F&SF, July/August 2010
No novella but six novelets, in the F&SF spelling, featured in the current double issue, of which the first two were superior.
“Advances in Modern Chemotherapy” by Michael Alexander
Larry has gotten to know some of the other terminal cancer cases at the chemotherapy center. One day, he “hears” Mary talking to him telepathically; the other terminally ill call it headtalk.
When it starts most of us hear a low, background mumbling. I found it helped to actually see the other person at first. After a while you can… I’d have to say ‘call up’ the person you want to talk with. Relaxing helps. And in your case, a bit of sherry seems to act as a lubricant.
But it turns out there is a great deal more to the phenomenon than simply communication. They only lack the time to completely investigate it.
A fresh and humane look at dying, death and afterdeath. The author’s discussion of the side effects of chemotherapy is grimly fascinating. When Larry says, “Don’t get cancer,” he speaks with the authority of experience.
“The Revel” by John Langan
A metafiction in the form of a literary analysis of werewolf movies, their standard tropes or clichés. While the analytical passages are, while interesting, distancing, the use of second-person narrative pulls the reader into the story in a disturbing way. An effective mode of creating the experience of watching the movie.
— You’re each and every one of the Werewolf’s victims. You’re the quartet of hunters sitting around their early-morning fire, fighting the chill air with a flask of Talisker, your rifles propped against the logs you’re sitting on, less concerned with firing those guns than with maintaining an annual tradition fifteen years old, a kind of secular retreat, and if one of you should by luck take down a prize buck, that would be nice, but it’s not essential.
“Mister Sweetpants and the Living Dead” by Albert E Cowdrey
Humorous horror thriller. Manny’s security agency is hired by his old high school buddy and now bestselling gay novelist to protect him from a former lover turned zombie, bent on revenge after Ted kicked him out and his previous bodyguard put a .357 slug through his head when he turned up in the night. A persistent pest.
Wrapped in a filthy sheet and preceded by a smell that could have tarnished silver, Zane Cord stumbled into the atrium. His skin was the oil-slick color of an old bruise, his face was starting to slide off its bony framework, and he had a black hole right in the middle of his forehead that appeared to contain maggots.
As in many of Cowdrey’s tales, the entertaining narrative voice carries the story. For a change, this one is set in Florida instead of the New Orleans region.
“Pining to be Human” by Richard Bowes
The title comes from the play “Dark of the Moon,” in which a Witch Boy pines for the love of a human girl. Here, this becomes a metaphor for sexuality, with the Witch Boys being gay and the “humans” straight. The narrator is working on the theatre crew at college when they perform the play, in which he had played a small role as a young child.
The girl playing the Dark Witch and I found each other amusing. “You a Witch Boy,” she called in a low, sexy voice, “and you always gonna be one.”
The story is the narrator’s journey to healing after several incidents of trauma in his youth, after false starts doing drugs and trying on a girlfriend. There is also much detail of his therapy, which doesn’t do him a lot of good at the time.
The editorial blurb informs us that this piece is autobiographical, and it is not really even nominally fantastic, despite the visions of Witch Girls that the narrator occasionally experiences, sometimes while on drugs. There are empathetic scenes between the narrator and his therapist, who is certainly the most interesting character.
“The Lost Elephants of Kenyisha” by Ken Altabef
There are elephants rampaging near the border of Kenya and Tanzania, and elephants are being shot in retaliation, to the consternation of Merrian Aprilwood, a conservationist with a rather unscientific tendency to sentimentalize her subjects. She is at first skeptical when her colleagues bring in a prominent psychic expert, following rumors that the rogue elephants are only ghosts. Then she “sees” for herself.
Merrian closed her eyes and they were all around her, flapping ears and snorting trunks. The ground trembled. She felt the mammoth thud of pulverizing feet as they came on. Her hair blew wildly about her face. She staggered one step backward, driven by the sheer tonnage of animal momentum rocketing invisibly past. She could almost feel the rough elephant hide grating along her skin.
The herd of ghost elephants is a neat idea and a great premise for a story. But this one begins with the mystery already solved, as there already seems to be sufficient evidence that the elephants are ghosts that the psychic is already on the scene. Despite this, Merrian persists in an unreasonable denial, even though the ghosts are proof that the park’s elephants are innocent.
“The Precedent” by Sean McMullen
Global warming has come with a vengeance, and the population has risen up and overthrown the consuming powers. Now comes punishment, which is severe and symbolically fitting.
A greenhouse. For causing the greenhouse effect, death by greenhouse. It was a hideous way to die, roasted slowly in a glass oven. The unlucky ones lasted to evening, got the respite of night, then had to face a second day. As we trudged on, straining at our harnesses, we passed the glass tents that had already been set up. There were muffled screams and groans from these, but most were already weakening.
Everyone born before the tipping point is audited, and everyone who is audited is guilty, except for those who die before they can be judged. But octogenarian climatologist Jason Hall is determined to beat the audit. He not only spent his career fighting against the approach of global warming, he led a personal life of greenness.
Here is an ultimate If This Goes On story. The danger with these stories is the risk of carrying things too far, until the situation becomes not terrifying but absurd. McMullen successfully avoids the trap of absurdity, in large part because of the comparisons between the audit board and the medieval witch trials, and the show trials of the twentieth century. But the heart of the story, that makes it superior, is not the evils of waste or of ideologically-driven tribunals, but the moral struggle within Jason himself.
“Recrossing the Styx” by Ian R MacLeod
Frank Onions is a tour guide onboard a luxury liner where most of the passengers are the megawealthy revived dead and their minders. Dottie is a gloriously young woman married to a doddering animated corpse, and Frank falls in love. Dottie desires Frank, as well, but unfortunately she has been imprinted on her husband Warren and can’t allow another man even to touch her. But a solution is at hand.
The sexual imprinting is likely to become fact sooner than the resurrection technology, but none of this is new to SF. The characters’ names here kept me from taking this story at all seriously, although indeed it is not meant to be very serious.
“Brothers of the River” by Rick Norwood
A myth of the time before the flood. Two brothers, Tiger and Shallow, each learn the secrets of the old strong magic. They have always been rivals, and one day they decide to race to the mountains to see who can be the first to taste snow. On the way, of course, they have many adventures.
As he ran up the slope of a long, brown hill, a small dell came suddenly into view, where three very old men sat cross legged, wearing nothing but breech cloths. The bones of their elbows and knees were large, their arms and legs skinny, their bellies fat, their necks scrawny, their turned-up feet calloused, their heads bald.
A neat fantastic idea. The story seems at first to be more of a fairy tale, but in the end it takes on mythic dimension. Though I doubt that “Shallow” is the best translation.
“Epidapheles and the Inadequately Enraged Demon” by Ramsey Shehadeh
Just as I feared, “Epidapheles” is going to become a regular series in this magazine. The editor apparently feels his readers want labored, silly, farcical humor about a silly wizard, and perhaps some of them do. To which I can only resort to my default line in such circumstances: humor is certainly subjective.
“The Tale of the Nameless Chameleon” by Brenda Carre
The narrator tells us that this is a story of curses. She was a child of the alleys and a cutpurse whose talent for mindreading led her to save the life of Sham, First Heir to the Imperial throne of Hasp. She quickly regrets this, as Sham is a brute, and determines to curse him; this requires pretending to be his spy at the House of the Twelve Sages, who are animal figures in jade. There, the narrator acquires the knowledge she seeks.
There is a somewhat complex story here, also involving enchanted swords, and I like the Sages. But the narrative voice is overdone and distracts from the tale being told; it is more suitable for humor or farce, which this is not.
That particular false dawn, I lay behind the biggest barrel, just beyond a reeking puddle of mingled evacua. A loud noise cracked my restless dream. I did not recognize first Heir Sham immediately as four strapping young men disgorged themselves from the Blue Dragon’s nether end.
“Introduction to Joyous Cooking, 200th Anniversary Edition” by Heather Lindsley
The cookbook’s editors write, “The history of cooking reflects the history of human culture.” So it does, even in the future, when things have changed. Humorous piece makes the point that while there may be utilitarian considerations in cookery, the joy of eating will always be the thing.
Tor.com, June 2010
This site seems to be posting more straight prose fiction among its stories. Or so it looks to me.
“What Doctor Gottlieb Saw” by Ian Tregillis
At the Reich Authority for the Advancement of German Potential, individuals with psychic ability are tested for ways to augment their powers. The methods are ruthless; subjects and staff are all at risk in the case of any failure.
“I thought he was going to round up all of us engineers after the power surge. Even those of us who aren’t working on the generator. I spent half the morning running all over the farm to replace blown fuses, the other half wondering if I’d get a shallow grave for my trouble.”
There have been a lot of failures. Klaus’s battery has malfunctioned, with the consequence that Oskar, taking his place in the test, transported himself into the bedrock. Gottlieb, the psychotherapist, is the next likely scapegoat if he can’t find the cause of the problem.
This is a sinister tale, and the scent of evil does not come primarily from the SS, although they are too willing to make use of tainted power, too slow to see they may not be able to control it. It is also a fascinating exploration of the SFnal paradox of prescience and the ability of persons to alter and control a predicted future.
Subterranean, Spring 2010
Completing the Spring issue with this novella.
“Return: An Innkeeper’s World Story” by Peter S Beagle
Soukyan fled from the secretive and sinister monastery where he had spent his early life, and has been pursued ever since by the deadly Hunters. It is because of the Hunters that Soukyan has become such a deadly killer himself. But now he senses that the Hunters have changed, which makes him decide, for reasons that are not clear at the time, to return to that place.
Of my own choice, I had returned to a place whose walls were shadow: shadows that had weight and movement and bad intent, shadows that concealed beasts of evil, empty knowledge. Shadows that meant to crush me into shadow.
But Soukyan’s choice is not as free as he supposes; even though he escaped long ago, he has never been truly free of that place.
Beagle’s prose is perfect for this dark fantasy. I love lines like, “I knew a house once that was not really a house, and ate things.” It is a long story and the narrative carries the reader easily over passages that are perhaps longer than they ought to be, where Soukyan reminisces about characters who are never present in this tale and where the monks inexplicably prolong his torment. Soukyan is a compelling character, and the Tree in particular is a memorable dark fantasy creation.
Intergalactic Medicine Show #17, June 2010
Orson Scott Card’s ezine has just switched to an easier-to-access subscription format. The content is primarily short fiction with a light tone. I could wish more of it were more fresh.
“Ten Winks to Forever” by Bud Sparhawk
Instantaneous space travel leads to temporal dislocation as society evolves while the pilots don’t. I don’t recall the first SF story to employ this premise, as it was probably published before I was born. Now, as a senior citizen, I expect an author to be doing something more with it.
“An Early Ford Mustang” by Eric James Stone
When Brad’s Uncle Fritz left him his 1968 Mustang, he added a note telling him that from now on, Brad would never be late again. And something about a curse. It doesn’t take Brad long to figure out that the gift and the curse are the same. A short and light moral lesson.
“Sparrowjunk” by Margitt Elland Schmitt
Steve’s wife died and his son was diagnosed with cancer on the same day. Now he devotes his life to keeping Matt alive and loving him; an important part of this is the bedtime story ritual. But there is someone else listening, a sinister someone on the fire escape.
Lights out – and Steve saw a figure silhouetted by the streetlight against the curtain. A vague and slender misery. A person-shape, sharp and clear, of someone huddled up against the glass, listening.
The person makes Steve an offer that he can’t turn down, but the price is high.
I’m always wary of kid-with-cancer stories; the saccharine level can be unbearable. The emotional ties between Steve and his son are strongly done, but there is a different, vexing problem. The narrator calls the person on the fire escape a junkie. Repeatedly. This is a lie. We don’t know exactly what to call her, or why she is so needy that she stands in the rain to listen to fairy tales, but it is clear, and Steve knows, that she is a person of supernatural power. In fact, this is really a deal-with-the-devil story. Not a deal with a junkie.
“Sister Jasmine Brings the Pain” by Von Carr
Every kind of apocalyptic plague imaginable has struck the Earth, and Sister Jasmine fights them all in the service of her Order’s mission to preserve technology.
Jasmine pulled out her case of supernatural weaponry. As a post-Vatican V nun, she had some distinct advantages in this area. She opted for a heavier weapon, the modified M4A1 carbine with holy water and napalm capacity, and holstered her Glock. She tugged her silver crucifix to the outside of her robes, and made sure her Star of David was also in place, in case any Jewish vampires got too friendly.
In short, this is humor, a lot of silliness leavened with a bit of wit.
“Frankie and Johnny, and Nellie Blye” by Richard Wolkomir
As Related by Susanna Entwhistle, Who Witnessed Every Minute, Including the Stimulating Spellfight to the Death! Miss Entwhistle is a young girl with an overused dictionary who sees everything going on in Duster, Florida, from her residence at the Ascending Angel saloon where her mother is employed.
She had taught school in Ohio, but — because of events leading to my existence in this world, involving the school’s cad of a principal — she lost that profession and drifted until she finally found the only way to support herself and me, and I have never reviled her in my heart, although I did often wish her life took a different road.
Thus Susanna considers herself well-placed to serve as assistant to the famous reporter Nellie Blye when spellslinger Frankie Payne comes to town to take on Sheriff Duprey.
The narrative voice is charming and the story involves a neat twist on the “Frankie and Johnny” legend. Good fantasy entertainment with a feminist touch.
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #25, Spring 2010
This acclaimed small literary speculative fiction zine – or perhaps the appropriate term is now “interstitial” – has 60 pages of short stories, fictions and poetry. There is as much absurdity as conventionally-plotted stories, but I find that the overall tone is one of irony.
“A City of Museums” by Georges-Oliver Châteaureynaud [trans Edward Gauvin]
A surreal European municipality in which the only inhabitants seem to be curators and guards, whose primary activity is chasing the “rats,” young squatters who emerge from their hiding places after the various museums have closed. The museums appear to be devoted to writers. The narrator is a rat who has not yet begun to write, which he must if there is to be a museum devoted to him, “the feat we all dream of.”
An ironic look at the conflict between creation and canonization in the arts. More a fabulation than a fantasy.
“Fire-Marrow” by Jennifer Linnaea
A man is hiding in the darkness underground where a cold river runs
because under the sun the fire in his bones leaked out, spilling into his mouth and eyes. Somewhere back in his bloodline the blood of a giant had been hiding, and when it reached him it sputtered to life. He was too large. He frightened people.
His only friend was a sorceress who sent him gifts on enchanted toy boats, but she has died, and he is now old and beginning to emit heat even in the dark, which attracts the attention of the full-blooded giants, huge, hideous flaming creatures.
This one can be read literally as a fantasy, but it also serves as a strong metaphor for persons alienated from human society, whose giants burn in their minds.
“This is Not Concrete” by Ben Francisco
Theresa’s brother once inadvertently insulted the Concrete Man and as a consequence he and their mother are now dead. Her father is bent on revenge and is on the road with a cannon in the back of his van; it takes something with the firepower of a cannon to demolish their adversary. But Theresa, whose prescience foretold the original tragedy, knows that this plan isn’t going to work out, no matter what she does. Gregor hasn’t fully grasped the principle he once taught her: “Whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, the pitcher gets broke.”
The Concrete Man is reminiscent of the unstoppable and inexplicable Anton Chigurh of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. But the heart of the story lies in the tension between Theresa’s desire to use her visions to protect her family and her inability to do so; the tension between what her father thinks she can do and what she can not. In SFnal terms, this is a straight dark fantasy about the limits of prescience. In story terms, it is about a family’s love.
“The Famous Detective and His Telepathy Goggles” by Sean Adams
When a story begins, “I, the Famous Detective,” this is a good clue that it is not to be taken too seriously. The Famous Detective stumbles over the paradox of telepathy when a criminal suspect turns out to have telepathy goggles of his own. Absurd and definitely ironical.
“Circumnavigation, With Dogs” by Richard Gess
A fantasy itinerary, including a stop on the moon, a survey of the unmarvels of transportation. We don’t see enough of the dogs.
“The Sleeper” by Eilis O’Neal
The narrator has been unable to sleep since her stoner brother shot himself in the head, being now in a coma.
It’s as if he’s stolen my sleep, taken it the way he used to take my dolls or the best pieces of my Halloween candy …
The narrator fills her hours of insomnia with insightful reflections on the role of sleepers in fairy tales, and of sisters, which makes this fiction a metafantasy rather than a fantasy in its own right.
“The Queen’s Reason” by Richard Parks
The new young queen, coming out of the convent of the Sisters of Inevitable Sin to take her throne, appears to have lost her reason. Or in the words of her courtiers, she is now “barking mad.” Fortunately, the Royal Magician has everything in hand.
While the irony level here is high, Parks’ subversion of the fairy tale is itself a perfectly sound fairy tale, with all the necessary elements and a happy ending, even if princeless. Charmingly entertaining.
“Music of the Spheres” by Daniel Braum
Dave is a musician whose friend Jack gets involved with a dead musician’s cult. Before he died, Noah Sol was attempting to create the perfect song “based on the sacred intervals that would bring about the end of the world.” Ever since, his followers have carried on the quest.
Jack was there, crammed in with forty musicians on folding chairs, strumming his old Ovation with the absent look in his eye I knew so well. The look that told me he’d been struggling to catch the groove and had finally locked in.
A dark fantasy of musicians and their connection to their music. The Greeks considered music a gift of the gods, but one of the gods was Dionysos, whose music could drive mortals mad. Dionysos is not mentioned by name in this piece, but his spirit is definitely present. Effective, but it would have been moreso without the excessive New Age blathering in some spots.
“The Problem with Strudel” by Sarah Tourjee
The narrator is in a state of depression after the death of her son, which [she believes] was caused by a momentary loss of gravity, as he floated away when her hands were too full of strudel dough to catch him [it seems]. In response, she has given birth [she claims] to a Yorkshire terrier, still connected to her by a umbilical of hair, that she carries everywhere in a chest pouch, where it exhibits great skill in smoking cigars. But Lassie is not enough to assuage her grief, for which she holds Julie Andrews accountable. “How can you be glad about apple strudel when babies can’t even depend on gravity, and dogs grow out of people’s hair?”
In ambiguous fantasy, the reader must balance the likelihood that the narrator’s account of events is literally true against the probability that it is a product of delusion or insanity or alcohol. Here it is not really an ambiguous situation, as the author informs us [if we are to believe the narrator’s neighbors] that the narrator is making these things up in compensation for her loss. But I can’t stop thinking literally of that chest pouch, which the dog never seems to leave, that it must be an awful, smelly mess inside.
“Elephants of the Platte” by Thomas Israel Hopkins
Another travelogue, this time from New York to San Francisco on the Transcontinental Canal, where the narrator has a Strange Encounter. Ostensibly, this is the future, but the scene suggests the endless, empty plains that the narrator’s great-great grandfather crossed, centuries earlier.
I felt something warm and wet on the top of my head, and I turned around again, and looked up to see a massive shaggy buffalo, towering above me, gently, hotly sniffing at my hair
Working against this vast and silent atmosphere is his lover’s dementia-like amnesia, which introduces ambiguity and doubt into the scenario, along with infodumpfery. I’m sure it’s uncool of me that I would have preferred the story without, except for the last line.
“Exuviation” by Haihong Zhao
The title refers to the process of shedding the integument, more like the splitting of a chrysalis than the molting of a snake’s skin. Cavers [we are not sure where they come from but they seem to be some species of alien] undergo nine exuviations in the course of their lives, acquiring different features each time. The process is prolonged, excruciating and sometimes fatal. Gong is, or was, a caver who very rapidly became “the most popular actress in the world” after undergoing treatments to halt the exuviation process; thus she is accepted by humans as human, which she foolishly values for the sake of her movie career. But Tou fully embraces his caver identity, including all the risks of the metamorphosis, and becomes even more popular.
It is a story meant to be read literally. We are given no explanation of the cavers and their deal with the unexplained research institute, but this proves entirely unnecessary. The process of exuviation is shown in intimate detail.
I gently laid my hand on his bare chest. It was the last place to exuviate. There, the two layers of skin hadn’t separated yet. I could feel a wild power flowing from his gasping body. It was ceaselessly surging, ceaselessly releasing, ceaselessly growing.
It is the depiction of the human world with its movie culture that is stiff, shallow, unconvincing. The epiphany that comes to Gong at the conclusion is something she has been repeating to herself since the first page.
Apex Magazine, June 2010
So I was wrong to conclude that this e-zine would be on hiatus awaiting its new editor. There is a June issue; it was only delayed.
“Laika’s Dream” by Holly Hight
Clark Namast is an astronomer whose daughter Anna, with Downs Syndrome, died of disappointment at age fifteen. He becomes interested in mystical cosmology, trying to employ scientific techniques to answer the questions of the conception of the universe and the mystery of life after death, becoming convinced “that we are all pieces of a whole, the living fractals of an astonishing Union.”
Although cosmology involves scientific questions, this piece is not science fiction but sentimental wishfulfillment cast in astronomical terms. Anna is a well-done character with whom we empathize, unfortunate in her mother. There is the story.
“Sol Asleep” by Naomi Libicki
Life is constrained on the generation ship where Solange and her cousins work while the Sleepies are in coldsleep. Solange knows she will never see a planet, but her life seems all right until she is casually raped by her cousin Mickey. The trauma of the assault leaves her unable to sleep until she bribes another cousin to let her lie down in a disabled coldsleep coffin, where she dreams of planets:
Ma, Dad, and Louis; Elara, Marcia, Mickey, and Uncle Matt; the medics and the techs will live, grow old and die, and Solange will sleep through it all. She’s different from them. They’re warm, but Solange is cold.
A very effective portrayal of a traumatized rape victim withdrawing from the world. But I find myself wondering too much about the Sleepies – who they are, how they are different from Solange and her peers.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, June 2010
“Remembering Light” by Marie Brennan
A sequel to a previous story in this setting. Driftwood is where the shreds of dying worlds wash up, eventually to disappear in the Crush. Surnyao is about to lose its sixth sun and its chantries have fallen; the chants are almost forgotten. In search of what was lost, Noirin goes in search of the man called Last, who is said to have known Surnyao when it was newly-arrived at Driftwood.
Grief threatened to suffocate Noirin—hers and Last’s. This was the world they had lost, in all of its wondrous complexity, from the heartbreaking perfection of the ancient chants to the shameful poverty of the beggars in the streets. Good and bad, grand and humble, all the different aspects of Surnyao, and the suns watching it all in their slow march across the sky.
Driftwood is a very neat setting, where an infinity of different stories might take place. The story here, however, is thin and essentially a reprise of the previous: a character seeks out Last, who doesn’t want to be found, in hopes of saving a doomed world – this time in memory.
“Memories in Bronze, Feathers and Blood” by Aliette de Bodard
As is evident by the title, another Aztec-based fantasy from this author. Advances in technology have been put to the service of war, with guns and dirigibles replacing obsidian blades. Nezahual, though disabled, survived his last battle. Retreating to his workshop, he places his memories of war into metal birds.
This is what we remember: the stillness before the battle, the Jaguar Knights crouching in the mud of the marshes, their steel rifles glinting in the sunlight. And the gunshot—and Atl, falling with his eyes wide open, as if finally awakening from a dream….
But Tonatiuh, god of the sun and of war, intends to destroy Nezahual’s vision of a land in peace.
This is an interesting melding of de Bodard’s variant Aztec world with the recent SF trend of fiction featuring mechanical animals. Nezahual’s memories of the battlefield are vividly imagined, but the confrontation between Tonatiuh and the birds gets a bit talky and repetitive.
“The Jewels of Montforte” by Adam Corbin Fusco
Pyrate Captain Monteroy Absinthe has disguised himself as a royal landowner to attend Lady Montforte’s ball, where he plans to steal her valuable jewels. But Lady Montforte has plans of her own. Swashing and buckling ensue, as well as swinging from the chandelier.
At first he thought he had made a terrible mistake judging distances, for they plummeted straight down, the rope all slack and the floor of the ballroom rushing up to them. Then the rope grew taut, the chandelier slammed against its hook in the ceiling, and now they were sailing in an arc down and across, the air whistling in his ear—or was it Lady Montforte screaming curses?
Typical pyrate entertainment, recalling somewhat the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow, although considerably lighter in tone. I preferred the previous tale in this series, which was more original.