Fantasy & Science Fiction

October/November 2007

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 113, No. 4 & 5
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 242

This is the double issue of the year for F&SF, which means an opportunity to run longer stories (a novella and four novelettes this year) and longer book columns. The general quality seemed about average for the magazine, but the novella in particular was quite enjoyable, bringing up the average by page.

There are longer non-fiction entries as well, of course, although Charles de Lint's book review column is basically more of the same. Elizabeth Hand, however, reviews two non-fiction collections of essays, a type of book I enjoy reading a lot and for which I love to see reviews. They're far more interesting to me than reviews of short story collections, in part because a good reviewer will engage with the points of the essays and a thoughtful commentary on the field often results.

"Against the Current" by Robert Silverberg: There seem to be a lot of stories about coming unstuck in time around lately. This is an acceptable entry in that genre niche. The protagonist starts drifting backwards, involuntarily reliving earlier times that he remembers and running into all the practical problems of being from the future (such as weird currency and a car that becomes increasingly futuristic). There didn't seem to be much point to the story; what emotional development there was felt flat to me, and the ending was disappointing. But the scenery is a lot of fun. (6)

"The Diamond Shadow" by Fred Chappell: Chappell delivers another solid Falco story about a detective- and shadow-expert-in-training in an intriguing alternate world where shadows can be stolen, manipulated, and analyzed. This time, Falco and his mentor and boss, Astolfo, investigate the darkening of a jewel owned by a noble woman, featuring some of Astolfo's typical use and abuse of Falco's abilities. This story series is fun adventure, reminding me a lot of Matthew Hughes. (6)

"The Star to Every Wandering Barque" by James Stoddard: I'm probably missing some allusions in this story, but on the surface it's straight fantasy wish-fulfillment with only the scantiest of plots. One day, everyone on earth suddenly understands the point and purpose of everything, is no longer interested in violence, and is eager to cooperate with everyone else. Stoddard lists off the wonderful things that then happen, moving through the suddenly easy solutions to all of the world's problems. Cheap and fast space travel is, of course, invented as one of the great missions of mankind. It's all a little much, mostly interesting only in a "hunt the politics" sort of way. I'm not sure what the point of this was. (4)

"The Recreation Room" by Albert E. Cowdrey: This is a bit darker than the average Cowdrey story. It deals directly with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in the city of New Orleans, following a resident in the drowned portion of the town who left town slightly before the hurricane and is only now returning. It's very atmospheric and rather depressing. The twist ending is worthy of a Robert Reed story, although I'm not sure it really fit the rest of the story; the whole picture never settled quite right in my head. (5)

"The Bird Shaman's Girl" by Judith Moffet: This is part of an ongoing series of novels and stories about a future earth that's invaded by the alien Hefn. At this point in the timeline, the Hefn have achieved nearly total control and are pushing humanity to reverse the environmental damage done to the world and find ways to live sustainably, but this is backdrop to the story. The focus is on a social worker, the abused girl for whom she's responsible who is a child actress in a popular drama, and the very Mormon-like religion that her family is part of. I liked Pam, the social worker, and Lexi, the kid, quite a lot. They're the strength of the story. The plot is mostly satisfying, reminiscent of a Without a Trace TV episode, except told from multiple points of view and set against this weird future world of Hefn domination. The end, though, deals largely with Hefn-related world background and was oddly disconnected for a reader whose only previous exposure was this story. Lexi's family's religion is a bit too obvious and cliched of a target, but the characters were strong enough to carry the story anyway, except for the weird end bits. (7)

"Two Weeks After" by M. Ramsey Chapman: This is a solid reader puzzle story, following two people who have apparently come back from the dead and their reunions with their loved ones. The puzzle part is that there's clearly something weird going on, even beyond the returning from the dead part, and one slowly puts together clues trying to figure out what it is. I thought the final answer was subtle and satisfying, the kind of ending that shifts the rest of the story neatly into place. (7)

"Fragrant Goddess" by Paul Park: Well, I liked Sabine, who's a great gamine character fond of climbing up on the roof and watching the neighborhood. Other than that, this story of obsession with weird historical figures, alchemic medicines, weird houses, and dishonesty didn't work for me. I became less and less fond of the protagonist over the course of the story and the ending was just weird. More not my cup of tea than badly written. (4)

"Unpossible" by Daryl Gregory: Gregory is quickly becoming one of my favorite SF short fiction authors. This is another solid story with a fascinating idea that's completely different from what he's written before. This time, the conceit is childhood imaginary worlds and the props that one used to get there. A desperate, middle-aged man tries to return to his, to predictably discover that it's not quite that easy, but also to learn a deeper life lesson. The moral is a bit mundane, but the presentation and description of the world, one scene that I choose to read as homage to The Phantom Tollbooth, and another that's pure Mr. Roger's Neighborhood won me over completely. Lots of fun, reminding me slightly of Only Forward. (7)

"Urdumheim" by Michael Swanwick: This is an odd mix of mythology and secret history, a sort of alternate-world respinning of bits of Sumerian and Hebrew (and hence Christian) mythology. The war between the gods and the forces of chaos drags on a bit long for my taste, and I could have done without that many pages of creeping horror and despair. I'm not sure that it was worth it for the twist ending that turns a famous Bible story on its head, although the ending is rather effective and the portrayal of gods is somewhat interesting. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-12-18

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