Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Oct/Nov 2000

Asimov’s Science Fiction, October/November 2000
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Oct/Nov 2000
Analog Science Fiction and Fact, November 2000

[Historical Note: whilst there are some reviews of magazines older than this review, this is in fact the first Best SF magazine review.]


I’ve been reading SF for some 30 years now, but have not to date (as of mid-2000) read much magazine SF. For the first 20 of these years my primary reading was SF novels, but lack of time due to other commitments (young family and demanding job!) has meant that the last 10 years has concentrated on reading the Years Best SF volumes, both current and past. Living in the UK also makes getting hold of copies of the likes of the three US magazines reviewed below somewhat problematic. However, I decided to get a hold of the latest three issues, partly to check whether my reliance on Dozois’ and Hartwell’s annual collections wasn’t leading me to a distorted perspective on short SF. Certainly Dozois’ excellent collections have featured stories from Asimovs quite heavily, with much fewer stories from the likes of Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. So here goes… Asimov’s Science Fiction
October/November 2000, double issue edition. – Asimov’s website

After an interesting editorial by Robert Silverberg on the egos behind the Hugos (more accurately, the egos behind the worldcon Guest of Honor, but that doesn’t read so well) this double-issue edition gets under way with a Larry Niven kzin novella. The short intro to the story relates how Greg Benford challenged Larry Niven to return to short story writing. Hmmm. It’s a shame that Greg Benford didn’t add a coda: ‘but none of that kzin crap that is being churned out in sharecrop/fan fiction’. Not really my cup of tea really – I enjoyed the kzin character(s) in the Niven novels of the 70s, but quarter of a century later you would hope for something more from someone so obviously capable of much better. I may have approached this story with the added disadvantage of the cover of the magazine – there must be some complicated mathematic formulae in place at Asimovs which determines just when cheesy cover art is used. The cover in this case(see above) to my mind brings SF into disrepute.

Ancestors’ Song by Liz Williams told in first-person/multi perspective and present tense, which makes an interesting change, and in keeping with the idea behind this story of a visitation to dreamtime.

On the Orion Line, by Stephen Baxter, is much more like it (IMHO). It takes place after the events of previously published stories, of which I am not familiar at present. I can say that upon the basis of this story I will be seeking out these preceding tales. Hard SF, with a junior midshipman suddenly plunged into a dramatic confrontation with strange alien life in deep space. Good characterisation helps the story succeed.

Eleanor Arnason’s The Cloud Man continues the adventures on Lydia Duluth, who was introduced in Stellar Harvest. Two things grated with me:

  1. the biggie: that in such a far future setting a dominant form of entertainment was essentially no different to late 20thC films/TV (except that Stellar Harvest makes holo-dramas) – surely VR and any number of other developments would have superceded 20thC movie star entertainment paradigms
  2. on the first page of The Cloud Man, one of the characters talks about balloon probes and says ‘Imagine a party balloon, one of the pretty shiny ones made of metal plastic film and filled with helium – inside a food processor’ : what? they still have the same kind of party balloons as we have now?

The story starts high in the clouds on one planet and finishes deep in a jungle on another planet. My main criticism is that perhaps Arnason throws in too many ideas, which could usefully have been looked at in more depth perhaps.

Chain of Life by Steven Utley takes the time travel back to prehistory theme and ignores the science (for the most part) to concentrate on a love story, which works well. Tom Purdom’s Sergeant Mother Glory is dramatic hard sf, with a genmod Interception Patrol rookie faced with some major decisions.

The issue tails away to my mind, with a short whimsical story Peggy’s Plan by Jim Grimsley. The lengthier, final story, Tauromaquia, is a joint effort from Daniel Abraham, Michael Roessner, Sage Walker and Walter Jon Williams. I would be interested to read how they went about this 4way authoring as I got the feeling that the story wasn’t sure really what it was, where it wanted to go, and how it wanted to get there. It is also borderline sf, in that it could have what few sf elements there are taken out of it without any detriment to the story. The descriptions of the bullfighting around which the story revolves are lengthy (gratuitously so), and the story illustration quite cheesy.

All in all, a pretty good issue, and as good value as you are likely to get for your money. For me the standouts were the Stephen Baxter, Tom Purdom and Steven Utley stories, which may be in a chance with a Years Best selection, but not good enough, perhaps, for a Hugo/Nebula nomination. We shall see.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
Oct/Nov 2000. – F&SF website

The cover trumpets a 240 page 51st anniversary issues, and promises a lot with a list of contributors which include Kate Wilhelm, Gregory Benford, Robert Reed, Ray Bradbury, Lewis Shiner and Robert Sheckley. It promises a lot, and it keeps that promise!

Carolyn Ives Gilman is an author whose work is not as well known as the auspicious company in which her story ‘Dreamseed’ finds itself. Leading off the issue, this story describes a boy who has been raised in an entirely virtual environment, locked away in a casket. Whilst he has been thus kept away from ‘reality’ the rest of the world has succumbed to the blandishments of nocturnal virtual reality in bionano shared dreamstates. The boy’s father, Dr.Simic, is responsible for both these state of affairs, and the boy has a big role to play in the denouement which will affect himself and humanity.

The Devil Disinvests is a fairly lightweight short piece by Scott Bradfield, definitely in the ‘wry fantasy’ camp. The issue really kicks into gear (for me) with the redoubtable Kate Wilhem, whose Earth’s Blood starts off as if it is heading into b-movie zombie/deserted town territory, but then goes into quite different territory. Wilhelm handles the main character particularly well, as one would expect from such a skilled writer. Tyro authors please study.

Magic, Maples and Maryanne by Robert Sheckley returns to the territory covered by The Devil Disinvests.It is a simple story about magic and greed, and is I believe identifiable as a story written by someone who has spent perhaps too much time writing TV scripts and the like – easy to read, a couple of ideas, paced well, and generally ‘nicely done’. It reads like a 30minute TV script.

James Morrow’s Auspicious Eggs is an altogether different beast, much, much darker, and not something that you would see on mainstream US TV. It takes the Catholic Church’s stance on sex, contraception, birth and others matters and mixes them together, takes them to the nth degree and describes a quite dehumanising scenario. The baptism scene is quite disturbing and some will doubtless find it distressing. But it does what it sets out to do – puts a magnifying glass (albeit a distorting one) over current issues to highlight their absurdity.

Robert Reed’s The Gulf is next, which is essentially a well-written and gripping short about a sailing trip. Autobiographical, claims to it being SF or fantasy largely hinge on the fact that the main character is a scientist and the experiences describe give him some pause for thought in terms of alternate realities on a human scale.

Primes, by Lewis Shiner, drops you straight into an unnerving reality slip scenario, in which two alternate worlds/realities overlap in a quite challenging manner for those involved – the entire planet(s) in this case. The characterisation is good, and issues over tolerance are addressed. The only slight flaw for me is the slightly far-fetched means by which some individuals and buses/cars/airplanes are brought together during the transition.

The Goddamned Tooth Fairy by Tina Kuzminski could give some cause for concern, as it on one level is a gentle fantasy about a ‘mysterious stranger’ who offers help to a couple in need of that help – a not unknown plot premise. But the writing and characterisation and dialog are so accurate and truthful that the story keeps the momentum of the issue going.

Interestingly, Ray Bradbury’s Quid Pro Quo threatened a stall in that momentum. Quirkily written, perhaps the story is spoilt by the editor’s introduction, which largely gives the game away.

Intimations of Immortality by Alex Irvine ends the issue with another good story. E-mortal women descend on a bar and meet up with a group of mortal working class joes. The meeting leads to Norman Campbell and his son fleeing to the hills, only returning when the boy, Sasha, reaches 18. Is Norm’s desire to keep his son from the world, and the world (and the boy’s mother) from his son the act of a selfish or unselfish man?

In summation (to use a Dozois-ism) and extremely solid collection of stories, although without a real standout amongst them. Much more SF than fantasy, and not a sight of the kind of fantasy of the type that the back cover advert belongs (a Robert Jordan tolkienesque novel). Well worth the money, and on a par with the issue of Asimov’s.

Analog Science Fiction and Fact
November 2000. – Analog website

The Stanley Schmidt editorial is a rather weak affair on digital photography and manipulation and Big Brother, none of which is really new or original, and the following page has a quite scary photograph of some authors who will not be named receiving awards. The issue then threatened to find its way unread in a dusty corner with the first offering, Swarming Korolev, by Dave Creek. The writing was so bad I couldn’t get beyond the first couple of pages. How is this for a line of dialogue:

“See the stubby protuberances atop their heads? Almost like antennae?”

Stubby protuberances atop their heads? Puhleeze!

Evidently a story by the same author with the same character appeared recently in Analog, so the editor obviously likes this stuff! Blood Oath by Pete D. Madison offers a somewhat creaky ethical dilemma in an off-Earth colony, with a love element that isn’t as well written as Chain of Life by Steven Utley in Asimovs (mentioned above)

Crow’s Feat by John G. Hemry made me feel somewhat nostalgic – it is quite some time since someone has written a time travel story with William Shakespeare. Methinks the author doth flatter himself with the comparison!

Michael Bishop’s Tired is a short short, with a punning title, and some neat little descriptions, and stands out as being written by someone with undoubted talent. Mia Molvray’s Funny Furry Fellows takes a slightly amusing look at the problems which can occur between different species. Michael A. Burstein’s Kaddish for the Last Survivor considers how the holocaust may be remembered in the future.

Check Flight by Michael F. Flynn is the first really hard sf in the issue, and goes a little too far in describing flight details – you could almost believe the story was written by an airplane pilot, as the pre-flight launch dialogue etc. are described in almost loving detail. The characterisation is quite good though, however the story suddenly reaches its end and finishes.

Starstruck by Grey Rollins takes a look at movie-making in the future, with digital stars and more people enabled to make movies through technology. But humanity wins out in this story – at least for the main protagonist.

Edward M. Lerner’s Dangling Conversations finishes the issue, a lengthy short about First Contact through radio transmission, set against civil unrest. It reads well, and gives an altogether plausible description of what First Contact will be when it does finally happen. The last three stories (Flynn, Rollins and Lerner) pull this issue of Analog out of what would otherwise have been a mire.

The Letters Pages discuss airplane carry-on luggage at great depth. Go figure.


So, gentle reader, what did I learn from my reading?

Well, I don’t think I read anything that would find its way into a Years Best anthology. Stephen Baxter’s On the Orion Line and Chain of Life by Stephen Utley from Asimov’s, and Caroyln Ives Gillman’s Dreamseed, Kate Wilhelm’s Earth’s Blood, and Lewis Shiner’s Primes, from MF&SF are the pick of the bunch for me.

Asimov’s was what I was expecting, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction exceeded my expectations. Analog was a grave disappointment for someone who leans towards hard sf as a preference. As mentioned, one story in this issue was particularly poor, but the author need not worry, as a story in a recent issue of Interzone ranks much lower in my estimation (but you will have to wait to find out to what I refer!)

I shall, however, have to pick up the next issues of the three magazines reviewed above in order to get a more representative sample.

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