Fantasy & Science Fiction

September/October 2011

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 121, No. 3 & 4
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 258

Another review of a magazine that I finished quite some time ago. Apologies for any inaccuracies or lack of depth in the reviews.

There wasn't much in Charles de Lint's reviews in this issue that interested me, but Michelle West covers a great selection of books. Two of them (The Wise Man's Fear and The Quantum Thief) are already on my to-read list; the third, The Postmortal, sounded interesting and would go on my list to purchase if I didn't already have so many good books I've not read. Otherwise, this issue is short on non-fiction. The only other essay entry is a film review from Kathi Maio, which is the typical whining about all things film that F&SF publishes.

"Rutger and Baby Do Jotenheim" by Esther M. Friesner: Baby is a former pole dancer with a toy poodle named Mister Snickers, which warns you right away that this story is going to involve a few over-the-top caricatures and more use of the word "piddle" than one might ideally want. Rutger is a mythology professor who tolerates her for the standard reasons in this sort of pairing. They're travelling across country to Baby's sister's wedding when their car breaks down in Minnesota, prompting an encounter with frost giants.

As you might expect, this is a sort of fractured fairy tale, except based on Norse mythology instead of the more typical Grimm fare. The fun is in watching these two apparent incompetents (but with enough knowledge of mythology to clue in the reader) reproduce the confrontation between Thor and Utgard-Loki. The fight with old age is particularly entertaining. If you've read any of Friesner's other stories, you know what to expect: not much in the way of deeper meaning, but lots of fun playing with stereotypes and an optimistic, funny outcome. Good stuff. (7)

"The Man Inside Black Betty" by Sarah Langan: This story comes with a mouthful of a subtitle: "Is Nicholas Wellington the World's Best Hope?" It's also a story that purports to be written by a fictional character, in this case one Saurub Ramesh (with Langan credited as having done "research"). It's told in the style of first-person journalism, relating the thoughts and impressions of Ramesh as he interviews Nicholas Wellington. The topic is Black Betty: a black hole above Long Island Sound. Wellington is a scientific genius and iconoclast with radical theories of black holes that contradict how the government has been attempting to deal with Black Betty, unsuccessfully.

The structure here was well-handled, reminding me a lot of a Michael Lewis article during the financial collapse. Langan has a good feel for how journalism of this type mixes personalities, politics, and facts. But it's all setup and no story. We get some world building, and then it's over, with no resolution except pessimism. Meh. (4)

"A Borrowed Heart" by Deborah J. Ross: Ross starts with the trappings of urban fantasy transplanted into a Victorian world: supernatural creatures about, a protagonist who is a high-class prostitute, and sex and a sucubus by the second page. It evolves from there into a family drama and an investigation, always giving the reader the impression that a vampire will jump out at any moment. But the ending caught me entirely by surprise and was far more effective due to its departure from the expected path. Well done. (7)

"Bright Moment" by Daniel Marcus: The conflict between terraforming and appreciation for the universe as we find it is an old story pattern in science fiction, and Marcus doesn't add much here. I think the story would have been stronger if he'd found a way to write the same plot with a pure appeal to environmental beauty without the typical stakes-raising. But he does sprinkle the story with a few interesting bits, including a pod marriage and a futuristic version of extreme sports as a way of communing with nature. (6)

"The Corpse Painter's Masterpiece" by M. Rickert: This is typical of my reaction to a Rickert story: shading a bit too much towards horror for me, a bit too cryptic, well-written but not really my thing. It's about a corpse painter who does the work of an informal mortician, improving the appearance of bodies for their funerals, and the sheriff who brings him all the dead bodies. It takes an odd macabre twist, and I have no idea what to make of the ending. (4)

"Aisle 1047" by Jon Armstrong: Armstrong is best known for a couple of novels, Grey and Yarn, which entangle their stories in the future of marketing and commerce. One may be unsurprised, then, that this short story is on similar themes, with the intensity turned up to the parody point. Tiffan3 is a department-store saleswoman, spouting corporate slogans and advertising copy while trying to push customers towards particular products. The story follows the escalation into an all-out brand war, fought with the bubbly short-cut propaganda of a thirty-second commercial. For me, it fell awkwardly between two stools: it's a little too over-the-top and in love with its own bizarre alternate world to be effective satire, but the world is more depressing than funny and the advertising copy is grating. More of a curiosity than a successful story, I think. (5)

"Anise" by Chris DeVito: Stories that undermine body integrity and focus on the fascinated horror of violation of physical boundaries aren't generally my thing, so take that into account in this review.

Anise's husband died, but that's not as much of a problem as it used to be. Medical science can resurrect people via a sort of permanent, full-body life support system, making them more cyborg than human. "Anise" is about the social consequences of this technology in a world where a growing number of people have a much different relationship with their body than the typical living person today. It's a disturbing story that is deeply concerned with the physical: sex, blood, physical intimacy in various different forms, and a twisted type of psychological abuse. I think fans of horror will like this more than I did, although it's not precisely horror. It looks at the way one's perception of self and others can change by passing through a profound physical transformation. (5)

"Spider Hill" by Donald Mead: I liked this story a lot better. It's about witchcraft and farm magic, about family secrets, and a sort of coming-of-age story (for a girl rather than a boy, for once). The main character is resourceful, determined, but also empathetic and aware of the impact of her actions, which made her more fun to read about. I doubt I'll remember this for too long, but when skimming through it again for a review, I had fond memories of it. (6)

"Where Have All the Young Men Gone?" by Albert E. Cowdrey: Cowdrey in his paranormal investigation mode, which I like better than his horror mode. For once, the protagonist isn't even a lower-class or backwoods character. Instead, he's a military historian travelling in Austria who runs across a local ghost story. This is a fairly straightforward ghost investigation that follows a familiar path (albeit to an unusual final destination), but Cowdrey is a good story-teller and I liked the protagonist. (7)

"Overtaken" by Karl Bunker: This is the sort of story that delivers its moral with the force of a hammer. It's not subtle. But if you're in the right mood for that, it's one of the better stories of its type. It's about a long-journey starship, crew in hibernation, that's overtaken by a far newer and faster mechanized ship from Earth that's attempting to re-establish contact with the old ships. The story is a conversation between the ship AIs. Save this one until you're in the mood for an old-fashioned defense of humanity. (8)

"Time and Tide" by Alan Peter Ryan: Another pseudo-horror story, although I think it's better classified as a haunting. A wardrobe recalls a traumatic drowning in the childhood of the protagonist. As these things tend to do in stories like this, reality and memory start blurring and the wardrobe takes on a malevolent role. Not my sort of thing. (3)

"What We Found" by Geoff Ryman: Any new Geoff Ryman story is something to celebrate. This is a haunting story on the boundaries between the scientific method and tribal superstition, deeply entangled with the question of how one recovers from national and familial trauma. How can we avoid passing the evils and madness of one generation down to the next? Much of the story is about family trauma, told with Ryman's exceptional grasp of character, but the science is entangled in an ingenious way that I won't spoil.

As with Air, this is in no way science fiction. The science here would have fascinating and rather scary implications for our world, but clearly is not how science actually works. But as an insight into politics, and into healing, I found it a startlingly effective metaphor. I loved every bit of this. By far the best story of the issue. (9)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-04-06

Last modified and spun 2014-04-07