Sunday, May 15, 2011

An Asimov's Review Special: Enter a Future

Later this month – or at least, when I finish reading them – I will be reviewing the July issues of Asimov’s and Analog. Before then, though, I’ve got a kind of special edition: Enter A Future: Fantastic Tales from Asimov's Science Fiction. It’s apparently Asimov’s first Kindle-based collection, and as such, the introductory commentary notes that unlike physical collections, it isn’t limited by page counts or forced to choose stories that fit the structure. It also means it has a hilariously bad cover that looks like it was automatically generated using Calibre, the ebook managing software I use to shift things on and off my Kindle. Back to that talk of structure, though: Enter a Future is chock full of novellas, novelettes and short stories. The editor, Sheila Williams, notes that unlike some collections – which have to be pruned due to the above limitations, forcing her to choose a short story over a novella, or forcing her to leave it out altogether – everything included here is exactly what she wanted. Most of the stories are from the mid-2000s, with a couple of slight outliers and Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another from 1989 that gives the collection its name.

Fantastic Tales Indeed

The resultant collection is mostly very, very good. There are a couple of stories that I just didn’t take to, but the majority are either good or in one or two cases excellent. Like the first issue of Asimov’s that I read, that featured Mary Robinette Kowal’s Kiss Me Twice, I would argue that the presence of Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moon’s Blues and A Billion Eves alone are worth reading the whole thing for. That there are a couple of other worthwhile stories is only icing on the cake.

As with my other reviews of short fiction, I’m not going to delve too deeply into each story. I still feel that much of the point of a lot of these stories is actually in the reading, in discovering what exactly it is – crudely, what gimmick, or what hook – that the story is designed around. With that in mind, let’s break things down.

After the introduction – which accurately notes several of the stories revolve around alternate histories or historical figures – we jump right in with a story about a historical figure. I won’t say who, although I think the introduction might actually have spoilt it anyway, and at any rate I’d never actually heard of the person – which is a shame, because Connie Willis’ Inside Job makes them sound fascinating. It has to be said that this first tale seems to really push the boundaries of what exactly ‘counts’ as science fiction. It is certainly worlds apart from the interplanetary stories found later in the collection, focusing on a pair of professional sceptics who investigate and debunk the lies, stage shows and general flim-flam of psychics, séances and other scam artists. There’s quite a bit of comedy here, and some history, and a less pleasant undercurrent of awkward romance, but the pay-off is an amusing insight into a particularly strange case.

Next is The Days Between by Allen M. Steele. I really wanted to like this one, and large portions of it are likeable, but where it goes in the final stages baffled me. Backtracking, though, you’re immediately introduced to a character aboard an interstellar ship – the first of its kind, headed out into the void beyond our solar system. The character should be spending the journey asleep in stasis, but he has been woken up. Why – and what happens afterwards – is a mystery I’ll leave to the story to tell, but the time he spends aboard the ship is variably fascinating, haunting, and melancholy. Then things – well, his time-killing solution is dealt with in a surreal fashion that I just couldn’t get behind.

The third story is Shoes-to-Run by Sara Genge, a post-apocalyptic coming of age tale meshed with gender – and gender identity – issues on the outskirts of a future Paris. Shorter than many of the other stories in the collection, it’s just long enough to paint a sufficient picture, and after some initial apprehension I got quite into it. I do enjoy it when technology, civilisation or science fiction is viewed through the eyes of ‘less advanced’ characters. It’s not quite attributing the world and its technology to strange gods or magic – Shaman aside – but its still an interesting viewpoint.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Recovering Apollo 8 is up next, which is interesting because I just finished reading one of her more recent stories in the latest Asimov’s. One of the alternative histories within the collection, Recovering Apollo 8 is a fascinating and peculiar look into one man’s obsession over the course of decades. In addition to the story itself being quite compelling – though a little flawed at times – it’s also interesting because, by wit of both its alternately historical beginnings and the time of its writing, it’s a look at not just an alternate past but an alternate present and future. Like the viewpoint in Shoes-to-Run, I also enjoy reading alternative takes on ‘now’, comparing what someone might have realistically expected to see – even if it is a present altered by decisions made in a fictional past.

In my opinion, the second or third best story in the collection – vying with it for the top three spots are A Billion Eves and Second Person, Present Tense – is the astonishingly different Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moon’s Blues by Gord Sellar. Also in my humble opinion is why this represents something perfect for short fiction. It’s an idea and a style that, carried into a longer work, might have failed. Here, though, is a look at another alternate history, an alternate post-Second World War with a heavy alien influence. The world presented is insane, as are the aliens themselves, and the first person narration from the jazz playing main character is pitch perfect as he journeys through it and with them. There’s a lot about jazz, here, and I can only assume Sellar is a fan, aficionado, or a musician himself. Maybe not, maybe he’s just got a very good imagination and a real jazz enthusiast would find endless details to pick apart here, but I loved this one.

On the other hand, I didn’t love Breeze from the Stars from Mary Rosenblum. It’s not that it’s bad, exactly, it just didn’t capture me. I didn’t like the central conceit, I didn’t find the future contained within it sufficiently compelling, and ultimately I found the clash between the world-building necessary to create the story and the sudden introduction of an antagonist to give it plot completely jarring. On the other hand, it did give me cause to look up Ophiucus, a so-called thirteenth star sign, where I learned to my dismay but not shock that it apparently has quite a following in Japan. You know, along with believing blood types define your personality. It’s been done before, but one day I may write a post about that particular madness.

After Breeze comes Safeguard by Nancy Kress. Somewhat disturbing and intriguing, Safeguard seems to be much more near future than far-flung scifi, looking at how the United States deals with a lingering biological weapon and a small collection of abnormal children. Like Shoes-to-Run, much of it is from the perspective of those children, and being given clues on how to decipher how the world is arranged from their vantage point is handled very well. Perhaps most interesting to me, after I’d finished with it, was speculating on exactly who – or what country – the US had been at war with. Or if that even matters.

The clear winner, for me, is A Billion Eves by Robert Reed. I have to admit a certain degree of surprise, looking back on the table of contents currently open on my Kindle as I refresh my memory as to titles, names and sequencing, that Eves was written by a male writer. It’s one of the longest stories in the collection, and in some ways feels the most complete. Everything you want from it can be found within its electronic pages. Nothing feels like it has been omitted for the benefit of a word count, or glossed over because there simply wasn’t time. It’s also the story that’s most difficult to explain without giving away huge chunks of the plot – which is a little odd, given that it’s usually the much shorter stories that suffer from that – but suffice it to say that gradually unfolding the manner in which this world has been created is well worth the effort of going in blind. Did I mention that A Billion Eves is also utterly horrifying, perhaps representing the darkest version of humanity and its creations found in any of these tales? Well, it is.

Perhaps as a palette cleanser after Eves has sufficiently blown your mind, the penultimate story is one of the collection’s shortest, sandwiched between two weightier texts. Second Person, Present Tense by Daryl Gregory does clever things with language and narrative – as its title might suggest – in order to tell a story all about consciousness and the nature of identity or the self that is in some ways as disturbing in its implications as Eves was in its world-building. It also has, perhaps, one of the most likeable protagonists.

The final story is the one that gave the collection its title, and the one that the editor, Williams, had to fight to bring in. First appearing in 1989, it predated the electronic submissions that the digital collection was supposed to rely upon, and had to be reacquired from the author himself. So, was it worth the effort, and does it deserve to be the centrepiece of the collection? As I mentioned, I think Eves is stronger, and there are other titles like Lester Young’s and Second Person, Present Tense that for me worked better. Having said that, Robert Silverberg’s Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another is both an interesting idea and a good way to close out the collection. It follows an attempt to simulate a mind from another era, an artificial intelligence based on historical figures, by feeding in all kinds of data and letting the computer do the rest. There’s a vague, almost supernatural suggestion that there’s a little more going on than can be explained by mere software, which didn’t quite sit with me, but what follows is a meeting of the minds between two disparate figures – one of whom is an extremely interesting choice, not least because I never figure him for a soldier, and I imagine most don’t either – separated by centuries of history. As an aside, since it doesn’t impact heavily upon the story, it’s again intriguing to see a kind of alternate future at play. Harking back to an era when the Soviet Union still existed, it’s interesting seeing the little touches and references that suggest a very different world from the one that has actually come about.

Getting Your Feet Wet

While not every story in the collection is some astounding piece of science fiction – after all, though it may be the first digital collection, Asimov’s has released plenty of traditional ones over the years, and one might worry the landscape is becoming a little barren for un-collected works – the majority are good, and some are great. Of course, someone else’s opinions on the works within might differ greatly, and you might find you love all the stories – or none of them. It’s definitely a good way to get a taste of what Asimov’s publishes, though, especially if you’re wanting to get hold of some longer stories. The average issue only contains a couple of stories over 10,000 or so words, whereas almost everything found here is much longer. On the other hand, if you really do just want a taste of Asimov’s then it might be worth remembering that you can get a free trial of it through the Kindle, and the monthly subscription is only £1.99 or something hilariously cheap, so it might be better to try that first instead of springing for the collection right away. Of course, then you risk happening upon a particularly boring issue, instead of the pick of the litter in Enter a Future…

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