Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine
August, 1996 Reviewed by Paul Levinson
The winning hand in the August Asimov's is the first-class pair of novelettes by Ursula K. Le Guin and Terry Bisson.
Le Guin's "Mountain Ways" takes us again to the planet O, and its four-way marriages (the "sedoretu" of two men and two women) that permit two heterosexual relationships and two homosexual relationships, while forbidding two other possible heterosexual relationships (these couples are looked at as brother-and-sister). Into this fascinating mix, Le Guin transplants the plot device of "Yentl" (the Broadway play from the mid 1970s, later made into a movie starring Barbra Streisand), and its story of a scholarly woman who must pretend to be a man. In "Yentl" the motive is professional, in "Mountain Ways" it's love, but the complications are similar, and Le Guin does a masterful job of playing them out. The pastoral clarity, precision, and comfort with the range and subtlety of human emotion are everywhere in this beautiful story, again confirming Le Guin as the pre-eminent writer of this kind of anthropological science fiction.
Terry Bisson's "The Edge of the Universe" also re-visits a previous tableau, in this case the domain of the slightly madcap scientist Wilson Wu and his legal sidekick Irving. It seems that Wu has discovered that the universe is beginning to implode and move backward in time, and Irving has discovered one of the local "bubbles" in which this is being evidenced, a lot somewhere in the old downtown of Huntsville, Alabama. Bisson serves this up in his customary (for these kinds of stories) and delightful Shecklyan style, blended with his own razor-keen eye for detail and allusion -- as in an old man spending "his days watching TNN and CMTV, and perpetually smoothing a paper napkin across his knee as if he were petting a little white dog." Indeed, the only little cinder in this otherwise bright romp was the stylistic absurdity of rendering a particular word in the story -- the vulgar expression for vagina -- as a blank line! Either the author should have re-written the affected parts so the reader didn't have to be treated to a blank line, or (far more preferable), the editor should have published the vulgarity as is. Perhaps the reason for the blank line was to evoke reader annoyance so similar texts could be printed without blanks next time; if so, that strategy sure worked for me.
Tony Daniel's novella, "The Robot's Twilight Companion," has a lot of things going for it -- not least of which is that it is a novella, which may be (apropos Isaac Asimov's best Foundation stories), the ideal sf form. Daniel gives us an heroic, heart-rending story of a mining robot that (a) seems vested with some form of intelligence on its own, and (b) receives something of the cognition of a geologist who dies. We then witness the robot's coming of age, or fully coming into itself as a sentient being, via Daniel's powerful prose, all against a setting of a world in which fanaticism about protecting the environment is inexorably unraveling it. Lots of good themes are packed into this -- ranging from conflicts between the pure pursuit of science and political ideology, to parent-child relationships -- and Daniel succeeds admirably in bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion qua robot. But the story doesn't succeed completely for me for two reasons. The first, and less important, is that no adequate scientific explanation is given for how the robot achieves its initial, pre-humanly-integrated, self-awareness. The second is far more bothersome, because it's a trademark of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, not just this story: for no reason especially crucial to this narrative, it concludes on an easy, typically apocalyptic note. I have no problem with apocalypse (fiction-wise), if it's motivated in the context of the story. But in Asimov's, it's increasingly become the standard, unexamined background. (Mike Resnick's "Kirinyaga" series provided a refreshing exception.)
Doom and gloom is even more in vogue in Gene Wolfe's "Counting Cats in Zanzibar," though in this short story that seeks to say something about Isaac Asimov's laws of robotics, the pain is more immediate and personal. Wolfe is superb in portraying emotional states. But in this story, at least, he gives no compelling reason -- other than the existential angst that I guess some people see everywhere in the human condition -- for why the woman who has helped invent the first sentient robots should be so damn conflicted about it. Thus, the story becomes just another paeon to the formless dread that we're supposed to feel in contemplation of and interaction with our technological creations -- with no adequate exploration of why this should be so either in this case or in general.
Finally, newcomer David Hast's "Earth: Your Toxic Dream Vacation" jumps into the mire altogether, with a short account of aliens (a) taking vacations in our polluted environment, and (b) convincing our leaders to pollute our whole planet, for a price. As satire about our politicians, it's far too overstated to even be especially funny. The idea of aliens loving our pollution is good -- one species' garbage is another's gold-mine -- but instead of developing this into the interesting story it could have become, Hast decided to go for the quick gag, if you'll pardon the expression.
Well, it's good at least to see Asimov's publishing all science fiction. And if not all of it's on the level of Le Guin's realistic exploration of the human condition -- well, at least it's all wonderfully written, and, hey, I'd rather praise this issue for Le Guin's being there, than overly complain because there's not more like it.