Tuesday, October 14, 2008

September Asimov's

Sept. seems to be a bit of a lull month in Ye Olde magazines. Although I'm sure I'm making unwarranted inferences, one could believe they're holding back their best material for the big fall double issues; those generally seem to have award nominees in them. In the Sept. issue of Asimov's I ended up skipping two stories ("In the Age of the Quiet Sun" by William Barton and "Slug Hell" by Steven Utley) but they didn't commit any grievous sins, they simply failed to capture my interest. Of the more RUMIR ones "Soldier of the Singularity" by Robert R. Chase has a good twist and "Cut Loose the Bonds of Flesh and Bone" is a well-done emotional tale about standing up to a verbally abusive mother (but offers no new perspective on the time-worn scenario). None of the remaining ones will necessarily be award winners, but they did pique my interest enough to warrant further comment.

"Horse Racing" by Mary Rosenblum tells a story of back-room dealing in human futures. It's a great concept: shadowy corporate interests scan the gene pool for raw talent, work behind the scenes to make sure it's nurtured, then gain an interest/stake in the person's eventual output. Some of these particularly bright young things get to see behind the scenes and some of them even start trading in their own "futures." I love the idea, although probably for all the wrong reasons. It's presented as quite benign which is a BIG change from the usual depiction of back room dealings; it'd be nice if things could be so win-win for everyone. Then there's the slightly "Fans are Slans" aspect of it: smart people really are really special and someone out there will recognize that. So, probably a wish-fulfillment tale, but a nicely done one.

"Midnight Blue" by Will McIntosh takes Collectable Card Games as the structure for its world-building. A boy is growing up relatively poor in a time that feels like the 1950s. A generation earlier, a whole bunch of magical charms had appeared all over the world. When you matched the stones and staffs that made up the charms, they passed on powers to whoever held them. Most of the powers were inconsequential and common: "Sense of Smell," "Singing," "Talk to Animals." Some of them were rarer, but more elaborate, like "Flyer" or "Skin that's Hard to Puncture." However, no new charms ever appeared. People alive then got lots of free powers, and there are none left for kids like our hero to find. You know where this is going. He finds one, and it's incredibly rare, and he has to figure out what to do with it. He finally makes a decision, and the consequence was something I didn't see coming, which I appreciate. This could have profitably been a shorter story, but other than that it was well done.

"Usurpers" by Derke Zumsteg actually showed me a different perspective on an issue, in this case drug abuse by athletes. Told from the interior perspective of a poor, black, natural runner, it shows him trying to win a major race against rich, white, juiced-up runners. The stilted prose style: "Fifty kids fifteen to eighteen stamp their feet. Stretch. Check each other out. Hopping in place to stay loose. Bitching about the bus ride over…" works very well for this kind of story. (I didn't like it at first, especially after my experience with the serial "Tracking" in recent issues of Analog. But here it developed its own compelling rhythm that really got you inside the guy's head and helped ratchet up the tension.) The guy is an asshole, but he's good at what he does, works hard, and doesn't have the resources to cheat like the other kids do. You root for him, despite all the jerk jock stuff. It makes you realize why it shouldn't be OK to just throw open various sports to doping, as I've occasionally thought myself. I definitely appreciated it.

Finally, "The Ice War" by Stephen Baxter gives us a decidedly odd, but really enjoyable homage to H. G. Wells set in the late 1600s. England is invaded by ice creatures. Our hero, Jack, is initially just trying to survive in whatever sneaky way he can, but via the sort of coincidence typical of historical fiction, is co-opted by Daniel DeFoe, Jonathan Swift and Isaac Newton to help save the country. The ending is predictable and entirely Wellsian, but Baxter tells a heck of a tale here. Jack is a fun character to root for, a charming rogue which is not one of the typical Baxter archetypes. His animation of the historical characters is probably over-the-top but still fun, and he throws in some lit references for the fans: Robinson Crusoe as early SF? Interesting thought! It's a great way to round out the issue.

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