Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, December 2000 (Peanut Press edition)

The December issue of Asimov’s was not in the Forbidden Planet bookshop when I visited recently, so I decided to take the plunge and try out the Peanut Press ( edition on my new Cassiopeia Pocket-PC. One advantage of buying online is that the price is half that the printed version would cost me here in the UK, and that I can carry around several stories on the Pocket PC at no extra cost in weight to my briefcase.

Missing from the Peanut Press edition are the cover and illustrations (no great loss), and various advertisements (no great loss), leaving the reader with simply the editorial and the fiction. The issue unpacks to only a few KB in size, and the Peanut Press software compares very favourably with the Microsoft Reader software with which I read a Gardner Dozois short story recently (click here to read that review).

The Peanut Press software scores over Reader in enabling you to choose the font size, and I found that the screen display was preferable to Reader (the image to the right not doing justice to the clarity of the text!). Each story is treated as a ‘Chapter’ by the software, enabling you to see at a glance what was contained in the issue.

The facility to annotate as you go along is extremely welcome, enabling you to mark pages for future reference.

Interestingly, having only read a few stories on the Pocket PC, it has become quite straightforward. The Pocket PC sits nicely in the hand, and a gentle thumb tap moves between pages. There are is more page turning than with a traditional magazine, but then again I found the text easier to read on the Pocket PC than on the greyish double-column which such magazines tend towards.

Following the previous issue’s look at Guests of Honour at Worldcon’s, Robert Silverberg’s ‘Reflections’ column discusses the latest recipient of the SFWA Grand Master Award, Brian Aldiss, and looks back fondly on previous winners.

George R.R. Martin opens the fiction in this issue with a fantasy story set in his ‘Song of Fire and Ice’ series, which also gave us the Hugo winning novella ‘Blood of the Dragon’ which appeared in Asimov’s in 1996.

The story does not work particularly well on it’s own, finishing somewhat abruptly with the story only half told, and somewhat unconvincingly – had the slave-sellers not had anyone play *that* trick on them before? The story has dragons, a Queen, muscled henchmen, quests, lesbian sex, and other fantasy staples. Not my cup of tea, to be honest (well, with the exception perhaps the lesbian sex), and IMHO George R.R. Martin is much better when writing SF – some of my favourites being ‘The Meathouse Man’, ‘Nightflyers’ and ‘Under Siege’ short stories, which themselves are worth a shelf full of this type of fantasy.

Mike Resnick’s ‘Redchapel’ follows with an Alternate History of Jack the Ripper, the notorious mass murderer who terrorised Whitechapel in London a century ago. The Resnick story, as with much AH, leaves me cold. The main character in the tale is one Theodore Roosevelt, future President of the USA. As to whether the character portrayed in the story bears any resemblance to reality I have no idea, which left me reading a Jack the Ripper whodunnit. Now, if I wanted to read such stuff I would buy Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The story itself is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t break any new ground.

Richard Parks ‘The God of Children’ follows, with a story which has echoes of Nick di Chario’s ‘Sarajevo’ in the way historic atrocities haunt those living in the present. Japan is the setting in this instance, with an elderly survivor of WWII confronting demons from her past. An American with both hi-tech and empathic means of viewing paranormal activity has to unravel the truth behind the haunting.

Cory Doctorow and Michael Skeet are next up with, of all things, a Science Fiction short story. ‘Gay Paree’ takes us to a relatively near-future Paris in which many non-nationals enjoy the culture of a city whilst it is being racked by civil war. One such bystander finds himself suddenly and very unwillingly embroiled in the conflict. He escapes the street-by-street fighting only due to his information skills, which are at a premium. As you would expect from Doctorow the story is full of sardonic wit and characterisation.

‘Merry Christmas from Navarro Lodge’ by Kage Baker is a seasonal timeslip story, which further entends the range of sub-genres covered in this issue. The story is engagingly written although it does not add anything to the timeslip milieu, and the plot will doubtless have featured in numerous episodes of The Time Tunnel, Twilight Zone (to which one of the characters refers in the story) and the X-Files. Available for less than a dollar from fictionwise

‘Balance Due’ by M. Shane Bell *does* manage to add to a well established SF trope – a character awakening after many centuries. Bell’s protagonist has the misfortune to return from cryogenic suspension to be faced with a very large bill with the financial arrangements made prior to deep freeze having not proven sufficient to meet his resurrection costs. His only collateral are mementos which he has to sell to settle the bills – but this will mean cutting his only links with the past. Issues of the nature of humanity in a sterile, eugenic society, are addressed and contrasted through a slightly unsubtle robot comparison. A good story from an author who is new to me.

Following the annual October/November double issue, the December 2000 issue is a bit of a lite-bite for those looking for good, solid SF. Fantasy, Alternate History, a ghost story and a timeslip story account for a substantial portion of the fiction content, with the Doctorow/Skeet and M. Shane Bell stories being the kind of stories for which I would read Asimov. But I think it would be hard for this wide-ranging collection not to have one or two stories which will appeal to most readers.

As stated at the beginning this review, the process of reading the issue was quite painless. And whilst I don’t have the physical printed issue on my bookshelves, I do have the issue on my PC, and I can do word searches, make annotations and so forth, in a way that would be impossible on the printed version. We shall see Pocket PCs becoming more commonplace shortly, and with bigger screens, foldaway keyboards and wireless communications, we can see what the handheld multipurpose device of the future will be.

I even wrote the bulk of this review on the Pocket PC, using the handwriting recognition software. A hand-tooled web page, no less. Who says that the old cannot co-exist with the new?

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