Fantasy & Science Fiction

July/August 2011

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 121, No. 1 & 2
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 258

Nothing of particular interest in the book reviews in this issue, although I was entertained to see Charles de Lint review a collection of the Prince Valiant strip. I have memories of that strip being one of the most boring works of art created by mankind. De Lint, of course, quite likes it. Our tastes seem to be very disjoint, although I have to admit that I've not read it collected and it may be more coherent and more interesting in that format.

The science column in this issue, by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy, deserves special mention. It's on roshambo (rock-paper-scissors), human difficulties with randomness, and strategy in roshambo competitions. It's also the first essay I've read that clearly explains how there can be strategy to roshambo, and why that strategy is worth studying. Even though the primary topic of the column is randomness, it's worth reading from the perspective of strategy in competitive human vs. human games.

"Bronsky's Dates with Death" by Peter David: Anyone familiar with PAD's body of work will immediately expect a humorous story with some deeper thoughtful bits, and that's exactly what this is. Bronsky, the title character, is a man almost incapable of saying exactly what's on his mind, and what's on his mind is his eventual death. Not that it bothers him that much; he's just thinking a lot about it. But his incessant discussion of it certainly bothers the people around him.

This leads to a few entertaining exchanges with his family, and then to more entertaining exchanges with Death. Or Deaths, as there appear to be several different kinds. I found the exact metaphysics a bit confused, but the ending was still touching and a bit funny. (7)

"The Way It Works Out and All" by Peter S. Beagle: This is a reprint of a special fund-raising story about Avram Davidson, so a lot of it was lost on me given that I know almost nothing about Davidson and have yet to get to any of his novels I own. But even without that background, it's a diverting story of hidden and parallel worlds and unexpected explorations. There isn't all that much in the way of a plot, but it's a nice bit of characterization set against a fun SF twist. (6)

"Less Stately Mansions" by Rob Chilson: This is a story about conservatism in life, about a farmer staying on his farm and resisting change, and about nostalgia, but I liked it much better than I normally like stories with those themes. It's set against a future world in which climate change is making life increasingly untenable. Humans are migrating into space colonies of various types, but Jacob refuses. This frustrates some parts of the family who want a piece of the substantial cash-out he's being offered for his farm, which of course makes Jacob even more stubborn. It's more of an elegy than a story, but I think it captures a particular stubborn mood, and a conscious decision to go with what one knows even if it doesn't have a long future, quite well. (7)

"The Ants of Flanders" by Robert Reed: This is the novella of the issue, and, as you might expect from the author, it's thoughtful, meaty, and satisfying. At the start of the book, the planet is visited by an extraterrestrial ship (or ships — it's not entirely clear at first). One of the people near one landing is Bloch, a huge teenager who has an odd lack of natural fear. He stays near the center of the story as Reed slowly develops a cosmology and a galactic political background that makes it clear humans may be incidental to everything that's happening.

I liked this. It's a touch depressing in spots, and Bloch is a strange protagonist, but the cosmology is not the normal SF background and sparks some thoughts about how a status quo would be maintained by powers that don't care much about individual lives. The interlude with the leopard is nicely done, even if its significance is inobvious at first. (7)

"Hair" by Joan Aiken: This is one of those weird Gothic horror stories about creepy families and half-explained supernatural events that some people love and that do nothing for me. (3)

"The Witch of Corinth" by Steven Saylor: This is straight historical fantasy, featuring a Roman and his Greek tutor (heroes, apparently, of a series of historical mysteries) visiting the ruins of Corinth and encountering some bloody and dangerous local conflicts. It's slow and atmospheric, carried along by good characterization and description of ruins. It's not that much of a mystery — the characters don't figure things out as much as stick around until the answer becomes obvious — but it kept me entertained throughout a sizable story. Numerous elements of the story appear to be fantasy and then get other explanations, but there is a fantasy twist to the ending. (6)

"Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things" by Richard Bowes: This odd story is set among the knights of King Arthur on Avalon, where they sleep (mostly), awaiting their call to aid Britain again. Most of the story is told as one-sided dialogue from Morgravain, interspersed with some italic narration. Again, not much of a plot; the story, as such, is figuring out what Morgravain is doing and the point of his interactions with the other knights. I thought it was slight and oddly pointless, but I may have just missed the point. (4)

"Someone Like You" by Michael Alexander: A time travel story, but one that's less about time travel per se than about examining and speculating about the alternate paths childhood could take and whether those changes produce different people. It takes some time to figure out what's going on, during which Alexander fills in the protagonist's past and the murder mystery that drives the tale. The time travel mechanism is blatantly hand-waved, making this more of a fantasy than an SF story, which matches the emphasis on emotion and psychology. It's not a bad story, and I think I see where the author was going with the slowly-constructed central conflict, but I still found it hard to take the conflict that seriously. One of the problems with time travel is that undermining of causality also undermines finality of decisions and consequences in ways that can rob stories of their punch. (6)

"The Ramshead Algorithm" by KJ Kabza: The first-person protagonist is a well-respected and experienced fixer in a world of chaos and dimensional connection, a world with physics and inhabitants very much unlike ours. But the story doesn't spend much time there; his connection to his home earth is threatened, and he returns to try to stabilize it, which leads to the reader discovering that his family considers him a worthless appendage on a wealthy business family whose sole purpose in life is to stay out of their way. And his portal is rooted in a hedge maze that his father intends to demolish.

This is one of those stories that gets more interestingly complex the deeper one gets into it. Ramshead's family is badly screwed up along multiple axes, but not without some hope of redemption. He's desperate and ineffective in his home universe, but more confident and capable when it comes to dealing with dimensional portal problems (although he still seems very young and relies on tools given to him by others). And there's always more going on than it first appears, and not as few obvious villains as it first appears. Good stuff, although I would have liked to understand more about Ramshead's world. (7)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-11-08

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