Fantasy & Science Fiction

January/February 2010

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 118, No. 1 & 2
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 258

This issue features another of Chris Moriarty's book review columns, which I increasingly look forward to. The number of hits in this column — books that look like just the sort of thing I want to read — is particularly high. The same unfortunately can't be said of De Lint's column, which continues to have a high proportion of horror, comic books (usually retellings of books I'd rather read in prose), and fairly minor works, more on the level of Carolyn Cushman's short reviews in Locus.

Lucius Shepard's review of District 9 in this issue is one of the better movie reviews I've seen in either of the SF magazines I read in quite a while. It goes into the cultural and current events background of South Africa to explain parts of the movie plot that might otherwise be opaque, and was quite educational even apart from the question of whether to watch the movie. More of this, please, and less snarking about how horrible popular movies are.

"The Long Retreat" by Robert Reed: Our protagonist is a lieutenant in the army and a personal assistant to the emperor of a vast empire, but an emperor who is being defeated on the battlefield and forced into constant retreat. At the start, I thought the emperor, which everyone treats with god-like deference, would be the center of the story: a story, perhaps, about how such admiration and authority is socially constructed. But it turns out that the empire itself is the twist. Reed pulls off a mind-boggling thought experiment while keeping it grounded in the implications for the characters in one of the better ideas I've read from him (and that's saying something). Unfortunately, the surface story wasn't as strong, and there was way too much scatological description. (7)

"Bait" by Robin Aurelian: This brief and mostly humorous story is set in an alternative world in which the wildlife is particularly vicious and deadly, a combination of evil fairies and other semi-mythological wild creatures who have it out for humans. The protagonist is a middle-grade kid in a family of hunters and campers. He's always the target of everything around that wants to eat him or lay eggs in him, to the disgust and embarassment of the rest of his family. If you dislike insects and the idea of creatures laying things in your skin, avoid this one. Navin does get his revenge, but not through any change in his inherent passivity. The story is weirdly compelling for its portrayal of someone who has essentially given up on life, but I'm not sure if that was intentional. (6)

"Writers of the Future" by Charles Oberndorf: In a post-singularity world where Earth has been absorbed into computronium and is the demesne of uploaded minds, the remaining mundane humanity lives in a circle of space stations in the former orbit of Mars. Humanity is static, restricted to exactly two children per couple by strong social pressures, and divided between those who consider the minds their enemies and those who consult and trade with them. The protagonist is a fan of an evolution of books and film, one where good authors craft compelling full sensory dramas and great ones build branch points and options into the story so that the "reader" can affect the outcome and write their own story into it.

The ideas here are great. I loved the development of this form of writing, which is more than just a background point or plot element. Oberndorf's characters want to be writers, and they discuss and debate the fine points of their craft, including how to construct the sense of freedom and choice and to what extent it's appropriate. The protagonist's admiration of an author and subsequent disappointment at the man is also well-told. The love story is somewhat less so, and I found the tail end of the plot unsatisfying. A great background with some nifty ideas that isn't well-served by its surface story. (7)

"Songwood" by Marc Laidlaw: This is another story in the world of Gorlen, the bard with a stone hand last seen in "Quickstone", but rather than following Gorlen, it follows his opposite: Spar, the gargoyle whose hand Gorlen has. Spar is fleeing pursuers by taking a sea voyage, stowing away aboard a ship. This is apparently not uncommon in this world, but gargoyles are considered cripplingly bad luck by sailors, so he has to stay hidden. That becomes harder when he discovers that the ship itself is not quite the inanimate object that he thought, and understands something of his perspective.

There's nothing particularly surprising in the plot, but this is an entertaining story of two outsiders looking at humanity from an external perspective, and I think a bit better than the previous Gorlen stories I've read. (7)

"Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance" by Paul Park: This rambling combination of straight fiction and fictionalized family history is the a lot of the page count in this issue, which is unfortunate since I couldn't make heads or tails of it.

I read SF magazines while exercising, in an inherently distraction-rich environment, split across multiple evenings, which means that I'm not giving them the full attention I give books. Usually this works out okay; many short stories don't require sustained concentration, and picking up and putting down magazines works better than doing the same with novels. But there are occasionally stories that I know I'd need to re-read with full concentration to make sense of, for which this reading style does them an injustice. This is one of those.

There's clearly a lot going on here, almost none of which I understood or followed. I didn't have it in me to even keep the family tree straight, let alone figure out what was going on when the tone shifts from apparent non-fiction to (doomed future) science fiction after a weird bit about unreliable narrators and photographic plates. It doesn't help that Park apparently doesn't believe in paragraph breaks for large sections of it. (I don't know why authors do this. Paragraph breaks help the mind track and reset and stay engaged in the story, rather than having interest and attention die on a giant wall of text, which is exactly what happened to me.) I ended up skimming, and this isn't a story that makes any sense when skimming.

I don't know if it would make sense if read with more attention, or re-read multiple times to pull the meaning out of it, but nothing I saw in my first pass inspired me to do that. Clearly other people saw something in it, but my verdict is "not for me." (3)

"The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales" by Steven Popkes: Thankfully, the next story mostly made up for it. This is a collection of five retellings of classic fairy tales ("The Emperor's New Clothes," "Snow White," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Cinderella") with characters who are considerably more streetwise, calculating, and cynical than the originals. I was particularly fond of Rumpelstiltskin's desire for first-born children so that he can harvest stem cells to fix his eye. That also gives you a taste of how these retellings go. Wickedly funny. (7)

"The Late Night Train" by Kate Wilhelm: This is a good story that I just personally didn't like. I have a hard time with stories about abused people who struggle with taking available exits from the abusive situation, not because I don't think it's realistic (I intellectually know that it's sadly all too realistic), but because I've never had to be in that position and it doesn't make any emotional sense to me. I therefore spent most of the story fighting the feeling that the protagonist could at any point just walk away. The ending works, but only if the abuser has that level of power. I found it intensely emotionally frustrating, but I think I'm not the target audience. (5)

"Nanosferatu" by Dean Whitlock: This is a humorous story about a nastily stupid and completely corrupt drug company executive who is trying to develop the next Viagra. His scientists succeed rather more completely than he would like. The protagonist is the villain, which makes the surface story a bit distasteful since he's a thoroughly horrible human being. The real story is happening under his nose. Whitlock invites the reader to connect the dots that the protagonist is clearly incapable of recognizing and realize (and enjoy) what the people around him are doing to engineer both his defeat and a better future for humanity as a whole. It partly works, but the protagonist is such a sleaze that I didn't want to be in his head (particularly given the amount of casual racism in there that infects the way he sees the world). The ending is grimly satisfying, but getting there made me feel dirty. (6)

"City of the Dog" by John Langan: Surrealistic horror is not really my genre, and love triangles rank near the top of my list of annoying plots I'd prefer not to read again, so this story got off on the wrong foot with me. Despite that, Langan is a good writer: his descriptions are compelling and he builds the story up to a solid, tense climax. It's too dark with too much emotional angst for my taste, but I can see those with different tastes enjoying it. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-07-26

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