Fantasy & Science Fiction

September/October 2010

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 119, No. 3 & 4
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 258

De Lint's book review column covers more than the typical number of books this issue, yet remains short on books that I want to read. It's remarkable how much the books that de Lint reviews feel of a type to me, representing a rather narrow range of fantasy and graphic novels with emphasis on modern-day settings. Occasionally, there's a stray urban fantasy that looks interesting (Kate Griffin's Matthew Swift series, in this issue), but I don't think there's another book reviewer except possibly Paul Di Filippo whom I read regularly and with whom I have such a persistant mismatch of taste.

Thankfully, in this issue the other reviewer is Chris Moriarty, which is always a great. Moriarty reviews science fiction, good science fiction, and covers C.J. Cherryh, Michael Flynn, and Matthew Hughes here. She left me enthusiastic to read everything she talked about.

"Eating at the End-of-the-World Café" by Dale Bailey: We get our grim meathook future out of the way in the first story of this issue, although Bailey leaves it ambiguous whether this is some sort of dystopian future or whether it's instead a circle of Hell. (I think the latter is more intriguing, but it's not explored much.) Either way, it follows a desperate waitress with a sick child and her slow destruction by a system that is designed to leave her without any useful choices.

As a cry of rage against poverty and oppressive social systems, it's effective. As a story, I found it too grim and unremitting, and a bit too blunt and predictable. There's a bit of a twist at the ending, but not in a way that changes the story much. (6)

"The Window of Time" by Richard Matheson: An elderly man living with his children decides he's in the way and goes to rent a room of his own, which leads to traveling in time by going through a magical window and wandering around the New York of his youth. This sadly didn't work for me from the start. The first-person narrator seems too conscious of telling a story in a way that makes the story feel forced. There's too much inner monologue, too much description of thought processes, and not enough flow. And, by the end, the events of the story didn't seem to me to lead to the emotional conclusion for the protagonist in any logical way. (4)

"How Seosiris Lost the Favor of the King" by James L. Cambias: This pseudo-historical story set in ancient Egypt (but mostly borrowing an Egyptian feel without doing anything very historical, at least in my reading) falls into the standard pattern of many master and pupil fantasies. The master is wise and measured and unhurried in a way that the pupil finds mystifying and frustrating, the pupil gets a mission that he thinks he understands but doesn't, and the resolution shows a practical wisdom about the motivations of people that the pupil needs to learn. It all felt very stock, but there are moments that brought a smile to my face, and it's competently told. (6)

"Orfy" by Richard Chwedyk: This is the novella of the issue and I found it rather an odd one. It's apparently part of a long-running series of stories about sentient toys, specifically toy dinosaurs called saurs, who mostly act like small children with a few exceptions. There's a backdrop of danger from corporations who want to analyze and study the toys, but that's mostly background material here. Rather, the story follows various of the toys through their life in a large house, their interactions with each other and the humans, and how they come to terms with the loss of one of their own.

Much of the story follows Axel, which is cute in the way that listening to a four-year-old say everything that pops into his head can be cute, but my favorites among the saurs are the mysterious Geraldine, the wise Doc, and the irascible Agnes. Not a lot really happens in the story, and Axel is wearying after a novella's length of exclamation points, but at its best the story is quietly charming and quietly wise. I'd read more of the saur stories. (7)

"Blind Spot" by Rick Wilber & Nick DiChario: From sentient toys, we shift to a story about baseball memorabilia. Except, of course, it's not about memorabilia, but instead is about the relationship between a father and a son. The first-person narrator is the son, and it's set after the death of his father, so the sadness is built in. It's a story about regrets and about not accepting apologies, and it's effective at manipulating the emotions of the reader. That may be why it bothered me.

The story is very pointed in its message that forgiveness is always right and families should be reunited, which I found constantly grating when looked at in the light of the (de-emphasized) abuse that the narrator went through. If you believe in redemption above all else, you might like this; if you're an abuse survivor, I think it's full of landmines and triggers. I fall into neither camp and came away feeling touched but also emotionally manipulated and vaguely dirty. I think it's a story written with the best of intentions that unintentionally reinforces some really nasty and destructive cultural programming about obligations to family. (4)

"Steadfast Castle" by Michael Swanwick: I have a weak spot for sentient house stories, so this one is right up my alley. It's a fairly short story told entirely as a dialogue between a police officer and a house. The officer is investigating a murder; the house is... well, that would be a spoiler. It's charming and twisty and quite entertaining. (7)

"The Door in the Earth" by Alexandra Duncan: This one, sadly, is outside of my genre range, so I'm not the one to give it a proper review. A teenager and his younger brother go to spend some time with their mother and her new boyfriend, who live off the grid in a cave in the side of a hill. Their mother is a hippie; her new boyfriend seems like a nice enough guy and someone who loves living in the wild. But the story actually revolves around a strange door in the back of their cave and quickly turns into psychological horror. I never much cared for either the first-person protagonist or his younger brother, which made it hard for me to get into the story, and then the horror went directions that just aren't to my taste. (3)

"F&SF Mailbag" by David Gerrold: This is another in the occasional series of Gerrold's fake letters to the editor of F&SF. This one is played more for light humor than the last two and is not just one letter. Rather, it's a whole collection of complaint letters taking issue with everything from outsourcing story writing to authors working in cheaper parallel dimensions to the unfairness of using clones of authors to get more work from famous masters. It's all very light and silly, but provides a moment's entertainment. (6)

"The Literomancer" by Ken Liu: This is by far the best story of the issue and one that I'd happily nominate for awards. It's historical fiction set on Taiwan shortly after the Communist revolution in China. The protagonist is a girl named Lilly, the daughter of a US foreign service worker. She goes to school on a military base, but her father works somewhere else (and it becomes obvious to the reader, if not to Lilly, that her father is probably working for US intelligence). She's feeling badly displaced and homesick and having great difficulty fitting in when she meets a local boy while impulsively riding a water buffalo and then meets his grandfather, a literomancer (which I was pleased to discover is a real thing).

Literomancy is telling people's fortunes from words that they pick. This has considerable appeal and depth when done with Chinese characters, which can be decomposed and analyzed in all sorts of interesting ways. I can't speak to the accuracy of the character decompositions that Liu uses here (an afterward says that literomancy is very simplified and the story uses folk etymologies and decompositions that have little to do with scholarly etymology, which I'd expect for this sort of story). I can say that as someone almost entirely unfamiliar with Chinese writing and characters, I found them as fascinating as Lilly does.

The story, I will warn, takes a nasty turn, but it's one that I think works and says something important about the way we socially construct friends and enemies and the distortive effects of war. None of this is ground-breaking or original, but I think it's an important message, and I found the story in which it was embedded utterly charming. I'm looking forward to reading more of Liu's work. (9)

"About It" by Terry Bisson: I'm not sure what to make of this, but then that seems to be my normal reaction to Bisson. It's a fairly short story about a man who brought a sasquatch home from the lab as a sort of pet. It doesn't have a plot in the typical sense; it's just some observations about the creature set against a typical suburban neighborhood. I didn't get the point. (4)

"Uncle Moon in the Raintree Hills" by Fred Chappell: Another borderline horror fantasy story. This one follows two kids who have developed an elaborate mythology around magic and foresight and see themselves as waging a war against the Raptor Spirit, which is attempting to steal away their dying grandmother. This turns into a bizarre confrontation with their uncle, who they call Uncle Moon and who they start seeing everywhere they look, blending into the pumpkins that they carve for Halloween. It's one of those stories that undermines one's sense of reality at every turn and replaces it with a feeling of strange and terrifying events happening just underneath the surface of reality. And then, the story... ends. With no actual conclusion that I could extract, no real resolution of the conflict of the story, and no gained comprehension of what was going on. Bleh. I much prefer Chappell's Astolfo stories. (4)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-03-31

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