Fantasy & Science Fiction

July/August 2010

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 119, No. 1 & 2
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 258

James Sallis has the other book review column this month, which is devoted to a long discussion of C.M. Kornbluth. I was already familiar with a lot of that information, but I do like long profiles of an author's work and would be happy to see more of those in the review columns. The other non-fiction is just average, although it does feature a rare film that Lucius Shepard actually likes. (It is, of course, a non-US, quirky, small-budget film that debuted at a film festival.)

"Recrossing the Styx" by Ian R. MacLeod: Elderly cruise-goers as zombies! Well, sort of. In the world of this story, it's possible to preserve life essentially indefinitely using cloned parts, artificial replacements, and an upload of the mind into a computer. This has blurred the line between life and death entirely, creating a huge market of undead rich people who are catered to by cruises. The protagonist is a cruise tour guide who starts the story feeling sorry for (and becoming completely infatuated with) a "minder" of one of the elderly passengers. At the start of the story, a minder appears to just be a nurse, but it gets creepier as the story develops.

The story has a good plot that caught me by surprise with the ending reversal (although in retrospect I should have caught on). But the foundation on which the plot rests is the attitude that youth is beautiful and valued above all else and old age is horrible and disgusting and vile, and that left me a bit cold. I realize this is not exactly a controversial stance, and the story is full of characters who would realistically have that attitude, but I didn't enjoy seeing it left unchallenged. (5)

"Advances in Modern Chemotherapy" by Michael Alexander: What starts as a rather detailed apparent slice-of-life look at an elderly man undergoing chemotherapy turns into, of all things, a look at a secret association of telepaths. The highlight of the story is the characterization, particularly of the protagonist, who is quietly matter-of-fact about the end of his life and provides an enjoyable contrast to the attitudes about old age of the previous story. The plot is somewhat less effective. There are some good initial bits of growing discovery, and I liked the look at new-found friendships among the dying. But it never goes anywhere, just meanders to a moderately confusing conclusion. A good look at the value of companionship that I think could have used a bit more narrative oomph. (6)

"Brothers of the River" by Rick Norwood: One of the problems with invented myths is that legends and myths are embedded within a social context and normally have some social purpose or point within that social context. The trick for manufactured ones is to go beyond telling a myth-style story and provide the reader with a sense of that context and how the myth fits into it. That's what Norwood, sadly, doesn't do here. We get a story about two brothers who make a suitably mythic wager that prompts an adventure, to which they both react following their own personalities, and the style is well-done. But it doesn't seem to have any point, and that, I think, is the sign of that missing deeper context.

Also, just as a nit-pick, humans are perhaps the best long-distance runners on the planet, particularly in heat. During a day-long race through a hot climate, the last thing that creatures with their choice of forms would do would be to switch away from human form to an antelope. That would be a sure way to lose the race; the antelope would outsprint the human at short distance, but the human would then run the antelope to the ground. (6)

"The Revel" by John Langan: Langan writes some of the strangest stories with some of the most unusual structures. This is another horror story of sorts, but it's written as an analysis and breakdown of a werewolf story (particularly a cinematic presentation, as it's big on visuals). The narrator forms a connection with the reader by implying that they both are very familiar with the structure of stories and are going to discuss it together, at an abstract level where one doesn't have to engage emotionally, but then the narrative seems to be drawing the reader in. The first part, the abstract discussion, really worked for me, and in that sense it was one of the more enjoyable werewolf stories I've read. I like structural analysis, and this was nicely readable and rather interesting. What I thought worked less well was the attempt to pull the reader into the story. I found that too allusive and and confusing, maybe because I'm not as familiar with horror as the narrator expects. (6)

"The Tale of Nameless Chameleon" by Brenda Carre: This I quite liked. It's about a young orphan, a street kid in a vaguely Asian (well, Orientalist is probably more accurate) world who saves a prince from an assassin. Encounters with the rich and powerful when you're a penniless street kid rarely go well, however, even when you save their life, and the prince ends up killing her mentor and closest friend. That leads into a fun little adventure of curses and magic with a very satisfying ending. Good fun. (7)

"Mr. Sweetpants and the Living Dead" by Albert E. Cowdrey: You can rest assured that any Cowdrey story will be well-written, and this is no exception. The protagonist runs a bodyguard service, and at the start of the story is hired by a famous gay author to protect him against a former lover. The twist is that his personal bodyguard already shot the lover through the head. The reader will immediately guess that this is a zombie story, but the protagonist wants very much not to believe that and attempts multiple rationalizations, which is much of the fun. The setup makes it sound like the treatment of homosexuality is going to be cringe-inducing, but it's actually quite good and features a couple of twists that left me grinning, particularly the way the ending played out. This is Cowdrey in humorous action mode, rather than one of his more serious stories, which is my favorite type of Cowdrey. (7)

"Pining to Be Human" by Richard Bowes: I'm not at all sure what to make of this one. It's another story about being gay, and a much more serious one that tries to capture the sense of being an outsider. That part I thought was very successful. But like Bowes's previous stories referenced in the introduction, the plot drifted in ways that were rather confusing and didn't provide quite enough for the reader to hold on to and make sense of. This, as always, may be because I read SF&F magazines in a distraction-rich environment and don't give them as much attention as books. The introduction to this story says that this and the other two referenced are autobiographical, but doesn't explain further. I don't know if that means they're fictionalized versions of Bowes's own life, which may explain the lack of a typical narrative structure or coherent plot, or if that's just a reference to the writing style, which feels like a rambing memoir. (6)

"Epidapheles and the Inadequately Enraged Demon" by Ramsey Shehadeh: The introduction to this story says that Shehadeh's previous story was somewhat controversial, garnering reader reaction that said it was too silly and tried too hard. I'm not sure what to make of that; if true, I suppose it's another sign that humor is hopelessly individual. I loved it, and I loved this story even more. It's the closest to Pratchett I've seen by someone who isn't Pratchett.

Epidapheles is hired, at the start of the story, by a lord who wants him to recreate the doorway to his wife's quarters. Hiring Epidapheles is, as any reader of the previous story can attest, a very bad idea, as he's one of the least competent (and most powerful) wizards you will ever see. As before, we get most of this through the viewpoint of his familiar Door, who's an invisible chair. (You should have a good feel for the tone just from that.) As the story progresses, we find that the lord's wife is actually off in a hell, slowly manipulating a demon into becoming a less horrible person, a process that Epidapheles almost but not quite disrupts completely.

This is by far the best story of the issue, and is even better than Shehadeh's previous work, if only for some brilliant bits of description near the start.

There was a flash, and a small, localized grammarstorm bloomed out of the air and crawled along the ceiling, shedding torrents of adjectives that splashed down into the room, modifying everything they touched. Door suddenly found himself both crenelated and deciduous, and just slightly canonical. Lord Fuddlesworth had become spangled and punctilious. The walls dripped with jocund. Rivulets of trapezoidal ran between the tiles.

I wholeheartedly approve of any story that can use the line "the walls dripped with jocund." (9)

"The Lost Elephants of Kenyisha" by Ken Altabef: This appears to be one of those issues of F&SF that doesn't really believe in the "SF" part. This is another fantasy, this time a ghost story, with the twist that (as advertised in the title) the ghosts are elephants. The protagonist works with Kenya on preserving the wild elephant herds, and is appealing desperately for help because what are claimed to be elephants have been wreaking destruction in neighboring Tanzania. This has sparked Tanzania to go back on their laws to outlaw elephant hunting, and given that elephants don't honor national borders, that could become a horrible tragedy for the small remaining wild herd.

The setup is effective, if depressing. The story is somewhat less so. It goes through the expected (and predictable) stages of investigation, disbelief, discovery, and then turning to native wisdom to deal with the problem. The comment that native Africans lag in technology but are much more advanced in mystic arts provoked some serious eye-rolling. And the ending is just depressingly nihilistic. The mix of modern Africa and a British ghost hunter out of a Victorian story was mildly entertaining, but the rest of the story didn't do anything for me. (4)

"Introduction to Joyous Cooking: 200th Anniversary Edition" by Heather Lindsley: As you might expect from the title, this is a short, humorous piece, whose hook is a retrospective look at changes in culinary habits over the upcoming 100 years. The idea is fine, but it's not particularly funny, at least to me. (6)

"The Precedent" by Sean McMullen: Okay, I suppose I have to concede the label of science fiction to this monumentally depressing crapsack future. Human over-consumption and abuse of the environment has caused a variety of horrible but mostly unstated things to happen, and the subsequent generations born after the collapse have decided to deal with that by trying and convicting everyone who lived back when there was a chance to stop the collapse. The story is of an extended trial, where people are convicted of things like driving an SUV or using a jet ski and then sentenced to death by horrible tortures or lifetime labor hauling bodies into pits.

At the start, it looks like the protagonist may be fighting back against this somewhat, as he's trying to prove that some people who lived during that time did everything they could, and he avoids conviction for longer than anyone in history. But lest you think a light of optimism can enter this story, McMullen finds a way to use that to make the story even more depressing. I understand where the anger and bleakness here are coming from, but I don't think there's much point in a story like this; those who already agree with the general emotional undertone will just be miserable, and those who don't will just get angry at it to no effect. It's not badly written, but bleh. (4)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-01-16

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