Fantasy & Science Fiction

April/May 2009

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 116, No. 4 & 5
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 268

I hope Gordon van Gelder keeps writing editorials, since I'm enjoying them. This time, he talks about the changes in conversation from on-line discussion, particularly around the speed and volume of the discussion and the inclusiveness (or lack thereof, depending on context). He also talks about some survey results on who pays for magazines and why and how this may relate to electronic publishing. I don't agree with Van Gelder on every point, but both the transitory speed and the inward-turned nature of on-line discussion are things that bother me, and it was interesting to read another comment on it.

Other notable non-fiction in this issue are an extended review of Thomas Disch's last story collection by James Sallis and an exceptionally good "Plumage from Pegasus" by Paul Di Filippo about a poet laureate. The latter also touches on the circular self-feeding support from blogs that will remind us old Usenet participants of "the lurkers support me in e-mail." I have to wonder if Sarah Palin served as partial, amusing inspiration for Di Filippo's material.

"The Spiral Briar" by Sean McMullen: A mysterious knight gathers backers and artisans to build a strange war machine, a machine designed specifically to launch a technological war against fairy. The tone is light and amused, carrying the reader through the preliminaries into a bit of steampunk engineering that those who like figuring out minglings of modern and medieval technology will enjoy. But the final destination is a lovely inversion of the normal pattern of a fairy story: a plan of systematic revenge by humans against fairy, following fairy rules. It's a bit light on plot through much of the story, but I had fun with the characterization and enjoyed it more than I expected to. (7)

"The Brave Little Toaster" by Thomas M. Disch: This is one of two classic reprints in this issue. This one is a charming fairy tale in the children's story mode about appliances, left alone in a cabin for longer than usual, deciding to go in search of their owner in the city. This is apparently very atypical stuff for Disch, but became probably his best-known and most popular work outside of genre enthusiasts. It was translated into a cartoon, and I can see how easy it would be to do that. It's full of wonderful anthropomorphism throughout and has the charming active narrator common in children's stories. There are numerous asides and notes about how appliances must behave, the challenges they face, and the things that are easier for them. Disch also fills the story with delightful bits of appliance ingenuity, such as the "car" they construct for their journey from an office chair the vacuum can pull and a car battery to power them all. A light, lovely, happy story that's well-worth seeking out if you've not already read it. (8)

"The Avenger of Love" by Jack Skillingstead: Another SF story featuring a pulp writer as the main character, which is something I'm getting a touch tired of. Here, the protagonist realizes that some memories were stolen from him, which leads him to a weird pulp noir fantasy world in which he has to confront emotion from his past. That link seemed ham-handed to me, not flowing naturally from the rest of the story, and despite the entertaining canine sidekick, I found the ending unmotivated and disappointing. (5)

"A Wild and Wicked Youth" by Ellen Kushner: This was the highlight of the issue for me, since it's set in the world of Kushner's excellent Swordspoint and tells the early life of Richard St. Vier. And it delivers on everything a fan of Swordspoint would hope for: an unusual family background, a fascinating mother, an early skill at swordplay, and Richard's wonderfully laconic emotional style. I don't think it will appeal as much to those who haven't read Swordspoint, but even without the background it's a solid story. For a fan, it's a lovely bit of background. (8)

"Andreanna" by S.L. Gilbow: One of the things I like about short stories is the opportunity to explore points of view that wouldn't survive a longer novel. This short story is told from the perspective of a humanoid briefing robot, damaged in a fall and sent back to her creator (and model). The story is mostly told in italic bits of dialogue from others as the android makes inappropriate responses selected randomly from briefings. The emotional payoff is a bit light, but nicely understated and charming. (7)

"Stratosphere" by Henry Garfield: Baseball, another perennial favorite topic of short story writers. Most of the appeal of this story is the transformation of baseball for the low-gravity environment of the Moon, woven into an "I was there when it happened" story of a famous hitter. The slight deflationary tone of the story is well-handled, touching on the perpetual conflict in baseball between hard hitting and tactical play. Slight, but entertaining. (6)

"Sea Wrack" by Edward Jesby: The second classic story of this issue, it tells the story of a conflict between a surface-dwelling culture and humans adapted for life under the sea. But it tells that conflict in an unusual way, showing the intrusion of a sea-man into the cultured, party life on the surface. I can see why the story stood out when it was originally written. The surface of the story is surprisingly sophisticated, avoiding the tropes of classic adventure stories in favor of a more subtle manipulation. In the end, it didn't do quite enough for me, but it holds up better than most stories written in its era. (6)

"The Price of Silence" by Deborah J. Ross: Devlin is new crew on a spaceship sent to investigate the loss of communication with a colony planet. He's young and desperate to fit in to the close-knit crew culture, serving as the outsider but sympathetic view that introduces the reader to the crew and their conflicts with authority in the form of a security officer. The twist of the story is a classic one, but the emotional tone gave it strength. The story's main flaw for me is the lack of agency the protagonist has through most of the story. Devlin is mostly along for the ride, with only one moment of significant decision at the end of the story. Deeper characterization would have made this one a bit better for me. (6)

"One Bright Star to Guide Them" by John C. Wright: The protagonist of this story is one of four children who had, in background, a great adventure to save another world from peril as a child. Narnia is an obvious inspiration, and the accumulation of Capitalized Plot Coupons also suggests Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising. The story catches up with the protagonist as an adult, having put aside these adventures as childish. The darkness is attempting to take over the world again, and he's called back to save it. He tries to find his former companions, but each of them are lost to him in different ways. At times, Wright balances the story finely enough that one could believe Tommy may be losing his sanity, but at the end the story turns into a pure celebration of blind faith.

There is such a thing as knowing too much about an author, and unfortunately I've read a bit too much about Wright's current beliefs on-line to avoid reading them into this story. The story suffers because of it, in part because it convinces me that Wright meant the theme literally rather than ironically. I should be the target audience for this story: I enjoyed its inspirations, and I like the plot of rediscovered power and determination. But there are too many Capital Letters of Great Significance, a few bits of ham-handed religion, a key decision that I thought was entirely inappropriate and wrong in the context of the story, and a conclusion that's simply too easy and devoid of emotional depth. Someone who knows less about Wright's personal beliefs may like it much better, but it just bugged me. (5)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-02-26

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