Fantasy & Science Fiction

September 2008

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 115, No. 3
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 162

Gordon van Gelder seems to be making a regular habit of the editorial now. I hope he keeps up. This one was about a documentary about Harlan Ellison, and his take was interesting and surprisingly balanced as discussions of Ellison go (usually one only gets the "he's a great guy" position in pieces like this). I tend to lean towards the "Harlan Ellison is an egotistical asshole, and no it isn't funny and no being a well-known writer doesn't make it okay" side of this argument. The editorial was fair and did a good job of critiquing the documentary as documentary.

Charles de Lint's book review column this time is short, but it gave me a non-fiction book to watch out for (You Call This the Future? by Nick Sagan, et al.), which is rare. Hats off to Elizabeth Hand for actually writing a negative review for once; I don't want those to dominate a column, but I like to see them occasionally as a calibration.

"Pump Six" by Paolo Bacigalupi: I think Bacigalupi is working hard for the title of the most depressing SF writer currently publishing. This leading novelet doesn't return to his calorie-based grim future; instead, we get a future of degrading machinery, degrading intelligence (scarily so), and mutated animal-like children happily having sex in the streets. The protagonist works to keep the sewer pumps running in New York City. He never went to college and doesn't know much about the system beyond following the diagnostic procedures in the manuals, but that makes him far and away the most intelligent and useful person on staff; most of the staff never bother to do any work at all. Bacigalupi never explains how the world got this way, only hints at it in a somewhat cryptic scene, but that's not the point. The point is a dark look at a society on autopilot, and how one can react when one realizes it's too far gone to fix. It's horribly depressing and very well-written, which is Bacigalupi in a nutshell. (7)

"Search Continues for Elderly Man" by Laura Kasischke: This is a short and disturbing story about death, aging, and maybe a devil of sorts. It's all very murky, and where you can see things through the murk, they're unpleasant and degrading corners of the human mind. One of those stories for which I'm not the target audience. (3)

"Arkfall" by Carolyn Ives Gilman: This novella is the centerpiece of the issue and achieves the main thing I ask of novellas in SF magazines: it's sufficiently interesting and engrossing throughout that I wasn't sick of it and wishing for a change of pace and a different story. Osaji is a resident in a settled colony on a world entirely covered in water, a colony that attempts to live in harmony with the ocean in underwater ships heavily based on living organisms. Their culture is devoted to slowly encouraging the spread of life, and equally devoted to fitting in, group collaboration, not creating problems, and a passive harmony with everyone around. Osaji is burdened with her aging grandmother, a woman with a failing body, increasing dementia, and a determined refusal to make decisions. Everyone else in the family managed to dodge the responsibility through passive refusal and Osaji got stuck with it. She's considering fleeing off-world, but in the office where she has to apply, she runs into an abrasive and angry off-worlder who insults her world and makes her angry enough to change her mind. Then there's an accident, they're trapped together on a ship that moves out of known waters, and the two of them have to come to terms with each other.

It doesn't move far from the standard misfit coming-of-age tropes, and Osaji's voyage of self-discovery takes fairly predictable turns. But I found myself enjoying it nonetheless. It's a solidly entertaining story, and even though the culture pushes most of the characters towards being irritatingly passive-aggressive and painfully short on personal boundaries, Gilman avoids making any of them stupid. The direction of the story felt obvious in retrospect, but it still worked. Solid entertainment. (7)

"Picnic on Pentacost" by Rand B. Lee: Back to the surrealism here, and as with "Search Continues for Elderly Man," it didn't work for me. Here, the problem isn't the ugliness of what's revealed as much as the helplessness and skittering lack of explanation in the story. This is one of those first contact stories that tries to portray a way of thinking that's utterly foreign to humanity, using lots of symbolism and descriptions that try for poetic. I find them very hit or miss, and this one is a miss, in part because the background I cared about quickly becomes irrelevant and none of the characters got enough characterization before being changed beyond recognition for me to care what happened to them. (4)

"Shed that Guilt! Double Your Productivity Overnight!" by Michael Swanwick & Eileen Gunn: Like a lot of Swanwick's shorter writing, this is an inside joke for authors. It's in the form of an e-mail exchange between Swanwick, as the salesman for a company that claims to be able to take away a writer's guilt, and Eileen Gunn as a writer, who's dubious. Most of the "story" involves different attempts by Swanwick to find something that Gunn is willing to pay for, and Gunn finding more explanations for why guilt is integral to a writer and why she doesn't want to be happy anyway. I saw the twist ending coming from several pages away, but it was still good for a smile. (6)

"Salad for Two" by Robert Reed: This is a classic Reed story, insofar as such a thing exists: a science fiction story that starts off with one premise (an odd flirting relationship between a regular grocery store shopper and a clerk), turns into a completely different one (a futuristic society with implanted AIs), and then completely turns on its head in the last few pages. Reed is good at slowly evolving what's really happening without either losing the reader or making the whole thing feel too much like a gimmick, and this is one of his better ones. The ending twist felt like a bit of a letdown, but it was an ingenious explanation for the rest of the story. (7)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-11-17

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