Fantasy & Science Fiction

June/July 2009

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 116, No. 6 & 7
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 258

This month has another book review by Chris Moriarty, this time of the Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth duology plus Watermind by M.M. Buckner. I'm already looking forward to each issue Moriarty has a review column. She covers books in depth and says interesting things about them. Apart from that, the non-fiction pickings this month are a bit slim.

"Firehorn" by Robert Reed: "Firehorn" starts with a pair of kids, the narrator and his friend Morgan, in a Nevada desert town. On a whim while playing with some younger kids, they made up a story about a monster called the Firehorn. Fifty years later, there are sentient robots, humans can be uploaded into robot bodies, and the Firehorn story has taken a life of its own and proven impossible to stamp out. Several robots have been destroyed by some sort of fast-moving predator, and the narrator is approached by a robot who is putting together an expedition to find the Firehorn that they believe is responsible.

The story switches back and forth between a discussion of how urban legends grow and why people (and robots) feel the urge to believe in them, and the narrator coming to terms with how Morgan has changed. Typical for Reed stories, it has a twist ending, this time towards making the reader re-evaluate the story from an emotional perspective. Not too memorable, but entertaining. (6)

"The Motorman's Coat" by John Kessel: This is a slight story about a collector of old clothing in a future world in which various bacteria and pests have destroyed most of it. He acquires a particularly excellent motorman's coat at high cost while being jerked around by a mysterious woman and by his ex-wife. The ending is depressing, the fulfillment of a train wreck that was obvious from the start of the story. (5)

"Retrograde Summer" by John Varley: This is one of two classic stories for this issue. It tells the story of a boy who has grown up on Mercury meeting his (three years older) clone-sister arriving from the Moon to live with he and his mother. He's competitively proud of Mercury; she expresses her nervousness by being skeptical of the settlement's construction and safety. And the family has a past secret, or several, that the first person narrator has never known, and which explain why he has a clone-sister (almost unheard of), and why she would divorce her mother at a remarkably early age and come to live with them. There's some nice world-building and some interesting hard-SF scenery amidst safety concerns with a hostile environment (helped somewhat by some hand-waving future tech that isn't very plausible but makes for a great visual). The conclusion is a nice bit of emotionally-satisfying coming of age. (7)

"Corona Centurion FAQ" by Terry Bisson: Not really a story, this very short entry is a fake frequently asked questions list about an artificial human body, designed for would-be purchasers. It makes fun of corporate advertising for an unfamiliar product, but the ground it treads has already been well-covered (and far more entertainingly) by John Scalzi's Old Man's War. (4)

"Paradiso Lost" by Albert E. Cowdrey: I'm a fan of Cowdrey's short stories, and it's a particular delight when he moves away from southern fantasy and writes science fiction. This story follows the same main character as "Murder in the Flying Vatican", but much earlier in his career. He's a sergeant commanding a group of soldiers on a deep space mission to recover a human colony that had been founded by a DNA cult. Humans had gotten embroiled in an interstellar war and were pulling back human colonies to more defensible positions.

The story opens with a murder mystery, through which we're introduced to a wide range of onboard personalities. But that mystery, which at first seems like the core of the story, is largely resolved about halfway through and before they ever reach the Paradiso colony. I'm not sure the story as a whole has a coherent theme: after the initial police procedural in space story, there's a bit of first contact of a sort, another mystery around the colony, and a bit of space disaster fiction. It's a collection of hard SF tropes spun together at some length with Cowdrey's entertaining story-telling, and if it lacks an overall point, it's no less fun because of it. I hope Cowdrey will write more of this sort of thing. (7)

"Adaptogenia" by Wayne Wightman: Creeping horror isn't my favorite genre, but it's more fun when it's played for humor. "Adaptogenia" opens with an X-Files spoof. There are secret occurances and things happening outside of people's normal understanding, but they're not investigated by the FBI. Rather, the protagonist works for Conspiracy Theorists' Weekly, one of many gossip rags that feed into the information-gathering arm of a multinational corporation. At the start of the story, he's investigating strage apparitions that are echoing people, appearing for a few moments doing the same things that the people are doing and then disappearing again. The explanation for this wasn't what I expected, nor was the dark result, but the story retains its sense of humor throughout. I think players of Fallout will recognize the tone. Not quite my thing, but surprisingly enjoyable nonetheless. (6)

"Sooner or Later or Never Never" by Gary Jennings: This is the other classic story of the issue, a short story about Crispin Mobey, a zealous and incompetent missionary who was the protagonist for a series of short stories written in the 1970s. This was the first of that series, following Mobey to the Australian Outback where he's determined to bring Jesus Christ to isolated aborigines. This is about as cringe-worthy as one might expect, but mostly at the expense of Mobey, from which the humor derives.

Stories like this walk a difficult line, since the core of the story is "wow, that guy is utterly racist — isn't that hysterical?" But good humor often walks that line, and I did find a lot of the story funny (particularly the two giant trucks worth of beads that Mobey hauls into the Outback, which the people he meets are predictably almost entirely uninterested in). Most of the story revolves around a dubious scheme of reproducing a ritual that Mobey read about in Frazer's The Golden Bough and using either outcome to prove the superiority of Christ. The story is at its best when treating Mobey like a nutcase who can't figure out that the people he's dealing with are far more intelligent and practical than his stereotyped assumptions, and at its worse when using aboriginal people for slapstick. I think this story is likely to provoke a fair bit of cringing and it wouldn't have been my reprint choice, but it's not nearly as bad as it could have been. (6)

"Economancer" by Carolyn Ives Gilman: This is the highlight of the issue. I completely agree with the editorial introduction: "This story explains a lot. A lot."

It's an epistolary story about a currency trader with a degree from the London School of Economics who applies for a job in a South Asian country that's supposed to be one of the new economic superstars. He's initially mystified by the elaborate and luxurious reception he receives for his job interview, and then finds that the board of the national bank is expecting his help in merging magic with finance. They are finding a way to apply traditional island magic to Western economics.

This could provoke similar cringing to the previous story, but it doesn't. Instead, it turns into a spot-on bit of humor aimed at the recent financial collapse and becomes amusingly plausible. It's a great example of the sort of humor that has you laughing at the absurdity of the situation while simultaneously wondering whether it doesn't all make more sense than reality does. Pratchett came to mind, and that's high praise. I could have done with a bit more plot resolution, but the story is carried by its core ideas. (8)

"The Spaceman" by Mike O'Driscoll: This is another coming-of-age story, but a darker one and, for me, a much less satisfying one. Freddie, Jenna, and Mouse are kids growing up near the sea shore, playing outside and making things up. Both Jenna and Mouse have an active imagination, and a lot of their friendship centers on believing the stories and running with them. But when they encounter an astronaut from an Apollo mission that never happened, imagination and reality are placed in unresolvable tension. Freddie can't maintain his suspension of disbelief, and the rest of the story shows the resulting slow collapse of their friendship. This is both very depressing and very frustrating, particularly since the things the three of them were making up weren't plausible, and, given the ending, the story reads like a defense of imagination in the face of all contrary information. I could have done without this story; it just depressed and irritated me. (2)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-04-08

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