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Short reviews by Mark R. Kelly. Longer reviews of these and other stories will appear in the November issue of Locus Magazine.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction October/November 1999
50th Anniversary Issue

Terry Bisson, ''macs''
First read Norman Spinrad's essay in this issue of Asimov's (reviewed below) on the subject of closure. Spinrad argues that ''otherwise highly enjoyable and well-written fiction is diminished as a whole if it ends badly''; especially at short story length, a single word can make the difference between a story that simply ends and one whose conclusion ''satisfies on a multiplicity of levels''. Terry Bisson's story is a perfect example; in fact, its very premise is so clever and provocative that it can't be described without giving away much of the effect of reading the story. Suffice to say it involves the Oklahoma City bombing, the issue of Victims' Rights, and cloning. Through a series of one-sided interviews we gather not just Bisson's premise -- what these things have to do with one another -- but also who the interviewer is and why he is conducting his search. Its single-word last line is both surprising and poignant.

Kate Wilhelm, ''The Happiest Day of Her Life''
A woman preparing for her wedding day is harried by her meddlesome mother and beset by a series of mishaps at work, not to mention the intrusions of several people seemingly intent on obtaining a sample of her blood. The story is related to an earlier Wilhelm story, ''Forget Luck'', and with it shares the unsettling idea that your genes might be directing your supposedly conscious actions. Like Bisson's story, it serves Spinrad's thesis by building toward its conclusion in such a way that you don't understand the significance of the title until the very end; part of the story's suspense comes from wondering how the title could possibly apply.

Robert Silverberg, ''A Hero of the Empire''
A disgraced Roman is sent to Arabia, nominally to monitor Greek encroachment upon Roman commerce, and ends up in the city of Macoraba, or Mecca. (In this alternate history, 600 years after the reign of Augustus Caesar, Greece and Rome co-rule the world.) He meets a passionate Hebrew merchant, Mahmud, with controversial ideas about the one true god. Perhaps Mahmud is of greater danger to Rome than Greek commerce is. The story is richly described; its title, and last line, ironic, in an alternate history sense.

Lucius Shepard, ''Crocodile Rock''
Moseley, an expatriate American, comes to Zaire to interrogate a prisoner who claims responsibility for murders attributed to sorcery, to crocodile men. The prisoner mocks Moseley's skepticism, while Moseley's friendship with an old Oxford pal deteriorates, and he gets drunk in seedy bars along a river lined with heaps of real crocodiles. The steamy jungle setting is familiar Shepard territory, but the added dimension here is the political climate, in which Zaire's president let the country go to ruin, and cracked down on all brands of sorcery.

Ursula K. Le Guin, ''Darkrose and Diamond''
A new Earthsea story about a musically talent lad, Diamond, sent by his business-minded father to apprentice with the local wizard. But Diamond's heart isn't in it; he'd rather play his flute, or spend time with the witch's daughter Rose he was seeing against his father's wishes. The story is less about magic than about the different ways men and women conduct their lives. Men must focus on one thing; women can do many things with their lives, with the consequence of having their skills disdained by men.


Asimov's Science Fiction October/November 1999

Kim Stanley Robinson, ''A Martian Romance''
Set on the terraformed Mars of Robinson's acclaimed trilogy of novels, but at a time when the great terraforming experiment seems to be falling apart: years are getting colder, plant species are dying. A group of friends gathers for a trip across the Amazonian Sea in an iceboat, and as they travel they debate the central issue of the whole series: even if it's possible to transform the planet, should they? Neatly encapsulating the mood and concerns of Robinson's entire epic, the story isn't a romance on Mars, it's a romance with Mars.

Connie Willis, ''The Winds of Marble Arch''
Tom and Cath visit London for the first time in 20 years. While Cath shops with old friend Sara, Tom encounters blasts of air, as if from explosions, inside Tube stations, which no one else seems to notice. He plots the events, does some research, and wonders if the blasts could be ghosts of explosions from the Blitz. Then Cath reports that Sara must be having an affair, she just has a feeling. The story has the subdued frenzy of so many Willis stories; here it's a frenzy of themes as well as events. The ending is remarkable in how all the apparently unrelated themes, from the Blitz and infidelity to china patterns, come together in an emotional resolution, and a satisfying closure.

Gardner Dozois, ''A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows''
In the mid-21st century an old man, Czudak, observes both his 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the publication of a book that started a social movement, the Meats, who resist rapid technological progress. Czudak feels haunted by ghosts; perhaps they are time travelers, come to witness some momentous event -- like his death? Then Czudak is visited by his estranged wife Ellen, and a Mechanical, avator of the orbital AI's who have made Ellen immortal, who offer him a chance to be on the first interstellar voyage -- on one condition. What seems at first like an intense character portrait, as Dozois was noted for early in his writing career, develops into a substantial SFnal debate on central issues of modern SF: is expansion into space still the way to go? Does it matter if humanity survives as long as its creations do?

Walter Jon Williams, ''Argonautica''
An elaborate alternate history that explicitly transposes Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece into an alternate Civil War setting. Lt. Jase Miller knows about a cache of gold, saved from Memphis after its surrender to the Union, and when he's assigned to support the captain of an ironclad gunboat called Arcola, he becomes determined to possess it. After a series of events that illustrate Jase's and his crew's determination and bravery, they set off up the Mississippi, make a deal with the Secretary of the Treasury's daughter Melia, who knows exactly where the gold is, and battle Yankee ships. While the transposition of the legend is to some degree a stunt, the story is an exciting adventure nonetheless, especially in its river battle scenes. Putting legendary characters and their exploits into a relatively modern setting does have one powerful effect: what we take as noble and heroic actions in a legend can seem merely greedy and duplicitous in real life.


(Thu 14 October 1999)

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