Review: F&SF, January/February 2018

 

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2018

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(On sale January 2, 2018)

“Widdam” by Vandana Singh (novelette)
“Aurelia” by Lisa Mason (short story)
“Neanderthals” by Gardner Dozois (short story)
“Jewel of the Heart” by Matthew Hughes (novella)
“A List of Forty-Nine Lies” by Steven Fisher (short story)
“An Equation of State” by Robert Reed (short story)
“Galatea in Utopia” by Nick Wolven (novelette)
Plumage from Pegasus: “Toy Sorry” by Paul di Filippo (short story)
“The Equationist” by J. D. Moyer (short story)
“A Feather in Her Cap” by Mary Robinette Kowal (short story)
“The Donner Party” by Dale Bailey (novelette)

F&SF begins the year with a generally solid, workmanlike issue in which most people will find something to like (and probably something to dislike). While I found only the Wolven to be particularly striking (with an honorable mention to the Fisher), the Singh, Mason, Moyer, and Bailey have powerful aspects and most of the others also have their points. Seven of the tales are some sort of SF and four are not (with a couple of the latter being horror).

“Widdam” by Vandana Singh (novelette)

In the first, third, and fifth sections of this dense novelette we learn how Dinesh views “the Monster, the World-Destroying World Machine, the WDWM. Widdam,” as he’s named the emergent socio-economic system that rules all. The most notable manifestation of this, besides the absence of winter due to climate change, is the development of “Saurs” and other “sentient megamachines” who are digging up the ocean, changing the Arctic, and even reshaping the Moon in pursuit of resources and profits for their corporate masters. Some people are fighting back and have enabled some of these megamachines to go rogue, with varying results. In contrast to the Indian Dinesh’s extremely negative viewpoint, the story shifts briefly to a second section focusing on another “Indian,” the Native American Val and her interaction with one of these rogues. In the fourth (and oddly melodramatic and implausible) section, we meet Jan, the son of Carl Johansson, who was the Swedish roboticist who made the sentient megamachine breakthrough and then fell off the map, and we learn what happened with him. All this serves to paint a picture of our vast “autofac” and our possibilities of dealing with it.

However accurate Dinesh’s perspective may be, in aesthetic terms I was initially put off by its unrelenting negativity. However, the story grew on me and became quite interesting, especially in Val’s much more varied and less pessimistic section. Ultimately, the story didn’t have enough of a plot or drama (except in its largest “We’re all gonna die!” sense) to work for me, but it definitely had its points of interest.

“Aurelia” by Lisa Mason (short story)

Robert is a lawyer who receives a very strange client one day. They fall in love and get married and life is strange but wonderful until the strangeness grows and bad things happen. But, after Robert gets a divorce, worse is yet to come.

If you read and enjoyed “Riddle” by the same author in the September/October issue, you’ll probably enjoy this similar neo-gothic tale with a very unusually conceived femme monstrueuse; if not, not. This one leaves me with the same slightly nauseous feeling (which some people may go for). I also have a problem with the uneasy, implausible mixture of the mundane and weird worlds and the minimization of the latter by the former: incurious cops and medical examiners, people seeing plainly “impossible” things and writing it off as another person’s insanity, etc.

“Neanderthals” by Gardner Dozois (short story)

Using the avowedly very familiar gimmick of changewars, this short (c.2200 word) story describes a time traveling cyborg assassin landing in a place and time in which neanderthals have either been transported in from the past or recreated by geneticists. Two of these guard the assassin’s target: a drug dealer who works for the Other Side. The job goes oddly and the story tells us a bit about human nature.

If the neanderthal felt as he did, I’m not sure why he didn’t try to recruit his fellow neanderthal rather than biding his time until a human assassin happened to show up, but it does allow the two to have their conversation. And that’s fundamentally all the story is, but it has a somewhat neo-noir tone and style, with SF concepts flying around, and an implicit deep backstory.

“Jewel of the Heart” by Matthew Hughes (novella)

In this third installment of Baldemar’s adventures, that wizard’s henchman is sent on a quest for the “Jewel of the Heart” by a magic Helm at about the same time a pair of wizards are attacking his master. He and the Helm come to an agreement about handling the conflict (the Helm likes him) and he heads off into a fantasy metafiction adventure which has scenes reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk with a hint of the Wizard of Oz, a Wild West scene, and even a biker scene. All that is prelude to a gray mist scene which resolves into a new world and a new adventure (where “dream” and “story” are contrasted) and around we go before finally reaching a conclusion which partakes of the Ouroboros and the Cheshire Cat.

People who like fantasy stories which are self-consciously, explicitly about Story and who don’t mind picaresque fantasias of plots (driven mostly by the protagonist’s convenient “instinct”) may enjoy this tale which seems stylistically sound and has moments of weirdness and humor. However, at one point the protagonist

…itemized on his gloved fingers: “A giant’s heart, a jewel, a key, and things that come in threes — it’s all mysteries and fables. I’ve had enough.”

and, long before the more than 22,000 words are up, some readers may agree with him.

“A List of Forty-Nine Lies” by Steven Fisher (short story)

When you strip this tiny 525-word story of its telling, it’s “my wife and kid were killed by a dictatorship which has taken over the planet and I’m preparing to detonate a bomb to signal the Revolt.” The telling might even be dismissed as a gimmick. I don’t think it should be, though, as it quickly, effectively, and powerfully evokes pain, paranoia, and desperation. That’s not quite enough to fully recommend it, but it’s certainly noteworthy.

“An Equation of State” by Robert Reed (short story)

An alien diplomat and army arrive in a system significant only as a battlefield but, when the battle doesn’t seem to occur, the diplomat successfully lobbies for a side-mission and travels to a world in the system to investigate the natives. After being a horse in the Civil War and then a rat and other creatures (including hairless apes) in other wars, it’s achieved a strange relationship with those natives. When its superiors decide that, after two centuries, its time is up, it does not act according to plan.

It’s sort of remarkable how much this story feels like a darker, more bilious version of “Jewel of the Heart” in that it has a sort of surreal, meandering progress from one thing to another. It moves with much greater speed and force, however. This meditation on strife may have its fans.

“Galatea in Utopia” by Nick Wolven (novelette)

Rick lives in a world of “chambers” where, given prior implants and mods, almost everyone’s bodies can be reshaped into any gender or race they want. Rick is an inveterate changer and, before a night on the town, decides to go 100% female sex bomb. This has interesting results when s/he meets Alan, who informs Rick he’s a “permanent”: a person who had a condition in childhood which has prevented him from ever changing at all aside from the effects of aging. What follows is a whirlwind tour through their highly charged and difficult sexual relationship, with revelations in store.

This story may have something to offend every one in these days of offensensitivity. On the one hand, people at odds with today’s social preoccupations may take a dislike to this and, on the other, people looking to be outraged might find traces of old stereotypes. But, really, this is a story that shouldn’t be all that shocking, in that it reads a lot like Varley’s sex change future from the 1970s or even some of Heinlein’s experiments. It’s a very active story which, while lacking a crime/spy/etc.-type plot of interlocking logical pieces, does have a tight flow of action based on emotional beats. The protagonist has a clear and funny narrative voice. And the story is thought-provoking. It does have what might be seen as flaws (what would probably be anachronistic references to baseball cards and other pop culture phenomena; a lack of extrapolation – seems like a world where everyone can become everyone else would be ripe for crime/spy/etc. stories even more than relationship stories but there’s no hint of these issues) but none of the problems detract significantly from the story’s main interests. I recommend it.

Plumage from Pegasus: “Toy Sorry” by Paul di Filippo (short story)

In this long flash piece, some kids in 2036 receive interactive books complete with AI author dolls and learn what makes authors tick. Extremely “meta” but readable.

“The Equationist” by J. D. Moyer (short story)

This minimally science fictional story is the biography of a math savant who sees the life patterns of people and societies as being analogous to mathematical functions but has trouble identifying his own and deciding whether and how to change those of others.

This story, despite what a synopsis might lead one to expect, is initially very quirky and funny and creates a sympathy with the protagonist. Unfortunately, towards the end, it started to lose me, being a little too leisurely and extended when the basic ideas had already been established and the humor had been humored. The declining curve of engagement eventually rose again, but without all the early magic. However, it may constantly ascend for some.

“A Feather in Her Cap” by Mary Robinette Kowal (short story)

Biantera is a down-on-her-luck ex-heiress who’s taken up hat-making for a career, supplementing that income with assassination. When a client learns her identity and refuses to pay, she recruits a thief-friend to help with her revenge. Turns out sneaking into a rich guy’s house and trying to rob and poison him is even more exciting than they’d imagined.

This minimally fantastic story is adequate though underwhelming, given that the protagonist isn’t particularly engaging and it’s pretty pat with a natural, but not rousing, end. I also don’t follow the logic of her plan, which is to only sicken her adversary. If his knowing her identity is a problem in addition to his lack of payment and if he might seek re-revenge for her revenge, wouldn’t it be wiser to plan to kill him after robbing him? Plus there seems to be a contradiction between wanting and not wanting him to know who visited him. Be that as it may, this was entertaining enough.

“The Donner Party” by Dale Bailey (novelette)

Another angle on the widdam. Mrs. Breen is a social climber in an alternate Victorian England where the eating of “ensouled flesh” (cannibalism) is a treasured right and rite of the titled class and their friends. After making friends with the powerful Lady Donner and then rashly making an enemy of her after a perceived slight, we learn just how far Mrs. Breen and her husband are willing to go to advance themselves.

A relatively trivial issue is that a section of the story begins “The Breens began the Season that followed with the highest of hopes.¶They were borne out.” Yet what follows is anything but their hopes being borne out. Far more importantly, this story attempts a Victorian English style which seems awkward and sluggish. In more ambiguous terms, while the outre social habit is handled in a very believable way, generally, I have to wonder if there aren’t at least some laws regarding it (or at least a mention that some are immune to them) and I have to wonder when the practice originated because the religious conversation about “the body of Christ” would seem to give the practice even more social weight than it has (which is a lot). I also have to wonder how the finale was prepared so quickly. Aside from those quibbles, it is remarkable how well the literal and metaphorical parts of this “modest proposal” fit. Compared to so many stories in which the literal foreground of a story is nonsensical or contradictory because it’s driven by thematic concerns, this story’s literal and symbolic elements dovetail nicely. This story isn’t to my taste but some may savor it.

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Year’s Bests and My Recommendations

Edit (2017-01-30): This post discusses only a few, mostly print, items and the webzine picture is much different and more complete. Please see Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 1), (Part 2), and (Part 3/Conclusion) for that.

The contents of three of the four main “year’s bests” have been announced (awaiting only the Clarke) which enables me to compare my recommendations with their anthology picks. I’ve read very little of this year’s short fiction, so there’s not much I’m familiar with, but there are some pieces I know. It would give me pause if my recommendations were identical because part of the fun is people having unique points of view. But it would also give me pause if every year’s best editor agreed that some one story was great and I didn’t. It wouldn’t necessarily cause me to change my opinion, of course, but would cause me to at least rethink it. This year neither extreme occurred.

Of the three stories I recommended from Bridging Infinity, Strahan (the editor of the original anthology, itself) picks the one I thought might have been best (Ken Liu’s “Seven Birthdays”) and Dozois picks the one I thought was probably second best (Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty’s “Cold Comfort”). However, no one picked my third favorite (Benford & Niven’s “Mice Among Elephants”), with Dozois picking Alastair Reynolds’ “Sixteen Questions” instead. I did note that the Reynolds was an artsier story and might appeal to some folks based on that and that the Benford/Niven did have a significant flaw but was a lot of fun. The only other stories appearing from that anthology were Horton‘s picks of Charlie Jane Anders’ “Rager in Space” which, aside from the first paragraph, I didn’t like and Karin Lowachee’s “Ozymandias” which I liked okay but which only made the edge of “good work” and didn’t seem like year’s best material to me. (But then I didn’t recommend any of the three stories I was familiar with from Horton’s picks – his other being Cat Rambo’s “Red in Tooth and Cog” from the March/April F&SF, about which I said, “[t]his story is relatively long for its content and features a rather overwrought end sequence and unsurprising conclusion but the depiction of the ‘teeth and cogs’ is quite imaginative and entertaining.”)

Dozois also picked a couple of stories from the two issues of Asimov’s I read. From December, we both recommend/pick Karl Bunker’s “They Have All One Breath” which was all I recommended from the issue. There is a rather pointed irony regarding the January issue, though: I recommended only Ted Kosmatka’s “Chasing Ivory” from that issue. (Dozois does pick a Kosmatka, by the way, but a different one.) Dozois picked Ian McHugh’s “The Baby Eaters,” about which I specifically said, “[b]asically, it is the familiar bio/sociological tale of a human trade agent on an alien world who suffers culture shock…. All in all, high-grade magazine filler: probably not likely to be in a Year’s Best or win any awards, but a good read.”

So I’m content with the overlaps and, even with the oddity of the McHugh, I’m also good with the discrepancies. Picking the fun and concrete Benford/Niven over the artsier and ethereal Reynolds is actually par for my course.

Edit (2016-12-23): I missed a couple that I’d reviewed from the April Clarkesworld: Dozois and Strahan picked “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman and Horton picked “The Bridge of Dreams” by Gregory Feeley. As can be seen in the review, I grappled with “Touring” as a serious, quality story but saw some problems and just didn’t click with it, so couldn’t recommend it. But I get what they saw in it and it was easily the best story in the issue. “Bridge,” though, was just not Year’s Best material, in my opinion.