Tangent Reviews

Asimov's, December 1996

from Tangent #17, Winter 1996

On the one hand, science fiction. On the other, fantasy. Asimov's, like most nominal sf magazines, mixes the two within the covers of each issue. No doubt their audience overlaps, despite the vast differences in their base appeals. Science fiction usually claims the moral high ground, as any self-proclaimed literature of ideas must. Good fantasy, though, is more than the mere escapism sometimes attributed to it by sf purists: it aspires to the purity of great storytelling and unforgettable characters. This issue of Asimov's has three sf stories, three fantasies, and even a science fantasy hybrid. Let's match sf versus fantasy and see which comes out looking best.

Round one. Those who don't believe we live in a Christian nation should be reminded that the XXXIInd Amendment mandates that every magazine cover-dated December contain a reference to Christmas. Here it is Connie Willis' short fable, "In Coppelius's Toyshop." Men are scum, as we all know, so when one particular redundantly egregious example of this fallen race is forced into spending even some very temporary time with his putative girlfriend's son, no good can come of it. Sure enough, he loses sight of the boy within minutes in the vastnesses of a faux FAO Schwartz toystore. He gets his comeuppance, though oddly we never do learn what happens to the little boy. Nor do we care.

Sonia Orin Lyris counterpunches with a true sf idea story, and both the story and the idea are good. Her novelette "The Angel's Share," features mind transfer technology that allows the very rich to switch bodies for three months to avoid the painful realities of long life, such as chemotherapy. Of course, going back is a bitch. Naturally the greedy rich want a longer, maybe even a permanent, stay in their young and perfect hosts. A chilling look at the amorality of money. Sf takes this round.

Round two. Kit Reed takes what is supposed to be a universal among kids -- that the grotesque adult creatures who control their lives can't really be their true parents -- and gives it the requisite sf twist in her short story, "Whoever." It is supposedly told in the voice of a precocious and obnoxious 13-year-old, and Reed surely gets half of that equation right.

On the fantasy side, what would an issue of Asimov's be without a story based upon mythology? This one is S. N. Dyer's "Gifts," about the very good luck befalling a woman who treats a statue with the respect that is its due. "Gifts" is light and fun and, amazingly, not a word longer than it needs to be. Score this one for fantasy.

Round three. James Patrick Kelly's novelette, "The First Law of Thermodynamics," has the pure believability of the best fiction, the aura of absolute conviction that brings characters to life as people. Kelly recreates the atmosphere of a college campus in 1970 in fine detail. But to justify its presence in Asimov's, the ending twists time in a way that I'd have to ascribe more to fantasy than to sf. And that ending also severely disappoints by reminding us that we are doing no more than reading a story in a science fiction magazine. I wanted and expected more.

The loss of veracity due to digital manipulation of pictures, photos, and tapes will be one of the great traumas facing our culture, which means that it is a ripe subject for sf stories. In her novelette, "Yesterdays," Mary Rosenbloom extrapolates this concern into a future business, one which provides guaranteed unretouched relics of the famous to a ghoulishly eager audience. Even a professional hunter of such keepsakes is not impervious to their lure, as her protagonist must contend with papers that offer the haunting possibility of a long-lost sister and the equally haunting possibility of a connection to someone who is just an unidentifiable face in a photograph. It is all done with Rosenbloom's usual quiet expertise. For seamlessness of plot and content, sf wins round three.

So, sf is ahead two rounds to one. Does it take the issue? Not quite. Science fantasy is a tricky genre. Mixing aliens and technology with the atmosphere of a Renaissance Faire takes skill, which Ian Watson shows in abundance in his novelette, "The Tragedy of Solveig." Watson wisely chooses not to delve deeply into the metaphoric potentialities of masks and identities and tellers of tales that his performing troupe could have been weighted with. They tell their story, Watson tells his. Fantasy is far the predominant mode in this highly enjoyable story, thereby evening up the score.

Mixing fantasy and sf within the covers of a magazine is also a tricky business. Other issues certainly may not balance quite as finely as this one did, but readers of all types of tales will find some good herein. Take it with you on that holiday trip to your most boring relatives, and see how you score.

Copyright 1996 by Steve Carper

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