Rich Horton Reviews Short Fiction: F&SF, Uncanny, Galaxy’s Edge, Interzone, and Conjunctions

F&SF 3-4/20
Uncanny 1/20
Galaxy’s Edge 1/20
Interzone 1-2/20
Conjunctions 73

F&SF offers a wide range of impressive stories this issue. Two fine pieces come from an anthology Gardner Dozois was working on prior to his death, The Book of Legends. Matthew Hughes‘s “The Last Legend” is about a young man who had hoped for a respectable career before his uncle spent his inheritance and apprenticed him to a fuller. After some suffering, he escapes with his treasured childhood storybook and eventually stumbles on a strange blind man living in a cave, leading to a transcendent resolution for the blind man, the younger man, and two more individuals. That’s nicely done and original, but the story works mostly because of Hughes’s dryly cynical voice. Elizabeth Bear‘s “Hacksilver” is even better, set in the world of her Lotus Kingdom books. The title character returns to his Norse-based village, only to find that his brother’s family has been exiled, forfeiting their farm in payment of a blood debt. The unpleasant new owner brings an action against Hacksilver for further payment, and Hacksilver finds himself banished to a mountain where a giant is said to live. The giant is a delight, purely amoral, and Hacksilver manages to learn what really happened between his brother and the other man – a dark tale, enlivened here, again, by the narrative voice.

Gregor Hartmann‘s “A Solitary Crane Circles Cold Mountain” is set in a Chinese-dominated future in which ecologically obsessed rulers have overthrown a “Machinist”-oriented group and remediation of the Earth has priority over any other effort. Lili works for a Foundation that has been trying to launch a generation ship to a planet undergoing terraformation – a project that has just enough momentum (or sunk costs) that it may go forward, if her efforts to prove a stable shipboard society can be created to survive the journey are successful. Victor is the government representative tasked with confirming the project’s political correctness. The story follows their developing relationship, as well as Lili’s eventual ideas for a successful society, against the backdrop of a rather oppressive Earth-based polity. I liked the look at the generation-ship problem and the main characters, even if their arc seemed a bit pat, and the solution proposed was quite interesting….

The two real standouts come from Amanda Hollander and Ian Tregillis. Hollander’s “A Feast of Butterflies” is about a constable serving a remote town that is de facto ruled by a corrupt local landowner who has allowed his son and his son’s friends to run rampant. When the young men go missing, the landowner demands the constable arrest a young woman in a remote village – a woman whose brother had been killed by the landowner’s son’s gang. The constable finds that the woman has become strange indeed, and the fate of the evil young men is quite fascinating, leading to a deliciously subtle conclusion. Tregillis’s “Come the Revolution” is a prequel story to his Alchemy Wars trilogy, about the early life of the character Queen Mab, a Clakker (robot) who angrily rebels against her condition of servitude. The depiction of Mab’s education, and of the horrible treatment of Clakkers by humans, is very well done, and this story joins a quite noticeable cluster of fine recent works exploring, in broad terms, AI rights.

The first issue of Uncanny for 2020 opens with a tense and terrifically exciting story by Rae Carson, “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse“. Those who know me well know that the second to last word in the title is a turnoff for me, but that shouldn’t bother most of you. This story really works. Brit is ready to give birth and, for the safety of their compound, she and her wife must leave for an isolated building, because the zombies are especially attracted to the blood and scents of a new birth. The story concerns their desperate efforts to survive and return with a new baby while dozens of zombies assail their redoubt. Also enjoyable is “The Spirit of the Leech” by Alex Bledsoe, in which a young fundamentalist boy tries to convert the local survivor of the “Red Scare,” which we quickly learn is something a bit different in this alternate future. Amusing and a bit scary.

The best story in this issue, however, is “And All the Trees of the Forest Shall Clap Their Hands” by Sharon Hsu, yet another Narnia-variant/commentary. (Yes, I know, there seem as many of those these days as trees in the forest, but there’s life in that thar trope still!) This one is told by an intelligent tree to his captors in what seems to be our world. The tree tells of saving the “boy-king” when he stumbled through the portal into their world, and of the hopes for a productive alliance between the two worlds… and the inevitable sour conclusion to those hopes. Strong, dark work.

In the January-February Interzone I really liked Andy Dudak‘s “Salvage“. This story mixes several ideas that, taken together, seem a bit kitchen-sinky at first, but end up working out well. Aristy is a woman visiting a strange city full of people frozen in life-like postures. We soon learn that that’s the case – they were frozen by aliens who believe that observing the stars causes dark energy and will lead to the end of the universe, and freezing intelligent beings so they “turn inward” will prevent that. The people still alive on this world are recording the brain states of some of these people – and Aristy is doing so too, but for her own reasons. When she explores the simulated life the people she has recorded are living, she learns that their country had been ruled by a horrible tyrant. The story takes a couple further turns, always interesting, and we learn that Aristy has her own dark past, and that her interest in the tyrant may have more to do with her own demons than with justice for his victims.

The January issue of Galaxy’s Edge is the first since Mike Resnick’s death and serves as a reminder of one of his major contributions to the SF field, his work as the editor, first of a long set of original anthologies and most recently of this magazine, in both cases consistently offering opportunities to new writers. Alas, this isn’t one the magazine’s strong outings, but I did enjoy “The Choice” by the Romanian writer Livia Surugiu – not a new writer, but a writer appearing for the first time in the US. This is about a man dying on the Moon, in a future in which Earth has been abandoned in favor of colonizing a planet of Alpha Centauri. He must choose whether to die where he is, or be rescued and sent to Alpha C – at the cost of losing his memories. The setup (including his personal back story) is rather strained, but the story did hold my interest and interrogated a worthwhile philosophical question.

The latest issue of Conjunctions deals with the “existential magnitude” of the current ecological crisis, with a set of stories, poems, and essays. Several, as might be expected, have a science-fictional tone, though in quite weird ways. Brian Evenson‘s two stories are both enjoyable. “The Extrication” is a mordant piece about a man on a ruined Earth addressing another person, explaining what’s happening to him; while “Curator” is about an archivist charged with preserving DNA samples of humans to be ready in case Earth again becomes habitable. Both are quite dark in their implications. Matthew Cheney, in “A Liberation“, achieves real weirdness, as a man moves across the world to his mother’s city, takes a new name, and as he realizes that his new city is decaying and literally sinking begins a grotesque project…. There’s a sense of true malaise here, slow decay, a giving up.

My favorite is Sofia Samatar‘s “Wolf Tones“. This is a strange, hard-to-categorize story that is somewhat ambiguously fantastical at the end. But that doesn’t matter – it’s becoming clear that Samatar is one of those writers who doesn’t write stories to category, but just writes Samatar stories. I’ll follow her work wherever it goes. The viewpoint character is Wyland Alexander, an artist, an old man on an Arctic cruise – remembering another cruise decades earlier, and his fascination with a young musician named Nesha, and her fascination with the Indian physicist (and Nobel Prize winner) C.V. Raman. All this ties together, somehow, with Raman’s theories of light scattering, with Nesha’s mention of “wolf tones” in music, with the disappearing ice in the Arctic. At times this is more poem than story, and hard to grasp, but fascinating.

Recommended Stories

“Hacksilver”, Elizabeth Bear (F&SF 3-4/20)
“Salvage”, Andy Dudak (Interzone 1-2/20)
“A Feast of Butterflies”, Amanda Hollander (F&SF 3-4/20)
“And All the Trees Shall Clap Their Hands”, Sharon Hsu (Uncanny 1-2/20)
“Wolf Tones”, Sofia Samatar (Conjunctions 73)
“Come the Revolution”, Ian Tregillis (F&SF 3-4/20)

Rich Horton works for a major aerospace company in St. Louis MO. He has published over a dozen anthologies, including the yearly series The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy from Prime Books, and he is the Reprint Editor for Lightspeed Magazine. He contributes articles and reviews on SF and SF history to numerous publications.

This review and more like it in the March 2020 issue of Locus.

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