Rich Horton Reviews Short Fiction: F&SF, Interzone, Galaxy’s Edge, Bourbon Penn, and The New Yorker

F&SF 5-6/20
Interzone 3-4/20
Galaxy’s Edge 3/20
Bourbon Penn 3/20
The New Yorker 3/16/20
Prosper’s Demon, K.J. Parker ( Publish­ing) January 2020.
Truer Love and Other Lies, Edd Vick (Fairwood Press) November 2019.

What matters most? Plot? Character? Prose? Something else? The answer is all of the above, I think, and, more im­portantly, each ideally reinforces the other. These thoughts are prompted by an exceptional novelette in the May/June issue of F&SF, “Stepsister” by Leah Cypess. At first look, this is as cleverly constructed a plot as I’ve seen in some time. It’s a Cinderella retelling from the point of view of the Prince’s stepbrother. He’s absolutely loyal to his Prince (now King), partly because any sign of disloyalty would mean his life. But now the King wants him to fetch Queen Ella’s stepsister from the refuge the King allowed her when Ella insisted her sisters and mother be killed. There’s a tangled mesh of personal issues to deal with. Ella’s hate for her sister is justified: she really was an abuser; however the King had fallen for her just enough to save her life; and the stepbrother had completely fallen for her. But what now? Does the King want a new Queen, as Ella has proved barren? Has Ella discovered the stepsister is still alive, and does she want her killed? What will the stepbrother do? Does the stepsister even have a voice in this?

All of these snarled threads are beautifully re­solved and, we realize, that much as this expertly constructed plot snaps shut perfectly, we’ve seen a story of character wonderfully resolved as well. The beautiful plot wouldn’t work if we didn’t be­lieve in the motivations – in the love! – of each of the characters, even the character we don’t know about until the end. Excellent!

That’s traditional fantasy – a fairytale retelling. On to traditional SF – survival on a hostile planet. Ray Nayler, who has displayed remarkable range in his brief career, offers a really exciting tale, “Eyes of the Forest“. Sedef is a young woman who has just become a “wayfinder” – one of the people who explore the dangerous surface of their planet (most of the human colonists live under­ground). Mauled by Mistake is her mentor and, as the story opens, she is repairing a wound Sedef has sustained, but once repaired Sedef must return to a base and fetch equipment to repair Mauled by Mistake’s own injuries. The trip is dangerous, and fascinating, as we learn a bit about this planet’s intriguing ecology. (I was reminded of Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios.) Really fun work.

This is another issue of F&SF stuffed with strong work. The two longest stories are solid work, but neither is quite brilliant, Holly Mess­inger‘s “Byzantine” being a dark and exciting tale of the fall of Constantinople and a magically talented young man who encounters a djinn, while Robert Reed‘s “Who Carries the World” is a Great Ship story featuring recurring characters Perri, Quee Lee, and Mere as they unravel the mystery of a scary being called “She Who Carries the World.” Rebecca Zahabi‘s “Birds Without Wings” reminded me quite a bit of Sam J. Miller’s outstanding story “Shucked” – not a problem, just another example of how similar ideas can be used very effectively by different writers. This is about a woman and her boyfriend hitch­hiking in Spain, who get separated. The central worry here is “fakes,” the true nature of which I’ll let the story reveal. That’s scary enough, but what really works here is the effective depiction of the woman’s character and the nature of her relationship with her boyfriend. Nice work. I don’t usually mention Paul di Filippo‘s Plum­age From Pegasus columns, but they are short fiction, after all, and I quite enjoyed “Faster, Publisher! Binge! Binge!“, which depicts the binging habit now usually applied to TV series as a dangerous addiction to long book series, and leads its protagonist down the road to ruin and, eventually, detox.

Interzone features a novelette by the great James Sallis in its latest issue. As is common for Sallis, “Carriers” begins in a strange place and ends up somewhere completely different (though still plenty strange). The opening describes a brief skirmish in a decaying or collapsing near-future US, followed by a few encounters between a doc­tor desperately trying to save the people he can, even (or especially?) those on the wrong side of what now counts as law, and in this case specifi­cally including the very young man who was hurt in the first section. Then we move decades into the future, to another odd encounter between the doctor and the man he had saved long ago, with a mysterious sort of ghost present as well. It’s simply differently powerful – but very powerful – in a way I’m coming to associate with Sallis.

The March Galaxy’s Edge is the first edited by Le­zli Robyn, after the passing of Mike Resnick. This issue still features stories chosen by Resnick, as well as many quite affecting tributes to him. Alas, the stories didn’t quite thrill me. I was amused by Philip Brian Hall‘s “Cadmus P.I.” which some­what chaotically recasts characters out of Greek myth in the story of a private detective looking for a kidnapped daughter and ending up founding Thebes…. As I said, chaotic but amusing.

I’ve been quite happy with what I’ve seen from Bourbon Penn over the last couple of years. Their 20th issue is quite enjoyable, but I don’t think its peak is as high as some previous issues. Still, Mark Pantoja‘s “The Replacement” is worthwhile. It’s told by a boy who has been sick. Now that he’s getting better, his memories slowly return, but his mother seems not to like him at all. And what is she doing in the attic? The answer is perhaps a bit too obvious, but still affecting. Vin­cent H. O’Neil‘s “Emptying the Bunkhouse” is also solid, a tense SF adventure about a group of convict laborers doing what seems to be mining on a dangerous planet – but something strange is going on…. The solution is rather involved, but it’s intriguing.

The March 16 New Yorker has a definite science fiction story, “Out There” by Kate Folk. It’s about a woman in near-future San Francisco, back in the dating scene, worried about “blots” – biomorphic humanoids originally developed as caretakers, but now appropriated for use in fraudulent activity, especially identity theft, and, as such, often seen on dating apps. The first blot she met was overly handsome with a noticeably fake bio, but the tech seems to have gotten more subtle. Naturally, when she starts dating a guy, much as she likes him, she becomes concerned that he might be a blot. This is a cool setup, nicely used in this case as a way to exam­ine the sometimes fraught aspects of relationships.

K.J. Parker‘s latest cynical and scary novella is Prosper’s Demon. The “hero” wakes up realizing he has just murdered the prostitute he’s spent the night with. We soon learn that that’s a common experience for him, because there are demons who possess people and do terrible things. His talent is that he can “see” these demons and cast them out of people, which isn’t pleasant for anyone. This particular story concerns the hero’s encounter with a particular demon, who has a plan. She has possessed a genius named Prosper Schanz, who is tutoring a Duke’s son, and her plans involve a long game that will lead to vast destruction after centuries, and great works of art and statesmanship in the near term. That puts our “hero” in a moral quandary. This is pure Parker: discussion of a scary fantastical idea, discus­sion of a moral quandary, and by the by fascinating technical engineering discussion, in this case of the casting of an enormous statue.

One of the most valuable functions of the small press these days is preserving the work of solid but not very prolific writers of short fiction. A great example is Edd Vick, who has done some very nice stuff over the past 15 years. Much of this has been in smaller publications, and he has yet to publish a novel, so it’s good to see Truer Love and Other Lies, from Fairwood Press. There are several new stories, all quite fine. “Over the Hills and Far Away” is a curious alternate history look at the Peninsular War. Lieutenant Fitz-Randolph is a war correspondent outside Badajoz when he encounters a fleet of air­ships, which turn out to be from Japan. It becomes clear that this unexpected technology could resolve the war in the favor of either Napoleon or the Brit­ish… but perhaps these Japanese (who have their own secret) plan something else entirely?

Recommended Stories

“Stepsister”, Leah Cypess (F&SF 5-6/20)
“Out There”, Kate Folk (The New Yorker 3/16/20)
“Eyes of the Forest”, Ray Nayler (F&SF 5-6/20)
Prosper’s Demon, K.J. Parker ( Publishing)
“Carriers”, James Sallis (Interzone 3-4/20)
“Birds Without Wings”, Rebecca Zahabi (F&SF 5-6/20)

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 May 2020 issue of Locus.

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One thought on “Rich Horton Reviews Short Fiction: F&SF, Interzone, Galaxy’s Edge, Bourbon Penn, and The New Yorker

  • June 5, 2020 at 3:40 pm

    Thanks so much for the kind words about my short story “Emptying the Bunkhouse” in the latest edition of Bourbon Penn.

    Vincent H. O’Neil
    Author of the Sim War series (as Henry V. O’Neil) from HarperCollins


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