- “The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets” by Gregor Hartmann (sf short story)
- “The Plot Against Fantucco’s Armor” by Matthew Hughes (f novelette)
- “At Your Dream’s Edge” by S. Qiouyi Lu (f short story)
- “All of Me” by R. S. Benedict (f novella)
- “miscellaneous notes from the time an alien came to band camp disguised as my alto sax” by Tina Connolly (sf short story)
- “The Mark of Cain” by John Kessel (f short story)
- “Playscape” by Diana Peterfreund (f short story)
- “The Free Orcs of Cascadia” by Margaret Killjoy (short story)
- “Dear Sir or Madam” by Paul Park (sf short story)
- “Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Jerome Stueart (f novelette)
- “Bella and the Blessed Stone” by Nick DiChario (short story)
- “Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous” by Rich Larson (sf novelette)
I enjoyed F&SF last year. It had more stories I regarded as the “best of the year” than any other magazine. Things are inexplicably different so far this year, though this issue does have two stories of note (one recommended). The remaining ten divide evenly into “okay” and “not so much.” One striking feature of this issue is how fuzzy they are in terms of science fiction vs. fantasy with some not being much of either one. Another is that GWAR and Ozzy Osbourne are referenced in separate stories. Along with alto saxes, clarinets, and Debussy.
“Plot” is another novelette about the wizard Thelerion’s henchman Baldemar. He gets caught up in an elaborate plot which seems to be about the succession to the throne. Baldemar is shown to be extraordinarily slow-witted and unlucky immediately before we are reminded that he’s been changed by an entity and his “mind worked faster and with more precision now…. And he was lucky.” Luck aside, this is conveniently plotted, with amazingly thin walls plus convenient ducts and ear trumpets for overhearing things and so on. It’s also longer than it needs to be. For example, while the threat of a torture which doesn’t happen can be useful in a story, this red herring gets an entire section rather than a more effective line. Overall, though, the tale was engaging enough and fans of the series will probably be satisfied. In “Unbearable,” Inspector Philippa Song is on the case when a currency trader is murdered. There are several logical glitches such as introducing another cop as a “Pather” or religious fanatic and then describing him as “an ordinary cop,” a “pragmatic man,” and thinking “touche” when arguing with him rather than rejecting his axioms. More significantly, the story is written like a murder mystery but then is solved by action which makes the whole thing deflate like a popped balloon and, worse, ends like it’s a middle. Still, there were several moments of potential.
In slighter middling tales, a child has gone missing from a “Playscape” and the mother is suspected of murder. Another mother tries to suspend judgment and sympathize. This much of the “basically fantasy but SF tale if you want it to be” and its creepy traumatized atmosphere is effective enough but the story undercuts its own theme. (See comments for spoiler.) “Dear Sir” is a dead man’s letter, so to speak, which seems to be by an alien whose business in VR personality re-enactments has gotten a bit strange. “Bella” issues her first prayer when her abusive father comes after her again and he’s killed by a rock flying through the window. This is taken as Sign and she becomes a famous social media saint but the rock must have been of iron because irony is on the way. This is one which is hard to call fantasy or science fiction though its more the latter.
Of the lesser tales, “All of Me” is a tabloid-toned “abused girl’s revenge” novella which puts me in mind of stories like an upside-down “Aurelia” from the same magazine. Instead of a butterfly, we have a starfish who becomes a masochistic movie star after a vicious pretty boy falls into the water near her. We follow her wanderings through interminable murders, usually of her, as we head-and-body hop through manifestations of this regenerating, multiplying entity. With “Postlude,” F&SF matches Asimov’s by having a story which references Debussy but this one’s actually about jazz (well, it’s actually about ham-handed homosexual symbolism but it’s definitely not about classical). A clarinet teacher finds that a football-player-cum-musician has his long-lost “Shaft of Moonlight” as he calls his magic clarinet, which was taken from him by the evangelist baseball player Billy Sunday (who also crushed his legs). While I found the musical portions of the program overwritten, some may respond to it but, if you just want a satyr/musician story, try Lester del Rey’s “The Pipes of Pan.”
“Miscellaneous Notes” is about a girl trying to make out with a cute guy at band camp, is written in Teen Girl Gush, and has absolutely no need for its “alien” other than to make it “science fiction.” “Dream’s Edge” is another of these stories which completely melt down any notion of “objective correlative.” A person uses a fantasy “app” to experience nightmares: “An arrow pierces your neck. An arrow pierces your eye. Stop, you want to say, but the word will not come as blood pours from your mouth. Stop, you want to say, but they will never stop.” This is for desensitivity training to make a visit to a family who will “use the wrong pronouns” relatively bearable. Finally, “Free Orcs” fails on several levels, including the basic level of believability. Just as one example, the protagonist is a self-described “good journalist” who goes to a group of pseudo-medieval counter-culturalists to interview an admitted murderer. Without checking anyone else’s story, she believes everything the murderer says, including that he killed his victim because that guy was a leader of a group of fascists while his people are matriarchal. Then the journalist implies majority voting is “dumb” and advocates behaving like the driver at Charleston. Despite the use of the word “orc” and having a made-up group, there’s also nothing more fantastic or science fictional here than what you might find at Burning Man.
Finally, turning to the stories which redeem this issue, it’s hard to call “Cain” (which is a metafictional collection of scenes which nod to alchemy and posthumous fantasy and are interspersed with commentary) a fantasy or even a story but, though a little footloose, it’s not fantasy-free and is story-like. The protagonist, whom we call Cal, narrates some of his less virtuous moments in life and some of these scenes, which all meditate on “the mark of Cain” and man’s innate goodness, badness, and ugliness, have power, especially the one which occurs while fetching the milk. I can’t exactly recommend this and could almost question its being published in this form but, at the same time, have to note the quality, nuance, and power of its parts.
“Noctambulous” is a fine story which is thoroughly science fictional but feels almost like a Poe horror story as it describes the rich survivors of biological apocalypse commemorating the event with a get-together and festivities. It’s also a clinic in how to do certain things. It opens in the midst of the action of a boy or young man playing with a servant and produces a sense of the society which can contain these two people who interact the way they do. Because this is an exceedingly unpleasant society, it quickly introduces the protagonist’s brother and the main conflict. Sparked by the vicious older brother’s behavior toward the servant, the younger impulsively humiliates the elder. This makes us sympathetic to the younger without absolving him of his society’s sins. Later, the story preserves contrast by including elements of humor (with an undercurrent of darkness) such as when the father lets his eyes literally wander. The only quibble could be the speech (long-delayed infodump) which tells us about the deeper, darker background to it all. But the action immediately returns with the Doppel hunt, in which the young “kill the weak parts” of themselves by shooting their specially (mis)designed clones. Finally, the dark and twisting ending gives readers a sense of completion while simultaneously compelling them to carry the story into the future with their own imaginations.