I let my subscription to Asimov’s Science Fiction lapse for a bit, and I was amazed at how bleak the lapse rendered my reading landscape! I renewed as soon as I felt this, and today when I jammed my hand into that most bountiful of all orifices, the mighty Open Letters Monthly Post Office box, I was very pleased to find the first of my resumed issues, a double-sized extravaganza featuring ten stories, book reviews by Paul Di Filippo, and a simple, effective hymn of praise to Google by the great Robert Silverberg, the Grandmaster ghost haunting Asimov’s machine. And also featuring the lesser-trumpeted feel of Asimov’s, with its Austerity-Years paper stock and its crinkly covers that tear apart if you keep the latest issue in a pocket of your shoulder-bag and whip it out whenever you hit a delay long enough for reading. It should annoy me, but something about the old-fashioned pulpiness of Asimov’s instead just endears me to it all the more.
And that pulp-era feeling was only enhanced by the first and best story in this latest issue, a novella called “Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key” by William Preston. This the last in a series of interconnected stories Preston has written that collectively form the greatest and most heartfelt tribute to that giant of the pulps, Doc Savage, since Philip Jose Farmer’s 1973 masterpiece, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.
The premise of this latest story is that the US government has somehow managed to capture “the Old Man,” this Doc Savage figure, and is holding him at a top-secret government facility as a suspected terrorist (fans of Doc Savage will find the whole idea of capture somewhat far-fetched – even when the general in charge of the facility marvels about how it took a ‘twenty-man team’ to accomplish – but Preston’s character is over, after all, over 100 years old, so we can nod and carry on reading)(for those of you perhaps unfamiliar with the character, Clark Savage, among his less consequential accomplishments, stood 6’5″ and was a master of every form of unarmed combat known to man – in his fighting prime, a twenty-man team would no more have inconvenienced him than it would have inconvenienced, say, Batman). He’s resisted all forms of interrogation – in fact, during all the years of his incarceration, he’s yet to speak a single word to his captors.
As a kind of last resort, the government brings in telepathic interrogator Jimmy Randolph, who spends the story studying the enigmatic prisoner but also (in a beautifully-intertwined parallel plot) getting to know about the Old Man’s shadowy world of heroics hidden from the headlines. The more Jimmy Randolph looks at himself, at his own life, the more he wants to be a part of that shadowy world, as Preston writes with extremely talented straightforwardness:
He had been wrong about the true nature of the self. After showering, he had peered again into the foggy mirror. His nose touched the glass. The man over there was motionless, but in the world at his back, violence and terror ground down ordinary people as if their lives had no purpose but to be pressed under history’s terrible weight. Good people could not allow that. There at his back, past that shower wall, past the building, people acted to lift the heel of violence.
You couldn’t locate or understand the self by looking inward. You could only make sense of a self by observing its actions in the world. A good human was not a steady noun but a sequence of unexpected verbs. No matter if one sat in contemplation or acted for all the world to see: one became a full self by doing.
The whole of this issue is full of good stuff, but there’s nothing in it to touch “Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key.” Some of this stuff is currently being sold as e-shorts on Amazon for less money than this issue of Asimov’s would cost you; that whole world of quick-turnaround e-publishing was just a dream in Gordon Dickson’s eye back when the pulps were coming out, but you’re currently living in the future, so you can take advantage of it – and you should.