Fantasy & Science Fiction

May/June 2010

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 118, No. 5 & 6
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 258

No editorial this month, sadly. Michelle West's book column reviews three nicely varied books in depth, and it's good to see The God Engines get more attention. Kathi Maio's movie column covers the Twilight movies, a place where I'm more sympathetic to F&SF's relentless movie snarking, and is surprisingly fond of Avatar. But I'm dubious of her contention that the computer-generated Navi do not constitute physical performances by their actors, in direct contradiction to statements from those actors.

"Why that Crazy Old Lady Goes up the Mountain" by Michael Libling: A firebrand girl meets an oversized, quiet boy in a small town and starts to make a tentative connection when the boy offers to take her to see God. She backs away fast, but it slowly becomes clear that he means it literally, rather than as religious proselytism, which leads them both to a very strange magical experience. The heart of this story is the tension between multiple perspectives on the same events, and a sense of expanded empathy through seeing more of others' perspective. I thought the ending was a bit too muddled and the style is not quite my thing, but it's still well done. (6)

"Thief of Shadows" by Fred Chappell: Another story set in Chappell's fantasy world where shadows have tangible substance and can be stolen and traded. This goes back before the events of the first story, "Dance of Shadows" and tells how Falco becomes an apprentice to Master Astolfo. Like the other stories of the series, it's an adventure story told with a quiet elaborate formality of description, borrowing some from mysteries like Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe. Falco plays the assistant; Astolfo is the master capable of startling leaps of understanding. Too much is kept secret from the reader for this to be the sort of mystery that would let one play along, but it's an enjoyable and fast-moving way to spend some reading time. (7)

"A History of Cadmium" by Elizabeth Bourne: This is a short, sharp story about the daughter of a painter, left one major work of her mother: a painting titled Cadmium, the same as the protagonist's name, which (as soon becomes apparent) is slightly uncanny. It's told in several interactions between her and her mother's lover and model, following shifts in her life by inference, with hints of anger and grief beneath the surface. The startling emotional reveal at the end of the story digs deep into the gut. I'm not sure the fantasy element was really necessary for the story, but nonetheless this is one of the stronger stories of this issue. (8)

"The Real Martian Chronicles" by John Sladek: This previously unpublished story was discovered in Sladek's papers. My enjoyment is almost certainly hampered by not having yet read the Bradbury original, of which this is clearly a parody, so it's difficult for me to judge. On its own merits without that background, it's a slight look at suburban life in a Martian colony where all the neighbors keep stealing the best bits of food they brought from Earth and the kids keep falling into the canals. I'm not sure if this all makes sense in context; by itself, it feels like the punch line of a joke without the setup. (5)

"Dr. Death vs. the Vampire" by Aaron Schutz: The protagonist of this odd modern fantasy is a sort of superhero, at least in his own mind. He can feel the emotions and physical sensations of others, a talent that he uses to find people drowning in misery and put them out of their suffering (hence Dr. Death). As the story unfolds, we learn there are more almost-superheroes in the world (although he's fallen out with them), and that their primary foes are a sort of emotional vampire who thrives on the suffering of other people. Dr. Death is taking a bus across Eastern Oregon when the story opens, escaping Portland before people realize what he's been doing, and there's a vampire on the bus with him.

This is one of the strongest stories of the issue. It mixes an unpleasant protagonist who nonetheless makes a persuasive case for his tactics, a clearly nasty villain, and a fair bit of tactical maneuvering into a story that does read much like a superhero story (if quiet and underpowered). The misery of the people on the bus is perhaps a bit overdone, but since this is a first-person narrative, it can also be explained by Dr. Death's generally gloomy attitude towards everything. And the rest of the League of Almost-Superheroes is by turns tragic and comic. Worth reading. (7)

"Remotest Mansions of the Blood" by Alex Irvine: Arthur Lindsay wants to be an adventurer and falls hopelessly in love with women. Maria believes sincerely that if she ever speaks to a man before he speaks to her, he will never love her. The story starts with both of them studying each other in their own ways and trying to find a connection through the implacable logic of their internal worlds.

I think I would have liked this more if that logic were a little less aligned with gender stereotypes, and if the collision of internally consistent world constructions had been more the point of the story. Instead, this is setup for Arthur finding the "mansions of the blood," at which point the story gets hopelessly confusing and bizarre. There was a shift to dream logic here that lost me completely, leaving the end of the story functionally meaningless. (4)

"Seven Sins for Seven Dwarves" by Hilary Goldstein: This is, of course, a Snow White retelling. It's a more adult retelling, in which Snow openly flirts with the dwarves to get her way, and in which the dwarves have a darker secret: they're each guarding a chest containing a deadly sin, and labor to keep them contained, singing to drown out the seductive cries of the sins. Snow's curiosity of course overturns this all, leading to a moderately confusing chaos of chests and revelations. Occasionally funny, but not quite coherent enough and without enough likable characters for me. (6)

"Silence" by Dale Bailey: A badly bullied kid finds what's probably some sort of injured alien in the woods. One might think this would lead to the expected story of the boy finding a way to turn the situation against the bullies, or discovering his own place in the world. Instead, it's just relentlessly, soul-crushingly depressing. Gah. I suppose one could be gracious and call it psychological horror. (2)

"Forever" by Rachel Pollack: A goddess (of sorts) of Death, one of three sisters, makes a bet with her sisters that she loses. In penalty, she has to spend a day as a human. But once she becomes human, she avoids the reminders to come back, explains them away, and sinks into a human life and, eventually, love. The best part of the story is the mundane world that surrounds her and the psychologist that attempts to explain away events that really are as numinous as she originally imagines them to be. I had some trouble with the love story: it was a bit too sudden, not quite developed enough. But the ending, while predictable, is nicely bittersweet, and I liked the emotional tone throughout. (7)

"The Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe" by Robert Onopa: This is a remarkably strange story about a model railroad set received as a Christmas gift. It's an amazing set, the top of the line, with stunning detail. It also has an AI, and the miniature conductor is the avatar that interacts with its owner. Onopa does a great job of capturing the growing intricacy and experimentation that comes from playing a good sandbox game, with varying and deepening rules. I was not fond of the ending twist; while a classic way to end this sort of story, I would have preferred something more upbeat or interesting. But the story is worth it for the delightful sense of evolution and growing complexity. (7)

"The Gypsy's Boy" by Lokiko Hall: I'm getting a bit tired of downbeat endings and tragedy. This story starts as an unexpected connection between a wind spirit and a blind boy who was bought by a kind gypsy woman from an abusive previous owner. The descriptions of that love and play are delightful; the rest of the story not so much. It follows a standard fairy-tale path, but it's a dark fairy tale, and I wanted to see something undermine or reverse the formula. (6)

"The Crocodiles" by Steven Popkes: What else to end a generally depressing issue on but a story about Nazis, the Holocaust, and the concentration camps! And, for extra tragedy, add zombies! The protagonist is a Nazi, one of the scientists working on the war effort, and is brought in to work on an infectious disease that converts humans into zombies who spread the disease further. Most of the story follows the militarization of that disease and its deployment against the Allies, using concentration camp victims as raw material. This of course goes badly in the end for the Nazis and the rest of humanity. It's well-written; Popkes does a good job of maintaining a detached surface tone that emphasizes the horror beneath but keeps the reader just enough distanced from it that only startling glimmers show through. But however well-written, it still just wasn't something I wanted to read. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-12-25

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