Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction, 1986

1986 appeared to be an excellent year for Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and represents approximately the year that it took over from Analog Science Fiction as the most award-winning monthly SF magazine. From 1986 onwards its stories have garnered far more Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, and it seems to attract 'bigger' authors in the main. I have just acquired each issue from 1986 and I'm undertaking a fairly thorough read-through of the year.  A 'scientific' approach has been undertaken, upon which I based my selection of stories, according to a reputation ranking scheme (using my short story ranking system outlined here). This has the added benefit of enabling me to see which issues were 'best', how different issues vary from one another, and replaces subjectivity with objectivity regarding what I read from each issue. 

Story Selection Rules from Each Issue
   1.  Asimov's SF Readers Poll: Top 5 (1 point); winner (3 points)
   2.  Locus Award (or similar): Top 10 (1 point); winner (3 points)
   3.  Hugo & Nebula Awards: Nomination (1 point); top 5 (2 points) winner (5 points)
   4.  Anthologised or collected at least once in subsequent book (1 point), or
   5.  Heavily anthologised or appearance in a Year's Best anthology (2 points)
   6.  Famous SFF author (e.g. SFWA Grand Masters, multiple award winners; 1 point)

Up to three stories selected per issue, with the top two Rep Score stories always selected. election of multiple stories requires each to get at least one point from the above criteria. Only a single "1 point" story to be selected in any month.

January 1986
January 1986 marked the first part of the three-part serialisation of William Gibson's novel Count Zero. An obvious thing to read... except that I'm not a fan of cyberpunk, and this exercise is really a short story, novelette and novella  exploration, so I've not included this famous novel in the read-through. Asimov's editorial in this edition is bouncily written as always; he comments on the fact the magazine reached 100 issues, and introduces Gardner Dozois as the new editor of the magazine (Asimov's role was always as "Editorial Director" of course, not as the actual editor who selected the content). Also in this issue, there is an obituary feature to Theodore Sturgeon, who sadly passed away the previous year, with short eulogies by Harlan Ellison, Damon Knight, Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss, Stephen King and Somtow Sucharitkul, which make for interesting reading.

Pat Cadigan - Pretty Boy Crossover
[Rep Score 5]  This 'cyberpunk' short story was nominated for the Nebula and Locus Awards for best short story. It wasn't especially to my taste, being cyberpunk, and also as it was written in a stylised manner for effect, I felt, rather rather than to its merit. A Pretty boy (capital P) depends on attention for his sense of worth and encounters another such 'Pretty boy' in a club who has crossed-over into becoming a computer representation of himself (SAD, or 'self-aware data'). The protagonist is encouraged to follow suit, as virtual entities are so popular and cool with the masses. The story was ahead of its time, in the sense that there are parallels here to how social networking has taken over many peoples sense of value, while not being 'real' the immediate physical sense. I can see there is quality here, but it just isn't my kind of story. 

Lewis Shiner - Jeff Beck
[Rep Score 4]  A blue-collar sheet metal worker, with a love for the music of British guitar ace Jeff Beck, takes a drug that he is assured will gives him whatever he wants. In this case, he wishes for Jeff Beck's ability with an 'axe'. It's a short tale, well written, and I enjoyed it, though it's a little light on content, really. I know Shiner best from his work in George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards books, to which he frequently contributed key stories and characters. This short story came from the year before he started collaborating with Martin, but it's interesting to see that6 he was already mixing real-world celebrities and SF - a recurring feature of the Wild Cards universe. This story was nominated for a Locus award and collected by Dozois in his "Year's Best" anthology for the year.

Isaac Asimov - The Eye of the Beholder
[Rep Score 2]  This is an Azazel fantasy story about the titular 2 cm high alien/demon; one of 18 such stories written by Asimov that were published in this journal between 1982 and 1988.  A very 'plain' women ultimately marries a similarly ugly man, but wishes she were prettier for her fella. Azazel is called upon to 'help'. It's entertaining enough, as Asimov always writes so breezily, but its a bit of fluff really and wouldn't be seen as very politically correct these days. Moreover, the end is signposted from the start, so as a short story it's relatively weak. It got its 2 'rep points' for being by Asimov, and being collected in subsequent books a good deal.


February 1986
Gregory Benford - Of Space-Time and the River
[Rep Score 4]  This story was nominated for the Locus Award for best novelette, and has been anthologised heavily, including by Terry Carr in his Best SF of the Year 15. It's a very entertaining tale, nicely told with good pacing and characterisation. A US professor of literature travels to Egypt with his wife for a vacation. While his interest is in the antiquities, he also sees the aliens resident there, as Egypt also is the only home on Earth to a species of alien visitor. These aliens look like big bugs, they keep to themselves and their reason for showing interest in only Egypt is unknown, except that they too appear to be concerned with preservation of the antiquities. It's not possible to say more without giving the plot away, but the outcome for those living along the Nile is greatly impacted. 

Orson Scott Card - Salvage
[Rep Score 4]  This novelette has also been anthologised a good deal and was also a Locus nominee, but for me, it was a little less successful than the Benford. This is one of Card's Mormon Sea series of short stories, in which much of Utah (and Salt Lake City itself) is flooded following a nuclear war, with only church spires and skyscrapers now standing above the water of the new lake. A young salvage hunter hears there is gold stocked in the top of the old church in the city and persuades two friends to help him take a boat and diving equipment out to look for it. The scenes of the drowned city and the subsistence life of the post-war survivors is  well presented, and the writing is good, but I couldn't forget here that Card is a Mormon himself, and the story is ultimately a bit of a sermon, based on his nutty religious beliefs, and this detracted from it for me.

R. A. Lafferty - Junkyard Thoughts
[Rep Score 2]  Lafferty is one of SF's true originals, and this proves the point. His fiction skirts the edges of SF, fantasy and magical realism and he needs his own genre category, really. To summarise the story without spoilers will not be easy: it's about a junkyard owner (Jake Cass) who has a talking, chess playing, dog (Junkyard). A 'police person' (Drumhead Joe Kress) thinks Cass may be related to the elegant criminal J. Palmer Cass, who lives nearby. They meet and talk this through. Is Jake Cass related to J. P. Cass, as the police person wonders, or is he indeed J. P. Cass himself? And is the police person also the same person (his name is very similar), with one character hallucinating the whole thing?  This is weird fiction, not SF per se, but that's not a detraction. It's written in a very unique manner, but is nonetheless very readable. I'm not sure what it's about, but I enjoyed it very much. Lafferty offers a few remarks at the start of the story which give you sense of what you're letting yourself in for here: "...all writers should be funny-looking and all stories should be funny... sometimes readers tell me that such a story of mine is not funny at all. 'Wait, wait,' I tell them. 'You're holding it upside down. Now try it.' And sure enough, it is funny if they get ahold of it right." 

March 1986
Tanith Lee - Into Gold
[Rep Score 3]  This was a fantasy novelette, set in ancient Illyrium (or similar - the exact location isn't mentioned), in which a women with the apparent power to turn anything into gold joins a princedom, at the prince's request. The prince's loyal captain doesn't trust the 'witch' and the ramifications for the city state may be considerable. I'm not sure what I thought of this - the writing style may or may not be Tanith Lee's usual style, but some of the prose was strange and clumsy - for me the style was 'not very good'. But then I've not knowingly read any Tanith Lee I liked much, to be honest, and this fantasy was simply okay. As an aside, it's interesting that the magazine is called Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, as this is clearly fantasy. Asimov's is known to publish fantasy, of course, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's odd they use a magazine title that suggests otherwise.

John Kessel - The Pure Product
[Rep Score 2] As I started this one, I realised I'd read it before in a Dozois' anthology. It's not at all bad, telling the tale of destruction and violence brought about by time travellers from the future. It's brightly written and keeps the attention, but the more I think about it afterward, the more I wonder what Kessel's point really was here. The suggestion is that misdirected technological advance will lead to lazy lawlessness, but the plot tells this rather bluntly without exploring the idea as fully as it could have been, and overall, its less convincing than one hope's it will be half-way in. I think I felt exactly the same way last time I read it. It's a solid enough piece of entertainment though.

Michael Bishop - Close Encounters with the Deity
[Rep Score 2]  Okay, not sure what to say about this one. I found it ultimately disappointing, which was a shame as the set-up was great. A badly disabled physics genius solves the general unified theory and has a ship built to take him to a star that's forming planets, 22 light years away. He will hibernate on the way there, and then wake briefly every few thousand years to observe the formation of the planetary system, as a reward for his achievements in theoretical physics. This is all fine, except... he's a devout Roman Catholic (which seemed to me a bit incongruous in a physics genius of the future) and the story doesn't end in an interesting way, but with silly pseudo-scientific mysticism. Not my cup-of tea ultimately.


April 1986
As well as some highly-rated stories, this issue also boasts an essay on warfare in SF, written by Joe Haldeman (Viewpoint: Science fiction and War) . This was very interesting and enjoyable to read. 

Walter Jon Williams - Panzerboy

[Rep Score 1]  This novelette (Williams' third published story) is set in a dystopian future, where orbital military might controls the world, and the US is split between factions. The panzerboy of the title must get his rocket-powered ground vehicle across the dangerous Mid-Western states to deliver antibiotic to the eastern coast. On the way he is attacked by , and meets some young people who teach him humility. It's not bad, and is exciting in places, but it's not really top drawer either. 

Kim Stanley Robinson - Down and Out in the Year 2000
[Rep Score 5]  Most famous for his Mars trilogy of novels written in the early 1990's, Robinson began publishing short fiction as far back as 1976. This short story was voted the 3rd best in the year 1986 by readers of Asimov's. It's not bad, being a well-written tale portraying a dystopian future Washington DC, through the eyes of one down-and-out for a day. It doesn't really go anywhere though and is short on plot.

Lucius Shepard - R & R
[Rep Score 12]  The huge 'Rep Score' for this novella stems from it winning many awards for best novella including both the Nebula and Locus, as well as being nominated for the Hugo, and collected in several major anthologies. That's a lot to live up to. It's not dissimilar to the same author's war story, Salvador, from a few year's earlier, which seemed to be set in a similar fictitious Central American conflict. This is a long novella - 70 pages or so - and it really did drag for me. I expect it won its awards because it's serious, intense and insightful about the horrors of war. It has some passages with good pace, and characterisation is fine, but it's patchy and inconsistent, has a meandering plot, and is overly long; I struggled to get through it and it was not especially enjoyable. I felt much the same way about the earlier Salvador, I recall. Neither story are SF - perhaps they are magical realism - and I'll perhaps avoid Shepard in future; despite their reputation, I'm not sure his stories are for me.

May 1986
Isaac Asimov kicks off the issue in his editorial with an obituary letter to Judy-Lynn del Rey. It's rather sad and poignant. 

Connie Willis - Chance

[Rep Score 3]   Connie Willis is I think probably an acquired taste, in part perhaps because her SFF is not very science-fictional or fantastic. This story is a case in point. It's nicely written, is actually quite intriguing, and makes one read on to see what is happening, but ultimately it could be published in a non-genre story collection. A woman has moved back to the university town of her alma mater, as her husband has a new job there. He's not that pleasant to her, and she looks back on her life in which she made early mistakes in love and missed her chance at real happiness. Whether she hallucinates seeing her old friends or really sees them in some sort of supernatural way is not clear. It was really rather good in many ways, but my enjoyment was slightly marred by the fact I couldn't really find the SFF I was looking for.

R. A. Lafferty - Inventions Bright and New
[Rep Score 1]   Lafferty offers up another little story that screws with your mind and logic. It's based on the concept that new ideas can only be invented in the first 7 seconds of the world, but the world is constantly restarting in a bizarre time loop, so that's okay... sort-of. What I found ironic was that Lafferty was playing in a surreal way with the idea that there is no real originality and no new ideas. Ironic, because in the world of science fiction and fantasy Lafferty is himself one of the very rare authors who actually are original and offer something new. It's a short and surreal piece, but worth admission - Lafferty cannot write a boring story it seems.

Brian Aldiss - The Difficulties Involved in Photographing Nix Olympica
[Rep Score 3]   A hard SF story of a military man on Mars, who so wishes to photograph Mons Olympus (originally called Nix Olympica), that he foregoes leave to undertake an adventure to travel across Mars and shoot it, in the tradition and style of Ansell Adams. He co-opts another trooper to go with him - a colleague who is the more nervous of the two to undertake the adventure. I really liked this short story, and it tells a tale of traveling across the Martian surface well. Simple, but effective.


June 1986
Bruce Sterling - The Beautiful and the Sublime
[Rep Score 2]  This was an enjoyable and well-written comedy-of-manners, set in the future in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon. A group of young modern folk meet to celebrate the birthday of a venerable scientific genius, Hollis. The old man has funded development of an ornithopter, and the younger birthday party attendees use or misuse the technology to gain the upper hand in love in two love triangles. It's a well-conceived story that explores how manners and norms will change, as we move from a society where science and graft is rewarded more than art and relaxation, to the opposite scenario.

Carter Scholz - Galileo Complains
[Rep Score 2]  This is a short tale that asks, what would Gallileo think of modern ideas and modern astronomy now? In the near future, he has been resurrected using recently acquired technology, and is being interviewed in his Californian apartment. It's a neat, simple, little idea, almost perfectly rendered. Carter Scholz has written a couple of dozen stories, between 1976 and 2017, but this is the first I recall reading. 

James Patrick Kelly - The Prisoner of Chillon
[Rep Score 5]  This story was voted the year's best novelette in Asimov's for 1986 and was also collected in Dozois' anthology the following year. It begins with well-paced action, before it turns into more of a cyberpunk kind of story. Some stories seem timeless, whereas others wear their place in time very self-consciously. This one falls into the latter camp; it's so 1980's, you can't picture the heroine without large shoulder pads and ankle warmers. It wasn't ultimately to my taste. While the set up was okay, Kelly drops the ball in the ending, which I found unconvincing and weak.  

July 1986
Walter Jon Williams - Video Star
[Rep Score 2]  Well, this should have been read, as it got a 'Rep Score' of 2, but try as I might I just couldn't get in to it. Perhaps the style or story has dated, and I usually enjoy Walter Jon Williams, so no blame on him, but I stalled in my reading through this year of Asimov's at this point, so I decided to skip it. Sorry Walter!

R. A. Lafferty - Something Rich and Strange
[Rep Score 1]  This was typical Lafferty - i.e. entirely untypical of anyone else on the planet. A man with enormous buck-teeth is contacted by aliens from Alpha Centuari, who use his teeth to communicate, as they are perfect receptors. His fiancĂ© requests he get rid of them before she'll marry him, but then has them implanted into her own mouth instead. It is strange, funny, and delightful as only Lafferty can be. 
 
Robert Silverberg - Gilgamesh in the Outback
[Rep Score 11]  Silverberg's novella achieves its huge 'Rep Score' on the back of winning the Hugo Award, and being nominated for everything else (Locus, Nebula, Asimov's Readers' poll, etc.) and then subsequently getting anthologised widely. As a tale, it is entertaining and inventive, but not especially ground-breaking. Like Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld books, Silverberg here imagines a world in which everyone who has ever lived exists and cannot permanently die, and he has fun imagining historically-famous people interact. In Farmer's case, he imagined Sir Richard Burton and Mark Twain on an alien river-world. Silverberg places his characters in an afterlife in hell, and the main protagonists are the ancient Sumerian king Gilgamesh, and two fellows he meets while hunting in hell's outback: Robert E. Howard (who describes the outback of hell as being 'just like Texas'), and H. P. Lovecraft. The three enter into a deal of sorts with Prester John, and later meet Ernest Hemingway. Its very entertaining and well written, but is a little too close to Riverworld to be more than a pastiche of that series.


August 1986
Orson Scott Card - Hatrack River
[Rep Score 11]  The novelette Hatrack River is notable because it's the first story that introduces Alvin Maker to the world. Alvin Maker would eventually become a large novel series from Card, and this story - an alternate history tale set in Ohio in 1805 - sees him born as Alvin Miller, the seventh son of a seventh son. There are mild allusions here to Card's Mormon beliefs, though they are not overwhelming. It's a nice enough tale, in which a little girl with second sight helps Alvin's family as they cross a swollen river into town. Its a weird tale, perhaps, or fantasy, but it's not actually science fiction.

Tim Sullivan - Stop-Motion
[Rep Score 1]  This is pretty entertaining, telling the tale of a young man who's hobby is stop-motion filming, especially of dinosaurs in B-movies. He makes models, a diorama, makes a short film and shows it to a local film producer. Things don't go to plan however. It's not bad as short stories go, as it's pretty well written, but I would classify it as a weird tale, perhaps, or fantasy; it's not actually science fiction. See a trend here?

Lucius Shepard - Aymara
[Rep Score 5]  Lucius Shepard's tale achieves a 'Rep Score' of 5, but I'm afraid its three strikes and you're out Lucius. I've never read a Shepard story I really liked (they tend to be long, rather slow, and not actually science-fiction), so I'm passing on this story too. Usually I'd give it a go, but I've been burnt too many times by Lucius Shepard. On to September instead, which looks much better, and may even have some decent SF in it.

September 1986
George R. R. Martin - The Glass Flower
[Rep Score 4]   A cyborg arrives at a distant planet at the edge of the 'Thousand Worlds', to take part in the mind games. The mind-games are held in the obsidian castle of the mind-lord (or pain-lord), a woman nearly 200 years' old who currently has the body of a young girl. When taking part in the mind game, one has the opportunity, if one 'wins', of taking the body of the person or alien you defeat. It's quite an engaging tale, and Martin always writes well, but it is notoriously difficult to write scenes of imaginative thought and psychic tussles in a way that draws the reader full into the story - due doubtless, to the lack of a frame of reference for the reader to lock on to. This novelette therefore has that weakness, and its not quite up to Martin's best short fiction that I've read from the 1970's. It is SF though! I was beginning to think Dozois wasn't going to publish any more SF this year.

Nancy Kress - Down Behind Cuba Lake
[Rep Score 2]   I almost always enjoy Nancy Kress' work, and this was no exception, as she writes very well. A woman is driving across New York state late at night to 'have it out' with her erstwhile lover who has clearly just broken with her to stay with his wife. The woman gets lost en route and finds it hard to escape the back-roads around 'Cuba Lake'. It's quite immersive and nicely told, but it's hard not to notice that, despite its publication in a science-fiction magazine, Dozois yet again published a story her that is not really science fiction. I guess it's a weird tale, like so much of what one finds in Asimov's. 

Kim Stanley Robinson - Escape from Kathmandu
[Rep Score 9]   Robinson's novella is a blast. A member of a zoological expedition in Nepal stumbles across a yeti, and quickly realises that if the wider world finds out about it, it will all be over for yetis. Unfortunately, the yeti is also spotted by another member of the group who later returns with a well-funded capitalist to capture the beast and take it back to civilisation. The more ethical zoologist engages the help of some friends who, when they realise the yeti is being held temporarily in a hotel in Kathmandu, engineer a bold escape plan for the beast. Part commentary on how to treat endangered species, part travel guide to Nepal and Kathmandu, and part heist caper, this novella is great fun. I guess in all consistency, I should note that its hardly SF.  The speculation here is that yetis may be real (fair enough), but outside of that there is no speculative or SF element to the story at all - it could appear in any non-genre magazine. That said, it's a bright and entertaining read, and recommended. Indeed, it's probably the best story in this issue of Asimov's

As well as the stories read this month, both the editorial by Asimov and the essay on books, by Norman Spinrad were interesting. The Spinrad essay Critical Thinking was particularly worth reading, as he completely panned a certain SF novel (The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer, by Carol Hill), and then went on to discuss how it could have been published at all, and subsequently reviewed positively by other reviewers, and whether publishers, editors and reviewers are sufficiently honest.  


October 1986
I must admit I started on this issue with some degree of foreboding. The kind of SF I enjoy most and look for in a SF magazine is hard SF, or at least SF where the science-fiction is clear, not marginal. Given the lineup in October '86, I did wonder how much of it I would enjoy. Kate Wilhelm and Connie Willis - neither famous for their hard SF and who's work I've not enjoyed much the past - both had long stories published, and it looked like I might have to grit my teeth to get through them...

Kate Wilhelm - The Girl Who Fell Into the Sky

[Rep Score 7]  This was actually quite an enjoyable read, at least until it petered out at the end. It won the Nebula Award for best novelette in 1987, and was certainly well written. An isolated man - who lived in the middle of nowhere on the central plains for America - dies, and two descendants travel to his hard-to-find house to collect possessions one last time. The deceased had formed a cult in the depression of the '30's, and his actions and their ramifications had longstanding effects on the family. The antique player piano at the house seems to provide a link to the past, and provides a spooky fantastical element to the tale. It was quite a good novelette, as its Nebula Award demonstrates. From that description, does it sound like science-fiction though? The answer is no. There is zero SF on offer here. I kept thinking some sort of science fiction aspect would arrive, but it never did. It's maybe a ghost story, or what we now call 'slipstream', but as SF it's hard to rate it very highly. By-the-by, I also found the title disingenuous - it adds a luster of mystery and a suggestion of SF that is disingenuous; nobody 'fell into the sky', except in a very obtuse metaphorical sense. 

Isaac Asimov - The Mind's Construction
[Rep Score 2]   This was one of Asimov's Azazel short fantasy stories, and was pretty light fare, with not a lot to get excited about. As it was Asimov it was naturally a very readable and quick diversion, but the story itself was slightly dodgy and sexist when read through the lens of our current world's awareness of such things. This could be skipped (perhaps the only time I've ever said that about Asimov's work), especially as it's not really SF, it's one of Asimov's weaker fantasy stories.

Connie Willis - Spice Pogrom
[Rep Score 8]  Okay, reading this was an undertaking I nearly skipped on several counts: I've not had good experiences with Willis' work before, she tends to write stories that I consider to be only marginally-speculative, and it looked long, given those misgivings; indeed its a 70-page novella. It was nominated for the Hugo Award, however, and seemed to involve alien first contact, so I decided to give it a probationary 10 pages with an open mind and then decide whether to keep with it. After about 8 pages I determined it wasn't for me; its meant to be humorous but it really isn't very funny, and a 'funny' tale that isn't is a dreadful trudge over the course of 70 pages. Given the start didn't grab me, and the concepts of aliens with hard to pronounce names and an overly cramped space station wasn't very interesting, this was a DNF. 

In short, this was one of the least inviting issues of Asimov's I read from this year, containing little SF to recommend. The Kate Wilhelm story was good per se, and would be well placed in a non-genre collection of modern quality short stories, along with a change of title. 

So far this reading exploration has confirmed for me that Asimov's (at least in the mid-80's) was very 'soft' in its SF, and Analog was the better magazine, in the sense of meeting my wishes. As it happens, I think I just disagree with Dozois on SF generally - I have reservations about his anthologies too - far too many stories in his Year's Best series were weak efforts to my mind, or not actually SF.


November 1986

Frederik Pohl - Iriadeska's Martians
[Rep Score 2]  Frederik Pohl is of course a major name in SF, ever since his classic collaborative work with C. M. Kornbluth in the 1950's. This novelette doesn't do his reputation any favours, however. A PR consultant goes to the South-East Asian country of Iriadeska to help with a government coup. The connection to Martians is very weak - the Iriadeskan's affinity to Martians derives from their likeness to manatees, which are found in the country's waters. The story is daft, not very inventive, and never delivers anything in the plot regarding the Martians themselves, which one expects. It's a poor story, truth be told.

Lucius Shepard - Fire Zone Emerald
[Rep Score 3]   Listed, as it should have been read, according to the 'Rep Score' selection 'rules' describes at the top of the feature. However, it is described as being yet another story of Shepard's set in his fictional Central American war in which R&R took place (see above under April). I've read several of them. None to date have been SF, and all have been slow and a trudge to read. As in August, this is therefore being skipped.

Jack McDevitt - Voice in the Dark
[Rep Score 3]  Huzzah! A decent science fiction story! McDevitt's novella is, I think, an extract from his 1986 first novel The Hercules Text, which I have not read. The signal from a distant pulsar suddenly stops, and then returns, but with gaps that fit mathematical sequences, providing proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. But when the messages become more complex, information is transmitted that could threaten our survival, given humankinds proclivity to self-destruct. What should those who received the information do with it? The story explores whether all information should be shared (just 'because'), and whether we are capable of surviving increasing technological advances as a race. The implications of the story are profound and frightening. This is a very, very good SF novella - one of the best I've read, and will join the short list of stories I advise new readers seek out. It wasn't even nominated for either the Hugo or Nebula Awards, but it should have won both.


December 1986

Ian Watson - Windows
[Rep Score 2]  This was a really neat idea, from British SF writer Watson, in which self-replicating windows (discovered on Mars) start as a single window, through which other worlds can be seen, and then over a short period of time become three windows in a triangular arrangement. It is discovered that if the right circumstances arise, someone in the 'triad' of windows can transport to the other worlds. However, while its a neat set-up, and had a lot potential, it doesn't ultimately deliver - rather than finishing, this story stops. It would have been much better if Watson had extended it to a novella.

Nancy Kress - Phone Repairs
[Rep Score 3]  In this tale, a man who's is going through a break-up with his wife gets misplaced phone calls from a switched line. He discovers that the other party who's getting his calls, and who's calls he is receiving, do not yet live at the address they say they live at. It's quite an intriguing idea, nicely carried off by Kress, and the reader sympathises with the characters who are going trough a marriage break-up. I'm not sure if it's SF or not, though, as the phone problem is never explained and has no clear explanation, which makes it more of a weird fantasy tale.

There wasn't really another high 'Rep Score' story that qualified for reading in this issue, so I read Asimov's editorial as usual, and the book reviews, and then skipped on to the final issue of the year.


Mid-December 1986

Isaac Asimov - Robot Dreams
[Rep Score 13]   Asimov returned to his Robot stories, starring Susan Calvin, his famous robopsychologist, for the first time in over 10 years with this story. It's rather short and quite a nice addition to the overall development of the robots and their laws, but if you were not familiar with the stories it would feel rather insignificant I think. As a standalone story, it's simply 'okay', rather than something quite special. It's hard not to conclude that the awards the story garnered (Hugo, Locus, Asimov's Readers' Poll) stemmed from Asimov's reputation at this stage, rather then the story itself. McDevitt's story mentioned above was that author's first major publication, and preceded all his novels. Did that influence the fact that it didn't win any awards - it's significantly superior, so one has to wonder. However, none of this is Isaac Asimov's fault, and for me, I did enjoy reading a 'robot story' again, even though it was very short.

Harlan Ellison - Laugh Track
[Rep Score 4]   Ellison published very little in either Asimov's Science Fiction or its sister magazine, Analog, doubtless because he was a bit too edgy for the general magazine market. I was surprised after reading this that it didn't come with a warning at the start, as there would be prudes out there who would have cancelled their membership when he dropped not only the F-word in this story, but the rather rarer and more colourful C-word.  For the adults among us, we can move on however, and simply consider the story. A young man had an aunt who had a terrific and infectious laugh, and he realises over time that he can often hear her laugh coming though loud and clear on sitcom laugh tracks. It transpires she went to a live recording of a show in 1953 and her laughter was recorded and has been used off tape for decades since. When the man enters the sitcom business himself as a writer on a primetime show himself, he learns much more about the laugh track than he might have imagined. The story is very nicely done, and Ellison carries the reader along with his enthusiastic style. While it's not among the finest of Ellison's stories, that's a pretty high bar, and for this year's Asimov's it rates among the stories I've enjoyed the most.

The only other story that got any 'Rep Score' points this final month was again by Lucius Shepard, so we'll 'call it' there, and conclude the read-through.

Overall Comments on Asimov's Science Fiction, 1986

While I enjoyed the overall exercise of exploring the stories with the highest reputation from each issue through 1986, the overall feeling is one of slight disappointment in not only the quality of the stories, but also the fact that many were not science fiction. Now, the magazine clearly says it's science fiction on the cover. It doesn't claim to be a repository for weird or fantasy stories, but it certainly was in 1986. I read 35 stories in my read-through of Asimov's in 1986 and of those 35, I would say that 13 were not science fiction by any common definition. Dozois' selection of stories clearly doesn't match mine, and he likes his SF very 'soft' indeed. If no SF can be discerned in a story at all, that seems to really hit the spot. What surprised me somewhat was that Asimov put up with this. This is a guy who loved hard SF and famously invented rules for his robots so they could inhabit structured SF stories without transgressions into unexplained fantasy.

If it helped me conclude anything, its that Analog is more my cup of tea. Of the 35 stories I read in Asimov's, I thoroughly enjoyed only 8 of them. That's not a high success rate, and I probably won't repeat the exercise of reading much more 1980's Asimov's. Interestingly, the very 'soft' science fiction that gets published in Asimov's seems to win awards. The magazine picked up many more awards than Analog in the 80's and 90's. And yet, when I look at a story's reputation (based on awards won, awards nominated, frequency of appearance in anthologies, etc.), there is really no correlation between its reputation and how good I think it is. 

The 6 top stories on the basis of 'reputation score' were:

Isaac Asimov - Robot Dreams [Rep Score 13] - It was 'okay' but nothing special, quite honestly;
Lucius Shepard - R & R [Rep Score 12] - Non-genre/weird. Rather long and slow and I didn't care for it much;
Robert Silverberg - Gilgamesh in the Outback [Rep Score 11] - Fantasy. It was okay, but actually rather derivative and not that interesting;
Orson Scott Card - Hatrack River [Rep Score 11] - Fantasy. It was okay, but nothing to write home about - a so-so fantasy;
Kim Stanley Robinson - Escape from Kathmandu [Rep Score 9] - Slipstream, rather than SF? but I did love it - great story;
Connie Willis - Spice Pogrom [Rep Score 8] - DNF, poor attempt at humour.

On the other hand, the finest SF stories in Asimov's in 1986 were to my mind the following:

Gregory Benford - Of Space-Time and the River [Rep Score 4]
R. A. Lafferty - Junkyard Thoughts [Rep Score 2]
Brian Aldiss - The Difficulties Involved in Photographing Nix Olympica [Rep Score 3]
Bruce Sterling - The Beautiful and the Sublime [Rep Score 2]
Jack McDevitt - Voice in the Dark [Rep Score 3] - The best story of the year, by a country-mile
Harlan Ellison - Laugh Track [Rep Score 4]

So, what do I conclude? If I completely ignore popular opinion, awards and inclusion in Dozois' anthologies when considering what to read I'll be a lot better off, than if I read what I'm 'supposed' to. Which is a promising conclusion to draw, as it supports investigating the more obscure stories - that's where the real gold is.