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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Asimov's -- November/December 2019

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Asimov's, November/December 2019

"Surfers at the End of Time" by Rudy Rucker and Marc Laidlaw

"Christmas Truce" by Harry Turtledove
"The Airwalker Comes to the City in Green" by Siobhan Carroll
"Cloud" by Michael Swanwick
"The Disintegration Loops" by Ray Nayler
"Commander Amanda" by R. Garcia y Robertson
"Inside the Body of Relatives" by Octavia Cade
"Selfless" by James Patrick Kelly
"The River of Blood and Wine" by Kali Wallace
"SeeApp" by James Van Pelt
"Quantum Theory" by James Gunn
"Escape from Sanctuary" by Allen M. Steele

Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf

A dozen stories, set in pasts that never were, near futures close to home, and the far reaches of space in distant times to come appear in the latest issue of this long-running, award-winning publication.

"Surfers at the End of Time" by Rudy Rucker and Marc Laidlaw is the latest in a series of stories relating the wild misadventures of a pair of surfer dudes. In this tale, one of them comes up with an idea for a time machine while riding a wave. In the typical manner of time travel paradoxes, the device appears just as he is thinking about it, along with a gnome-like being from the future. Soon two women from the future show up, leading to romance and visits to the year 2222 and the extreme reaches of time. Complicating matters is the appearance of the future self of one of the surfers, leading to what seem to be violent deaths, although these turn out to be something truly unexpected.

This brief synopsis offers just a taste of all the outrageous events that occur at a breakneck pace in this rollercoaster ride of a story. At times, it seems that the two authors are daring each other to come up with something even more outlandish. The appearance of space-going dolphins near the end, for example, seems completely random, and tests the reader's willingness to go along with all this madness.

"Christmas Truce" by Harry Turtledove is alternate history, by a master of the genre. During a brief lapse in the battles of the Great War, a soldier by the name of Adolf Hitler carries a message to the front. Disgusted by the sight of Yuletide amity between enemies, he reacts violently.

The author creates a convincing psychological portrait of the young Hitler. Because we know this is a different version of what really happened to the infamous figure, the ending is predictable.

The background for "The Airwalker Comes to the City in Green" by Siobhan Carroll is very strange and difficult to describe in a few words. In brief, a bizarre disaster leaves only a few communities surviving, separated from each other by poisonous atmospheres, and bombarded by fragments of other universes. There are also dangerous creatures around, and the Outer Dark and Inner Dark, which threaten to consume the survivors.

The story begins with the arrival of an alternate version of the protagonist from a parallel reality. She claims to be here to save what is left of the world. The main character joins her in the mission, and discovers the truth about her.

The extremely complex and exotic setting reveals a great deal of imagination, and the story is certainly original and unique. Unfortunately, it is also very hard to follow, as the reader receives little explanation for the weird situation.

In "Cloud" by Michael Swanwick, a man attends a party at the home of a rich relative of his fiancée. He meets an elderly man who turns out to have a surprising relationship with him. Meanwhile, all the guests are aware of the Cloud, which could destroy their world, but pay little attention to it.

This is an odd little story, very well written but opaque. It is likely to both intrigue and confuse readers. The Cloud may be a symbol of the common human failing of ignoring serious problems, but this is not certain.

"The Disintegration Loops" by Ray Nayler takes place after a very different version of the Second World War. The United States government found an alien spaceship, and adapted its technology. This gave it an enormous advantage, and it not only defeated the Axis, but also drove the Soviets out of Eastern Europe and stopped Chinese Communism.

In a world where FDR is about to win a seventh term in office, the narrator works for the government in a unique capacity. She is the only person able to use alien technology that allows her to experience the memories of the dead. All others who used the device died instantly. An unsolved murder leads her into a web of espionage and intrigue.

The background for this story is more interesting than the plot, which is not much different from that of a typical spy adventure. At least the author provides some ambiguity as to whether either side can call itself the Good Guys.

The title character in "Commander Amanda" by R. Garcia y Robertson is a teenage girl who, through a set of unlikely circumstances, is captain of a privateer spaceship, after a successful career in the interplanetary military. She investigates the mystery of a vessel deliberately contaminated with a particularly deadly form of the Ebola virus. The plot involves a rogue artificial intelligence, space pirates, a little girl with extrasensory powers, enhanced apes, and many other concepts familiar to readers of space opera.

Despite her responsibilities, the protagonist acts more like a naïve adolescent than an experienced commander. The author's informal style and the main character's age make this story seem more appropriate for young adults than older readers. Despite some grim scenes of death and violence, the overall mood is that of a lighthearted adventure, more like a comic book than a serious work of science fiction.

"Inside the Body of Relatives" by Octavia Cade features an elderly woman living alone inside a house containing an artificial intelligence. In discussions with the AI, which is concerned that she is too isolated from other people, she argues that all things that were living, even the wooden floors of her house, are her family. This leaves the question of what her relationship with the AI might be.

This is a quiet, gentle story of loneliness and friendship. The author manages to convey the emotions of the AI in a subtle, realistic manner, while avoiding sentimentality.

In "Selfless" by James Patrick Kelly, certain people are able to take away the sense of self from another. What remains is a person with no single identity, playing many different roles in life. The main character willingly lost his self at a young age, pleading with his mother to take it so he would not have to suffer the sorrows of childhood. As an adult, he plays the roles of Husband, Father, Son, Commuter, Businessman, and so on, each one a different replacement for selfhood. He also plays the role of Hunter, taking selves away from others, although he fights against this urge. Only his relationship with his daughter offers him the chance to experience something like true selfhood.

The author manages to depict a speculative concept that is very hard to imagine, and make it seem real. The story has the rich characterization and graceful style of mainstream literature. The use of second person narration, which can often seem pretentious, is appropriate in this case, adding to the story's theme. As a bonus for fans of popular culture, the protagonist operates a museum of pulp magazine art, mentioning the names of artists familiar to science fiction readers.

"The River of Blood and Wine" by Kali Wallace takes place on an alien world colonized by humans. The colonists hunted the native inhabitants as animals, but later learned they were sentient, with a culture of their own. The main character, who left his home with evidence proving the aliens were intelligent, returns for a final visit, before all humans must leave. A visit to one of the clay domes where the aliens live reveals the tragic truth about his childhood.

The author creates convincing aliens, although they hardly appear at all. The actions of some of the humans are less believable. In particular, one character proves to be much more cruel than the reader expects, becoming something of a caricature of evil.

The title of "SeeApp" by James Van Pelt refers to a mysterious smartphone application, which a high school janitor finds by accident. It allows him to ask about hidden dangers, such as the number of black widow spiders living in the school. When he asks how many guns are in the school, it tells him there are two, but cannot provide the exact location. He starts his own investigation, leading to confrontations with a student and a teacher. He also faces a completely different danger from an unexpected source.

The author deals with the sensitive issue of school shootings without melodrama or exploitation. The story avoids taking a position on gun control, to its benefit. Instead, it concentrates on the janitor's need to face his fears while protecting others from harm.

"Quantum Theory" by veteran SF writer and scholar James Gunn is a brief tale about a woman working on the first quantum computer. She discovers that quantum particles are sentient beings, living on an unimaginably faster time scale. They communicate with her through the computer, taking generations of their lives to respond to simple messages. The information she gives them about the macroscopic world leads to an extraordinary phenomenon.

The premise is an intriguing one, if not very plausible. The ending opens the possibility of further events, leaving the reader wanting more.

"Escape from Sanctuary" by Allen M. Steele is the latest in a series of stories set on an alien world where humans are restricted to one area, and kept at a low level of technology, by the planet's inhabitants. In previous adventures, the narrator discovered the starship that brought human beings to the planet ages ago, and assisted others in stealing a journal and an advanced technological device. He starts this story in jail for his crimes, along with one of the people who hired him to help with the burglary. The others managed to flee the scene of the crime in a flying machine created by an inventive genius.

An elaborate scheme allows them to escape custody, with the aid of a gang of highwaymen. A submarine, also invented by the genius, takes them away from the human reservation, unseen by the alien guardians. The story ends with the narrator about to journey to another land, in search of answers to the many mysteries of humanity's presence on the planet.

This novella reads like the middle section of a novel. Readers unfamiliar with previous parts of the series may have trouble understanding what went before. The ending is inconclusive. Although action-filled and colorful, the story does not stand on its own.

Victoria Silverwolf finds it oddly amusing that the number of novellas in this issue (2) plus the number of short stories (4) is equal to the number of novelettes (6).