ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION #540/541 (January/February 2021) Edited by Sheila Williams


Though there are a couple/few stories in this issue that I didn’t care much for, the vast majority were really excellent. A great start to 2021 for Asimov’s.

“A Rocket for Dimitrios” by Ray Nayler — Increasingly liking the fiction from Nayler and his translations, and this alternate history is no different. A follow up to his previous story “The Disintegration Loops”, the foundation for this alternate world is the discovery of alien technology in the early 1930s and its implementation in US over the ensuing three decades. The alien tech provides amazing things, but humanity still has a poor grasp on how any of it works. The technological advancements have also brought heightened paranoia and authoritarianism to the US under seven-termed (if I recall correctly) President FDR. Standing against the patriarchal US government and the directions it continues to follow are a group of women, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Hedy Lamarr. So, I still haven’t mentioned the actual plot to this story, but honestly its a MacGuffin to explore some great themes and characters in this altverse.

“The Realms of Water” by Robert Reed — Falls into the category of SF writer of a certain age becoming enamored with European history (Roman) and transposing some part of that into SF/Fantasy retelling. This unfortunately seems to happen a lot. The very prolific Reed always writes well. But this was just not a story I found interesting, and it took up way too much space in this issue. On the other hand, at least he didn’t go the alternate history route.

“No Stone Unturned” by Nick Wolven — An exploration of the possible effects that teleportation technology might have on humans, this is top notch SF with both speculative elements, a good dose of science and a human element at its heart. A man becomes concerned about his wife who has been part of a program testing transporter technology. She seems more distant, and forgetful of their child. But, is this an effect of the transporter process as one conspiracy guru claims, or is there something more basic and ageless going on here? Highly recommended.

“Table Etiquette for Diplomatic Personnel, in Seventeen Scenes” by Suzanne Palmer — A murder aboard a human alliance space station with several visiting alien species has possible connection to an old conflict between two groups, and the cuisine selections that must be diplomatically selected/prepared to avoid insulting – or poisoning – any species. Fun, and slyly written, any Trek fan should enjoy this as well.

“Hunches” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch — An engineer on the bridge of a starship is saved from horrible death by going with gut and donning a pressure suit just before sudden crisis unfolds. With nothing transpiring as it should, the disoriented engineer continues to use his hunches to save the ship and surviving crew. A more contained and limited story than I’m used to seeing from Rusch. It is by no means bad, but I also didn’t find it that striking or perceptive.

“Shy Sarah and the Draft Pick Lottery” by Ted Kosmatka — Set in a world – or maybe reality! – where the top echelons of society control people and events according to powerful statistical models much like sabermetrics is used for baseball scouting and plans. An abnormally shy woman who has skills in scouting for prospects that can bring a statistical edge (luck) to situations risks her position and life by telling a prospect the truth about how the world is run and what those in power will do to maintain their edge. Great idea in this story and superb execution.

“Mayor for Today” by Fran Wilde — Concept of a world-wide gig economy taken to extremes. Wilde goes with this idea in interesting directions and as usual writes a compelling and entertaining story. It mixes absurd humor with political critique and sympathetic characterization of individuals struggling to survive in a system.

“The Fear of Missing Out” by Robert H. Cloake — A socially awkward man begins to use new auto-personality technology to navigate difficult situations, like talking to an attractive man he happens to meet. While it’s running most sensory input is lost to him, but he can rewatch what has occurred while on ‘auto-pilot’ afterward, having retaken primary control of his body/mind. Success at winning a date leads him on a path to further dependence on the technology so that primary control actually becomes the unwanted exception. A poignant take on technology dependency and avoiding uncomfortable situations.

“The Three-Day Hunt” by Robert R. Chase — Well written story about a war veteran and his dog going on a search for the pilot of a crashed UFO. At first uncertain if it is something extraterrestrial or human military-based, the man soon gets word that its an intelligent alien species out there in the woods and he should disengage to leave first contact to the professionals and high muckety-mucks. The story ends with a clever observation, and it is an enjoyable enough read. But there’s not really much here beyond the surface level.

“Humans and Other People” by Sean William Swanwick — A pair of scavengers (human and robot) who loot sites in a post-climate-disaster NE USA encounter unexpected complications in a fire-ravaged building in Philly. The concept and start of this seemed real promising, but then I felt it muddled with a voice/style I just never really could get behind.

“I Didn’t Buy It” by Naomi Kanakia — A short story on the concept of identity and perspective and relationships. I really didn’t care for the style, and in fact, didn’t buy it.

The issue also features poetry by Jane Yolen, Leslie J. Anderson, Robert Frazier, and Avra Margariti. Editorial by Sheila Williams, Reflection “One Hundred Years of Robots” by Robert Silerberg, Internet Column by James Patrick Kelly, and Book Reviews by Norman Spinrad and In Memoriam for Mike Resnick. Also includes In Memoriam for Mike Resnick, Readers’ Award Ballot, 2020 Index, and SF Convention Calendar.


ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION & FACT Vol. CXXXI #s 1 and 2 (January/February 2021) Edited by Trevor Quachri


The first issue of the year features a number of strong stories, but also some (particularly among the shortest) that seem less complete or impactful. Though still dominated by ‘hard science fiction’ that favors technology and speculative details, a surprising number of the stories here put the speculative element to the back to focus on character relationships or other non-technical themes. I’m fine with that trend, and certainly with the balance that it brings to this issue.

“Mixed Marriage” by Dan Helms — Soon Jae-won, the only son in a Korean family, awakens within their small allotment of living space to an important day ahead when he will meet his future wife. The story is set in a future where human population levels have resulted in adoption of ‘time share’, where families are designated just one day a week for going about activity, while sleeping the other six in cramped, shared quarters. Jae-won is a Friday, but the woman he is to marry is a Sunday, and generations kept separate has given rise to class and cultural differences that his family worries might interfere with a successful marriage. Interesting premise and story here from a clash of a conservative, traditional mindset with one more relaxed and open. I liked the ending and its take on how people can get comfortable in anything, and fear the work or discomfort that might arise from changing even something repressive. I don’t know why Helms chose Korea as the setting, and am not familiar enough with Korean culture enough to know the accuracy in portrayal here. Looking at other’s reviews of the story I’m concerned that so many of those seem to conflate Asian nations and cultures.

“A Shot in the Dark” by Deborah L. Davitt — On Uranus’ moon Titania, Dominic Vadas works for a UN space agency alone at the farthest station from Earth, happy to live a hermit away from human contact, and keeping interactions with his AI to a minimum. A new message from Earth with orders for Vadas to leave the autonomous robots going there and pack his bag to intercept and check out an extrasolar object that has arrived in our system. Along with the increased news from Earth arrives a letter from a daughter Vadas hadn’t realized he had. Fantastic story with natural dialogue, lots of technical details, and a strong human element with character development to boot.

“The Liberator” by Nick Wolven — A man infiltrates a criminal group that supports human reproduction without genetic modifications. Though the story is written well and engagingly as a thriller, the central theme here seems well-trodden and I didn’t feel the story added much perspective on what human modification should or should not entail, or the nature of how ‘defective’ could be defined.

“The Nocturnal Preoccupations of Moths” by J. Northcutt, Jr. — One of two stories in a row in the issue featuring a Martian colony. Here, the setting centers on botanists who are working hard to maintain seed banks amid the failing colony mission. The story is followed by a note of its historical influence from actions of botanists during the siege (of Leningrad if my memory serves) during WWII. The scientists actions and discussions are interspersed with passages on the behaviors of moth in the habitat. For me it was a beautiful, melancholy story of nature and human behavior during times of short supply.

“Belle Lettres Ad Astra” by Norman Spinrad — Written for a special volume themed around the state of reading in the future, this tale involves “Elon Tesla”, interstellar expansion of humanity through hibernation, and the possible discovery of a Dyson Sphere. I’m not a fan of Spinrad’s columns usually, and this story felt just as ambling and uninteresting.

“By the Will of the Gods” by Charles Q. Choi — A young man who has been raised an orphan in a temple found on a space route looks into the death of the temple’s caretaker, the one man there who showed love for the boy and helped mentor him. A nice mixture of SF, mystery, and class commentary.

“My Hypothetical Friend” by Harry Turtledove — Dave Markarian has built Interstellar Master Traders by profiting from his carefully established business relationship with the enigmatic Brot, a slug-like alien race that arrives on Earth with advanced technology well beyond humanities capabilities or even comprehension. He learns that the Brot representative that he has worked with for decades – perhaps even developed a friendship with – is leaving. Markarian’s symbolic gift for the departing Brot shows a deeper perception of the human-Brot relatioship than he may realize. Alien contact (arrival on Earth) stories stereotypically go the way of conqueror or altruistic saviors, but as he excels at, Turtledove looks to history to speculate more realistic and imaginable interactions (business and personal) between trading partners with such differences in development between them.

“Photometric Evidence of the Gravitational Lensing of SAO23820 By a Nonluminous Low-Mass Stellar Object” by Jay Werkheiser — A physicist relates being ostracized into an academic pariah after relentlessly pursuing publication of data he feels indicates the presence of a black dwarf star. Others refuse to accept this as it runs counter to the Standard Theory. Maybe physics is more black/white than bio, but I would think a bit of data might be consistent or inconsistent with something without leading a grand theory being so threatened. Other explanations seem to always exist. And this, I guess, takes place in the days before preprint servers? Story does say something about dogma in science that is worth saying, I just am not sure it did so in the best way.

“Conference of the Birds” by Benjamin C. Kinney — Only after reading the author biography after this story, did it completely click with me. This is a story that merges artificial intelligence concepts with neurobiological intelligence concepts, a tale of drones acting out the will of a central hub, of individual actions within a larger societal organism. This one is dense, with a unique voice for its major character. For my tastes in fiction I’d say I like the concept more than the execution. But I get why some readers would find this a fascinating and rewarding read. Scientists or laypersons with an interest in neurobiology or AI should definitely give this a look.

“Interstellar Pantomime” by Martin Dimkovski — A probe from Earth responds to an object trailing it as programmed, but unbeknownst to the probe’s designers, this alien object can use its observations of the probe to extrapolate its origin. A simple, fair speculative idea. But, I’m not a fan of this kind of minimalist story around a hard SF concept, even if short.

“Matter and Time Conspire” by Sandy Parsons — Flash fiction like the previous story, this one dealing with multiple ‘me’ characters due to the messing with time. An enjoyable enough read, but nothing special or particularly new to it.

“The Tale of Anise and Basil” by Daniel James Peterson — This brief story features a human prisoner forced to be royal storyteller in an alien court. The alien ruler demands a story that conforms to rules of leaving no details unexplained or left to the imagination or face death. Considering the demand and its traps, the human storyteller finds a way to oblige. A commentary on unreasonable reader/reviewer demands for authors? Reads like a fable, but with the technical/philosophic arguments that perhaps make it fitting for Analog.

“The Practitioner” by Em Liu — Medical students in 2093 observe events through time from past eras as part of their Medical Ethics course. One student has difficulties coming to terms with what she observes in the mid-1960s at an underground (illegal) abortion clinic. The politics of the story stay relatively muted despite the subject matter by focusing mainly on the student’s emotions and her rationale for being involved in medicine. I liked it, and the story focuses less on the technology than I would have expected from the Analog venue, but that’s fine with me.

“What Were You Thinking?” by Jerry Oltion — What is consciousness? What is intelligent behavior compared to simple programmed responses. A boy observing his girlfriend’s cat vomiting up hairballs designs an animal behavior experiment to address this question. I adored this story, and will probably feature it in my Biology in Fiction course where the debate over consciousness comes up quite a bit.

“Changing Eyes” by Douglas P. Marx — The second story featuring Martian colonies, here with people descended from Sherpas, where a man who helped terraform the planet returns to help solve a technical problem/disaster, having left some time ago after his wife and daughter perished. The science behind the story (involving energy generation) was inconsequential to me, though may interest some. But, I did enjoy the theme of returning to a belovedly important place that also holds painful memories.

“A Working Dog” by anne m. gibson — The second story in the issue featuring animal behavior and this one is humorous, clever, and charming. A woman who has invented lawncare robots made to appear like rabbits becomes concerned when she realizes they provoke canine hunting instincts, so she searches for a solution. Aside from the topic the story perfectly illustrates scientific problem-solving and carefully considering assumptions of what the problem is.

“So You Want to Be a Guardian Angel” by Michael Meyerhofer — Candidates looking to work in the protection of Earth from asteroids receive a talk about what the job would entail, especially the loneliness. Very short story – not quite flash – but nothing particularly special about it.

“Choose One” by Marie DesJardin — This strange piece of flash fiction features a dancer who has been selected by aliens as a potential ‘best of’ humanity (from all walks of life). Housed separately but with information on who remains, she watches as one-by-one other candidates ‘disappear’. Unclear what happens to those who fail to measure up, or what the aliens are actually looking for. Existential angst is what this story seemed to be for me.

“We Remembered Better” by Evan Dicken — Interesting story where two siblings are left one single memory in their estranged, abusive mother’s will. One sibling is trans, and this decision seems to have led to much of the rift between mother and children. The story raises issues of what one might choose to do with the opportunities to view memories from the point of view of others, including those who you might vehemently disagree. It also touches upon sibling support.

“The Last Compact” by Brian Rappatta — Another set on Mars. A young man and his mothers are moving, ending an AI-related museum project he was helping work on, with an AI saint now going into archive that the man wishes he could save and take with. This felt like a fragment of a story, and I cannot find it fulfilling anything significant with what it does contain.

“Riddlepigs and the Cryla” by Raymund Eich — A vet who is really excited to get to treat a dinosaur is sad to discover her patient is actually a pig who has been injured by the escaped dino from the nearby preserve on this extraterrestrial planet setting. Some interesting ideas here on the ‘value’ of organisms common versus exotic, some speculation on transplant organ production, but lacked any depth beyond.

“The Last Science Fiction Story” by Adam-Troy Castro — Flash fiction almost akin to a prose poem (although I guess that is oxymoronic?) The title is ironic, for there can never be a last one, as the story explains.

With “Constructing a Habitable Planet” science fact by Julie Novakova and poetry by Jennifer Crow (Hidden Things) and Bruce McAllister (If).