Asimovs. December 2013.


Henry Lien. Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters.

Another teen schoolgirl angst story for those of you who like that sort of thing. The setting, as the title suggests, is a reform school for daughters in a patriarchical imperial China, where martial arts and ice skating are combined. If you like teen girls in reform school settings, you’ll doubtless appreciate the vicious nuns who keep a tight rein on them. And the cover, illustrating the story, will please those of you who like to look at pictures of teen schoolgirls in very short pleated skirts with thigh length stockings.

Hmmm, I wonder if the story was about teen boys and had a swimming element, whether the cover would have had a teenage boy wearing speedos?

Jay O’Connell. Dignity.

The second story in the issue and the second with a female child as the main protagonist! In the near future, young Melissa is the daughter of a privileged family – they have wealth, property, and the services of those without those privileges to work for them as domestic servants. When dad finds out that Melissa has befriended a child from very much the wrong side of the railway tracks, his instructions are clear. However, Melissa is an independent girl with a mind of her own.

Personally I’d have preferred the story to have been from the POV of the parents, addressing how to raise a child in the difficult economic climate, and the choices that have to make, and how they address the issue, rather than the child’s eye view, rather than dad being a cardboard cutout hardass pater familias. (Can you have a hardass if you’re made out of cardboard?)

Timons Esaias. The Fitter.

A gently humorous story of an alien who finds a role for himself on Earth, in a lingerie shop. The local women are keen to have him assist in choosing the appropriate undergarments, and business is turned around.

William Preston. Vox Ex Machina.

After two stories with teen protagonists, and a lighthearted lingerie story which were easy reads, Preston takes us into the kind of territory which Gene Wolfe used to do, with a story that needs some thinking about (huzzah!).

The plot is simple – airline stewardess finds android head left behind in bag on an airplane, takes it home, talks to it, then a friend disposes of it. It’s what it all means that’s interesting (working on the basis that the author in this case does indeed intend to their being more to the story than the story itself).

Stewardess Karen is very much adrift and virtually rootless. He husband has left her – for a woman he met whilst online gaming. Their house is little more than a base for her, as she stays there between flights, spending as much time in anonymous hotel rooms in far flung cities. She is sleeping in the spare bedroom, the android head in the master bedroom for a little while.

She speaks on the phone to her sister, and that is part of one of the themes of the story – alienation, distance, loneliness, contact at the other end of a telephone, a computer, a television.

There is a strong physicality to Karen – whilst we follow her mentally, we also have relayed the physical sensations she feels, which is rarely the case in stories. One of the conversations with the android is about coffee, and even her making and drinking/rewarming her own coffee is important. She’s holding onto the physical side of things close to her whilst she becomes distanced from human contact. Even a male friend dropping by shows her almost at one remove – thinking clinically about her relationship with him.

And the android head is that of a now-dead SF writer. Is the head an Oracle? In his ‘real’ life the writer pondered far horizons, but Karen finds the android version of him frustratingly obtuse. The crux of the story is when she realises that she has imbued more into the android than she should have – it is, after all, just a mechanical device producing words (as a ‘real’ SF writer is purely a biological device producing words).

So, an interesting story, at least that’s how I read it. Are we just passive recipients of input, or are we human? Of course the author might simply say ‘it’s just a story about a woman who finds an android head’….

Gregory Norman Bossert. Bloom.

A long, dark night is spent on an alien planet, as three humans stumble onto a Yu Stigmergic Colony, a strange lifeform that, if it senses them, will react instantly and consume them. One of the three has previously encountered one of these blooms’ and in the conversations that take place during the night, we learn about each of the three, as the tension builds.

R. Neube. Grainers.

An SF story for those of you who like your SF in deep space, dirty, sweaty, corrupt and cynical, and with a clever story structure.

Hold on a minute. That’s me!

Neube provides two perspectives on a contact between one protagonist living a very basic life with refugees on a grainship, and an elite officer who boards following their SOS call. Both characters are three-dimensional, neither perfect, both operating within constraints and difficulties, and it’s a treat to see their perspectives on each other, neither quite as clever as they think they are, and each with a wrongly lower option of the other. Worth the read.

Nancy Kress. Frog Watch.

A classy story from Kress, as is often the case. It’s a shortish one, written from the perspective of a recently widowed woman seeking solace in the solitude of a deserted cabin by a swamp, where she can occupy herself by monitoring the local frog population. Except that she’s not quite alone. It’s a story that could have been written by James Tiptree Jr., and there’s no finer praise I can give

Ian R. MacLeod. Entangled.

A clever, layered story that mixes technology and sociology and economics and human behaviour.

Earth has faced climactic and economic change, and is coming out of a breakdown that has seen the gated communities of the wealthy replaced by communes, as most of humanity is now ‘entangled’ – linked, post viral outbreak, into an almost gestalt unity. To get the story going of course requires an outsider, and that is Martha Chauhan, previously Madhur, who fled the sub-continent with her father in her childhood.

The story alternates between her in third- and first-person, as she herself has issues of identity, having survived a traumatic incident, the nature of which is only chillingly revealed at the end. It’s set in a snow-covered urban setting, with some half-built, empty buildings, and deserted, ransacked gated communities giving a strong sense of setting (‘the other houses with their blackened Halloween eyes stare back at her’). As it progresses, we find out more about Martha, and just what is going on.

It’s a story that should be studied by tyro SF writers as an example of what a really good SF story should do. Evidently picked for Strahan’s take on the best of 2013, and rightly so.

Other reviews of this issue here :


After a couple of weak opening stories, the issue gathers momentum to become an excellent final issue for 2013. Shame about the cover.

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