Fantasy & Science Fiction

March 2008

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 114, No. 3
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 162

This issue was about average for F&SF, with no bad stories and none that grabbed me. It's anchored by a long historical horror story by Albert Cowdrey, which wasn't quite my genre but which worked for me anyway. Michelle West's book column and Kathi Maio's film column were the non-fiction highlights of the issue.

"The Boarder" by Alexander Jablokov: As it says in the introduction, this is fiction about science rather than science fiction. It's a retrospective by a Russian boy growing up in America about the Russian boarders that his parents took on, and in particular an engineer named Vassily who worked on the Russian space program. Jablokov uses Vassily to look at the way both Americans and Russians looked at the space program in the midst of the space race, provides insight into some of the working conditions in the Russian space program, and (as usual for SF magazine treatments of this) shows sadness at the direction the space program went. It didn't do a lot for me as a story, but it's good as an exploration and personalization of history. (6)

"Rumple What?" by Nancy Springer: The light humor for the issue, this is a retelling of the Rumplestiltskin fairy tale with some added realism and focus on the woman who's being forced to spin gold. Springer follows the trend of revisiting fairy tales with an eye to what might really happen in a real medieval world. I liked the misunderstanding of what Rumplestiltskin wanted, and the ending has a nice twist to it. (6)

"The Overseer" by Albert E. Cowdrey: This long historical novella is the centerpiece of the issue. It tells the story of a rich, crippled southerner early in the 20th century and his interactions with his black man-servant, and through his memoir, his past before and after the Civil War. The fantasy touch is the ghost of an overseer hired by his father, who haunts him and corrupts him throughout his life. The plot is an occasionally brutal look at racial politics and the way that they can be manipulated for personal power. I found the characters compelling, particularly the unlikeable but fascinating narrator with a past full of dark and self-serving decisions. The real horror here comes from the way we explain our actions to ourselves more than from an external force. The light of hope comes from the possibility of repentance, but it's balanced by the damage done to others that can't be undone by that repentance. This wasn't my genre, but the story is effective enough to transcend that. Cowdrey is an excellent storyteller. (7)

"Exit Strategy" by K.D. Wentworth: This is the other highlight of the issue. The viewpoint character, Charlsie, is a flippant, disaffected teenager who has decided to commit suicide and donate her body to the Church of Second Life. The Church exists in a world where such suicide is legal; they use the donated bodies to provide a second chance at life to stored personalities, which they can implant in the vacated body. Wentworth does a beautiful job turning a creepy idea into a startlingly but believably effective suicide counselling program. The subtlety was not quite as deep as I was hoping it would be, and I think the story could have been stronger and tighter with a different twist than the overly obvious one chosen, but it's still a very solid story. I liked the more personal and emotional look at issues around stored personalities, and it's a thoughtful take on the idea and possibilities around legal suicide. (7)

"The Second Descent" by Richard Paul Russo: There's much less of a straightforward plot here, and I'm not sure I quite understood the point. The protagonist is one of a climbing team who has (he thinks) reached the summit of what, in context, is probably Everest and is now descending, but the descent crosses from the real world into something more mythical and confusing. This is the second descent, and he can't remember what happened the first time. Some of the members of the team may be dead. And there is a mysterious unreachable city on the way down. This all comes together, somewhat, in a moral about risk-taking, but I admit to leaving it still quite confused. (5)

"A Ten-Pound Sack of Rice" by Richard Mueller: This issue ends with a light-hearted story of alternate timelines. A World War II veteran revisits a moment in his career as a figher pilot in the Pacific, with the help of (apparently) Satan. It's an odd story whose strength is the solid characterization of someone who has long since come to terms with how he wants to live his life and takes advantage of the opportunity to redo an event in his past. I think my favorite part was the talking cat, who provides a great bridge from the mundane to the fantastic. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-03-20

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