Rich Horton Reviews Short Fiction: F&SF and Conjunctions

F&SF 1-2/22
Conjunctions: 77

It’s late 2021 as I write, and the first magazines with 2022 dates are appearing. The January-February F&SF features a decidedly off-center story by Karen Heuler, “Bone Broth”. The narrator is struggling to get by, working odd hours at a restaurant owned by her landlord. Then she stumbles across a secret – a huge tooth uncovered by her landlord – and for mysterious reasons, perhaps related to the extra thumb she was born with that was removed when she was young, she is invited to her landlord’s “club” of sorts – a group of people who believe there were “giants in the Earth in those days,” and who search for remnants of these giants. But their beliefs are even stranger than that suggests – and they offer her a sort of special way of belonging. This story pivots expertly from solid realistic fiction about character to wild conspiratorial fiction – still about character. If I was reminded of any other writer, I’d suggest Gerald Kersh.

Another “smart machine” appears in Auston Habershaw’s “Prison Colony Optimization Protocols”. This is told by an AI (eventually called Roxie) who has committed “unspeak­able crimes,” and is being punished by being assigned to run a prison on a planet undergoing terraformation. Roxie finds the prison unsurpris­ingly unpleasant (even for a disembodied AI) and their commands paradoxical, as the requirement for efficient management is countermanded by the sadistic desire to punish the prisoners. The story offers a commentary on the prison system (present as well as future) – and on the effects of punishment on not just humans but AIs.

Quite different, quite remarkable, and rather wrenching is a posthumous story from Eugie Fos­ter, “The Art of Victory When the Game is All the World”. Foster won a Nebula in 2009, and was clearly becoming a major force in SF when she died of cancer in 2014 at only 42. This story, the first to appear since her death, is wildly colorful – no new thing for Foster. Mouria is a “technician,” a skilled creator of pueri – artificial beings used by aristocratic sponsors in elaborate lifelike games. Mouria has achieved great heights as a creator of pueri, but is perhaps on the downside of her career. It certainly seems her mocking fellow technician Treune believes that. We witness their work creat­ing their latest pueri, and then when the next Game comes, there is a twist – Mouria is offered a choice – if she chooses, she can act as an aristocrat and play her latest pueri in the upcoming Game. And her opponent will be Treune. The reward: a place in the aristocracy. The downside: the loser has their brain wiped. The result is wildly romantic and truly powerful, partly because of the identification the creators have with their pueri. It is almost Gothic in its feel and its intensity, and by the end extremely moving. It normally behooves a reader to avoid us­ing a writer’s biography as a guide to their fiction, but in this case, as someone who has a (small and not in person) connection with Foster and her fam­ily, there are additional agonies here.

The new issue of Conjunctions is subtitled “States of Play”. As usual with Conjunctions, there is some speculative fiction, and I particularly enjoyed “Casino Macabre” by James Morrow. It’s about a crime writer and poker player who manages to get to the final of the World Series of Poker, only to lose in agonizing fashion, after which he is recruited for a special poker game, with the Devil as an opponent, as well as other top poker players, including his estranged daughter. The tale is nicely told, with the requisite humorous touches, but the stakes are real and intriguing; and there is a moral conundrum at the heart of things.

Recommended Stories

“The Art of Victory When the Game is All the World”, Eugie Foster (F&SF 1-2/22)
“Bone Broth”, Karen Heuler (F&SF 1-2/22)
“Casino Macabre”, James Morrow (Conjunctions 77: States of Play)

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 January 2022 issue of Locus.

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