Our Year in Review
by Sheila Williams
Our Readers’ Award ballot is up and ready for your annual votes. As I looked over our index of 2017 stories, it struck me that I find something special in every story that I purchase for the magazine. A highly personal annotated list of the work that will be on this year’s ballot grew from those musings. Be warned that there are spoilers here. I’ve divided this essay into short stories, novelettes, and longer works, but the rest of the order is mostly controlled by whim:
Short stories were bountiful this year. SFWA Grand Master James Gunn gave us a set of finely wrought tales that revealed the background and motivations of a group of travelers who will come together in his Transcendental Trilogy. These stories were: “The Escape of the Adastra: Asha’s Story,” “Transcendental Mission: Riley’s Story,” “Weighty Matters: Tordor’s Story,” “Arriving at Terminal: Xi’s Story,” “The Ganymede Gambit: Jan’s Story,” and “Love and Death and the Star that Shall Not Be Named: Kom’s Story.” The series will conclude in 2018.
We had some remarkable tales from authors who were brand new to Asimov’s. Andrea M. Pawley’s “A Singular Event in the Fourth Dimension” played against stereotypes to offer redemption. Two very different characters find their humanity in this compressed tale. Dennis E. Staples broke into Asimov’s with his first professional sale—“The Fourth Hill.” Dennis grew up around Minnesota’s Leech Lake Reservation, which is home to the Ojibwe, and his background is evident in this magical coming-of-age tale. I loved Emily Taylor’s “Skipped” because it tamed an often-traumatic SF trope. Instead, the drama was lodged in the heart of the mother. Who doesn’t think that almost every three-year-old contains all the promise in the Universe and wonders what happened when they have to cope with a 13-year-old?!
Hilarious is the word I will use for a couple of our tales. Peter Wood’s “Tired of the Same Old Quests?” gave me a new respect for the power of insurance, while it was hard not to sympathize with the evil characters in Tim McDaniel’s “Squamous and Eldritch Get a Yard Sale Bargain.”
Another eerie tale was Kit Reed’s “Disturbance in the Produce Aisle.” Like many Kit Reed stories, it was both funny and upsetting. It was also Kit’s last tale as she died very soon after the story was published. Returning after far too long an absence, Karen Joy Fowler gave us a breathtaking story about “Persephone of the Crows.” Here a young girl must cope with parents who may or may not have been replaced by evil, or perhaps just uncaring and indifferent, fairies. Sandra McDonald peered deep into an MBTA motorman and Vietnam survivor’s psyche to bring us a ghost story about “Riding the Blue Line with Jack Kerouac.” I was moved by the tale and had fun with all the literary references. I enjoyed Carrie Vaughn’s Wild West approach to the supernatural in “Dead Men in Central City” as well. We are left uncertain as to whether Jim Grimsley’s compelling “Still Life with Abyss” invokes the supernatural or calls down wrathful aliens, but it is certainly a work of pure horror.
Coming of Age stories were well represented. Gregory Norman Bossert’s “Goner” reminded me of antecedents like Vonda McIntyre’s “Aztecs” or Samuel R. Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah,” but this tale of transformation was all its own story, too. Terry Bisson’s very short tale, “We Regret the Error,” was both an amusing and grim depiction of The Singularity. It had one of the best closing lines of the year. There were no easy solutions, but parents learned from their child in Lisa Goldstein’s “Annabelle, Annie.” Alas, it didn’t look like the grandfather was capable of changing in James Patrick Kelly’s “And No Torment Shall Touch Them,” but the rest of the family discovered the chilling lengths they’d have to take to escape him. At least there seemed to be a lot of hope for Rich Lason’s deeply misguided Marcel in “Cupido.” Norman Spinrad charmingly explored the limits of “The Nanny Bubble” proving that clever children will inevitably discover ways to evade overprotective parents. Young people learned that unbridled fear of the other rarely improves the situation in Dale Bailey’s tragic “Invasion of the Saucer-Men.”
An inventive tween-ager both discovered and attempted to resolve the Fermi Paradox with the help of an AI in Stephen Baxter’s “Starphone.” Results did not go as planned, but they were intriguing. AI featured prominently in David Gerrold’s thriller, “The Patient Dragon,” too. This tale was set on the Moon and so was another thriller—“Pieces of Ourselves”—by Robert R. Chase’s. Here doctors had to work backward to figure out how a patient survived the odds and rescued others while seeming to suffer from psychosis. In Tom Purdom’s tale of conflict, two extremely disparate people had to come to terms “Afloat Above a Floor of Stars.” The tension and excitement of “An Evening with Severyn Grimes” didn’t let up from beginning to the story’s very satisfying conclusion. It’s a terrific tale by Dell Magazine award-winner Rich Larson. Ian Creasey’s action-packed story “After the Atrocity” was inspired by an earlier Asimov’s story that used a common trope. Ian saw this as part of SF’s ongoing “conversation.”
Sarah Pinsker borrowed from Ursula K. Le Guin when she fashioned her tale about sacrifice and free will and “The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going.” For the title of his gentle story about the effects of climate change, “Blow, Winds, and Crack Your Cheeks,” John Alfred Taylor riffed on Shakespeare. Allen M. Steele looked to his own work for his mysterious tale about “An Incident in the Literary Life of Nathan Arkwright.” This story provided us with a glimpse of the earlier life of the man who set Allen’s epic generational novel, Arkwright, in motion.
Sean Monaghan’s beautiful story about a man struggling to let go of his ailing daughter, “Crimson Birds of Small Miracles,” contained such evocative images that it led to Maurizo Manzieri’s vivid January/February cover. Difficulties coping with grief, along with an ability to create new life gave us Suzanne Palmer’s powerful “Number Thirty-Nine Skink” and our striking March/April cover by Tomislav Tikulin. Advanced technology that was meant to ease the recovery from grief looked like it might prolong it indefinitely in “The Last Dance” by Jack McDevitt.
Advanced technology had a role to play in many tales. In “Operators,” Joel Richards explored the effect of self-driving on the trucking industry. Remote-controlled cars had a menacing part to play in Jack Skillingstead’s “Destination.” The effects of the ability to recreate extinct life were quietly investigated in Ian McHugh’s “Triceratops.” Brotherly love and a formidable razor changed the life of “The Best Man” in Jay O’Connell’s affecting tale. Virtual reality and cloned bodies were just two of the themes invoked in “Winter Timeshare,” a story by the inventive and always surprising author Ray Nayler.
The possibility of time travel was explored in Michael Cassutt’s unsettling “Timewalking.” Time travelers were a reality in Sheila Finch’s stark examination of “Field Studies.” The master of alternate history, Harry Turtledove, used that device to craft his deeply disturbing “Zigeuner.”
Both of William Prestons’s short stories took us to the movies, but the similarities stopped there. His surreal story about “The Cabinet” appeared to investigate a viewpoint missing from Dr. Caligari’s famous film. “The Good Show” left us hoping that a film critic really had saved us from a tragic third act.
An extreme form of social media ranking led to a disquieting society convincingly limbed by Nick Wolven. As always, Nick presented us with a fully formed character and we were left shattered by her “Confessions of a Con Girl.” The reality of today’s troubled landscape and its connection to upheavals of the past were evoked in Leah Cypess’s “On the Ship.” Nothing is as it first appears, but the ultimately brutal lesson of story was not easily forgotten.
We had new, or newish, authors in our Novelette category as well. Cadwell Turnbull’s second professional publication, the heartbreaking “Other Worlds and This One,” alternated between timelines and cultures as it combined a study of a physicist and his family in the 50s-60s American Southwest with the complicated dynamics of a modern-day Caribbean family. Still relatively new author, Octavia Cade, returned to Asimov’s with “The Meiosis of Cells and Exile.” This story used a science metaphor to teach me a horrifying history lesson, reintroduce me to an acclaimed scientist, and ultimately reveal her iron resolve.
Several of our long-time authors delivered action-packed tales. R. Garcia y Robertson delivered the rollicking space opera he’s known for with “Grand Theft Spacecraft,” yet serious subjects were examined during all the fun. Rod took the unusual approach of submitting two stories whose action occurred simultaneously. By the end of each tale, they’d synced up perfectly. The concepts in Rudy Rucker & Marc Laidlaw’s “@lantis” made my head spin. I knew I’d have to go back to graduate school to understand them all. Since I wasn’t going to do that, I just held on for dear life and enjoyed the ride. Allen M. Steele revisited Coyote, the distant home of many of his most popular stories, for the exciting account of “Tagging Bruno.” This story also took a hard look at a disrupting social issue. With “Three Can Keep a Secret,” Bill Johnson & Gregory Frost parlayed one of the year’s most fitting titles into an exquisite sleight of hand.
Some of our off-world stories had a quieter side. While Tom Purdom’s “Fatherbond” features colonization, alien interference, rebellion, and war-gaming, it finds its core in a poignant look at complicated family relationships. Tom’s compact story built on traditional notions of parental love to bring new meaning to the concept of a father’s bond with his child. Sabotage greatly affected the lives of the people aboard Sarah Pinsker’s generation ship. Much knowledge of human history and culture was lost. A fear of losing what remains has stagnated artistic development. As a new crisis arises, a teacher and fiddle player must preserve the beauty of the past while confronting the desire for change. “Wind Will Rove” was a lyrical riff on a classic SF trope. The haunting September/October cover art that was partnered with the story was by Cynthia Sheppard.
We return to Earth for Dale Bailey’s tale about a student’s downward spiral in “Come as You Are.” This set up reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s more innocent “Who Am I this Time?” Yet, while one has the sense that there is no “there” to Vonnegut’s thespian, the darkness in the soul of Dale’s protagonist is profound. Ian R. MacLeod played with the concept of the super predictor in his brutal evaluation of “The Wisdom of the Group.” Interestingly, the protagonist failed to predict the consequences of his ill-considered actions. Greg Egan combined at least two thorny economic issues in “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine.” The story delivered an original, if unsettling, resolution. Michael Bishop’s “Gale Strang” was a lovely coming of age tale about a moving, yet enigmatic character. The story’s narrator was an entity unto themselves. Suzanne Palmer’s “Books of the Risen Sea” was another inventive and engrossing story. Caer is an outcast from a town that has been devastated by the rising seas. Living in a water-logged library has protected his sanity, but marauders are about to attack the entire area. The best hope for civilization may soon come down to Caer, the books, and a good-natured, disabled robot.
Nonhuman consciousness also appeared in Will McIntosh’s “Soulmates.com.” An obtuse young man seemed oblivious to the soul mates, both human and AI, that surrounded him. He was lucky that only one of them wanted revenge. An alien war of cat and mouse had disastrous consequences for humans in Lisa Goldstein’s chilling depiction of “The Catastrophe of Cities.” Michael Swanwick’s inscrutable being handed the “Universe Box” to an unsuspecting and, previously very ordinary, man. The resulting chaos and adventure seemed to bestow some kind of meaning on a nihilistic cosmos. In a post-communication-crash world, a young woman’s survival depended on her ability to make sense of the “Nine Lattices of Sargasso” and possibly locate the illusive A.I. who upended civilization. Jason Sanford’s compelling character discovered that truth isn’t easily found when it is hidden by manipulation and betrayal.
Alternate history played a role in three of our novelettes. Will Ludwigsen used one of the twentieth century’s master manipulators to take on disco and the club scene of New York in the seventies. “Night Fever” was violent and funny and surprisingly convincing. Rick Wilber revisited his continuing character Moe Berg “In Dublin, Fair City.” The events of World War II have veered widely from our own in this timeline, but like his actual historical incarnation, Moe remains a multi-lingual professional baseball player and spy. Alan Smale imagined a different life for Orville and Wilbur Wright’s talented sister Katharine in “Kitty Hawk.”
Our long works were filled with multifaceted characters, complex ideas, and intriguing plot lines. When we shifted to six double issues per year, we added a sixteen-page signature, which gave us a net gain for fiction and made it possible to publish longer pieces in the magazine. This meant we had the ability to publish Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s entire short novel, The Runabout in one issue. The Runabout was a fast-paced tale occurring in the “boneyard” of the author’s Diving series. Despite being a reprint, May/June’s ferocious cover art by Jim Simpson embodied the main character.
Damien Broderick’s work is always packed with scientific theory, philosophy, and references to classic science fiction. In “Tao Zero,” he seamlessly blended quantum mechanics with the Tao Te Ching. With “The Girl Who Stole Herself,” R. Garcia y Robertson furthered the story begun in “Grand Theft Spacecraft.” As mentioned above, the tale was not a sequel because the events in both stories happened at the same time and could have been published in any order. Although it was another reprint, Bob Eggleton’s dramatic illustration was the perfect cover for this fast-paced story and the July/August issue.
Alexander Jablokov gave us wonderful characters, fascinating world building, an enigmatic mystery, and finally an explanation for “How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry.” Alex has promised to write more stories about Sere, and I certainly hope he delivers. More incredible world building can be found in Robert Reed’s “The Speed of Belief.” The story is connected to the Great Ship series but ventures off in a surprising direction. The alien life form in this story is convincing while being very different from most of the other ETs we’ve encountered in this magazine.
Six years had passed since we last saw a story from Connie Willis. Although we hope to see a new story in in a lot less time, “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” was worth the wait. This complex tale took us to that little shop around the corner and then to the subterranean reaches of Manhattan. As the main character slid into madness, he showed us why once lost, we can never find those shops again. The story inspired Eldar Zakirov’s evocative and mysterious November/December cover illustration.
See our 32nd Annual Readers' Award Finalists!