Review: Asimov's Science Fiction, November/December 2023
"The Ghosts of Mars", by Dominica Phetteplace
"The Death of the Hind", by Kevin J. Anderson and Rick Wilber
"Blade and Bone", by Paul McAuley
"The Open Road Leads to the Used Car Lot", by John Alfred Taylor
"Embot's Lament", by James Patrick Kelly
"Berb by Berb", by Ray Nayler
"Neptune Acres", by Robert R. Chase
"Meet-Your-Hero", by Prashanth Srivatsa
"The Four Last Things", by Christopher Rowe
"The Disgrace of the Commodore", by Marguerite Sheffer
"In the Days After ...", by Frank Ward
Novellas first ... I will say upfront that "The Ghosts of Mars" and "The Death of The Hind" were mild disappointments. Worth reading, but not special. Both are sequels to earlier stories. "The Ghosts of Mars" follows "Candida Eve", a strong story about a woman who is the only survivor of a trip to Mars -- her fellows, as well as many people on Earth, died in a plague. (The story was indeed -- though I am sure accidentally -- rather topical when it appeared in the May-June 2020 Analog.) This new story is set many years later, after a subsequent attempt to colonize Mars also failed, leaving, again, one person behind -- the Martian-born daughter of the heroine of "Candida Eve". She stayed on Mars because she had genetic alterations which made returning to Earth impossible. Now that Mars has been abandoned to her and the robots, the story follows her dealings with the robots, her conversations with people (including her mother) on the ship returning to Earth, and with a social network friend on Earth, and eventually with a visiting alien ship ... There's a lot going on, and it's pretty interesting, but some of it just didn't convince me, and also I felt the story overlong. "The Death of the Hind" is the sequel to "The Hind", a pretty good story about a crisis on a generation ship, escaping a ruined Earth and traveling to a "Goldilocks" planet. That crisis involved damage to the ship's AI, which necessitated a harsh regimen including forced euthanasia, until (in the story) the AI is partially repaired. This story is set a few decades later, as the Hind approaches its destination, and the conflict is between the Captain's daughter Dothan, a pilot who is eager to get to the planet, and her estranged father, who thinks they should stay on the ship, especially after it's revealed that the planet, though habitable, isn't quite the paradise some had expected. Other characters are the decaying AI, Dothan's Down Syndrome son, and the Captain herself. I thought the story a bit over-determined -- everything that happened seemed like stuff I've read in many previous generation ship stories, and I was also nitpickingly bothered by what seemed clichés such as naming the planet Goldilocks, and the first settlement First Landing.
Paul McAuley's novella, "Blade and Bone", on the other hand, is outstanding. It's set on Mars, some centuries after the end of the Quiet War, which McAuley chronicled in a series of exceptional stories and novels. This Mars is only partly terraformed, and life is difficult. Groups of "Trues", who had established a harsh empire earlier, predicated on maintaining the "true" human genome despite advances that allow people to live in the outer Solar System and other harsh environments, raid farms and small cities, murdering indiscriminately. The protagonist, Lev, is a middle-aged mercenary, who had hoped to retire until his previous mission ended terribly. He's hired on with a group that has a contract with an ancient uploaded brain, who wishes for them to recover some relics from one of his descendants -- one of her fingerbones and her vorpal blade. The group is chasing the Trues who apparently stole these relics. Lev makes friends -- of a sort -- with the "agent" of their client, as well as a trigger-happy young recruit -- and when things go profoundly pear-shaped, Lev is nearly the only survivor, and is forced to chase after the blade and the bone -- which seem to be unlucky things to possess. It's a dark story, but not quite a hopeless one. It's exciting, and thoughtful, and mildly twisty.
The only novelette is John Alfred Taylor's "The Open Road Leads to the Used Car Lot". Taylor died on October 7, just about as this issue was published -- he had turned 92 in September. (I learned from his obituary -- thanks to Jim Harris and Piet Nel for the alert -- that he was born in my city, St. Louis, and that he went to Southeast Missouri State university.) This leaves 95 year old Allen Kim Lang as possibly the oldest still active SF writer, with D. G. Compton having just died at age 93, and Donald Kingsbury (not quite 94 years old) as far as I know not still writing. Taylor had published occasional short fiction for over 50 years, both SF and Horror, and some was very impressive. This story is pretty good, about Isaac, who in 1964 is offered a chance to meet a woman he'd spent a day with in 1939 at the World's Fair. It's immediately clear to the reader that she's a time traveler -- and soon that's clear when Isaac meets her and realizes she's the same age she was in 1939 -- and so some very strange things Isaac saw back then are explained. The story really revolves around technological change -- from the Victorian Era to 1939 to 1964 and to the time traveler's future.
I'll go through the short stories in TOC order. James Patrick Kelly writes a column for Asimov's, and for a long time was a very regular contributor -- with stories almost every June. But as there aren't June issues any more "Embot's Lament" comes in November-December. It's a good story -- Embot is a "timecaster" -- a sort of AI that records a person's life experiences and transmits them to the future. Its job this time is Jane, who is stuck in a terribly abusive marriage. She is finally trying to get out -- and Embot is tempted to help, even though that's against the rules. The results lead to significant consequences for Jane -- and also for Embot.
"Berb by Berb" is set in the same future as other Ray Nayler stories like "The Disintegration Loops" -- one in which the US recovered a crashed flying saucer in 1938, and tech derived from that radically altered World War II and after. This story is set in an area of the US near a lab at which there was an accident with the alien tech. The result is that assemblages of -- junk, I suppose -- coalesce and become sort of robots. The protagonist had worked at the lab, and now lives in the area, dealing with the occasional "visiting" berb. What are berbs really? What do they do? Who knows? Maybe even they don't. And the story -- resonating a bit with the ideas about intelligence in Nayler's excellent first novel The Mountain in the Sea -- lets us ask the questions too.
"Neptune Acres", by Robert R. Chase, is a look at an attempt to profit from climate change and rising sea levels by selling submersible housing, from the point of a view of a man recruited to attend the sales party who ends up in grave danger after a storm arises. Decent back of the book work, mild topical extrapolation.
Prashant Srivatsa's "Meet-Your-Hero" posits a near future technology that allows one to virtually visit a "hero" -- like a movie star. Junaid is a poor young man who enters the lottery each week to try to win a ticket to meet his favorite star -- and then he does. With perhaps predictably disillusioning results. The best part of the story is the believable and grounded portrayal of Junaid's life, his mother's financial stress, etc.
"The Four Last Things" is the prize story in this issue (along with "Blade and Bone".) Christopher Rowe, over the past year or more, enthusiastically discovered the great Cordwainer Smith, and of course there was influence. Influence transmuted, naturally, through Rowe's own striking imagination. The Four Last Things, in Catholic theology, are Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Here we have the crew of a "mule ship", arriving at the planet Ouest'Mer, which is the home of strange sea-living worms, who make noises that may or may not have meaning as they "drum" in the ocean. Each of the four crew members reacts differently, interprets differently, based on their nature, their history -- and each are stressed by disaster. It's a weird story, an evocative story, a mysterious story. The Smith influence is at once evident, and indirect. The weirdness evokes Smith, the feeling that this is an organic future, not a version of the present day. But the imagination is all Rowe's. (I will suggest another writer whose (rare) fiction I thought of while reading this story -- John Clute, especially his novel Appleseed.)
Marguerite Sheffer's "The Disgrace of the Commodore" is a curious brief piece about a ship's commander who lost his ship to the British in 1807, and in the story is in what he thinks is Purgatory -- he's in a ghost ship as his real ship is disassembled. It's nicely written, but it didn't quite work for me.
Finally, Frank Ward offers "In the Days After ...", as a woman comes to Louisville to adopt a child, for reasons that slowly become clear -- a strange disaster that conferred a sort of immortality on a subset of people. And the effect of that immortality is, for some at least, quite terrible. The general idea is familiar, but the particular effects on some characters in the story are nicely portrayed.
One last comment -- I was amused to note that this issue features four writers in their 70s or older -- all who were contributing to Asimov's in the 1980s or 1990s and still are today. (Taylor, Chase, Kelly, and Ward.)