Fantasy & Science Fiction

December 2008

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 115, No. 6
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 162

With this issue, F&SF starts their celebration of their sixtieth year of publication. They're going to reprint in each issue throughout the year a story from some previous issue. I'm all in favor, particularly given that I rarely have both time and desire to sort through old short story collections to find gems and some of the gems were never reprinted in easy-to-find books.

The non-fiction for this issue is mostly uninspiring, although I was interested to see that Charles de Lint quite liked Stephanie Meyer's adult novel (she's better known for the Twilight YA series). De Lint liking an author definitely doesn't mean I will, but it wasn't the reaction I was expecting.

"A Foreign Country" by Wayne Wightman: This starts as a story about a fourth-string reporter (told in the first person with an enjoyably idiosyncratic wording style) who gets stuck covering the lost-cause candidate for President. We're all (in the US at least) familiar with the type: the Kucinich or Ron Paul or the like who has no chance but quixotically runs anyway. Roger Allen Faber is even more pointless since he doesn't seem to have any sort of firm policy or political ideology. He just says that everyone will have happy times if he gets elected.

Quentin travels with him (and ends up being his entire entourage), covering his doomed candidacy which polls well out of the running straight up to the election. Then things get very weird.

This is partly a puzzle story, where the reader is trying to figure out what the heck is going on (as is the main character). On that front, it's somewhat unsatisfying, since we never get a definite answer. But it's also a story about just how insane the whole political process feels and how divorced we all are from it. It's also a disturbingly quirky entry in the SF subgenre of mankind being manipulated by powerful forces outside of our control, with a face I'd not seen before. I found the ending a bit unsatisfying, but the journey was surprisingly interesting. (7)

"Falling Angel" by Eugene Mirabelli: Brendan was lying on his back on the floor, looking up at his apartment skylight, when a naked woman with a twelve-foot wingspan floats down to the skylight like a drowning swimmer. The story that follows is a very intense love affair with a very strange woman, one with some beautiful descriptions and a rather shocking ending. I have an admitted soft spot for angel stories, particularly edgy ones like this one, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but I thought it was the best story of the issue. (8)

"Leave" by Robert Reed: This story is set in a world where aliens have made contact, but of a particularly bizarre kind. The aliens are fighting a war, and what they're interested from Earth is recruits. Not many, just a few. Years later, the veterans return, with difficult stories of elaborate, sacred warfare and intense training.

The narrator's best friend has a perfect son, the sort of son who everyone knows could do anything he wanted to do. He's recruited, and what follows is a frantic search before he finishes training in some hidden location and disappears beyond Pluto, perhaps forever.

Reed makes the strange setting work in part because the story isn't about the background. It's about a son making heart-rending choices, about helping obsessed and bereaved parents, and about friendship. It doesn't matter that the background is a bit unbelievable; Reed makes it vivid, real, and compelling. I had trouble with the ending, which felt both incomplete and depressing, but the characterization throughout is excellent. (6)

"The Alarming Letters from Scottsdale" by Warner Law: This is the reprint of this issue and it's a great choice. It's not a well-known story or a well-known writer, but it's a very solid one that survives reprinting years after it was written. It's told in the form of letters between a mystery writer and his godson, and the godson's increasing worry at the writer's obsession with his new dog. The writer is teaching the dog how to type and has put aside his best-selling mystery series to write stories from the perspective of the dog. A doctor becomes involved, the situation becomes increasingly strange, and then all is revealed (truly, although you have to squint at it for a bit) in a mysterious missive. It could have been creepy and instead goes for light-hearted, with a few nice twists. (7)

"A Skeptical Spirit" by Albert E. Cowdrey: Cowdrey is great at telling fantasy with an odd twist. This time, the protagonist is interested in ghosts, buying a house in a notoriously haunted area in the hope of getting to see some in person. However, they all give his house a wide berth. After some investigation, he finds that his house is haunted by a spirit of skepticism, whose disbelief in ghosts is driving them all away. Along the way, there's lots of Cowdrey's typical southern characterization. Nothing particularly surprising happens, but it's told with entertaining charm. (6)

"How the Day Runs Down" by John Langan: Horror stories in general, and zombie stories in particular, are not really my thing. That said, this is one of the most effectively presented ones that I've read, so those who do like such things will want to seek it out. It's set in the form of a play of sorts, featuring a "STAGE MANAGER" who does most of the narration of the destruction of a town by the wave of zombies that took over the world. The context strongly implies this is a true story being told as a history, and one slowly gets the feeling that the audience may be the last people left.

In story form, the typical shock horror moments and creepy soundtrack aren't available, making suspense harder to pull off. This is where Langan shines. He uses pacing of dialogue, slow description, and lots of foreshadowing to build a creeping sense of dread and conflicting impulses of not wanting to read and wanting to have ones worst suspicions confirmed. It's the closest I've ever seen to someone capturing the feeling of a horror movie in a story (where I find it more palatable and interesting by far). This is totally outside of the genre I enjoy and I liked it despite myself; people who normally enjoy zombie stories seem likely to love it. (6)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-04-19

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