Fantasy & Science Fiction

October/November 2009

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 117, No. 3 & 4
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 322

This is the 60th anniversary issue, so it's treble-size instead of the new double-size format. It also features brief retrospectives on the magazine from each author with stories in it, which I thought was a nice touch. The book review columns are also extra-long, and while I didn't find much of interest in De Lint's, Michelle West's review column was solid, including a very good review of Palimpsest.

The rest of the non-fiction in this issue is about average. Most of the added size is devoted to additional fiction rather than expanding any of the non-fiction features. The overall tone of the fiction was surprisingly grim.

"The Far Shore" by Elizabeth Hand: This is the story of a former dancer who retired due to an injured knee to live in a secluded camp in the woods, and the strange injured boy he finds naked in the woods. The boy's nature will quickly become apparent if you're familiar with the right part of mythology, but the story is more about the psychology of fraught love and fey risks than world-building revelation. This is not my style of story, edging a bit too close towards horror and emphasizing the numinous and emotional over logical actions. But for what it is, it's well-told. (5)

"Bandits of the Trace" by Albert E. Cowdrey: Cowdrey is a fitting contributor to the 60th anniversary issue, given his frequent stories for F&SF, and here provides one typical of his oeuvre in tone if not in material. It opens with an embedded story of colorful Tennessee bandits and their treasure, guarded by a giant snake. This is set in a modern frame, which then goes on to decypher the clue left to the location of the treasure. The embedded story is creative and interesting, and the puzzle-solving is quite successful. The fantasy element is much less so, and for me detracted from the story. I would have enjoyed this as much or more as a straight historical mystery. (6)

"The Way They Wove the Spells in Sippulgar" by Robert Silverberg: This is a Majipoor story, and therefore probably loses something for me given that I've not (yet) read Lord Valentine's Castle or any of its sequels. Coming to the world with only the background of some of Silverberg's essays, it was servicable but not engrossing. The story is an investigation of the mysterious disappearance of the narrator's brother-in-law, apparently after he started a new religion. The tone is a detached, formal, observant one that was fun to read, but doesn't do much for dramatic tension. However, the plot was forgettable, and I found the conclusion disappointing. (6)

"Logicist" by Carol Emshwiller: This is at least the second story by Emshwiller I've read that looks at the idea of war and its effect on psychology. This one is set in a world of apparently unending warfare, featuring a narrator, a teacher of children, who is caught behind enemy lines and discovers that the enemy seems as human as his own people. This is an oft-told story, but Emshwiller adds a surprisingly dark twist, one that sadly more closely reflects typical human reactions than the upbeat direction this story normally goes. It's effective, but I can't say I much enjoyed reading it. (5)

"Blocked" by Geoff Ryman: A new Ryman short story is always cause for celebration. This one is set in a future where giant underground refuges have been built and people are encouraged to migrate into them. The stated reason for this is protection against an incoming alien invasion from space, but this is entirely off-camera and purely a matter of speculation among the characters, who have good reasons for not trusting government sources. (In this, it's one of the most accurate-feeling portrayals of the average human reaction to some of the great alien invasion tropes in SF.) A deeper layer to the story is humankind's constant discontent with their current situation and current environment, and the constant search for something new and more. I don't think this is one of the stronger Ryman works, but it says some difficult things. (6)

"Halloween Town" by Lucius Shepard: This is the novella of the issue: a long, deep portrayal of a strange town in so deep of an overgrown canyon that it doesn't get the light of day, and an immigrant to that town who pokes into and then stirs up old animosities and dangers. It reads like fantasy for much of the story, but fantasy in a strange modern setting with a partial scientific justification. In tone, it would fit perfectly into a Tim Burton movie. I was expecting not to like this story, since it has a bit of a horror vibe, but I found myself drawn completely in and engrossed by it even when the horror surfaces. Shepard tells great stories, and here shows a deft hand with characterization of a set of misfits and oddities who have lived so long with each other that they leave much unexplained and mysterious to a new outsider. One of the better stories of this issue and worth the length. (7)

"Mermaid" by Robert Reed: I think it's fair to call this story a strange spin on the Little Mermaid fairy tale, although that's inobvious at the start except via the title. If that characterization is accurate, it's nonetheless told from a much different angle, and about aftermaths rather than the core of the story. As with most Reed stories, it twists halfway through into something stranger than it first appeared to be. In this case, it twists into a story that's at best bittersweet and is mostly sad. The idea is interesting, but it's a downer. (6)

"Never Blood Enough" by Joe Haldeman: This short story is an investigation of a suspicious death in a small, undermanned space colony outpost. Both the tone and the world-building are solid, and I liked that the protagonist was unfamiliar with these types of investigations and pushed into it because there's no one else, but there isn't enough meat to the whole story to be satisfying. (6)

"I Waltzed with a Zombie" by Ron Goulart: This is another one of Goulart's humorous stories about pulp writers and the various adventures they get into. This time, the protagonist is a B-movie writer, with a great idea for a horror musical comedy. In typical Goulart fashion, this turns into an occasionally farsical investigation into real-world zombies in the movie business (with a few nice satirical shots at Hollywood). Light, but good fun. (7)

"The President's Book Tour" by M. Rickert: From Rickert, one can generally expect slightly creepy, slightly disturbing, and something askew from normal reality. This one opens with a grotesque and appalling image of malformed children and follows it up with a horrific story of human feeling in a post-apocalyptic world with no genetic future. It's unremittingly grim, often bordering on horror, partly due to the repeated attempts on behalf of the characters to pretend a sort of normality. Not my thing, but the images are powerful enough to show good writing. (4)

"Another Life" by Charles Oberndorf: This take on the lives of soldiers in the presence of personality backup and resurrection technology is the best story of this issue. The technology is something that other SF stories have played with in the past, including the loss of memory after the last backup and the potential estrangement that causes from one's other lives. Oberndorf's story, though, focuses on the character interactions rather than the technology, and puts it against the backdrop of a backwater in an ongoing war. The clash of personalities and the culture of soldiers who may be sent on routine suicide missions and lose their recent memories is very well-done, and by the end of the story, very moving. Worth seeking out. (8)

"Shadows on the Wall of the Cave" by Kate Wilhelm: From future SF, we go to intrusive fantasy set in the contemporary world, where something makes a sudden, drastic impression on the lives of the characters. (There's a hand-waving scientific explanation, but it reads like fantasy to me.) In this story, the intrusive fantasy is a cave, where the narrator's younger cousin is lost when playing in a cave as children. The family psychology after a tragedy is well-told, as are the reactions to the fantastic twist, but the whole idea never interested me enough to really engage me. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-04-23

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