fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe first of three novelettes in the February 2014 issue of Asimov’s is Derek Künsken’s “Schools of Clay,” a space opera that is almost incomprehensible. It concerns a race of beings that is modeled on bees, apparently, with queens, workers and new generations of princesses. These beings mine asteroid belts and seem to be partly machine and partly organic (though their nature is never spelled out, one of the serious shortcomings of this story). Some of these beings have souls, and some do not, though what “soul” means in this context is unclear. Diviya is the viewpoint character, a medic or mechanic or both, caught between castes. And he is a revolutionary, for the workers have become dissatisfied with their status. A need for the colony to migrate — a pod of predatory shaghāl has come after the colony, beings whose nature and aims are not explained — comes too early for the plans of the revolutionaries, but Diviya encourages them to rise up regardless, apparently leading to the deaths of virtually all except Diviya and one princess. Diviya’s rescue of the princess from the pursuing enemies is exciting enough that most readers are likely to finish the story, but the lack of background information about or description of this species spoiled it for me.

“Steppin’ Razor” by Maurice Broaddus also lacks background and other information necessary to understand the action of the story. It takes place in an alternate, steampunk Jamaica, where power resides in the blackest residents and is denied to those who are merely brown (there are no white characters in the story). Desmond Coke is brown, and thus is a servant to August and Ninky Cobena. The Cobenas have been invited to dine with the colonel, a man who is apparently the ruler in Jamaica, though the form of government is not clear (the colonel at one point seems to state that his title is honorary, thus bringing into question whether Jamaica is rules by a military dictatorship or not, though it is explicitly stated that Jamaica is under a declared state of emergency). The story is full of Rastafarians, including references to Haile Selassie, as well as to “duppies,” or zombies, suggesting that voodoo still has a role in this world, but again, the politics are not explained. The MacGuffin of the tale is a boy who seems to be a clone of Selassie, intended to be used as a weapon by the colonel until Desmond Coke takes matters into his own hands. Broaddus seems to assume that his readers know the history of Jamaica, Ethiopia, and Rastafarianism, so that no explanation is necessary, but any reader without this knowledge will be at sea.

The third novelette is “The Happy Death of Oxford Brown” by Jason K. Chapman. The titular Brown is dying, and wants to be uploaded to AftrLyf, just like his wife was when she died three years later. Brown has been devoted to his wife ever since he read her private journal when they were in college, speaking of her love for “O.” They had a happy life, and he wants to have a happy afterlife with her as well. Chapman describes the environment to which Brown is uploaded when he dies, and his experiences there trying to find his wife. It’s a charming story with little weight.

The short stories in this issue are also of little weight. “Ball and Chain” by Maggie Shen King describes a future China in which the restrictive one child policy, and the resulting surplus of men, has led to polyandry. Wei-guo, the narrator, is a man of 40 who is looking for a mate and is willing to live with co-husbands; Wu May-ling already has two, who are also brothers. Wei-guo attempts to form a bond with Wu May-ling, but his plans go awry when Wu May-ling brings her child on their date and one of her husbands pops in after a while. The story does not end so much as stop; there is no resolution to either this relationship (if, indeed, it will become a relationship) and no implications for the bigger picture of this struggling social structure.

M. Bennardo’s “Last Day at the Ice Man Café” is about the life led by a man found frozen in a glacier. After he’s revived and studied, it appears, he’s been allowed to fend for himself. He owns a government-provided — “on account of original ancestral claims — café in Montana that’s been cut off from its intended clientele by a freeway bypass. There isn’t much more to the story than that.

Sarah Pinsker’s “The Trans-Dimensional Horsemaster Rabbis of Mpumalanga Province” is, despite the unwieldy title, the best fiction in this issue. The story unfolds through photographs and videotapes as much as through narrative, because Yona is a photographer, as was her (very recently) late husband. Yona has traveled to South Africa to photograph a lost tribe that has been recently rediscovered. The tribe is unique because its members do not appear to be entirely of this world; they appear and reappear, apparently going elsewhere, to some other world or dimension, when they are not on Earth. Communications with them are still fragmentary, so there is no complete explanation of their existence; but in this story that is not a shortcoming, as it is not necessary to understand Yona’s own journey into accepting her husband’s death.

“Ask Citizen Etiquette” by Marissa Lingen is a very short and mildly amusing piece by a future advice columnist confronted with questions Dear Abby has never had to answer. Technology always finds a way to cause etiquette problems, it seems.

I admire that Asimov’s supports poetry. There are five poems in this issue, of which I most admired G.O. Clark’s “Cloud Vortex,” which beautifully compares photographs of Saturn’s North Polar Vortex to a New England summer sky just before a thunderstorm. Greg Beatty’s “An Answer, At Last,” is a cute take on Schrödinger’s cat. And Ruth Berman’s “Gold Ring” is a lovely parable of magic invading real life, but not too much.

Peter Heck’s book column is competently written. Sheila Williams’s editorial is a remembrance of Frederik Pohl. Robert Silverberg’s column concerns rereading Philip José Farmer’s work.

This issue felt oddly flat, as if days of no sun and cold temperatures had invaded the pages with gray. I expect more from Asimov’s.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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