First contact stories set in the Middle Ages have a lot to live up to following Michael F. Flynn's novel Eifelheim. Flynn's Hugo-nominated tale of a medieval German village's complex but compassionate response to a stranded band of extraterrestrials is set a high bar for any similar stories to tackle a similar idea. One wonders if S. P. Somtow, whose story "An Alien Heresy" appears in the April/May double issue of Asimov's, intended his story as a reaction to Eifelheim. Somtow's story—which describes a Catholic inquisitor's torture of a shipwrecked alien in they year 1440—has the air of an indignant reply. Flynn's recent work has made clear his affection for the Middle Ages, and his contributions to Analog last year were an eloquent rebuttal to the all-too-common caricature of the period as an age of barbarism and superstition. In that light, Somtow's story ups the ante to the level of the grotesque, giving a laundry list of the backwardness of the pre-Renaissance world and a pretty lengthy torture sequence. The priest at the center of this story isn't just close-minded and arrogant—he's also a self-flagellating hypocrite who forces his illegitimate son to become a castrato. (Got Medieval would just love this stuff.) The most unfortunate thing about Somtow's story is that it's basically been done before—Patricia Anthony's 1997 novel God's Fires, which treats the same basic idea at greater length, if not greater skill. I didn't care for Anthony's novel, which I found a bit tedious; Somtow's story, though I don't care for its general attitude, is a more entertaining read, and doesn't quite wear out its welcome. But if Somtow's intent is to rebut Flynn's more nuanced, better researched depiction of the medieval era, his story is a failure.
There's some excellent material in this issue of Asimov's, but for my money the real winner is Kristine Kathryn Rusch's novella "The Room of Lost Souls." This story reminded me of some of my favorite horror stories—the work of Thomas Ligotti, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, and, yes, even Event Horizon. The room of the title lurks at the heart of a mysterious space station built by an unknown intelligence; those unfortunate enough to venture into it disappear, die, or both. The station and the Room become an object of obsession and an almost religious devotion for those who search for the key to its mysteries. The characters in the story describe their quest as a pilgrimage: "something religious." It's got a fascinating air of menace that makes this double issue of Asimov's well worth picking up. An excerpt from "The Room of Lost Souls" is available here.