Fantasy & Science Fiction

March/April 2010

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 118, No. 3 & 4
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 258

The non-fiction in this issue was a bit of a disappointment. The editorial was about the F&SF anniversary panel, which is a fine enough topic but didn't grab me. Charles de Lint has his typical book column, mostly about comics and corners of the fantasy world that don't strike me as particularly interesting (although I must give him credit for saying when he doesn't like something in a book review column, something that's too rare). Elizabeth Hand's book column was fine, but it was focused on Rod Serling, and I'm one of those strange people who never saw anything interesting in The Twilight Zone (maybe I'm too young, but more likely I'm just not a TV person, at least for a certain type of TV). Overall, just not material that grabbed me.

I praised Lucius Shepard's review of District 9 in the last issue, but of course this issue it's back to the eviscerations. I sometimes wonder why F&SF has people who seem to hate 95% of all movies review movies. Yes, I know I'm the person who wishes there were more negative reviews in book review columns, but there's a bit of negativity to provide more calibration of taste and there's constant snarking at the whole medium you're reviewing. Most F&SF movie reviews seem to either be praise of obscure, low-budget movies, or ladels of opprobrium poured over any movie anyone's actually heard of, usually in a tone that sounds both pretentious and snobby. I suppose it's sometimes entertaining, which answers my question, but it's ironic that a magazine focused on the science fiction and fantasy genre, which has historically suffered from quite a bit of mainstream snobbery and is rather defensive about it, makes a point of looking down its nose at Hollywood movies. Pick winners and losers within a general class of movie, yes, but blanket criticism starts sounding a lot more like criticism of the audience than criticism of the movies.

"Amor Fugit" by Alexandra Duncan: Despite the close realism of its description, this story has a fairy-tale air from the start, introducing us to a girl whose mother is outside only during the day and whose father returns only at night. At first, I thought that was going to be the subject matter of the story, but then it veers in an unexpected direction. To tell the actual subject would be a spoiler; suffice it to say that it's a nicely-told inversion of a long-standing fantasy trope whose strength lies primarily in its close characterization and sense of the peril of coming of age. Even if I would have liked the mythology to firm up just a bit more in the end. (7)

"Fort Clay, Louisiana: A Tragical History" by Albert E. Cowdrey: Cowdrey's a regular in F&SF, and his stories seem to fall into three standard modes: historical ghost or light horror, humor that usually features down-and-out protagonists, and his rare SF stories. I like the latter the best, and the historical light horror stories the least, although they're all worth reading. This is one of the horror stories: a fort in Louisiana, a mysterious bit of history involving a mass murderer and a hurricane, and in this case a present-day frame story about a photographer documenting the fort before it collapses into the ocean. The supernatural is involved in the horrible historic events, and the interaction between the story and its frame play out about as you'd expect. Enjoyable from page to page, as all Cowdrey is, but not, I think, one of his better stories. (6)

"Star-Crossed" by Tim Sullivan: With a startling shift, the issue goes from historic horror to futuristic SF involving both aliens and weird dimensional travel. "Star-Crossed" is a bit of a jumble, featuring a sort of time travel where multiple instances of someone can exist in the same place, first contact of a sort, lovingly detailed descriptions of unknown objects and creatures that feel like a throwback to a much earlier mode of SF, and a bit of gung-ho puzzle-oriented space adventure. Unfortunately, it takes medias res a little too far for my taste and drops the reader into the middle of a complex temporal problem without any explanation of what's going on. Given some of the complex folding and travel that follows, I found myself confused throughout the story. A bit more infodumping and scene setting would have been nice. (6)

"Make-Believe" by Michael Reaves: Back to a sort of mainstream horror. This is essentially a ghost story about a bunch of kids, told with a frame about wanting to become an author. The ghost part isn't my thing, particularly since this is in the "horrible things happen" category of horror instead of the "understand the world" category, but worst was the feeling that the incident had no real point. It's a story that doesn't seem to lead anywhere, other than to the weak frame story. Entirely forgettable. (4)

"Waiting for the Phone to Ring" by Richard Bowes: This seems to be the issue for stories that could have used a little bit more explanation for the reader (although it's worth mentioning again that I read SF magazines while exercising, and hence not with full focus). I found it somewhat difficult to figure out what the story was about, below the surface look at an author who used to be friends with members of a rock band and tangled up in some sort of creepy exercise of psychic powers. The point seems to be slowly unwinding what had happened in the past through the protagonist's conversations and scattered memories, but the details are approached so obliquely that I got a little annoyed. Partly because of that, I didn't quite get the ending, and therefore missed what feels like should have been an emotional punch. (5)

"Epidapheles and the Insufficiently Affectionate Ocelot" by Ramsey Shehadeh: This, on the other hand, is great stuff. It's humorous fantasy about a ridiculously incompetent (and unlucky) wizard and his familiar, a sentient chair named Door. A local king is desperately in love with his ocelot, who is completely uninterested in him, and Epidapheles takes it into his help (against the advice of Door) to try to help. Everything goes horribly, hilariously wrong, ending in some great exchanges between Door and the Queen, who are the two sensible characters in the whole kingdom. Lots of fun in a way that's slightly reminiscent of Pratchett. (8)

"The Frog Comrade" by Benjamin Rosenbaum: Humorous fantasy seems to be the highlight of this issue. Here we have a princess who's locked in a tower because her kingdom has been taken over by communists and royalty are not allowed. However, shortly after she obtains a talking frog (as the second best gift from her returned father), there's another revolution and everyone is now required to be capitalists. The frog remains a true believer in the previous system; pokes at fairy tales, politics, and Disney ensue. The ending, while I was half expecting it, is a lovely twist. (8)

"The Fairy Princess" by Dennis Danvers: Despite the title, this is not a continuation of the humorous fantasy theme. Instead, it's back to SF, this time in a future in which humanoid robots with excellent AI can be mass manufactured. The protagonist is a rather cynical woman who's job is processing returned sex bots, examining their memories for anything too nastily illegal and then wiping them for another customer. When she finds a Screwbot who isn't in her inventory, things start to go unexpectedly weird.

This story has two levels. It can be read on the surface as a somewhat heart-warming story about empathy coming from the strangest places and about finding one's own place, and it can also be read as a rather deeply disturbing story about sexual slavery and the twisting of mental programming. I suspect both readings were intended, but I found the second one more convincing, and the ending seems to lean a bit more towards the first. That left me a bit dissatisfied; I got an eerie feeling from most of the story, and I would have liked to have seen that explored a bit more thoroughly. (6)

"Blue Fire" by Bruce McAllister: There aren't many stories that have the Pope as a protagonist, and even fewer that could be called a sort of urban fantasy. "Blue Fire" is set in an alternate world in which a child Pope is appointed in a time of attacks by vampires (Drinkers they're called here). In the frame story, Boniface XII is dying and is visited by a recorder, to whom he tells his story of encountering the Youngest Drinker when still a child. It's a fairly straightforward story, although it plays a bit deeper into Christianity and questions of morality and divine forgiveness than most fantasy. (6)

"Class Trip" by Rand B. Lee: This issue ends on a truly odd coming-of-age story (sort of) about human interactions with a complicated and whimsical alien species. The aliens have seven different forms, or cycles, that they reach through their lifetime and which are dramatically different from each other. (Biological realism this isn't.) They also seem to have some sort of deeper connection with reality in their later forms, and some areas of their station interact very oddly with thoughts. The story is about a human girl who's in one of the first groups allowed to go to the alien's home station to seek out a work partner, following those alien traditions, and what happens to her there. It's told within a frame of relating a story to a bunch of alien youngsters, and keeps making the reader constantly aware of that frame, which didn't entirely work for me. It's also told in a maddeningly non-linear fashion that seemed a bit gratuitous. But the core of the story was surprisingly touching and reached a solid emotional conclusion, despite being too scattered to lay much groundwork for it. Better than it had any right to be. (7)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-08-31

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