Fantasy & Science Fiction

September 2007

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 113, No. 3
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 162

This was an unusually good issue in the fiction department. None of the stories blew me away, but all of them were solid and interesting and had a nice range of short, humorous stories and longer, more engrossing ones.

The non-fiction was about average, although the book reviews featured more than the usual number of short fiction collections. James Sallis does talk about trends and uses his reviews of two collections to talk about the field as a whole, which is appreciated, but too much of the review was the standard synopses of lots of short stories, all blurring together.

It makes sense for a short fiction magazine to also review a lot of collections, but it sometimes strikes me as disappointing the degree of emphasis SF reviews put on short fiction. I find short fiction reviews mostly unsatisfying to read. Most of them are little more than plot summary, and even when there's some analysis, there's rarely room for more than a paragraph or so. Mine aren't any better; I write them for my own reasons, but I know people would prefer to read a novel review. There's more room for discussing themes and ideas, and more room to be interesting even to readers who haven't and won't read the book.

"Wrong Number" by Alexander Jablokov: This is the best story I've read from Jablokov yet, an intriguing take on curses and sympathetic magic. My favorite part of the story was the idea of a curse that leaves its victim obsessing over a specific bit of past bad behavior, an idea with an unfortunate amount of resonance with how my mind often works. The characters are fun and light-hearted, there's a satisfying bit of plot, and I liked the fairy-tale logic of how to deal with a curse. (7)

"Envoy Extraordinary" by Albert E. Cowdrey: Cowdrey rarely fails to be entertaining. Vincent Khartoum is a self-important, unlikeable climber in the ranks of UNIDIP, the Universal Diplomatic Service, who's sent on a mission to negotiate with the petty tyrant of a backwards planet. This is one of the rare stories devoid of likeable characters that works anyway, thanks to a lovely surprise reversal and a sly parody of how men become famous and legendary. It's a remarkably cynical story for such a successful a light-hearted tone. A dry sense of humor and appreciation for irony shines through the details of the story. And I loved the Diplomatic Decalogue. (8)

"Atalanta Loses at the Interpantheonic Trivia Bee" by Heather Lindsley: A slight story devoted mostly to banter between deities and poking fun at male Greek gods. There's a bit of a love subplot that did little for me, but there were enough fun mythological references to save the story. "'Oooh,' said Aphrodite when she saw the rolling apple. 'Shiny!'" It's that sort of story, and was worth a few grins. (6)

"Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers" by John Langan: This is a very odd story that succeeded far better than I expected. It's a post-apocalyptic short story, featuring the standard male and female pair running from monsters who have killed everyone else in the city, with the twist of making the woman pregnant. But it's written in stream-of-consciousness from the woman's perspective, eschewing paragraphs, and only breaking runs of text with the occasional bolded highlight phrase. I usually have a low tolerance for this sort of thing, but the stream-of-consciousness prose is written well enough to pull me along and it was oddly fascinating to watch the highlighted phrases drop into the overall prose and also form a synopsis story that could be read independently. There are dark twists to the story, particularly towards the end, but the plot isn't particularly special. The highlight is the style. (6)

"Requirements for the Mythology Merit Badge" by Kevin N. Haw: This isn't really a story. It's the requirements for a Scouting badge in mythology in an alternate universe where mythology is more practical knowledge than it is in ours. It reminded me of the over-the-top descriptions of final exams that circulated on the Internet some years back ("You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze, and a botttle of Scotch. Remove your appendix.") although not as funny. Mildly diverting and short. (6)

"If We Can Save Just One Child..." by Robert Reed: Robert Reed often writes short stories that take a sharp stab at some current trend or belief. This features him at his sarcastic best, taking on the hysteria over child predators, mixing it with a surveillance society, and throwing in abuse of public databases and police records. It's particularly successful because he doesn't portray the police as either idiots or evil; throughout the story, the cognizant authorities keep demonstrating the abusive power of databases and records and then keep using normal human understanding to make the right analysis. It shows the harassment power without going overboard, which requires a delicate touch and which Reed handles admirably well. The ending is a beautiful twist, using the title to stab home the point in a lovely bit of reversal of logic. Reed's effective use and confounding of the reader's growing sense of dread makes this the best story of the issue. (8)

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang: Chiang has a reputation as a brilliant short story writer, and while this is the first of his stories that I've reviewed, I can believe it from this example. This is the story of a time travel arch, a portal through which one can pass to move a set time into the past or, walking through in the opposite direction, the future. It's told as an embedded set of stories (in an Arabian Nights sort of tone) of people who went through the arch for various reasons. The apparent theme of all the stories is the unchangeableness of the past. Each traveller found that they couldn't alter the remembered facts or details, and often only succeeded in supporting or enabling what had happened. But by the end of the story, Chiang finds an interesting twist on this idea, leading the reader to consider whether changing simple facts is the only useful possibility, or whether changing our understanding of the past may be just as significant and more possible. (8)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-12-09

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