Fantasy & Science Fiction

January/February 2011

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 120, No. 1 & 2
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 258

Charles de Lint's book column this issue continues to be afield from my personal interests and feels light-weight, but he liked Among Others, so there is that. Michelle West provides the deeper insight, as usual, and gave me a couple of new books to look for. Kathi Maio has a fairly good review of the movie adaptation of Never Let Me Go. And Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy at planetary transits and the search for extrasolar planets in a particularly good science column.

I don't normally mention Paul di Filippo's Plumage from Pegagsus humorous exploration of whimsical ideas, even though they're technically short stories. They don't feel quite story-like enough. But they're often mildly entertaining and a good breather between stories, and this issue's look at the interaction between military secrets and novels is no exception.

"Home Sweet Bi'Ome" by Pat MacEwen: This issue opens with a humorous story about a recluse with serious allergy problems who therefore lives in a house constructed from her own cloned tissue. This is either gross or vaguely erotic in a disturbing way, depending on what angles of it you dwell on, and the story tries to give you opportunities for both. When her house develops a rash rather than her, she calls in an emergency medical tech, and then nearly has to run him off with a crossbow when he fails to take any of the necessary precautions around her allergies. The underlying problem isn't too hard to guess, but the tone and characterization is amusing, and the romance angle is weirdly tender if you can deal with the concept of the house. (6)

"The Bird Cage" by Kate Wilhelm: I think the best description for this story is science fiction ghost story, although the ghosts are not actually ghosts. It starts in two apparently independent threads: a team of researchers are working on human suspended animation for an incredibly wealthy dying man, and a woman starts vividly recalling a nasty moment from her childhood when she was cruel to another boy. The threads are, of course, related, but there's a novelette in which to slowly build the connections.

As someone who's prone to recalling and wincing about things I did wrong years ago, I was extremely sympathetic to the sort of "haunting" that the characters experience in this story. It's a great dramatic device that Wilhelm explores in both its psychological and practical implications, and it does a lot to add dramatic tension to the story. I thought the resolution was a bit disappointing (it's a style of ending that I always find frustrating and unrealistic for scientific discoveries), but the path to the ending is well-told and engrossing. (7)

"Long Time" by Rick Norwood: Fans of fractured fairy tales are likely to enjoy this story, since it's fractured mythology. The protagonist is an immortal recalling some incidents long ago in Uruk in his first experience with civilization. The mythology that's being fractured is, of course, the Epic of Gilgamesh, as told by a soldier in Gilgamesh's army who thinks everyone involved are idiots. I enjoyed the snark and the undermining of authority figures and legendary kings. This is probably more entertaining the more that you know about Gilgamesh, so if that's "not much," a quick trip to Wikipedia before reading will probably aid the story. (7)

"Canterbury Hollow" by Chris Lawson: This was probably my favorite story of the issue, partly because I have a soft spot for grand gestures and for putting a personal mark on impersonal, implacable events. It's science fiction, set in a colony on a distant, mostly dead planet that orbits a variable star. The colony is buried in the crust in an essentially dead world and is extremely short on resources, so all members of the colony are subject to a balloting system that requires that they die when randomly selected. The story follows two people who have been balloted, with different amounts of time remaining, and how they choose to spend the rest of their lives.

The ballot is an old SF concept (even showing up in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode as a simple limit on lifespan), but this story is only partly about the ballot. It's more about how one defines one's life, and about romance in the moment. Both of them have secrets. Both of them have ways they could have avoided the ballot. Some people will probably find the ending disturbing, but I loved it. It's exactly the kind of story that works best at short length. (8)

"Christmas at Hostage Canyon" by James Stoddard: I've read plenty of fantasy stories about the perils of elves and other fae creatures who want to make bargains with humanity. I've also read many fantasy stories that try to incorporate or reinvent Santa Claus. I'm not sure I've read one that melds both ideas into one before.

Most of the structure of this story follows the traditional story of elven temptation (or, for that matter, deals with the devil). The other angle comes in only at the end. It's a bit long on action and a bit short on original plot, but I still enjoyed the climactic scene and some of the bargaining. (6)

"The Whirlwind" by Jim Young: Artificial reality provides all new opportunities to create fantasy stories of surrealism and magic. Here, we're told early on that the characters are actually in a virtual-reality game, but the first-person protagonist has lost his memory and the point of the game, the whirlwind, or the other two, mostly hostile characters is obscure for most of the story. Indeed, I found large parts of the story obscure through to the end. The final explanation seemed muddled and confusing, and the stakes seemed far higher than the tone of the story would indicate. There weren't quite enough interesting ideas or internal logic here for me. (5)

"The Bogle" by Albert E. Cowdrey: This is one of Cowdrey's straight dark fantasy (or, in this case, horror) stories, told without his usual humor. The primary protagonist is a boy with an older brother (or possibly half-brother) he was always afraid of, a quiet father, and a mother who is obsessed with his brother. His brother is lost in the Korean War, which nearly unhinges his mother. When his brother is found, badly injured, dying, and lost in a bureaucratic mixup, she becomes even more obsessed with him, which leads to even darker events and eventually death. Cowdrey has a knack for readable story-telling and writes with his usual skill, but this one isn't my genre. (5)

"Paradise Last" by Bill Pronzini & Barry N. Malzberg: It's a love affair with jealousy and elimination of an interloper, except that all the characters are zombies and it takes place in a graveyard. The background of a post-apocalyptic world in which labor shortages from a devastated population are met by zombie re-animation is mordantly amusing, but the authors don't explore this much. Most of the story is a very traditional relationship story with zombies. Not very memorable. (5)

"12:02 p.m." by Richard A. Lupoff: I suspect most SF readers (and many people in general) are familiar with the idea of someone trapped in a time loop and forced to constantly relive the same period. Most people know it from the movie Groundhog's Day, but this is a sequel to Lupoff's own 1973 story "12:01 PM," featuring the same protagonist. In Lupoff's stories, the time loop lasts only an hour, which here means considerably more logistical problems when trying to make use of that hour to do anything substantive.

Unlike Groundhog's Day, this is not a story about self-improvement or moral change. Rather, it's an SF puzzle story in the classic style, enlivened with good characterization. Castleman indulges in a few consequence-free actions, but most of the focus is on analyzing the situation and trying to find a way around the loop. Solid SF in a classic style, marred somewhat by a final resolution that I found full of hand-waving. (6)

"Ghost Wind" by Alan Dean Foster: This is another Mad Amos Malone tall tale, this one pitting the mountain man against the malevolent ghost of the wind. (What happens to wind when it dies?) While he has a head cold. It's a great example of the form, full of eye dialect, imagined frontier towns, exaggeration, and bigger-than-life struggles. It's obvious from the start what the conclusion will be, but it's fun getting there. (7)

"The Ghiling Blade" by Matthew Corradi: This final story of the issue is, unfortunately, something of a mess. It's set mostly in a coastal town where possession by wraiths is a regular occurance and where magic and magical creatures are a common part of life. The protagonist is a fisherman with a loving but sometimes difficult marriage and a ghiling blade, which is apparently a traditional artifact of his people. But it disappears at the start of the story, and his search for it leads him to encounters with dangerous creatures and his own posession.

At least, I think that's what's going on. The biggest problem I had with this story is that I found it almost impossible to follow. It's full of invented words and invented groups of people with similar names, none well-defined. There are both politics and mythology lurking beneath the story, but none of it ever made sense to me. Because of that lack of history and grounding to cement the names in my head, I couldn't even keep straight the two major factions (I think?) of the story, which made much of the story meaningless.

As always, I have to give the disclaimer that I read short fiction magazines in a distraction-rich environment, and this story may have done better with more focused attention. There does seem to be substantial world-building behind the narrative. But with that caveat, the impression it left on me was muddled confusion. (3)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-07-05

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