Review: F&SF, March/April 2019

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
March/April 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “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.

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Review: BCS #270-271

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #270-271
Jan. 31, 2019/Feb. 14, 2019

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Original Fiction:

Since BCS would now be the only magazine left in the “weekly” reviews, I’ve discontinued that series and now plan to review two or three issues of BCS once a month. This is the first review in the new tempo.

BCS #270 is the fantasy-free inversion issue. “Lion” deals with a matriarchy of female warriors. Talaan is a woman’s woman but her husband, Eefa, is a small and crippled woman whom many might just as soon put to death. Eefa’s had enough of war and death but the Emperor (who happens to be Talaan’s mother) will never have enough. When Talaan loses her favorite child and gives birth to another, things change between the three women. Behind what strikes me as a repellent surface (YMMV) is a powerful background current of emotion and interpersonal conflict. Fantasy fans may note that there  is nothing supernatural here at all. Just mundane primitives fighting. Similarly mundane, “Knife” is a brief but dreary sketch with a background of war and a foreground of backwards tokens and unrequited love, in which one woman sleeps with another because she can’t fully connect with the one she wants.

BCS #271 is the Sorcery Against Death issue, which at least brings back the supernatural. “Adrianna” is a dark fantasy of magic writing or “calligramancy” and an estranged couple and their lost daughter. The father wants to try to bring the girl back and the mother wants her back, as well, but feels this is not the way; that there is no way. The writing about the fetish of writing is elaborate and good and there is drama in the climactic sequence but it’s otherwise all very familiar and plain. “Blood” is a strange science fantasy romance/erotica/porn horror story in which an entire, elaborately detailed, society is motivated to try to find a way of avoiding the “After” (death). A sort of Victoria Frankenstein creates a homunculus in the course of her studies which goes badly until she figures out how the male and female animalcules come together to create life in her universe. Then things go worse. This tale may repel some, attract some, and do both to some.

Review: Constellary Tales #2, February 2019 (at Tangent)

This second issue of Constellary Tales is my first exposure to it. It presents a mix of fantasy and science fiction in five stories which range from 1000-3300 words and seems to have potential.

Continue reading at Tangent.

Honorable mention:

  • Ambassador” by Michael Adam Robson (science fiction short story)

Review: Tor.com, January/February 2019

Tor.com Short Fiction,
January/February 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “Beyond the El” by John Chu (short story)
  • “Deriving Life” by Elizabeth Bear (science fiction novelette)
  • “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light” by Mimi Mondal (fantasy short story)
  • “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by JY Yang (fantasy novelette)
  • “Articulated Restraint” by Mary Robinette Kowal (science fiction short story)
  • “Old Media” by Annalee Newitz (science fiction short story)

Tor.com has at last produced the first issue of the bi-monthly presentation of their weekly(ish) web content. I’ve already reviewed the previously released “Beyond the El” and “His Footsteps.” (I’ve also reviewed “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir” which, for whatever reason, was published on an atypical Monday as the first story of the year but isn’t included in this issue.)

As for the remainder, starting with probably the second-best story in the issue after “Footsteps,” “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” is a multiple first-person narrative from those three entities which describes how Circus Girl once lost her reflection to Mirror Boy before she escaped her horrible old life and made something of a tolerable one for herself. Now Mirror Boy’s back with word that they’re both being hunted. Circus Girl flees to a wise witch and learns some stuff before the final confrontation. The ending seems like cheating. While the story may be taking issue with bad apples and not the bunch, there’s a pervasive flavor of misandry. It’s odd that Mirror Boy is specifically characterized as an atypical entity that upends conventional wisdom and yet the Hunter is an unreasonable fanatic type we know all about. (Even odder given a “twist” in the story I won’t spoil). Finally, the multiple first-person, which at least gives everyone a chance to speak, is probably better than simple first-person but that old-fangled non-MFA third-person omniscient would have been best. Still, unlike a lot of SF/F mixups lately, this post-climate change magic world works pretty well and the fantastic elements are imaginative.

Old Media” opens with two guys making out and builds up a backstory of futuristic bondage of brown people in a climate-changed world to get across the notion that there are alternatives or additions to sex and slavery and the dangerous world outside, demonstrated via the love of the protagonist and a sort of robot. While the bulk wasn’t especially appealing, the ending makes the story clever and nice enough. (Incidentally, the “old media” refers to things like this story as seen from the future.)

Articulated Restraint” is basically identical to “The Phobos Experience” (F&SF, July/August 2018) set in the same alternate history by the same author except that, this time, the selfish female astronaut endangering people’s lives is hiding her sprained ankle instead of her vertigo. The main difference is that, while the other wasn’t great, it had an actual adventure with space pirates and everything while this is a “wet run,” so to speak, for the actual rescue operation in space in which our protagonist tests out possible approaches in a pool on Earth.

Deriving Life” involves, Marq, a narcissistic narrator whose lover, Tamar, has invited a sentient alien cancer to inhabit the lover’s body (somewhat akin to the better “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group” and numerous earlier tales) and is now dying. To quote Marq, “Don’t I get to be broken about this? The worst thing that’s ever happened to me?” Yeah, especially with it being so great for Tamar. Marq is confused about why everyone keeps leaving. Marq’s a slow study and so the story doesn’t even really have much of an ending. The Old Standard Future was depicted in social epics of city slidewalks, robots, flying cars, galactic civilizations, etc. Now it’s self-centered microcosms of self-driving cars, climate change, a disproportionate focus on gender and sexual identity and made-up or altered pronouns and honorifics. Like several stories to a lesser or greater extent in this issue, this is a completely Current Standard Future story.

Review: Clarkesworld #149, February 2019

Clarkesworld #149, February 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “East of the Sun, West of the Stars” by Brit E. B. Hvide (science fiction short story)
  • “Painwise” by Robert Reed (science fiction short story)
  • “The Final Ascent” by Ian Creasey (science fantasy novelette)
  • “Give the Family My Love” by A. T. Greenblatt (science fiction short story)
  • “The Face of God” by Bo Balder (fantasy short story)

Clarkesworld #149 is a science fantasy issue, with stories which are not, or do not feel like, science fiction.

In “Family,” Hazel is recording messages to her brother, describing her efforts to reach an alien “library” to recover some lost human research to help us with our climatic (and perhaps climactic) apocalypse. It turns out even the largest, most social issues have personal motivations. This is actually something which impairs the story, for me, and the whole library/journey/dilemma seems contrived but the narrative is crisp and the surreal, fantastic, hyper-VR library is a lot of fun.

Ascent” is nearly as much fun, but essentially a fantasy. A dying man on an alien world is given an alien organ to ingest by his semi-estranged ex-lover which turns him into a ghost. Most of the natives are kept in a sort of sociological stasis by their hierarchy of ghostly elders and none of those living or dead approve of humans. They also don’t approve of the few natives who reject the afterlife and live a hedonistic life. This community becomes the wedge for the human ghost to occupy himself with as he attempts to improve their lot. A lot of this struck me as pretty silly but the “bored god” vantage point and many related bits of food for thought were interesting.

In the other stories, “West of the Stars” is a sort of “Amish in space” story in which a woman discovers that her society’s foundations are just creation myths and that she’s been taken advantage of as well. Neither the interleaved fantasy sections nor the obfuscated SF sections worked well for me. “Painwise” borrows a title from James Tiptree, Jr. (1972) to talk about a plague of pain afflicting humanity because, while vaccinations are good, drugs are bayud, m’kay? The narrator is an unappealing broken man and every silver lining in this story, including the big fantasy twist, comes with a honking big black cloud. I couldn’t make “Face” the least bit science fictional no matter how I tried and, while it may be some kind of response or riff, it reads like a clone of Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” (1964). A tiny little person tries to harvest godflesh from a fallen giant and gains a different perspective. It could mean anything or nothing, and may specifically focus on compassion but initially made me think of more cli-fi as well as the Doors song, “When the Music’s Over” (1967).

What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered
and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives
in the side of the dawn
and tied her with fences
and dragged her down.

I recommend the Doors song.

Review: Lightspeed #105, February 2019

Lightspeed #105, February 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “Life Sentence” by Matthew Baker (science fiction novelette)
  • “Marlowe and Harry and the Disinclined Laboratory” by Carrie Vaughn (science fiction short story)
  • “Ti-Jean’s Last Adventure, as Told to Raccoon” by KT Bryski (fantasy short story)
  • “Oath of a Demi-God” by Ashok K. Banker (fantasy novelette)

As a notice, rather than a review, “Oath” is the third installment of “The Burnt Empire series.” These out-takes from a novel have appeared in three consecutive issues (four come March), have taken a quarter of the original fiction slots, and have taken 44% of the wordage. This issue’s other fantasy is less than 2500 words on “Ti-Jean’s Last Adventure,” in which a trickster tries to outwit Death. This is a highly metafictional fairy tale and self-confessedly very Canadian (with tuques and everything) but is also universal. It doesn’t particularly stand out from the vast pack of similar tales but it’s concise and amusing.

Turning to a species of science fiction, “Disinclined Laboratory” is also an installment in a series of tales, but is the first Harry and Marlowe tale since the special 100th issue. In this, Lt. Marlowe is working at a lab run by idiots who are trying to develop weapons from alien technology to help Victorian England win a war against Germany. When the Prince and his sister, Princess Maud (aka Harry), show up for a demonstration, things don’t go well for the idiots but Marlowe’s virtue may be rewarded. This, despite any number of quibbles, is a nice set-up for later stories but, despite having a problem and a solution, it’s not a full story by itself.

Life Sentence” uses the familiar gimmick of mindwiping criminals and is a very mixed bag. Aspects of the man’s subjective experience of having been wiped and reintegrating with his family and society are effective and ring true while others do not (among the most trivial but most glaring: depicting a home-owning American family without access to the internet… in the future… with two school-age kids). Aspects of the speculative/social elements (including disinterest in questioning this society) are especially problematic. The only concern of the story is the man’s conflicting desires to find out what crime he committed and how his past and present may relate to his intrinsic nature. This makes the “lady or the tiger” ending especially unsatisfying.

Month in Review: January 2019

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This is a slightly re-titled and graphically enhanced version of what used to be the “Monthly Summation” and marks the first month of the two-tiered review system in which eight magazines are fully reviewed and twelve are selectively reviewed. This installment looks back on 96 stories of 502K words which produced just four recommendations and seven honorable mentions. It also includes links to the thirteen relevant reviews and the seven other January articles.

Noted Stories

Recommended

Science Fiction

  • “Applied Linguistics” by Auston Habershaw, Analog, January/February 2019 (short story)
  • Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu, Slate, January 26, 2019 (short story)

Fantasy

Also Mentioned

Science Fiction

  • All Show, No Go” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (short story)
  • “All the Smells in the World” by Julie Novakova, Analog, January/February 2019 (short story)
  • Elementary School” by J. D. Trye, Nature, January 30, 2019 (short story)
  • I’ve Got the World on a String” by Edward M. Lerner, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (short story)
  • Skinned” by Rich Larson, Terraform, January 10, 2019 (short story)
  • VTE” by S. R. Algernon, Nature, January 23, 2019 (short story)

Fantasy

  • “The City of Lost Desire” by Phyllis Eisenstein, F&SF, January/February 2019  (novella)

Reviews

Magazines

Books/Other

News