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

Asimov's -- September 2014

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Asimov’s, September 2014

Place of Worship” byTochi Onyebuchi
A Lullaby in Glass” by Amanda Forrest
Bogdavi’s Dream” by Tom Purdom
Patterns” by James Gunn
Everyone Will Want One” by Kelly Sandoval
Scouting Report” by Rick Wilber
Windows” by Susan Palwick


Reviewed by Louis West

I found a few compelling stories but was mostly disappointed in this issue. Perhaps the editor was looking for a particular focus which escaped me.

Place of Worship,” by Tochi Onyebuchi, is a story about an alcoholic’s hunt for sobriety. It’s only putative link to SF is that it takes place in a “Lagrange point” colony, which one (Earth, Moon, other planets) is never said, nor is there ever anything unique ascribed to this colony other than no internet and lots of hard manual labor. While I deeply respect any person who makes the journey to sobriety, for it’s an enormously difficult and, eventually, rewarding one, I have a hard time seeing this as SF. Spec Fiction, perhaps, if you consider it a product of the on-going evolution in how Spec Fiction is defined. However, wallowing in a person’s chronic self-pity is not my idea of an enjoyable tale. While I might rate this a good literary piece, it’s simply too oppressive for me.

Amanda Forrest’s “A Lullaby in Glass” is solid SF set in a dystopian Vietnam wrapped in the personal development story of Tuan, a disabled yet intelligent young man with no sense of self-worth. A changing climate has destroyed all the insect fruit and nut pollinators. To counter this, artificial corrals have been built in the shallow ocean depths around near-shore islands. The diatoms that thrive there grow the nano-glass circuitry needed to control microscopic pollinator drones. However, the diatom colonies have been dying. Without the pollinators, the country will starve, because floods and storms have destroyed much of the rice crop, and Vietnam’s food stores have all been used up. Additionally, Tuan’s father is in charge of this coral project. With its failure, Tuan’s father will be held personally responsible and punished, most likely executed.

As Tuan struggles with the consequences of this looming disaster and his inability to do anything, he meets a refugee girl, Anh. One night he finds her sabotaging the diatom pools using her complex biotattoos to interfere with the programming. He confronts her, only to learn that she thought the diatoms were growing micro-additives for Chinese cosmetics. Her story is heart-breakingly complex—a starving refuge from the south, augmented then used by others, now on the run for what she’d learned when she hacked government databases and destined to be erased once caught. What Tuan eventually decides to do to fix the corral colonies and try to save Anh gives him a confidence he’d never had and transforms him into a leader, a man even his father is proud of.

Excellent story with a good mix of possible future science, the economic and social consequences of failing to manage earth’s resources wisely, personal angst, challenge and victory, all blended with an undercurrent of never-ending hopelessness. Highly recommended.

Bogdavi’s Dream,” by Tom Purdom, is a tale about a group of humans allied with two different alien races attempting to wrest control of a human settlement from a gang of thuggish humans. Told in third person omniscient with lots of expository backstory, the story kept me so distant from the characters that I felt no connections to any of them nor cared who won. The only tension was the actual combat. Amazingly, there wasn’t one squabble between any of the allies. Sure, they argued, but it was told with such clinical detachment that I felt nothing. While I think there’s a good story buried in this and know that Tom has written some really good stories, this just isn’t one of them.

In James Gunn’s “Patterns,” Jeremy is a numbers man who finds patterns in numbers for the NSA. Recently, he’s come across evidence that someone is hacking the NSA’s database and “sorting” it for reasons unclear to him. He struggles with telling his boss, fearful of the inevitable pattern of derision and dismissal. Eventually, though, he does. His boss contacts his boss and Jeremy ends up in a conference room facing intimidating strangers asking difficult questions. Still, they don’t fire him. By now, Jeremy has discovered the hack is coming from Jupiter’s moon, Titan, and he fears the patterns that will follow. The End.

This doesn’t work for me. First, there’s a sudden POV shift in the 5th paragraph which halted my reading. Second, the question asked by Jeremy’s boss: “Why would anyone want to hack us?” I found to be both ignorant and clueless, not something I would expect from an NSA manager. Paranoia seems like the more likely attitude. Next, wouldn’t any signal beamed from Titan be detectable by SETI? Lastly, what is the pattern Jeremy expects once “they” have enough information and why should it matter?

In “Everyone Will Want One,” by Kelly Sandoval, Nancy’s father is really detestable. Although I’m not sure who’s the greater antagonist, her father or the mean-spirited Synth-Social he gives her because he thinks she needs to be popular to be acceptable. The device appears like a Synth-Pet but badgers Nancy into modifying her life, eating and exercise habits and social behaviors, all with a goal to push others aside to make room for her in the popular cliques. Then it gets broken. She needs it because she doesn’t like who she is. After her only friend, Dora, fixes it, she makes a decision that finally puts her in control of her life. A cute tale with a “hurray” for Nancy in the end.

Rick Wilber’s “Scouting Report” starts off with the kind of subtle tension I associate with a good horror story: As idyllic as everything seems for Robert as a baseball scout in Puerto Rico, there are underlying currents that suggest it’s not so. Then the aliens get introduced. A mysterious woman lawyer (who amazingly is quite baseball savvy) approaches Robert, getting him drunk with mojitos while she talks about the 19-year-old outfielder phenom, Aloysius, who Robert had scouted, and how his vision isn’t as good as human vision can get, leading Aloysius to slow down when he approaches the back wall on a long fly ball. I presume it’s the alcohol that fuzzes Robert’s brain, preventing him from making the obvious connections the woman talks about. The rest of the story is very predictable with Robert clueless throughout. I would have appreciated an unexpected ending although mention of Appleton (Estates) rum was a nice touch.

Windows,” by Susan Palwick, is a gritty, near hopeless story about Vangie going to see her only son, Graham, who’s in prison. She’s dirt-poor. Buying the bus ticket for the 10 hour ride leaves her short food money for the month. It’s her son’s birthday, and her daughter, Zel, had sent a video to share with her brother. Zel is in deep space on a multi-generational colony ship. Vangie will never see her again.

Every day for Vangie is about being leery of luck, for when it turns good, that means later it will turn bad, sometimes very bad. Her trip to see Graham is full of good luck--the noisy kid next to Vangie on the bus gets off at the next stop leaving her with an entire seat to sleep on, the prison warden has agreed to let her borrow a prison laptop to see the video from Zel, she manage to be first in the visitor line at the prison. But when her son comes to meet her with a Chaplain in tow, all her luck comes crashing down.

Yes, this story’s only SF claim is that Zel is on a generation ship. Still, Vangie’s irrepressible struggle to meet life head-on is admirable, because no matter how bad things may get, she never slips into a dystopian view of life. And the title? Vangie is hope wrapped in an indomitable will, best expressed as follows:

The bus rocks her, that lulling rushing motion she’s always loved, the feeling of going somewhere. She peers up through the window, but there are clouds now, and between them and the grime, she can’t see stars. She pushes both of her seats back, and stretches out as much as she can, and sleeps.”