Rich Horton Reviews Short Fiction:Analog, Asimov’s, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 12/21
This is a farewell – 20 years ago my first short fiction column appeared in Locus, and this will be the final one. (I do plan to continue to contribute occasional work to this wonderful magazine!) When I began writing for Locus, my aim was simple: to read as much of the field as I could, and write about what I thought was the best work. I was ambitious and I read a LOT, including some very small low-circulation magazines, including the then-new online publications. We changed our focus a few years ago, so I’ve mostly reviewed print magazines, leaving online publications to Karen Burnham (an indication of how the short fiction field has changed – in 2002 online ‘zines were still outliers, though Ellen Datlow’s Sci Fiction was going strong, as was Strange Horizons, which, remarkably, is still running). I also read and reviewed single-author collections when they included new material. Another goal of mine was always to find SF in non-genre publications. I’m still doing that (though not quite as ambitiously as back then!) – and this column features a mix of venerable print magazines, very new print magazines, one of the oldest small press magazines, and a single-author collection by one of my favorite writers to have emerged in the past 20 years. (Alas, nothing from outside our field!)
The most venerable print magazine still appearing regularly is Analog, which began as Astounding in 1930. (Weird Tales and Amazing, from 1923 and 1926, still exist in some form, but have published very irregularly over at least the past few decades.) Analog is notable in part for its very stable editorial chair – only four editors over the past 84 years, the most recent being Trevor Quachri, who has been reinvigorating the magazine – while retaining a great deal of continuity with its history – over the past few years. The first 2022 issue features a couple of fine stories by fairly new writers. Louis Evans, in “Doe No Harm”, offers a clever and well-told story of a bit of near-term tech extrapolation gone wrong. It concerns an embedded medical records chip that is destroyed in the accident that injured its host – making treating him impossible. This is the sort of thing Galaxy did a lot in its early days, and Analog does a lot to this day. Benjamin C. Kinney, in “A Living Planet”, tells of the dilemma facing a team of mission control specialists when they encounter satellites of clearly non-human origin in Earth orbit, even as one character is consumed by worry over his wife’s ongoing mission to another planet. The solution offered is sound, but the most interesting part of the story is the central question: Do we trust or fear this mysterious “emissary”?
Those stories are nice, but two novelettes were highlights and emphasize two quite different modes of hard science fiction. (One thing that has stayed constant at Analog is a devotion to hard SF, however you define it.) Joe M. McDermott’s “Wind Gets Her Own Place” is a quiet and naturalistic story about a teenaged girl somewhat unwillingly joining the colonization effort at Tau Ceti. Her mother didn’t wake from the sleep tank, so she’s been stuck with her hated stepfather. The details of the colonization/terraforming effort aren’t what matters here (they would be in many Analog stories) … instead, McDermott movingly tells of Wind’s struggles to find a place, find friends, and accept her unwanted new life. Tom Jolly’s “Cloudchaser”, by contrast, is a fast-moving adventure/crime story set on various “dark planets” – isolated worlds terraformed with the help of artificial “suns”, that serve as “stepping stones” to actual habitable star systems. That idea is interesting, as is some of the tech featured, and the title planet – actually a tide-locked moon of a large planet – is a cool concept. Plus there’s beer and wine! The story concerns an exiled (and beheaded) prince from one of the dark planets, who has become an eccentric collector of unique objects, and also a couple who have started a business making exotic wines and other yeast-based products, only to run afoul of a local mob. These three people get entangled in the side effects of a war, and … well, their lives get complicated. It’s quite a lot of fun.
Asimov’s is far less venerable than Analog, of course – indeed, I well remember seeing the first issue on my local drugstore newsstand when I was still a teenager, 45 years ago. But 45 years is good going and its nearly as stable set of editors (5 in those 45 years) has established it as one of the great SF magazines. In the January-February issue, Michael Swanwick’s “The Beast of Tara” is a well-done new entry with some wild twists in a subgenre I take a particular interest in: stories of “time viewers,” or in this case, “time listeners.” In this piece, a scientific team is analyzing the Lia Fáil, or Speaking Stone, at Tara, the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland. They are trying to detect remaining sound waves from that distant past, when the High Kings ruled, hoping to hear music and perhaps speech. But a mischievous school kid shows up and starts interfering with the equipment … leading to a resolution asking what could go wrong – or right – about too much knowledge of the past (and future.)
I also liked Stephanie Feldman’s eerie “The Boyfriend Trap”, involving a couple trying to resolve their differences in a trip to the deep woods, with a terrifying ending and some very well-depicted relationship issues; and Jendayi Brooks-Flemister’s “Welcome Home”, in which a single mother gets a new home – a smart home, which seems wonderful until she learns the down side of the “smart” features.
Speaking of venerable, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet’s 44-issue, quarter-century run is quite remarkable too, for a saddle-stitched ’zine, the first issue of which had a 26-copy print run. I’ve been following it almost from the start, and its consistent high quality, high literary standards, and willingness to publish everything from hard SF to traditional fantasy to mainstream to slipstream to just plain weird stuff make it a continual surprise and delight. This issue features “A Minor Demon in Adams B-12”, by Kate Francia, about a rather mediocre college professor and three of his students, after the professor discovers an attempt at demon-summoning. He has to remind them that the school has a zero-tolerance policy about demons, even as he wants to summon a minor demon to finish his grading. Meanwhile, the three students, all suspects, realize that maybe a demon might help with their own issues: especially Rosa, who is struggling to keep her scholarship. But we all know that summoning a demon rarely goes well, though we also learn that a demon is no match for a determined witch! The story expertly juggles a generally light-hearted tone with some real issues and interesting characters. There is also a very good non-fantastical story, “Holderhaven”, by Richard Butner, that uses the hint of the fantastical to drive some of its action, as Rudy, working a summer job at the title mansion, stumbles across evidence of a terrible crime while trying to rehab a secret passage, and wonders if the mansion is haunted by one of the owners, or perhaps a victim? Secrets of that age are hard to truly understand, though … but the readers learn enough, and Rudy does too, while making some worthwhile real-world friends.
“Holderhaven”, Richard Butner (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, 12/21)
“A Minor Demon in Adams B-12”, Kate Francia (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 12/21)
“Cloudchaser”, Tom Jolly (Analog 1-2/22)
“Wind Gets Her Own Place”, Joe M. McDermott (Analog 1-2/22)
“The Beast of Tara”, Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s 1-2/22)
This review and more like it in the February 2022 issue of Locus.
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