Our Year in Review
by Sheila Williams
I’ve enjoyed every story that ran in Asimov’s is this past year. What makes a story special is often obvious, but sometimes the gems are hidden. That’s why I’m once again reflecting on the 33 short stories, 22 novelettes, and 11 novellas that appeared in our pages (or on our electronic devices) in 2018. It’s a coincidence that each of those categories contains repeating integers, but the high-entertainment value of each tale is not coincidental. Since we’re doing at least one podcast per issue, you’ll find links to these recordings as well. A word of warning: this is a highly opinionated and spoiler-filled essay.
As usual, short stories dominated our tables of contents. James Gunn finished off his series of tales about the motivations of a group of travelers who will eventually meet up in his Transcendental trilogy. These stories were “The Seeds of Consciousness: 4107’s Story,” “The Final Commandment: Trey’s Story,” “The Waiting Room: The Pedia’s Story,” and the explosive conclusion “Attack on Terminal: The Pilgrim’s Story.” The stories echoed Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales while being well-thought-out musings on what will drive future humans and aliens toward their fates.
We had some remarkable short stories from first-time Asimov’s authors. S. Qiouyi Liu’s bittersweet “Mother Tongues”—about the sacrifices a mother will make to secure her daughter’s future—was among the most compelling. A tale of depression and horror, “The Greys of Cestus V” by Erin Roberts, was one of our most chilling. William Ledbetter’s “What I Am” was certainly the best story I’ve ever read about a smart sweater! Stephanie Feldman gave us an eerie story about suburban pettiness and revenge in “The Witch of Osborne Park,” and David Ebenbach took us to Mars for some disquieting thoughts on “Pregnancy as a Location in Space-Time.” Although she’s a well-known novelist, Jane Lindskold’s very first tale for us looked at the tangled backstory of some “Unexpected Flowers.” In a few pages, another established author, Alexandra Renwick, managed to convey the anguish of estranged teenagers in “Because Reasons.” Rounding out the short-story newcomer category was a poignant tale about returning to the past to have “Time Enough to Say Goodbye” by long-time Asimov’s author Sandra McDonald and first-timer Stephen D. Covey.
Several of our short stories took on some contemporary issues. We received Paul Park’s “Creative Nonfiction” before the Me-Too movement erupted, but it effectively foreshadowed the crisis. Parents who can walk away from their children were painfully and perceptively considered in Dale Bailey’s “Rules of Biology”; Sheila Finch looked at PTSD and the agony of those who don’t die on the battlefield in “Survivors”; and Rudy Rucker revealed what it might be like when date night is truly hijacked by “Emojis.” In “The Equalizers,” Ian Creasey offered us the story of a very strange date and examined the actions some may take to ensure that everyone is treated fairly; Mary Robinette Kowal’s lovely tale about “Artisanal Trucking, LLC” examined an industry that may soon be challenged by self-driving automobiles; and Leah Cypess slyly observed the upheaval incurred by an interloper’s attempt to advise a group of Facebook moms in “Attachment Unavailable.” Although set in an alternate universe, Cadwell Turnbull’s exquisitely thought out tale about “When the Rains Come Back,” combined economic theory and climate upheaval with the ups and downs of a father/daughter bond.
Ray Nayler traveled to the past in his evocative story about “An Incident at San Juan Bautista.” Marc Laidlaw also looked backward for his droll tale of “A Mammoth, So-Called.” Leah Cypess stayed in the present in “Best Served Slow.” This second short tale of the year from Leah took the part of a determined ghost investigating her own murder.
Characteristic of an SF magazine, a number of stories jumped into the future. In “Queen of the River: the Harbor Hope,” we found ourselves in the far future as James Van Pelt quietly contemplated the hero’s second act. Sean Monaghan invited us along on a hike on a distant planet that divulged the secrets of the heart and the beauty of “The Billows of Sarto.” Linda Nagata’s planet was so distant in time and space that events almost felt like magic. This vast remove from our own world gave us the chance to discover some new “Theories of Flight.” Peter Wood ventured into space for a company cruise that went awry in the amusing “Riverboats, Robots, and Ransom in the Usual Way.” Returning to our Solar System, Doug C. Souza plunged us, and some desperate nanos, into a mad life-and-death race for the ultimate “Callisto Stakes.” Although the author was playing fair with the facts, the ending to Doug’s story took me by surprise. Closer to home, Rich Larson’s unfortunate astronauts discovered there were not a lot of options “In Event of Moon Disaster.” This taut tale packed it’s own share of surprises.
Back on Earth, Robert Reed bounced around time and alternate universes in a brutal tale that proffered “Love Songs for the Very Awful.” Suzanne Palmer gave us two end-of-the-world tales with vastly different tones. “R.U.R.-8” (more or less pronounced Are You Arright”) was an amusing look at some fairly incompetent and/or depressed robot overlords and some mostly unaspiring human charges. This tale lent itself to an awesome podcast by a team of volunteer voice actors. A sadder story, “Stones in the Water, Cottage on the Mountain,” flitted between alternate universes and nuclear holocaust. Yet somehow this poignant look at relationships and human folly ultimately ended on a hopeful note. Finally, although there’s a slight possibility that all isn’t lost at the end of David Erik Nelson’s terrifying “In the Sharing Place,” I’m sure that optimistic interpretation is probably just wishful thinking on my part.
Our novelettes were equally varied and impressive. Newcomers to the magazine included NY Times bestselling author and Nebula-Award winner Cixin Liu. “Sea of Dreams,” the author’s depiction of a ruthless alien artist’s catastrophic visit to Earth, was innovative and riveting. “Seven Months Out and Two to Go,” was a splendid story by Rachel Swirsky and Trace Yulie. This tale forced a pregnant widowed rancher to cope with aliens and humanity. Making his first sale anywhere, Zack Be’s account of a dangerous hunt for the “True Zing” was edge-of-the-seat thrilling. Jean Marie Ward’s tale of a mistreated wife’s race to escape her situation via “The Wrong Refrigerator” was amusing and suspenseful.
n the latest offering from Robert R. Chase, we found more suspense aboard an airship as we joined the search for an “Assassin in the Clouds.” Matthew Hughes’s confidential operative Erm Kaslo set out to upend some “Solicited Discordance” while keeping an eye on a young couple pursuing their dreams. Allen M. Steele returned to Coyote to track down some runaways on the “Barren Isle.” A competitive brother and sister discovered the real risks that attend the leap into Jupiter’s upper atmosphere in Nick Wolven’s gripping “Stormdiver.” The fiery November/December artwork that accompanied “Stormdiver” was by Donato Giancola. Kristine Kathryn Rusch uncovered some exciting events from the early days of Jonathan Cooper’s career and showed us why he was once known as “Lieutenant Tightass.”
When reading Harry Turtledove, it’s not surprising to find ourselves in an alternate timeline. In this version of 1929, marines battled Stalin’s troops while “Liberating Alaska.” On a distant planet, a war story from Tom Purdom took an anthropological view of “Parallel Military Culture Evolution in a Non-Human Society.” In Derek Künsken’s story, a young couple discovered they are about as compatible as “Water and Diamond” as they attempted to find their way on their space colony. Possible alien visitors only added to the tension. Julie Novakova’s wrenching story began on Earth, but took us much farther afield as she disclosed the heart-rending price of “The Gift.”
Robert Reed unwrapped a gift of a different sort in “DENALI”—a tale about an oppressive government that seemed to be the result of an alien technology and which examined the limits of participatory democracy. In “Straconia,” we wandered off with Jack Skillingstead to a strange land for misplaced things and lost people. Michael Cassutt considered the risky behavior of a teenager out to make some extra cash by going “Unter.” Nancy Kress explored the question of whether the ethical price of sacrificing one’s principles and some people to save the entire world can be too high or if it’s just the “Cost of Doing Business.” Octavia Cade mused on the folly and the high cost of cutting science education in her lovely story about an astronomer, her young students, and “The Backward Lens of Compromise.”
There is a different sort of folly in Sue Burke’s “Life from the Sky.” A young woman rescues an alien “spaceflake” from a San Francisco beach, but her mother is terrified of the unknown and attempts to destroy all the alien life forms. Both actions influence their destinies and those of the people around them. After humanity manages to wipe itself out through nuclear war, Ian R. MacLeod’s A.I. caretaker watches over our “Ephemera.” This is a beautiful and touching look at what we will leave behind. “Ephemera” was accompanied by surreal cover art from Mycoolsites/Dreamtime.com (July/August).
Our last two novelettes are stories of transformation. Carrie Vaughn reversed genders as she retold an ancient fairytale. In “The Huntsman and the Beast” two very different beings must learn to live and, eventually, defend their home together. Ray Nayler’s deeply moving “A Threnody for Hazan” tells the story of two scientists—one brilliant, but unbalanced—mapping neural connections through time, both for time travel and to reconstruct the individual. The results are both terrifying and surprising.
In total, we published fewer stories in 2018 than we have in other years, but this was because we also published a record, or near record, number of novellas. The novella gives the author room to develop plotlines, experiment with world building, and introduce complicated characters while explicating their interactions. Our novellas did just that.
Greg Egan raced us through a story of complex minds, virtual reality, and mathematics. The tale was spiced with pseudo-nineteenth century London, vampires, mysterious quests, and much more. It ended at the promised land of “3-adica” with a strong hint of further adventure to come. Eldar Zakirov painted an evocative cover using images and incidents from the story.
Allen M. Steele started a new series with a strange tale about a world where humans and aliens engage in an uneasy coexistence. Knowledge of science, human history, and interstellar travel has been lost. Charlatans exploit their “magical” abilities, and a few subversives seek out the truth about “Starship Mountain.” R. Garcia y Robertson continued the rousing exploits of Lieutenant Junior Grade Amanda James who must thwart slavers and save a princess. We soon learn why she’s the “Girl with a Curl.”
Over twenty years ago, Bill Johnson penned the Hugo-Award-winning “We Will Drink a Fish Together.” In 2018, he returned with a blockbuster novella that stood alone and yet continued the story of Foremost, the Synth, Carole, Oly, and all the other visiting aliens and residents of Dakota’s Summit. “Bury Me in the Rainbow” exposed some of Summit’s secrets and moved closer to resolving the mystery of the Ship. Rick Wilber may have finished off his Moe Berg series with a new tale of spies, war, alternate history, and “The Secret City.” Rick managed to cram in escapades in the American South West and Mexico, and even a little baseball.
There’s a lot more baseball in the tale of “The Wandering Warriors.” This dramatic story by Rick Wilber and Alan Smale transported a 1940s barnstorming baseball team to ancient Rome. As Roman Centurions met fastballs and sinkers, the action in the Colosseum never let up. Alejandro Colucci captured a moment from the tale in his stunning May/June cover art. Another duo, Paul Di Filippo and Rudy Rucker, provided us with a wry tribute to H.P. Lovecraft. Rudy and Paul’s intrepid 1930s explorers set off for Antarctica with their dog and some strange women in our January/February issue. They soon find that the creatures and mysteries they will encounter “In the Lost City of Leng” are direr than they expected. Not all the good guys will survive this escapade. The cover illustration was by Eldar Zakirov.
We had three amazing novellas from the talented Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I found I could barely breathe while reading our March/April cover story, “Dix.” An unhappy member of Jonathan Cooper’s crew commits a treacherous act of sabotage. It will take nerves of steel if the captain and Engineer Yash are to save the Ivoire and their own lives. Much of the horror in this story is expertly left to the reader’s imagination. The accompanying cover illustration was by Jeff Brown. When a badly disabled ship comes barreling out of foldspace only courage and clear thinking can successfully achieve “The Rescue of the Renegat.” This was another harrowing tale from a master storyteller. Both these stories were about adults working their way though difficult situations. Perhaps the author’s novella with the scariest and most disastrous consequences was a tale of wayward teens on a “Joyride.” Stealing ships and entering the “Scrapheap” leads to a cascading series of horrendous events. Even the survivors will have no real recovery from this nightmarish misadventure.
Our final novella, “Bubble and Squeak” by David Gerrold and Ctein, threw the reader into a relentless tear across Los Angeles. In a desperate attempt to survive a tsunami of catastrophic proportions, our title characters first try to outrun the water with their scuba equipment in tow. When this proves impossible, they must use their equipment to save their own lives and as well as some bystanders. The crises keep coming, and the tension doesn’t ebb until the last page.
I hope this essay helps bring our wonderful year into focus as you fill out the Asimov’s Readers’ Award ballot and nominate for other awards. If you haven’t had a chance to read all of these terrific stories, I hope your curiosity is aroused and that you will seek out these rewarding tales. You may be the lucky ones because you can look forward to so much stimulating entertainment!