Fantasy & Science Fiction

March/April 2011

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 120, No. 3 & 4
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 258

Charles de Lint's book review column sticks with the sorts of things he normally reviews: urban and contemporary fantasy and young adult. Predictably, I didn't find that much of interest. But I was happy to see that not all the reviews were positive, and he talked some about how a few books didn't work. I do prefer seeing a mix of positive and negative (or at least critical) reviews.

James Sallis's review column focuses entirely on Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore (by way of reviewing a collection). I'm always happy to see this sort of review. But between that and de Lint's normal subject matter, this issue of F&SF was left without any current science fiction reviews, which was disappointing.

Lucius Shepard's movie review column features stunning amounts of whining, even by Shepard's standards. The topic du jour is how indie films aren't indie enough, mixed with large amounts of cane-shaking and decrying of all popular art. I find it entertaining that the F&SF film review column regularly contains exactly the sort of analysis that one expects from literary gatekeepers who are reviewing science fiction and fantasy. Perhaps David Langford should consider adding an "As We See Others" feature to Ansible cataloging the things genre fiction fans say about popular movies.

"Scatter My Ashes" by Albert E. Cowdrey: The protagonist of this story is an itinerant author who has been contracted to write a family history (for $100K, which I suspect is a bit of tongue-in-cheek wish fulfillment) and has promptly tumbled into bed with his employer. But he is somewhat serious about the writing as well, and is poking around in family archives and asking relatives about past details. There is a murder (maybe) in the family history, not to mention some supernatural connections. Those familiar with Cowdrey's writing will recognize the mix of historical drama, investigation, and the supernatural.

Puzzles are, of course, untangled, not without a bit of physical danger. Experienced fantasy readers will probably guess at some of the explanation long before the protagonist does. Like most Cowdrey, it's reliably entertaining, but I found it a bit thin. (6)

"A Pocketful of Faces" by Paul Di Filippo: Here's a bit of science fiction, and another mystery, this time following the basic model of a police procedural. The police in this case are enforcing laws around acceptable use of "faces" in a future world where one can clone someone's appearance from their DNA and then mount it on a programmable android. As you might expect from that setup, the possibilities are lurid, occasionally disgusting, and inclined to give the police nightmares. After some scene-setting, the story kicks in with the discovery of the face of a dead woman who, at least on the surface, no one should have any motive to clone.

There were a few elements of the story that were a bit too disgusting for me, but the basic mystery plot was satisfying. I thought the ending was a let-down, however. Di Filippo tries to complicate the story and, I thought, went just a little too far, leaving motives and intent more confusing than illuminating. (6)

"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu: Back to fantasy, this time using a small bit of magic to illustrate the emotional conflicts and difficulties of allegiance for second-generation immigrants. Jack is the son of an American farther and a Chinese mother who was a mail-order bride. He's young at the start of the story and struggling with the embarassment and humiliation that he feels at his mother's history and the difficulties he has blending in with other kids, leading to the sort of breathtaking cruelty that comes so easily from teenagers who are too self-focused and haven't yet developed adult empathy.

I found this very hard to read. The magic is beautiful, personal, and very badly damaged by the cruelty in ways that can never really be fixed. It's a sharp reminder of the importance of being open-hearted, but it's also a devastating reminder that the lesson is normally learned too late. Not the story to read if you're prone to worrying about how you might have hurt other people. (6)

"The Evening and the Morning" by Sheila Finch: This long novella is about a third of the issue and is, for once, straight science fiction, a somewhat rare beast in F&SF these days. It's set in the far future, among humans who are members of the Guild of Xenolinguists and among aliens called the Venatixi, and it's about an expedition back to the long-abandoned planet of Earth.

I had a lot of suspension of disbelief problems with the setup here. While Earth has mostly dropped out of memory, there's a startling lack of curiosity about its current condition among the humans. Finch plays some with transportation systems and leaves humanity largely dependent on other races to explain the failure to return to Earth, but I never quite bought it. It was necessary to set up the plot, which is an exploration story with touches of first contact set on an Earth that's become alien to the characters, but it seemed remarkably artificial to me.

But, putting that aside, I did get pulled into the story. Its emotional focus is one of decline and senescence, a growing sense of futility, that's halted by exploration, mystery, and analysis. The question of what's happened on Earth is inherently interesting and engaging, and the slow movement of the story provides opportunities to build up to some eerie moments.

The problem, continuing a theme for this issue, is the ending. Some of the reader's questions are answered, but most of the answers are old, well-worn paths in science fiction. The emotional arc of the story is decidedly unsatisfying, at least to me. I think I see what Finch was trying to do: there's an attempted undermining of the normal conclusion of this sort of investigation to make a broader point about how to stay engaged in the world. But it lacked triumph and catharsis for me, partly because the revelations that we get are too pedestrian for the build-up they received. It's still an interesting story, but I don't think it entirely worked. (6)

"Night Gauntlet" by Walter C. DeBill, Jr., et al.: The full list of authors for this story (Walter C. DeBill, Jr., Richard Gavin, Robert M. Price, W.H. Pugmire, Jeffrey Thomas, and Don Webb) provides one with the first clue that it's gone off the rails. Collaborative storytelling, where each author tries to riff off the work of the previous author while spinning the story in a different direction, is something that I think works much better orally, particularly if you can watch facial expressions while the authors try to stump each other. In written form, it's a recipe for a poorly-told story. That's indeed what we get here.

The setup is typical Cthulhu mythos stuff: a strange scientist obsessed with conspiracy theories goes insane, leaving behind an office with a map of linkages between apparently unrelated places. The characters in the story also start going insane for similar reasons, leading up to a typical confrontation with things man was not meant to know, or at least pay attention to. If you like that sort of thing, you may like this story better than I did, but I thought it was shallow and predictable. (3)

"Happy Ending 2.0" by James Patrick Kelly: More fantasy, this time of the time travel variety. (I call it fantasy since there's no scientific explanation for the time travel and it plays a pure fantasy role in the story.) That's about as much as I can say without giving away the plot entirely (it's rather short). I can see what Kelly was going for, and I think he was largely successful, but I'm not sure how to react to it. The story felt like it reinforced some rather uncomfortable stereotypes about romantic relationships, and the so-called happy ending struck me as the sort of situation that was going to turn very nasty and very uncomfortable about five or ten pages past where Kelly ended the story. (5)

"The Second Kalandar's Tale" by Francis Marion Soty: The main question I have about this story is one that I can't answer without doing more research than I feel like doing right now: how much of this is original to Soty and how much if it is straight from Burton's translation of One Thousand and One Nights. Burton is credited for the story, so I suspect quite a lot of this is from the original. Whether one would be better off just reading the original, or if Soty's retelling adds anything substantial, are good questions that I don't have the background to answer.

Taken as a stand-alone story, it's not a bad one. It's a twisting magical adventure involving a djinn, a captive woman, some rather predictable fighting over the woman, and then a subsequent adventure involving physical transformation and a magical battle reminiscent of T.H. White. (Although I have quite likely reversed the order of inspiration if as much of this is straight from Burton as I suspect.) Gender roles, however, are kind of appalling, despite the presence of a stunningly powerful princess, due to the amount of self-sacrifice expected from every woman in the story. Personally, I don't think any of the men in the story are worth anywhere near the amount of loyalty and bravery that the women show.

Still, it was reasonably entertaining throughout, in exactly the way that I would expect a One Thousand and One Nights tale to be. Whether there's any point in reading it instead of the original is a question I'll leave to others. (7)

"Bodyguard" by Karl Bunker: This is probably the best science fiction of the issue. The first person protagonist is an explorer living with an alien race, partly in order to flee the post-singularity world of uploaded minds and apparent stagnation that Earth has become. It's a personal story that uses his analysis of alien mindsets (and his interaction with his assigned alien bodyguard) to flesh out his own desires, emotional background, and reactions to the world. There are some neat linguistic bits here that I quite enjoyed, although I wish they'd been developed at even more length. (The alien language is more realistic than it might sound; there are some human languages that construct sentences in a vaguely similar way.) It's a sad, elegiac story, but it grew on me. (7)

"Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls" by Kali Wallace: One has to count this story as science fiction as well, although for me it had a fantasy tone because the scientific world seems to play by fantasy rules from the perspective of the protagonist. Unpacking that perspective is part of the enjoyment of the story. At the start, she seems to be a disabled girl who is being cared for by a strange succession of nurses who vary by the time of day, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that something much stranger is going on. There are moments that capture a sense of wonder, reinforced by the persistantly curious and happy narrative voice, but both are undercut by a pervasive sense of danger and dread. This is a light story written about rather dark actions.

My biggest complaint with the story is that it doesn't so much end as wander off into the sunset. It set up conflict within a claustrophobic frame, so I can understand the thematic intent of breaking free of that frame, but in the process I felt like the story walked away from all of the questions and structure that it created and ended in a place that felt less alive with potential than formless and oddly pointless. I think I wanted it to stay involved and engaged with the environment it had created. (6)

"Ping" by Dixon Wragg: I probably should just skip this, since despite the table of contents billing and the full title introduction, it's not a story. It's a two-line joke. But it's such a bad two-line joke that I had to complain about it. I have no idea why F&SF bothered to reprint it. (1)

"The Ifs of Time" by James Stoddard: This certainly fits with the Arabian Nights story in this issue. The timekeeper of a vast and rambling castle (think Gormenghast taken to the extreme) wanders into a story-telling session in a distant part of the castle. The reader gets to listen to four (fairly good) short stories about time, knowledge, and memory, told in four very different genres. All of this does relate to why the timekeeper is there, and the frame story is resolved by the end, but the embedded stories are the best part; each of them is interesting in a different way, and none of them outlast their welcome. This was probably the strongest story of this issue. (7)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-01-21

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