, pushing to see whether the chip's inhibitions are absolute. The story is a compelling exploration of the insidious nature of abusive relationships, and seems at first glance to offer the solution that many victims of domestic abuse want: Their partner that they love, just without the violence. But the critical point is that while the chip might be able to stop the actions of an abuser, it doesn't stop the emotions, and the story makes clear that those are the truly dangerous element. The story is frightening and painful to read, but it is frightening and painful to read in the best possible way.

The poetry in this issue is up to the usual standards for the magazine, with four fairly interesting pieces. An Unrequited Love Process Loops by Marie Vibbert is a short love ballad from the perspective of a robot. Almost a piece of flash poetry, Nanobots by Joshua Gage is a love story in four line. The most interesting poem in the issue is Perhaps by Jane Yolen, which suggests and alternative version of The Snow Queen than Hans Christian Anderson may have wanted to write but could not. The last poem in the issue is I Loved You More Last Time by Thom Dunn, a clever piece about lovers caught in a time loop that uses repeating language to convey the time-travel motif.

Science fiction is at its best when it uses its imagined realities to focus a spotlight on issues in our own. The February 2015 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction features several stories that do exactly that, and quite effectively as well. The top stories in the issue are On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers and Forgiveness, which both combine a chilling vision that seems uncomfortably real. Just behind them are No Decent Patrimony and Rattlesnakes and Men, which both explore interesting ideas but are just a bit too didactic for my tastes. Even Red Legacy and Ghost Colors are pretty good, although not nearly as good as the other stories in the issue. With a couple of excellent stories and a strong supporting cast, this is a very worthwhile read for a fan of short form science fiction.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds. ( )
  StormRaven | Sep 29, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Williams, SheilaEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bear, ElizabethContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bishop, MichaelContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Brodski, EneaszContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cypess, LeahContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Künsken, DerekContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wolven, NickContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Palencar, John JudeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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