Rich Horton Reviews Short Fiction: F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s, Uncanny, and Anthems Outside Time by Kenneth Schneyer

F&SF 7-8/20
Analog 5-6/20
Asimov’s 5-6/20
Uncanny 5-6/20
Anthems Outside Time and Other Strange Voices, Kenneth Schneyer (Fairwood Press) July 2020.

The new F&SF features a delightful piece by Madeleine Robins, ”‘Omunculus”, a retelling of My Fair Lady set in a steam-punkish alternate history with the role of Eliza taken by a robot. It’s very funny as it reimagines Eliza and Higgins in this permutation and also quite sharply makes its social points. I also like ”Spirit Level” by John Kessel, a beautifully written story about a man who has moved back to his childhood home after leaving his wife, and who begins to encounter strange ”ghosts” – of the dead (his parents) but also the living (his ex, his son). Along the way we learn about his life, both in the past and the present, and subtly the story morphs in an ambiguous and effectively weird way, making all the point it has to make without telling us.

M. Rickert‘s ”Last Night at the Fair” is introduced as Bradburian, which is a comparison often overused but quite appropriate here. An old woman reminisces about the fair that used to come to her small town each year and about the time she and her boyfriend (who became her husband in a long and happy marriage) snuck out late to go to its last night, after it closed but might be open for a few for free. Like Bradbury at its best, it’s very sentimental but effectively so, not crossing the line to become maudlin or sugary. James Morrow‘s ”Bible Stories for Adults No. 37: The Jawbone” is, as we expect from him, very funny and very fierce, retelling the tale of Samson and Delilah from the point of view of the Angel of Death and making it a pointed parable about our fascination with guns.

I should also mention David Erik Nelson‘s ”All Hail the Pizza King and Bless His Reign Eternal”, a funny horror story about a woman and her crazy sister-in-law who buys a restaurant that had been abandoned after its previous owner killed his wife and made sandwiches from her. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the pizza oven turns out to be a door to hell. Rati Mehrotra‘s ”Knock, Knock said the Ship” is exciting SF in which a refugee from war-torn Luna, working off her debt on a spaceship, works with the ship’s AI to save the crew from pirates, and finds things complicated when it turns out the pirates are also refugees.

The May-June Asimov’s includes two fine novelettes from particular favorite writers of mine. ”The Mrs. Innocents” by Ian R. Macleod is an intriguing alternate history set in 1940, as Sarah, an English journalist, arranges a trip to Berlin in an attempt to interview the elderly Lise Beckhoff, who had founded the ”Mrs. Innocents,” or Birthplaces – places where women could get proper counseling and treatment during their pregnancies. The Jonbar point, we learn, is when Clara Innocent becomes midwife to the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm and is able to prevent the crisis that caused him to be handicapped, and thus to prevent WWI. In the tradition of alternate histories, we are told, not shown, how much of a better world this has resulted in – more opportunities for women, and also of course the avoidance of two World Wars. Sarah herself is pregnant when she makes her trip… and then she learns something quite unexpected about the founding of this movement. I confess I was much more interested in the alternate history itself than in Sarah’s eventual fate, which seemed a bit trite and seemed to reach for a bit of SF sense of wonder that I don’t think the story needed.

Eleanor Arnason offers another Lydia Duluth story, ”Tunnels”. Lydia comes to Innovation City, the centerpiece of a planet controlled by BioIn, a corporation she has caused trouble for in the past. She believes her identity is safely hidden, but clearly that’s not so, as she finds herself compelled by a virus to venture down to the tunnels underneath the city, where she can neither contact the AI in her brain nor escape to the surface. Down below, she encounters some other humans who have been trapped in the tunnels, as well as the single remnant of an alien Goxhat – a collective intelligence. Also she finds evidence of more misconduct by BioIn. This is good, clever fun… not Arnason at her very best, but Arnason is always interesting.

There is additional fine work by authors I know well: a scary story of genetically engineered and much mistreated animals from Bruce McAllister, ”The Voice”, and the latest in R. Garcia y Robertson‘s very fun series about teenaged Amanda James battling slavers in the outer solar system, ”Living in Wartime”. Probably my favorite story this issue is by a writer completely new to me, Evan Marcroft. ”Pax Mongolica” is set in an alternate history where the Mongol Empire continues to rule the known world. Tarek is a man from the Mamluk Khanate – apparently roughly Egypt, visiting a zoo where the Mongols keep the defeated gods of the people they have subjugated. He meets a pretty girl from what seems to be our Poland, and things seem to be going well, but then he realizes – she is apparently intent on freeing her people’s god. The story is nicely ambiguous – the Mongols are conquerors, and not nice – but would a world in which gods were free to battle other gods be better? The central idea here seems quite original, and the story is nicely told.

Analog continues to morph into a new Analog – true to its tradition, still full of near-future stories of planetary exploration and colonization, for example – but open to writers I’d not have expected to see. For example, the May-June issue includes a story by James Sallis (Sallis in the Analog mafia! Will wonders never cease?), ”Net Loss”, a sneakily very dark short-short about a man who is arrested due to evidence from his ”smart” TV. It also features a story from one of our best newer writers, Dominica Phetteplace, ”Candida Eve”, a (presumably on accident) very timely story about a woman on a mission to Mars while Earth – and her own crew – are ravaged by a new plague. Susana is fortunate to be resistant to the plague, and the story shows her lonely first few weeks on Mars, setting up her robot assistants, communicating with Earth, and waiting for the next ship to come. Nice work in the center of the Analog tradition.

Just as firmly in the tradition are the longest stories here. Neal Asher‘s novella ”Moral Biology” is an intriguing look at a human team (human in a very posthuman way!) investigating a curious planet that seems self-quarantined and finding a very strange intelligence there. Lots of cool biological speculation. Tom Jolly‘s ”A Breath of Air” is yet another Martian colonization story. (It seems I’ve seen a great many of these lately.) Banner Goodman and his son have come to Mars to, in essence, homestead a new farm, ultimately in support of a Rapid Terraforming effort. The previous homesteaders on their plot mysteriously died (with a survivor returning to Earth), and then Banner’s place begins to have problems…. At first a surly neighbor is suspected, but there is more going on than that…. Mars for the Martians advocates, a mining corporation, scientists. Enjoyable work, with some nice speculative elements.

Uncanny in May-June has a strong and original story from Emma Törzs, ”High in the Clean Blue Air”. Alice is a loon – no, really – sort of a selkie loon, you might say. She carefully balances her time between her bird self and her human self, while regretting a terrible thing she did to her former lover, Roscoe, selling his ”soul” to a collector and thus trapping him in his human body. The story takes us through her relationship with her human friend, Elena, her conflicted feelings about her dual self, and a chance she gets to make at least slight restitution to Roscoe. The story is very well-written, with Elena’s character excellently laid bare, and with some truly striking moments. Even better, for me, was A.T. Greenblatt‘s ”Burn, or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super”, which shows us Sam, who has a sort of low-grade superpower (he can catch on fire) as he struggles with the problems of his new identity: his boyfriend has deserted him, his new comrades don’t seem to accept him, and how can an accountant who can’t control his powers contribute to saving people? We know, of course, that things can get better – and they do, though with no illusion of perfection – and the story shows us this in a very moving fashion.

Once again Fairwood Press is doing us an excellent service by collecting short fiction from one of our quietly accomplished writers. Ken Schneyer‘s Anthems Outside Time and Other Strange Voices includes such first-rate reprints as the Nebula-and Sturgeon-nominated ”Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer” and my personal favorite among his works, ”Keepsakes”. There are two originals, both very strong. ”Dispersions” employs a striking reified metaphor for the process of memory loss due to dementia, as Lily deals with her mother’s slow decline and notices insects speaking the things her mother has forgotten. ”Who Embodied What We Are” tells the story of the dead hero Herant, of the now-oppressed people of Dorolana. Slowly, as his deeds are recounted, we learn the real, and horrifying, story of these people. It’s clever and quite effective.

Recommended Stories

”Tunnels”, Eleanor Arnason (Asimov’s 5-6/20)
”Burn, or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super”, A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny 5-6/20)
”Spirit Level”, John Kessel (F&SF 7-8/20)
”Pax Mongolica”, Evan Marcroft (Asimov’s 5-6/20)
”Candida Eve”, Dominica Phetteplace (Analog 5-6/20)
”Last Night at the Fair”, M. Rickert (F&SF 7-8/20)
”’Omunculus”, Madeleine Robins (F&SF 7-8/20)
”Net Loss”, James Sallis (Analog 5-6/20)
”Who Embodied What We Are”, Ken Schneyer (Anthems Outside Time)
”High Up in the Clean Blue Air”, Emma Törzs (Uncanny 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 July 2020 issue of Locus.

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