Fantasy & Science Fiction

October/November 2005

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 109, No. 4 & 5
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 242

This was a good, solid issue, possibly the best issue of F&SF I've read. In addition to an excellent novelette by Peter S. Beagle and a solid collection of stories, the science article by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy was very good and I enjoyed the book column by Michelle West. It may be too early to spot a trend, but it feels like the overall issue quality in F&SF is improving.

"The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi: Set in a world after the exhaustion of fossil fuels, this struck me as an odd mix of a post-apocalpytic story and an exploration of alternate technology. The catastrophic collapse of the prior energy economy has left the world still in control of multinational corporations, now ones that control the biotech patents for the high-calorie plants that form the basis of the world economy. All energy is now based on processing food, mostly by genetically engineered beasts of burden, into portable potential energy. Wound springs are the most popular portable energy choice. It's an intriguing technological backdrop for a rather straightforward story. The characters and the plot never did a lot for me, but they explored a well-conceived background. (6)

"Helen Remembers the Stork Club" by Esther M. Friesner: Helen (of Troy) picks on a male escort who doesn't appreciate her while remembering her life in New York and some of her mythological history. The story lives and dies by its tone, an amusing recasting of Helen's attitude to something similar to an aging movie star beauty. I liked the way Helen shows off her power at the end; the rest of the story is forgettable, but amusing. (6)

"Foreclosure" by Joe Haldeman: Aliens show up to serve a foreclosure notice on the Earth to the first random real estate agent they find, reminding me a little of the beginning of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The rest of the story is in a classic short SF style that one doesn't see as much any more, a problem story based on outwitting the aliens with a nicely ironic twist. It reminded me, favorably, of reading Asimov and Niven shorts. (7)

"Spells for Halloween: An Acrostic" by Dale Bailey: A very short set of images of mythological creatures, items, or places, one for each letter in Halloween. There's no plot; it's more a style of prose poetry, trying to capture each head word in a short paragraph. Some feel like encyclopedia entries, but overall I liked the effect, and it didn't go on long enough for me to get tired of it. (6)

"Help Wonted" by Matthew Hughes: This is a noösphere story, which is not my favorite of Hughes's worlds. This time, Guth Bandar gets recruited, apparently by the noösphere itself, and dumped into an ur-story without an obvious escape. The story is just about figuring out where he is and then figuring out what to do about it, which isn't horribly engaging given that all of the characters other than Guth are, by definition, stereotypes. If there had been more exploration of what is going on behind the scenes with the noösphere, this would have been more interesting; as is, it's little more than a generic adventure story, if a well-written one. (6)

"Billy and the Ants" by Terry Bisson: A very short story of an escalating battle against ants. It will probably either strike you as funny or not; there isn't much else to say about it. I found it somewhat amusing but the ending lost me a little. (5)

"The Gunner's Mate" by Gene Wolfe: A surprisingly good ghost story of sorts, surprising because I didn't expect a lot from a story about a tourist on an island with a pirate ghost. But Wolfe tends not to do things in the obvious way, and the odd tension between the barely sensed supernatural and the demands of the day-to-day world is well-played through the story, leaving everything that happens darkly ambiguous. Wolfe is simply an excellent writer, and while the subject material never quite grabbed me, I admired the skill. (6)

"Fallen Idols" by Jaye Lawrence: Zeus goes to a sexual addiction support group. That's pretty much all there is to the story; the rest is an obvious spinning out of the idea from a sympathetic perspective. It's a one-shot joke, but well-executed and good for a chuckle or two. (6)

"Silv'ry Moon" by Steven Utley: Utley's Silurian stories use time travel to tell otherwise mainstream stories about scientists and their culture. This is the second of them that I've read, and so far, I like them. This is a quiet, not particularly complex story that rests on characterization and is more of a vignette than anything else; there's no real plot resolution, just a few character types to recognize. Utley has a deft touch with characterization, though, and the tension between enthusiastic proponents of oddball theories and regular scientists is weirdly touchy and a worthwhile topic for a story. (6)

"Echo" by Elizabeth Hand: The second-best story of this issue, this is a beautifully haunting variation on "last woman on Earth." Civilization is probably collapsing, but it happens entirely off-camera. The narrator has retreated to a remote island, exchanging e-mail with her distant lover when she can before the network fails entirely, thinking back on their relationship. The slow, bittersweet sadness includes some beautiful characterization, and while I don't think I followed the full subtext of connection to Greek stories, it didn't hurt my enjoyment of the story. (8)

"Boatman's Holiday" by Jeffrey Ford: Another excellent story, this one is about Charon, the boatman who carries damned souls across the river Styx. The characterization of Charon, the capturing of what it might feel like to ferry souls over the Styx for so long, is very well done, as is the mythology of hidden places in Hell and the way it punishes its inhabitants. Very nicely done. (7)

"Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle: Beagle's return to the world of The Last Unicorn is far and away the highlight of this issue. A girl searching for a way of protecting her village from a gryphon who is devouring her friends goes in search of the local king, who happens to be King Lir from The Last Unicorn. In the process, she runs into Molly and Schmendrick the magician and gets tangled up in Lir's redemption and reconnection with the long-lost unicorn.

Either Beagle has become a much better author in the intervening forty years since the original novel or what he's trying here is more to my liking, but I thought this story was much better than the novel. It has about as much plot as the entire novel, which means that it feels much thicker and meatier. The Last Unicorn suffered from a lack of narrative weight to carry its symbolism; "Two Hearts" has a strong surface story that ties into the underlying symbolism but carries the story along on its own strengths. This is a huge improvement. The girl who narrates the story is fully as charming as anyone in The Last Unicorn, and the mixed wonder and sadness of her meeting with Lir is good enough by itself, but that's just the start. The story builds from there to an ending that's simply wonderful and faithful to every theme developed in the story.

I think you're better off reading The Last Unicorn first, as much of the depth of this story would be loss on someone unfamiliar with the original material. I'm glad that I pulled out my copy of the novel and read it before reading this issue. But if, like me, you thought The Last Unicorn was charming but flawed, I highly recommend this story. It fixes nearly all of the flaws without losing any of the charm and wonder. (9)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-02-19

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