Book #14 (March 18, 2010): Asimov’s Science Fiction (February 2010)
The science fiction genre is slowly imploding. Fewer and fewer science fiction books are being published and the flood of new novelists into the field has turned into a trickle. However, the genre still seems to be thriving, at least to the extent it ever has, in short story form. By my count, there are still five major magazines regularly publishing science fiction and fantasy short stories on a monthly (or slightly less often) basis: Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Realms of Fantasy, and Jim Baen’s Universe. (There are some smaller magazines too, but I doubt that any of them would be considered more than semi-professional publications.) Two of these magazines, F&SF and Analog, have been around longer than I’ve been alive.
It’s been many years since I last read an issue of a science fiction magazine. For a change of pace, I decided to read an issue of Asimov’s SF as this week’s book of the week. Lest you think this is cheating, consider that this issue contains at least 60,000 words, which qualifies it as novel length. (For most purposes, novels are considered to be 40,000 words in length and up.) If it helps, think of it as an anthology of short stories.
The science fiction magazines have always been the gatekeepers of the field, the point at which short works enter the literature prior to subsequent anthologization and awards. (There are other sources of short sf, but these magazines are the major ones.) As such, the stories in them only occasionally turn out to be classics and are often no more than serviceable as either literature or entertainment (and, believe it or not, science fiction can serve as either of those things). In the 1980s, Asimov’s SF was the top of the rank in terms of quality and probably produced more award-winning stories than any other magazine in the field, though the lower paying F&SF sometimes ran a close second. Things change, though, and I notice that F&SF now seems to pay slightly more than Asimov’s, so these days it may be publishing fiction that’s at least as good.
Everything in this particular issue was good, none of it was extraordinary. The standout, to the extent that there is one, is Bruce McAllister’s short ghost story (yes, there’s fantasy here too) “The Woman Who Waited Forever.” As a ghost story it’s only mediocre and suffers from an overly convoluted explanation at the end, but in the first half of the story McAllister paints a vivid picture of class distinctions in the armed services circa 1960 that would seem to be informed by his own childhood as a military brat. The characters are well realized and make up for the story’s flaws.
The story that dominates the issue is Stephen Baxter’s novella “The Ice Line” — in fact, almost a third of the issue is devoted to it. Baxter is one of those sf writers that a friend of mine would call “science-y” (not all sf writers are science-y), but he’s in his alternate universe mode here. The story is set in an early 19th century England beset on one side by invading aliens not unlike the ones in H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds and on the other side by Napoleon, who in this universe beat Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar. (Napoleon is simultaneously invading the U.S.) The story is fun and not terribly serious. It falls into the science fiction genre known as steampunk, which postulates relatively advanced technology — in this case, spaceships and submarines — built using pre-20th century tools. This isn’t immortal prose, but Baxter captures a certain style of 19th century storytelling reminiscent of Verne and Wells.
There are two novelettes written by women authors, Caroline M. Yoachim and Aliette de Bodard, that are remarkably similar. Each is set in a vaguely dystopian society that may be in the future, the past or even on another planet, with technology that seems more mystical than concrete. (In the Yoachim story, the technology is left over from a distant and mostly forgotten past.) Both stories are good, but the Yoachim story comes across like a highly compressed novel and probably would have worked better if it had been given the entire 60,000 words all to itself. I suspect in the current market this isn’t likely to happen, so it wound up in novelette form instead.
There’s a bizarre and funny story about a squid who invents a reverse bathysphere to explore the surface world, as told by a drunken redneck in an alternate post-Civil War history where…well, never mind. It’s clever and it’s slight. There are also book reviews and an interesting essay by one of my favorite science fiction writers, Robert Silverberg, reflecting on the work of the late Arthur C. Clarke. Although I think he’s a bit harsh on Clarke, I always find Silverberg worth reading.
I’ll probably read some more of these magazines soon. However, there’s something oddly exhausting about reading science fiction short stories — I think it’s the sheer quantity of exposition I have to absorb in a relatively brief time span — and I think I’ll move on to something else for my next book. It may even be an actual book.