05 February 2010

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction (Jan. 2010), Part III

• See Part I.
• See Part II.

4. Chris Roberson, "Wonder House" (pg. 53-69) *** 1/2
Read 31 Jan. 2010. Alternate history SF, (re)imagining the confluence of events and inspirations that created the comic book. I will admit that I thoroughly enjoy this sort of story, which meditates on not just the origins of a form/media (comics) but also treats with playful reverence the origins and concerns of its own genre (SF) -- and does succinctly, never swerving from its tone or its subject, moving the story (and the reader) inexorably to the moment of revelation that is a joy because it is understood, anticipated right at the last second before it arrives. On the planet "Fire Star" (54), Yacov Leiber and Itzhak Blumenfeld have been running "Wonder House Publications" (53) for twenty years, their fortunes rising adn falling (or plateauing) by their ability to publish "terribles" (54) -- i.e., pulp magazines -- that readers desire. Roberson brings us into their publishing house and lives at a moment of crisis and the need for change, as Wonder House's fortunes are in decline, Yacov and Itzhak's editing a bit out of step with readers' current tastes. They brainstorm different ideas for new or renewed stories and series, such as "'war title'" (55) or a "'gun-slinger title'" (55) or a "'character title, like Doctor Buckingham'" (55) or "relaunching Celestial Bureaucracy'" (56), but find various reasons why such titles would not work in the present climate for terribles. In the process, Roberson crafts a history of Fire Star's terribles, which clearly mirrors Earth's history of the the pulps (especially from the Gernsback era of the late 1920s on, I think), bringing that history to a point of transition, for what Wonder House needs is something truly new, truly innovative if it will reclaim its "readership" (57) and marketshare. That something truly new is the simultaneous arrival of SF and comics, as Segal, a young writer doggedly trying to get "regular work writing for terribles" (58), and Kurtzberg, a young artist, bring their "'thing'" (58) to Yacov and Itzhak: a story about a man from the future sent back in time, depicted by Kurtzberg as a "muscular figure wearing a skin-tight costume" (58) . . . and, yes, think Superman, for this man from the future will have "the Hebrew letter Shin" (58) as a log on his chest, which stands for "'Shaddai,'" or "'The Almighty'" (58). Initially sceptical, Itzhak sees the potential in what Segal and Kurtzberg have brought to Wonder House, having the flash of inspiration to put the focus on Kurtzberg's illustrations as the main narrative, with Segal's text used in "'snippets'" (59) on top of the illustrations. "'This could work'" (59), Itzhak says, and the reader agrees, because the reader knows he's right. So, a story about the very moment of the creation of a new form and a new genre of story, and thus a story that is also about Story itself. Roberson's shifting of the origins of SF and comics to another planet and into another cultural register from the default Anglo-American roots of both SF and comics in our history lends his piece another layer of inspiration, surprise. (I particularly appreciate his use of SF to imagine the beginnings of SF . . . and the publication of his story in a magazine that can be seen as the modern-day evolution and inheritor of the pulps, er terribles.)

5. Robert Reed, "The Good Hand" (pg. 60-75) ** 1/2
Read 31 Jan. 2010. This one starts strongly, owing in particular to the hook of the narrator's voice and personality, which are edgy and egotistical in equal measure. We begin with Kyle Betters at the airport, his reservation lost: "The bloodless beauty behind the counter explained that I could wait for tomorrow's flight out of Chicago, or, 'You can sit with the other sheep and pray for no-shows.' Her phrasing, not mine. I chose the flock . . .'" (60). Betters' world is an apparently near-future/alternate Earth in which America has a total economic and political monopoly on nuclear power and technology, especially weapons. (One consequence are "rad-hunters," six of whom are on Kyle's flight to France.) He's on his way to Paris, France, for business negotiations with a French company to which he is selling something, but exactly what "isn't important" (63). While in Paris and representing his company, Kyle also represents America, serving as a target for the political and cultural dissatisfactions, criticisms, and anxieties of the French, including Claude, Kyle's chaperon, and Noelene. Claude says to Kyle, "'Uranium is a natural element. Does the United States claim ownership of a native part of our universe?'" (62). Noelene at one point says to Kyle, "'I say you're sneaky and subtle and tenacious and bloodless. . . . We surrender more and more to the United States. Because every new technology is a threat, and you believe you can make our world safe'" (65). Reed sets up these sociopolitical and economic tensions nicely in the first third of the story, heightening their effect by having Kyle repeatedly disavow any sort of political interest(s) and deepening their implications by having one of the characters draw a link to the Nazi occupation of France during WW2. Reed then deftly shifts the story into a kinetic race for the German border, as Noelene attempts to get Kyle out of France at a sudden moment of international uncertainty, America having apparently bombed France's space program located in Algeria (69). Yet this switch, while adding energy and pace, also, for me, disrupted the interest generated by Kyle's voice and personality, as he loses his edge, his egotism, his . . . centre. Also, while Kyle does acknowledge at one point that "several elements of this story are best left dressed in harmless falsehoods" (63), the story leaves too much out. Reed keeps the focus on the characters and the action, and he sketches a rather intriguing -- and quite plausible -- alternate political/economic world order (that perhaps can be seen to reflect upon the current American anxieties related to terrorism), but I finished the story wanting a more solid anchor in that different world order, for I could see Kyle's personality as in effect a reflection of it, or at least of its negative psychological/moral consequences. In the end, the story lost the steam it generated at the beginning.

6. Carol Emshwiller, "Wilds" (pg. 76-82)

7. Allen M. Steele, "The Jekyll Island Horror" (pg. 84-100)

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