Fantasy & Science Fiction

May/June 2011

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 120, No. 5 & 6
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 258

The editorial in this issue is about the investigation into the troubling death of long-time contributor F. Gwynplain MacIntyre (which was not his real name). It's disturbing, but to me it underscores one of the things that I love about the Internet: people for whom life isn't working very well can still find an outlet, make friendships, and control how they choose to present themselves to the world on-line. That's something quite valuable, and part of why the pushes for "real names" always gives me pause.

Somewhat thematically related, this issue also features a non-fiction essay by Maria E. Alonzo about her investigation of Jesse Francis McComas, her great-uncle but better known to the SF community as one of the founding editors of F&SF and co-editor of the famous classic anthology Adventures in Time and Space. This is mostly a curiosity, but it's fun to read about the sense of triumph in tracking down lost family history.

This issue also features a Chris Moriarty book review column, always a plus, as well as a few positive reviews of obscure superhero movies by Kathi Maio (plus the required grumbling about a more mainstream film).

"The Final Verse" by Chet Williamson: This is more of a horror story than I would normally like, but I got pulled into the investigation of an old bluegrass song and the guesswork and footwork required to track down where it came from. Williamson does a good job with the tone and first-person narration, and the degree to which the protagonist cares about the song to the exclusion of the horrific happenings of the story blunts the horror. Not quite my thing, but I thought it was well-done and played well with the possible meanings of song lyrics. (6)

"Stock Photos" by Robert Reed: This is well-written, like nearly all Reed stories, but it lacked enough clues for the reader for me. It's a very short story about a man who's out mowing his lawn when approached by two strangers who apparently want to take photographs of him for stock image collections. Then things get rather weird, but without any explanation, and the ending lost me completely. Frustrating. (It is partially explained by the later "The Road Ahead" story in this same issue.) (4)

"The Black Mountain" by Albert E. Cowdrey: From one of F&SF's most reliable story-tellers to another, and this is a more typical story. Cowdrey offers an abandoned and very strange cathedral for an obscure religion, a conflict over a development project, and some rather creepy results, all told in Cowdrey's entertaining fashion. Some places you just don't mess with. (6)

"Agent of Change" by Steven Popkes: Told Dos-Passos-style with news excerpts, web sites, and the transcript of an emergency committee, this story shows the discovery of Godzilla, or something akin to Godzilla, in the Pacific, where it's destroying whaling vessels. I do like this style of storytelling, and here it mixes well with humor and a bit of parody as Popkes shows how each different news outlet puts its own recognizable spin on the story. The story isn't particularly memorable, and it doesn't end so much as just stop, but it was fun. (7)

"Fine Green Dust" by Don Webb: This story is dedicated to Neal Barrett, which will give SFF short story readers a warning of weirdness to come. In a near future where global warming as continued to make summers even more miserable, the protagonist happens across a naked woman painted green. The green turns out to be a sun block that claims to assist humans in metamorphosis into animals. Most of the story is the protagonist trying to decide what to think of that, interspersed with staring at his neighbor's naked daughter. It's mildly amusing if you don't think about it too much and don't mind the rather prominent male gaze. (5)

"Rampion" by Alexandra Duncan: The novella of the story, this is set in Muslim Spain some time during the long fights between Muslims and Christians in the north. It's told as two parallel stories: one telling the protagonist's first meeting with his love, and the second following him as a blind man, some time later, deciding whether, and how, to re-engage with the world. The style feels like fantasy, but there's very little overt fantasy here, and the story could be read as historical adventure. It's good adventure, though; conventional in construction, but with some romance and some drama and a good ending. (7)

"Signs of Life" by Carter Scholz: This is to science fiction what "Rampion" is to fantasy: not really SF in the classic sense, but fiction about the process of science. The protagonist works on gene sequencing and is mildly obsessed with a visualization of junk DNA in an attempt to find patterns in it. Like a lot of fiction about science, it's primarily concerned with office politics, grant funding, and an awful boss. There is a faint touch of the supernatural, but that strand of the story doesn't amount to much. There's a happy ending of sorts, but the story left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and I'd completely forgotten it by the time I sat down to write this review. (4)

"Starship Dazzle" by Scott Bradfield: I've never seen much in Bradfield's ongoing series of stories about Dazzle, the talking dog. In this one, he's sent via rocket on a one-way trip into outer space and ends up making a bizarre sort of first contact. Like the other Dazzle stories, it's full of attempts at humor that don't really work for me, even though you'd think I'd be sympathetic to the mocking of our commercialization of everything. The ending is just silly, and not in a good way. (3)

"The Old Terrologist's Tale" by S.L. Gilbow: I love the setup for this story. It's set in some sort of far future in which terraforming has become routine, and a group of people are telling each other stories over drinks. The first-person protagonist is a terrologist, someone who designs planets (and the technology is available to do this almost from scratch). The conversation is taking a turn towards the humiliating, with a politician belittling the work of terrologists, when an old terrologist who has been listening quietly starts telling a story about designing worlds, both mundane and dangerously beautiful.

Gilbow does a great job here capturing blithe self-importance, the habit of belittling other people's technical work, and revenge via storytelling with a nasty barb. This was my favorite story of the issue. (7)

"Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer" by Ken Liu: This is a rather odd but quite touching story about mothers, daughters, nature, connection, and uploading. It's set after a singularity, in a time when all humans are uploaded into computers and exploring higher dimensions, digital natives in a much deeper sense than is meant today. But ReneƩ's mother is an Ancient, from before the singularity and still three-dimensional, and she wants to spend some time with her daughter. That leads to a memorable moment of connection, without pulling ReneƩ entirely out of her father's world. Well done. (7)

"The Road Ahead" by Robert Reed: Two Reed stories in one issue! And this one is a sequel to "Stock Photos" from earlier, since apparently I wasn't the only one who found it hopelessly confusing. It provides some backstory and makes a bit more sense of the first story, and that also makes it a more interesting story in its own right. The stock photo concept wasn't entirely a lie, as I had thought it was after the first story. There is analysis, anticipation, and trends behind who the pair take pictures of. But this story explores some internal tension, some conflict between them and some knowledge that the woman has that the man doesn't. And in the process it makes everything creepier, but also more interesting, and provides a hint at a really dark way of viewing the news media. I would say that this salvages "Stock Photos," except that I don't think "Stock Photos" is necessary now that one can read this story. (7)

"Music Makers" by Kate Wilhelm: This is another story about investigation of the history of music, mingled with the supernatural, but unlike the story that opened this issue, it's not horror. Rather, it's a gentle and sweet fantasy about the power of music and benevolent ghosts and a community coming together. It's a positive and happy note on which to end the issue. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-11-01

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