Sheila Williams, the editor of Asimov’s, says that the annual October/November issue is “slightly spooky.” There are a few frights in the magazine, as well as some solid science fiction, but overall, I was generally disappointed in this double issue.
Alan Smale’s novella, “The Mongolian Book of the Dead,” was not one of the disappointments; to the contrary, it is a nicely imagined tale of what might happen if the Chinese decide to mount a military invasion of Mongolia — an independent landlocked country sandwiched between Russia and China. I enjoyed Smale’s use of folklore, fantasy and politics as seen through the eyes of an American caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, a man who serves as a linchpin for the plans of an ugdan, the female equivalent of a shaman. The shadow of Chinggis Khan and his fearsome band of Mongol warriors hangs over the story, as Tanner and his escort cross the Gobi Desert by foot, camel and horse, trying to outrace the Chinese army that is tracking down anyone who might mount the least resistance to the surprise takeover of the country.
The issue’s other novella, Jay Lake’s “The Stars Do Not Lie,” was one of the disappointments. It posits an Earth that is 6,000 years old, but displays no fossil record of the humans who live there. The heresy, then, is not that humans evolved from lower species, but that humans were brought to the planet from elsewhere and left to fend for themselves. The story replays the history of Galileo and the Catholic Church with a slight twist, a bit of steampunk and a lot of ridiculous character names such as “Bilious Quinx,” which sounds comical; I kept waiting for puns that never appeared.
Will Ludwigsen’s novelette, “The Ghost Factory,” has a Halloween feel to it. The first person protagonist, who is never named, identifies himself as a psychiatric case worker at a hospital called Worthington Wood. He’s a bad case worker, he tells us, because he cannot empathize with his patients: “Crazy people are a lot less interesting than you’d expect.” The protagonist becomes sexually involved with Valerie, one of his patients, a woman who has no precise diagnosis, but seems simply to be retreating further and further from the world. In fact, she believes that she’s literally becoming immaterial, disappearing, turning into a ghost without dying first. When the hospital starts emptying out — budget cuts have forced it to close — Valerie makes her move. And afterwards, our protagonist decides to make his. The story is more sad than scary, unless you interpret “scary” to be a comment on our postmodern inability to form attachments to one another.
The second novelette in this issue is “The Second Engineer” by Gray Rinehart. Annalise is a crewman on the Indomitable, and she discovers she can hear the Engine Room singing — she hears it through conduction, not through her ears. No one else on the crew can hear it, and Annalise is being driven mad by the “sound.” It’s not clear how the singing fits into a series of attacks on the crew, starting with something hard bashing into Annalise’s head — a circumstance that also makes her seem to understand the gist of the ship’s song. The situation gets progressively worse, and Annalise wonders whether she’ll ever see her husband and child again. It’s a good hard science fiction story that works out the problems it poses in a logical, seemingly scientific way.
The best of the short stories in this issue is “Lion Dance” by Vylar Kaftan. It takes place in a San Francisco that has been ravaged by a pandemic, so much so that it’s illegal to be outdoors unless you have a specific, provable reason for being there. That’s a hard thing to ask of young people, though, and one day a group of young Chinese-Americans decide to have a New Year’s parade, even though New Year’s is long gone. In particular, the parade will feature two-person Chinese lions, and the costumes will keep the kids from being revealed to the police. There are lessons to be learned here, and by the end of the story the narrator has learned them.
“Antarctica Starts Here” by Paul McAuley explores a critical issue in environmentalism. Is Antarctica worth preserving as it is, or should humans take advantage of global climate change and start farming what used to be a frozen wilderness? Is it right for humans to refuse to brave the remaining cold by using robots to replant birch in the melting permafrost? What obligations do humans have to preserve the world instead of using it?
Ekaterina Sedia contributes a spooky fantasy to the mix in “A Handsome Fellow.” During the Seige of Leningrad, Svetlana acquires a suitor, Ilya. It quickly becomes obvious that Ilya is a upyr — or, as we would call him, a vampire. Svetlana tries to take care of her young brothers, and Ilya apparently tries to help, remembering his days as a human. But a upyr’s help is usually harmful, and such is the case here.
“Chromatophores” by John Alfred Taylor is about teenage girls interested in virtually nothing but the usual teenage concerns — boys, clothes, and, in response to global climate change, chromatophores, that is, an ability to change one’s skin color at will instead of merely wearing makeup and sunblock. Despite the protection offered by this new technology, though, one of the girls develops cancer. The narrator of the tale, Janice, panics when she realizes that her friend must have had her fatal exposure to the sun one day when they went out for a walk on a cool January day, black all over and thinking they didn’t need sunscreen. In her grief and fear, Janice grows up very fast. It’s a strong story, if a touch preachy.
Eugene Mirabelli writes about Henri Orban, a man who was “a pretty good physicist until his wife died,” in “This Hologram World.” Orban’s feeling of disorientation resulting from his wife’s death starts to be the problem he tries to address in scientific terms. It is a memorable picture of grief.
Steven Utley’s “Shattering” is an incomprehensible story that switches between first and third person for no purpose except, apparently, to confuse the reader. A man is on a spaceship, the first to be sent to the stars, and he misses his wife. Does the universe care? Is space actively hostile to the human presence? The story makes no attempt to answer these questions, instead giving us a portrait of a lonesome spaceman.
“Results Guaranteed” is a disappointing story from Kit Reed, who can usually be counted on to write remarkable stuff. This story is about a child whose parents want him to be a superhero — literally, to have some sort of superpower that will allow him to stand out in his school full of superheroes. The kid’s father hires a psychiatrist who guarantees results, and results are indeed arrived at — but this psychiatrist solves the problem, which may not necessarily mean changing the child.
This issue also contains four poems, the best of which is a very short poem by Geoffrey A. Landis, entitled “Ghosts.” “The Season, by Ken Poyner, is about monster crabs appearing out of the sea, and struck me as not horrible or strange enough to be accounted a good Halloween poem, while “Variations on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” by Lola Haskins, is gimmicky. “Three Sumerian Mummies” by Peter Simons is a silly bit of light verse about a rock band.
The nonfiction in this issue is solid, as usual, but not special. Sheila Williams writes about her childhood reading, Robert Silverberg writes about reading the ancient Romans, and James Patrick Kelly offers a column about virtual reality. Norman Spinrad’s book column is confusing and provides little guidance as to whether a book under review is worth reading.
I confess that I always feel a bit of a thrill when a double issue of Asimov’s arrives in my mailbox. This time, though, the thrill wasn’t justified. I hope the December issue is better.