Considering the comic, nearly tragic number of books piled all around me, on every flat surface, it sometimes surprises even me to realize how much short work I read. Alongside the innumerable magazine articles that have been fodder for In the Penny Press for the last six years, there are also dozens and dozens of short stories. Of course I slog through the “Best American” every year like every other dues-paying member of the Republic of Letters, but it’s more than that: I read publications too. The story quarterlies (the bearable ones, anyway), the few mainstream magazines that still run original fiction … and, centrally, the genre-organs: Ellery Queen, the Strand, Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Hitchcock (the late, lamented Omni, where it might even have been possible for a hung-over Boston freelancer to prevail upon a friend to write a story for him, back in those wild days) … and my current favorite, Asimov’s Science Fiction.
All such genre magazines have pages to fill, and not every story can be an Asimov’s instant classic like “The Man Who Bridged the Mists” (which was given the industry’s most coveted nod by inclusion in the latest Gardner Dozois anthology) … so every month, a certain amount of filler gets in. Some of these magazines (ahem, Analog) seem to run a lot of filler, but then, who knows what their submissions piles look like. I consume these things like M&Ms, usually reading the stories seriatim regardless of speed bumps – but I’m well aware of the fact that the approach enables bad writers. The late, great short story master Frank O’Connor used to say “In a novel, I take your coat, and I enquire about your mother, and I usher you to the parlor, and I heat some tea. In a short story, it’s straight to a glass of the plain, and fisticuffs.” Translated out of the Irish, that means: a short story doesn’t have the luxury of time – it has to go straight to first effects.
When it came to short stories, O’Connor understood that better than almost any other 20th century practitioner of the art (when it came to novels, most of his understanding, art, patience, and sobriety fled from him), but I’m realistic about these things: I don’t expect to find Frank O’Connors in every issue of Asimov’s.And even though I’m going to read every story right to the end, I still form first impressions almost instantly, as all readers do.
Take this current issue, the one with the utterly incredible deserves-an-award-of-its-own cover illustration by Marc Simonetti. It’s got six short stories (Asimov’s loves giving their categories fanciful names like ‘novella’ and ‘novelette,’ but trust me: these are all just short stories), and readers less time-rich than I am will be making several crucial decisions based on just the first few lines of each of those stories. Here’s the breakdown.
“The Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous” by Dale Bailey start like this:
They’d come to the Cretaceous to save their marriage.
“Why not the Paleogene?” said Peter, who had resolutely refused to look at any of the material Gwyneth had sent him. “Or the Little Ice Age, for that matter? Some place without carnivores.”
“There are only two resorts,” Gwyneth said, waving a brochure at him. “Jurassic and Cretaceous. People want to see dinosaurs.”
The story’s title, plus this opening, makes it clear that this first story is the inspiration for Simonetti’s slam-bang cover illustration of a charging T. rex, and as lugubrious and old-fashioned as that illustration is, it doesn’t hold a candle to Bailey’s description of the T. rex, once unhappy Gwyneth finally sees one. It’s a description that wouldn’t have been out of place in the pulps of a century ago – in fact, I’m still not certain it isn’t an intentional send-up of them, except that the rest of the story (self-absorbed yuppie couple, wordly-wise other couple, older and sexy big-chief-bwana trail master, etc) is so very, very earnest. That set-up isn’t bad, although it might make the reader immediately wonder if the gimmick of having a quarrelling couple try to time-travel their problems away might end up being thin enough to get tiresome. Those readers would be right to wonder that. And the story’s last paragraph is a slap in the face of every reader who reaches it.
Then there’s “Star Soup” by Chris Willrich. It opens like this:
The shooting star burst upon the world of Dimhope, which is to say it plunged within five klicks of Veiltown. For if a meteorite falls in the forest and no Dimmer hears it, does it make a sound?
Readers more watchful of their time than I am can stop right there. This isn’t really writing of any kind – this is the story’s author masturbating at his computer. It shouldn’t be published, so it stands to reason it shouldn’t be read.
Next up there’s “The Last Islander” by Matthew Jonnson:
Saufatu stood neck-deep in the water, watching the dawn arrive over the great empty ocean to the east.
Obviously, that’s very good, as an opening line. And the story that follows – about global warming, rising ocean levels, and the pitfalls of virtual tourism, doesn’t disappoint the set-up. This is just about the best that any other science fiction magazine can regularly do.
The great thing about Asimov’s is that almost every month, it exceeds those other magazines – and this month is no exception. The next story, insufferably titled “Noumenon,” does just that. It’s dense, lyrical ‘hard’ science fiction, and it starts like this:
The signal was feeble but intriguing – a twenty-hertz radio source tied to an ice-clad world orbiting an M-class star. A xeno-researcher named Mere was dispatched to investigate a deep warm ocean full of vibrant life. But what looked intriguing at a distance proved tragic. The cold white crust of the world hid nothing but cold acid and sluggish bacteria. An alien species one tried to colonize the planet but failed miserably and subsequently went extinct. All that remained was an automated station broadcasting bold, impossible plans. Yet the human remained upbeat: In her final transmission, Mere reminded her superiors – the lordly captains – that she still had plenty of time to wander.
You can tell even from he opening that this story will hit on all kinds of fun sci-fi stuff – and do it quickly, economically. Once again, the story lives up to its start: it gives readers a full-fleshed and bracingly complex world and some refreshingly three-dimensional characters, with some quick bits of sub-atomic physics worked in for the extra-nerdy folk to enjoy.
There’s a glorious profusion of ideas in “Noumenon,” which is just the way science fiction should be done. The issue’s next story, “Adware” by Suzanne Palmer, is just the opposite, as you can tell from its opening:
I was finishing up the last programming touches on lunch when Jake came into the kitchen with Mr. Tater, his stuffed bunny and best friend. He tugged on my pant leg. “Mommy,” he said, “have you considered trading in our old flier for the new Neptune wagon? Their brand-new, just-released ’44 deluxe model has over fifty-seven state-of-the-art safety features to help keep me and your other loved ones safe.”
My hand froze halfway toward ruffling his golden hair, and instead I grabbed Jake and pulled him close. “Ted!” I shouted. “Ted, get in here! Jake’s caught an ad!”
What follows is amiable enough, but there’s no denying that stories like “Adware” ultimately do more harm to the genre than good, mainly by accurately writing down to the weakest pretension of the genre and thus reinforcing those weaknesses in the minds of the non-genre-reading public. I understand that little ditties like “Adware” are primarily meant to be fun little observational riffs on the way we live now, but when they’re so little, they make the whole genre look trivial and gimmicky. Writing a ten-page story because you one day wondered “hey! what if people got pop-up ads?” is a harmless enough diversion; publishing that story is an active disservice.
All the more ironic when it’s followed by the highlight of the issue, a story by William Preston with the wretched title “Unearthed” (what is it with titles these days? The proper title of this piece is very obviously “The Stone Avenger,” and yet Preston gives it this snoozer instead – maybe he didn’t, though: maybe some corporate suit at Asimov’s did over his protests. I’ll allow myself to hope so.
And in any event, the story is fantastic, a tense, fast-moving tale about mine collapse in the jungles of South America, an unlikely but very winning partnership between a feisty young Mohawk woman and a character who seems like a college-age version of Doc Savage, and the thrilling discovery of an odd and eerie cave-dwelling life-form. It starts like this:
My words are cicadas. They struggle up through packed earth after too many years underground. Then they shriek.
Without a voice, without a teller, events are lost. People vanish from history. I learned long ago that every awful moment lingers. But what of kindness and compassion?
Cannot good deeds also endure?
The words end up resonating powerfully at the story barrels to a climax – it all works even better on the second reading than on the first, for exactly that reason. I’m pretty sure I’ll be seeing this one in next year’s Dozois volume.
The rest of Asimov’s, the balance of it, is taken up with some book reviews, some industry news, and another one of Robert Silverberg’s meandering columns, same as every issue. The editors seem to know perfectly well that their readers are mainly coming here for the same reason I am: for the new fiction every month, and for the quiet thrill of some of those new stories being memorably good.
Although I love the American Museum of Natural History so besottedly that I’d probably have bought this issue just for that cover – talk about a picture being worth a thousand words!