- “The Wandering Warriors” by Rick Wilber & Alan Smale (fantasy novella)
- “When the Rains Come Back” by Cadwell Turnbull (science fiction short story)
- “Life from the Sky” by Sue Burke (science fiction novelette)
- “Creative Nonfiction” by Paul Park (slipstream short story)
- “Riverboats, Robots, and Ransom in the Regular Way” by Peter Wood (sci-fi short story)
- “Cost of Doing Business” by Nancy Kress (science fiction novelette)
- “A Mammoth, So-Called” by Marc Laidlaw (fantasy short story)
- “Unexpected Flowers” by Jane Lindskold (short story)
- “Time Enough to Say Goodbye” by Sandra McDonald & Stephen D. Covey (time travel short story)
- “Bubble and Squeak” by David Gerrold & Ctein (disaster novella)
While this issue doesn’t have many stories with overt magic and they all have something at least slightly askew, there’s little straight science fiction. Leaving genre aside, there were few that were chores to read and the longer ones were generally the more interesting ones, but there was also nothing really unambiguously excellent.
The two novellas are remarkable for how good and bad they are. “The Wandering Warriors” is a superb failure. From an alternate 1946, a barnstorming baseball team finds itself magicked back to the Rome of 212 by the Empress Julia Domna as part of her effort to get her sons, Geta and Caracalla, to play nicer with each other. Luckily for the ball club, the player/manager is a Latin scholar (if not a Poe scholar, as he refers to “the glory that’s Rome”) and Julia takes a liking to him. A love for baseball and Roman history shines through this story and, if you have similar interests and can accept the premise, you likely have a treat in store. I simply could not accept it, finding the image of Julia Domna (and Geta and Caracalla) playing baseball only slightly more ludicrous than a 1946 baseball team being full of Latin scholars and feminists, not to mention never understanding why or how this team was chosen or why they come from an alternate WWII since nothing is done with it in either alternate or temporal senses. The other novella, “Bubble and Squeak,” is named after the protagonists’ nicknames. Squeak is an Asian man who is small, smart, and practices karate and other martial arts. He’s also gay and practices modern dance and returns to his residence by shouting, “Honey, I’m homo!” “Bubble” is a scuba diver/stuntman. Both are soon to be married amidst a “mega-tsunami” which destroys Los Angeles when Hawaii goes haywire. (Given the current events with the Hawaiian volcano, I hope this isn’t prescient. ) The opening is poor and the denouement is that and overlong. The story’s third-person limited narration would have benefited from more than the single viewpoint (or pair of them) and, indeed, shows the strain by inconsistently breaking from our protagonists to have a scene with a subway driver for a moment. There’s a relatively unimportant oversized portion involving “Pearl” who was never properly introduced. Like the Latin-speaking ballplayer, there are no points for guessing how handy Bubble’s scuba skills will turn out to be. And there’s no real SF here beyond positing a tsunami in L.A. a few years from now rather than in India a few years ago. All that said, the vast bulk of the story is dramatic with some well-realized and vivid scenes of disaster and struggles to survive (and a nice shout-out to Asimov). If you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, it won’t be perfect but should suit and, even if you aren’t, it may sweep you away for the middle 80% or so.
Of the two novelettes, “Cost of Doing Business” is (1) yet another cli-fi tale and (2) yet another “force them to be free/destroy the village to save it” story. A reporter is recruited by a zillionaire (“a native West Virginian” who was “born in Florida”) to write a book about his efforts to get the US off of fossil fuels and onto renewables. He’s sort of like a Pepsi brother – a mirror image reversal of the Koch brothers, basically. While the story illustrates the cost this should have, the reporter, at least, seems strangely okay with what it describes overall. It’s a thoughtful story (and one of the few clearly SF stories in the issue, extrapolating things like an SF variant of the Zika virus in addition to its cli-fi and future politics) but gets kind of caught in the weeds towards the end, turning info-dumpy and even preachy and losing the narrative until the end. Better, and my favorite story of the issue (in “honorable mention” territory), is “Life from the Sky.” While never completely freed from ambiguity, it’s possible this story depicts some New Wave-like mute crystalline alien lifeforms supposedly falling into the ocean like meteorites and washing up on shore. While getting some fresh air, Audrey (a young meeting planner still living with her increasingly crazy mom) finds one and takes it over to some scientists who have more, getting a little net-famous, and good and very bad things follow from there. The aliens are symbols in a tale that’s really about “media intoxication,” perceptions of threats, rage, and identity. and how to deal with the internet since “we can’t make it go away or ignore it.” Like “Cost,” it starts to ramble a bit and the plot ends up being handled in a rather lazy way but the protagonist and her plight were interesting.
There are six short stories, mostly very short. “Rains” raises expectations of being akin to The Dispossessed, with “Ath” being a “panarchy” while its Moon is mostly controlled by capitalists, but doesn’t fulfill them. The plot is slight and bifurcated. In “Creative Nonfiction,” Mike Pombo is a disturbed teacher of that subject (and an unreliable PoV) and Taylor McLeef is his disturbed student. The metafictional aspects with hints of horror (in which they threaten one another and pick scabs off of their psyches through the medium of the writing) seemed to be working (when that sort of thing usually doesn’t for me) but then it tried to ratchet up the stakes (as well as trying to better qualify as science fantasy) and that part just didn’t work for me. “Riverboats,” with its ersatz pirates led by Captain Leinster may be trying to riff on the Dean’s novel (The Pirates of Zan in book form). A corporation owns both the pirate and pirated ships which are controlled by computers with a couple of robotic placeholders while both the pirate and pirated passengers are white collar workers in various stages of dissonance with their normal jobs. This tries to be funny, I think, but didn’t work for me. “Mammoth” is a minor, but nifty enough, bar tale (without the bar) about an ill-starred Arctic expedition that had attempted to return with a “mammoth” in a giant block of ice which has an ending that is both “neat” and not (in a couple of ways). Given that there’s no explanation for the gimmick, it feels more like a fantasy to me. Secret history or the like, at best. “Flowers” is about a relationship going bad (despite or because of chocolates and flowers) and is similar to another story I read recently that I’ve already forgotten in that the “speculative” element is a bunch of “or” sorts of “choose your own adventure” pathways but which are merely rhetorical and not actual and would basically be fantasy even if they were. “Time Enough” is a time travel story in which the nature of the traveler and her connection to the people of her past and the story’s present are gradually revealed, so it’s hard to summarize without specifying all that. It deals with getting an asteroid mining company off the ground with basic R&D but is more about connections and couldawouldashoulda. Executed competently enough but not especially earthshaking.