Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. It’s been some long while since I’ve taken a look at any of the genre’s long-running print magazines, so, this installment seems like a good opportunity to check out an issue that just arrived in my mailbox: Asimov’s June 2015. This also happens to be issue #473, pointing to the standing history of the publication; there’s a lot of heft behind the name, here.
The June issue contains four novelettes and two short stories, as well as a smattering of poetry and nonfiction. The novelettes are “The End of the War” by Django Wexler, “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” by Henry Lien, “Ghosts of the Savannah” by M. Bennardo, and “Our Lady of the Open Road” by Sarah Pinsker. The short stories are “Mutability” by Ray Nayler and “The Muses of Shuyedan-18” by Indrapramit Das.
“The End of the War” by Django Wexler is a straight-forward science fiction piece that features a lot of familiar parts but arranges them in a reasonably engaging manner. We have the two-side war where the actual operators no longer remember the reason for fighting at all; we have the decimated societies on either side, worn down by the nonstop conflict; we have the search for continuing human connection in the vast bleakness of space/combat; we have the accidental overreach of technology that wipes out the societies themselves and the survivors deciding to band together to salvage a world for themselves. That stuff is all common and in common order—but that doesn’t mean this story doesn’t work.
It’s perfectly readable, made so by the connection the reader has to Myr, our protagonist—who has twice killed enemy operators and would rather not do it again. The sense of human drive for connection and contact is also a rich addition to the usual tropes of space combat. At first, it feels a little bit of an echo of the ethos of Ender’s Game (except, of course, for the bit that it seems to be a civil war). There’s not much of a sense of stakes left, because the operators think of it as a salvage job more than a battle job; it’s a bit like playing chess instead of actually engaging in combat. Except it can be deadly, and there are consequences. The cross from the nonserious combat to the very fatal consequences of the technological grasping of Myr’s people is a good pairing-up of issues.
I was entertained enough, though I’d also like to further investigate the gender-related observations in the story. It seems to be a primarily bisexual culture, or one where gender of sexual object choice isn’t necessarily all that important, but Myr also observes that women tend to score better-suited for operator isolation. So, it does seem to still be in some sense gender-driven or segregated.
Then comes “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” by Henry Lien. This one is a parodic Austen-hybrid piece about high society misbehavior and the disastrous consequences of too much wealth and too little to keep occupied with. The protagonist’s feud with another woman over the favor of Mrs. Vanderbilt leads her to accidentally, we presume, totally destroy the oceanic ecosystem with a hybrid “rose” plant. The thing is: this should have been, at most, a short story, not a novelette. The comedy begins to fall flat as the story goes on and on, entrenched as it is mostly in parodying the style of the manners-piece and rich idle women’s follies. The joke wears thin long before the fairly obvious and ominous ending. If it were punchier and shorter, it might have kept my attention more successfully; as it is, it doesn’t.
“Mutability” by Ray Nayler is an almost cyclical piece that has a pleasantly soft-edged tone, a sort of echoing effect like reversed nostalgia. Sebastian and Sophia live in a world where it seems that people mostly don’t age, or work, or any of that; they simply are, and have lived long enough that their memories trail off to nothing after a certain point. She has a very old photograph of people who appear to be them, happily together—and neither can remember it, but they come together again, drawn by the photograph and an ancient paperback book and the possibility of happiness.
The echo of the beginning of the story at the end of the story is a fairly classic technique, but it works here. Having come back together as if in a storybook themselves—which, technically, they are—their lives regain some meaning, or so it seems. Sebastian understands why he’s been stuck on studying a particular version of American English from the 1960s; Sophia understands that she, too, has been driven by some sort of subconscious seeking. Whether or not fate has anything to do with it, they’ve both ended up perhaps where they wanted to since before they could remember (literally). I liked that as an idea, and it’s comfortably well executed.
The next one, “The Muses of Shuyedan-18” by Indrapramit Das, is another SFnal piece. On an alien world, two lovers have sex in view of one of the lifecastles—a native species—and their forms become part of its decorative skin. This is an issue because they’re both women, and on the colony, het pairings are preferred for reproduction. However, the real issue is the failure of their relationship; they’re different kinds of people, and they can’t come together in the end.
I appreciated the tension between these two characters, one of whom is older and more experienced but ultimately more lost and the other of whom is young and excited but more steady in her needs for herself. That can’t work; it doesn’t work—and the delicacy with which they fall apart from each other is also reflected at the end in the loss of the alien creature, Shuyedan-18, when it dies young. The world itself is sketched sort of generally, and so are the lifecastle aliens, since the story is primarily about an incompatible relationship; nonetheless, I appreciated the details we do get as readers, and found them as compelling as the emotional arc.
“Ghosts of the Savannah” by M. Bennardo, the next novelette, is a bit of (pre)historical fiction following two girls, virgin hunters, and their eventual split from their village—forming a new one—after the oldest is injured and at risk of being married off against her will. It was readable but not particularly outstanding; given the setting in time, I would have liked to feel a bit more immersed in the world and details of that world, but in the end it didn’t feel much different from stories not set in prehistory to me. It also feels a touch like a story that’s hovering on the cusp of being a young-adult tale but isn’t quite sure what tone it’s going for. The youthful romance between the narrator and Kantu has longing looks and blushes aplenty, but it’s also tempered by the predicament of Sedu’s broken leg and her difficulty getting back to running.
The last story of the issue is “Our Lady of the Open Road” by Sarah Pinsker. The protagonist is the lead singer of one of a few remaining live bands, in a version of the future US that seems to have narrowed in on itself: self-driving cars, people don’t travel or congregate outside the home much (disease concerns are mentioned, so I assume there’s been some sort of plague vector problem), everything is holographic entertainment-wise, et cetera. After their van and gear are stolen, she considers going holo, but ends up deciding to stick it out with the help of other younger bands for a little longer.
This one could probably also use to be a bit tighter. It meanders some, and even though it’s concerned with building atmosphere perhaps more than plot or narrative movement, it might do better with a touch less reflection and exposition. Nonetheless, though the pacing was a tad slower than might be best, I still liked it—primarily because of the attention to detail about music and playing music. These lines were a pleasure:
“That was what the young punks and the old punks all responded to; they knew I believed what I was singing. We all shared the same indignation that we were losing everything that made us distinct, that nothing special happened anymore, that the new world replacing the old one wasn’t nearly as good, that everyone was hungry and everything was broken and that we’d fix it if we could find the right tools.”
So, it hit the right buttons for me; while I wouldn’t say that it was a perfect novelette, I think it’s handling a topic that will speak to some people intimately and in a very particular way. Overall, this was definitely an issue I enjoyed; also, bonus, a great deal of queer content—nearly every story, in fact. Had to have at least a little shout-out for that.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.