This week’s stories mesh weighty elements—ghosts, drug trafficking, emergent AI, death—with lighthearted or humorous skeins that lift them up just enough, without being trivial. And they’re all in one great magazine: Asimov’s Science Fiction.
Online magazines get a lot of attention in this column, which is a function of the taste of the columnist. I don’t object to reading ink on dead trees at all, my tastes just align more with the editors of the current crop digital zines. However, that has been changing more in this past year. F&SF got a new editor, and the direction change was notable right away. Analog also recently underwent a changing of the guard. And even though Sheila Williams isn’t “new,” I’ve liked more of her choices in the past couple of years than in the years before.
That’s why this month’s focus magazine is Asimov’s Science Fiction. The latest double issue, Oct/Nov, has a ton of great stories in it, two of which I really loved and others I liked quite a bit. The entire issue is worth a read—and it’s even available digitally.
With Folded RAM by Brooks Peck
Two women and one man float in a spaceship made of junk. The spaceship glides in a free-fall arc toward a space station in Earth orbit.
Pitted steel tanks form the bulk of the craft. Steel straps tie the tanks together. The three people are wedged in the center of the ship. Their armored space suits are scuffed, dusty, and repaired with lines of hardened glue. They bear no insignia, no flags or identifying marks. Intercom wires connect them so they can speak without broadcasting.
“I’m going to be sick,” one of the women says. Her name is Amiee.
“Keep your eyes closed,” says the other woman, Cybele. “Pretend you’re in an elevator.”
“An elevator that’s falling forever,” says the man, Mitch.
Mitch shifts his feet and shoulders. He is upside down to the others, and there’s little room. The intercom wires flap against the tanks, knocking off spinning paint chips that flare in a shaft of sunlight slanting into the agglomeration.
“Stop it,” Amiee says.
“Sorry. Need to stretch.”
“Stretch the other way.”
“There is no other way.”
“Please stop,” Cybele says.
After a moment Mitch asks, “Are we there—”
Cybele twists her head to look into a periscope that shows her the approaching station. Their velocity is carefully calculated, so she only needs to watch the time, but she likes being able to see.
“Couple of minutes,” she says. “Get ready.”
“You’re the one pushing the button,” Mitch says.
The tone of this one is what grabbed me at first, and then the end left me with a smile. There’s all this great background hinted at, making the the world seem big even though the story itself is short.
The Adjunct Professor’s Guide to Life After Death by Sandra McDonald
Trigger Warning: Suicide, Mass Murder
A ghost is a mistake. An interruption in the chain of cause and effect. A hiccup, if you will. A hiccup is also a mistake: a biochemical misfire in the muscle that separates the chest from abdomen, heart from stomach. Hiccups and ghosts both can be frustrating but are usually of no lasting consequences. One of them can be cured by swallowing sugar, drinking cold water quickly, or holding your breath to the count of ten. However, there’s no sure remedy for being wedged in the barrier between life and oblivion, flailing around in an eternal existential spasm.
My name is Lea Davis. I’m the resident ghost of the second floor of Building 2. If you had the gift of second sight and stood in the quad by the bird-soiled statue of Mahatma Gandhi, you might look up and see me as a gold firefly batting against a tall narrow window. If you looked at Building 6, you might spot three fireflies flitting behind the window of a sealed-up storage room. Hardly anyone remembers that it was once a classroom or why it was converted.
If you peered due east at the razed lot where the library once stood, you won’t see any fireflies at all. Not yet. They’re still clinging together in the ash and dirt, huddling against the burnt smell that lingers over everything.
I worked here for four years, with larger and larger classes each term, more and more required assignments and assessments, and no one ever volunteered me a pay raise. But I’m not bitter about that.
My floor is empty except for one professor in a tiny room at the end of the ghetto row of adjunct offices. Professor Amy Simple. That’s really her name. She jokes that her children will one day be named Really Simple, Unusually Simple, and Amazingly Simple. Her maiden name was Redd, and she sometimes calls herself Simply Redd. Younger students don’t get the joke. She’s only a decade older than her freshmen, but if you ask her the Simple Truth, she’ll say she feels ancient. In any given semester she teaches seven classes at three universities. This school is her alma mater. It pays the least of any college within fifty miles, and there are no medical, dental, retirement, vacation, or sick day benefits. That’s Simply Criminal.
I’ve been trying for an hour now to get Simple’s attention. Through great effort, I nudged a purple paper clip on her desk an entire one-sixteenth of an inch. I turned her diet soda can exactly zero point zero three degrees clockwise. I tried and failed to switch on the little electric aquarium that sits, darkened, on the low table beside the door. Three plastic fish hang motionless inside, waiting for the swirling magnet that makes them move around. She’s never used it.
I blow warm air on her ear and whisper her name. Not a flicker of attention. Talk about self-absorbed. She’s busy chewing on the edge of a pen and grading student reports on her computer and trading romantic text messages with a man we’ll call Charles Dickens.
I have my own message for her: he’s lying.
And another one: he’s not worth your marriage.
And last of all: I’ve been where you are.
That was once my chair. That was my computer. Charles Dickens was my secret lover, too.
This story’s beginning had me thinking about how genre folks sometimes make fun of literary fiction for the prevalence of professors who want to sleep with their students. No students are in danger from that here, but McDonald dwells on the many downer aspects of academia in a way more reminiscent of non-spec fic, while also leaving no doubt about the genre protocols we’re meant to apply.
My Time on Earth by Ian Creasey
A fun and cute story with some Halloween overtones appropriate for the season.
Hollywood After 10 by Timons Esaias
A time travel story about courage and not replicating the mistakes of the past.