Asimovs April/May 2014

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William Preston. Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key.

The fourth in the ‘Old Man’ series, following ‘Clockworks’ (April/May 2011), ‘Unearthed’ (Sept 2012), ‘Helping Take The Old Man Down’, and a sequel to the latter.

The series is a homage to ‘Doc Savage’ pulp heroes – and I’m guessing a fair number of Asimovs readers may well have no idea at all as to who that character was, or what pulp heroes were. But as with the other stories, there is more to the story than that, and the majority of this story is from the perspective of someone who is indeed trying to take the old man down, or, to be more specific, trying to find out if he is need of being taken down.

The Old Man is imprisoned by the American authorities, a single prisoner in a remote Texan complex. He’s been there some years, but hasn’t cracked. In fact the hasn’t done much at all. His new interrogator is something quite different. Preston looks at issues the evil men have done, even when it is rationalised through doing a greater good, or just doing plain evil – whether it’s Stalinist purges, or waterboarding/Abu Graib. The new character, Jimmy Randolph has to some extent been there/done that, but his special talents are to be used to get inside the head of the Old Man, and to seek out, or create good, rather than brainwash to remove the evil.

The story neatly entwines a current narrative with recently finished events, so we know that something has happened, which Jimmy has to work his way through, in addition to the combat stress prior to that. And, quite charmingly, the Old Man as a pulp magazine hero is see to be just that (you’ll have to read the story). Just a shame though that the cover of the magazine, illustrates a scene from the denouement in a way that doesn’t really do the story justice, whereas a 1930s-style pulp magazine cover, or, indeed, the 1930s pulp magazine cover, would have been even better.

And the story sets up a Big Finale quite nicely.

Fran Wilde. Like a Wasp to the Tongue.

Routine scientist fiction, in which one Diana Rios has to deal with an outbreak of wasp stings on a scientific settlement on a remote planet. There’s corporate skullduggery afoot, and politics, and other stuff, but, truth to be told, I wasn’t engaged with it from the outset (tongue-stung victim says “Ith wath a beth!” to explain why he did it).

Mind you I now know what a vespidary is.

Will McIntosh. Scout.

From a forthcoming novel, ‘Defenders’, which is already optioned by Warner Brothers. It’s a small sequence with an interesting backdrop – people on Earth struggling against an alien invasion. Young Kai, one of an increasing number of refugees, finds little help from the local community he passes through. We find out gradually about what has been happening, with the crux of the story involving a downed alien scout engaging with him telepathically.

This communication enables us to find out about the alien motivations, especially as the communication is so sophisticated (truth to be told, that didn’t ring true, as Kai and the alien communicated better than teens from different country would, let alone a teen and an altogether alien alien).

However, it would work well on the big screen, albeit a little like the cellar scenes from the most recent War of the Worlds movie.

Michael Swanwick. Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown.

It’s been quite some time since I read a story from Unca Mike!

The scarlet begowned titular character is in fact the Devil, who makes a nocturnal visit to offer an invitation he can’t refuse to young Su-Yin. Her father is a general, the kind who has done things in the past that are deserving of his destination, but he’s still Su-Yin’s father, and she’s a resourceful girl, a very resourceful girl, and she follows him to the Underworld, where she is able to make a deal with the Devil for their safe return to the surface. Except of course that the deal requires her to do something, or, rather, not to do something, for a whole year.

It’s a smoothly told story, gliding along nicely, with the underworld not that far different from some of the seamier parts of some of the seamier cities of the world.

M. Bennardo. Slowly Upward, the Coelacanth.

Deep in the seas, a coelacanth is carrying a precious cargo, and is aware of the fact.

The story takes you through further instantiations, but the denouement isn’t a surprise, and it doesn’t really offer more to a story type that Stephen Baxter had fun with some years ago – humans in extremis looking to nature and the animal/marine kingdom the better to survive the new environment.

Matthew Johnson. Rules of Engagement.

Near-future military SF, not a type of SF that generally appeals to me.

Johnson looks at the potential for soldiers to have implants that control their actions, preventing inappropriate aggressive actions whilst in combat (and presumably good for Canadian Mayors, members of NYPD and others then…)

There’s an interesting structure to a story that looks at potential flaws with the implants with three soldiers, a team just back from military service. One is the narrative of their final action, in which we see all the hi-tech at their personal disposal in action (a treat no doubt for people who like their military hardware descriptions). Interspersed with this is a coolly detached perspective from someone who is studying reasons behind exactly what happened, and why, once they returned home.

As such the story doesn’t get too much into the heads of the three soldiers. True dat their backgrounds are described, but one of the three who halfway through the story steps back from the precipice, appears in the final sentence, well and truly precipitating action, with no explanation (other than implant malfunction) to explain that.

Perhaps a bit picky, but having watched the interspersed narrative of the HBO ‘True Detective’ – that’s a standard I’m looking out for.

K.J. Zimring. The Talking Cure.

An interesting, doubtless unique!, combination of elements in a cleverly wrought story with a neat twist at the end.

Elements include : the American Association of Retired People, Sigmund Freud, antiquities and the need for provenance, Adolf Hitler, and the sfnal element : a machine that can accurately find, and display, memories otherwise long-lost.

The protagonist has a childhood memory of being in Dr Freud’s office, and he is the key to whether there was ever a particular painting on the office wall. Whilst this is the crux of the story to start with, much, much more revealed.

Joe M. McDermott. Dolores, Big and Strong.

There’s a fairly limited sfnal element to the story – more of a technological development that could easily be not far off development. That technology enables June Jiminez Nguyen, going through an awkward phase that makes her an otherwise generally unlikeable teen, able to hook herself up to her step-grandmother, so that her healthy blood can do the work that Dolores’ poor blood cannot do to prevent the development of her Parkinsons and dementia.

The story is essentially a study of this young woman, willing to spend the evenings connected to the woman her grandma married after her grandad died, whom she hates/believes she hates. There’s a young ne-er-do-well friend, goats and chickens to be looked after, and life to be lived.

It’s a believable setting and strong characterisation. It’s a first Asimovs story from someone with several novels under his belt, and hopefully we’ll be seeing more of him in Asimovs.

James Patrick Kelly. Someday.

A shortish story that takes a peek at some big issues. Daya is a young woman living in a long-established colony on a planet which has just been revisited by humans from offplanet, the first visit for many generations.

Things have changed amongst the humans in the colony, and Daya’s about to get pregnant, which in her society includes visiting three men and ensuring that a good mix from their sperm fertilises her ova (I did say things have changed!). She goes against the norm by staying local, rather than seeking DNA from further afield. But choosing her brother as one of the three fathers isn’t an issue. And having completed the three-man night, we find just how further she is going to travel….

We get a glimpse into Daya’s mind, and the three men, and a tantalising glimpse of which might be to come, and ideally we’d see more of Daya’s journey in another story. Ideally a few years hence, as I do prefer an older protagonist, but Kelly appears to be on a roll with stories featuring teenage girls, what with his last story in Asimovs ‘Declaration’, and the novel he’s writing about Marisha from ‘Plus or Minus’ and ‘Going Deep’. Personally I’ve found his recent stories, not about teenagers, more satisfying, viz : ‘Sing, Pilgrim!’ and ‘Happy Ending 2.0’.

Robert Reed. The Principles.

The editorial introduction tells us that this is a story extricated from a ‘giant alternate-history novel’ that Robert Reed has been working on part-time for a ‘lot of years’. Lawdy lawdy lawdy.

I’m not the biggest fan of AH, and often get the feeling it’s a form of fiction enjoyed most by the writer, and by the kind of reader who doesn’t mind breaking the reading of the narrative to appreciate a clever bit of history tweakery.

It’s a lengthy story, and, gentle reader, I gave up about a third of the way through, as the pace of the story, and the character development weren’t grabbing me. The AH elements are quite substantial, especially with women having the role in society more generally seen as belonging to males, whereas males are mostly used as soldiers. But it just felt a little flat, and, dare I say it, a bit self-indulgent.

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