Review: F&SF, November/December 2018

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
November/December 2018

Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2018, cover by Alan M. Clark
Original Fiction:

  • “Thanksgiving” by Jeffrey Ford (fantasy short story)
  • “The Lady of Butterflies” by Y. M. Pang (fantasy novelette)
  • “Extreme” by Sean McMullen (science fiction short story)
  • “The Iconoclasma” by Hanus Seiner (translated 2013 novelette; not reviewed)
  • “Overwintering Habits of the North American Mermaid” by Abra Staffin-Wiebe (fantasy short story)
  • “Every Color of Invisible” by Robert Reed (science fiction novelette)
  • “This Constant Narrowing” by Geoff Ryman (fantasy novelette)
  • “Other People’s Dreams” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (science fantasy short story)
  • “The Baron and His Floating Daughter” by Nick DiChario (fantasy short story)
  • “When We Flew Together Through the Ice” by J. R. Dawson (science fiction short story)
  • “The Island and Its Boy” by Bo Balder (fantasy short story)

F&SF‘s final issue for 2018 more or less reverses last issue’s SF tilt with a lean towards fantasy and is also lacking a novella but is packed with stories that are mostly long within their categories (aside from a 122-word “story”). Despite those similarities, this issue is much stronger.

The only story which is hard to see as a story of family or of courtship rites is, naturally, the one about a psychopathic thrillseeker caught up in a conspiracy of rich people up to no good. “Extreme” has vivid first-person narration and may show a good grasp of an outlier mentality but is less convincing when it comes to imagining, not the possible depths, but the required factors of the ultra-rich.

Invisible” is set among a hidden group of Lakota and focuses on Raven Dream, a boy who similarly gets caught up in a conspiracy of the rich. It spends more than half of its nearly 14,000 words describing the boy being educated by his uncle, the computer, and the TV, with descriptions like, “Television was a slab of glass and plastic, its spine running up to an antenna on top of the trailer. High clouds and no wind meant that the television would let five windows come indoors. But the television was sleeping today.” (Throughout, its science fictional core components and fantasy style have an uneasy co-existence.) Finally, the boy is taken before the rich man and a certain tension develops but this reads more like a random excerpt from a novel (which may turn out to be good) than a fully shaped story. “Ice” involves a cardboard villain of a mother taking her two daughters and running away from her husband by stealing a spaceship (which has a dashboard and on which people shoot bullets). She has the older daughter and our narrator chipped with a mind-controlling “conscience” but, for some reason, doesn’t do the other one. After years (decades, even), this leads to violence. The tale’s monochromatic misery has its power but needs more than that and it contains sometimes ineptly deployed familiar tropes.

Somewhat like “Invisible,” “Dreams” is a blend of fantasy and science fiction but this reads more purely like “science fantasy” in that it’s essentially a fantasy set in space. One orphaned being is apprenticed to another being who has problems with her siblings. They craft dreams for other entities and the crux of the story arrives when the master is called by her sibling to finally sort things out by producing a very special dream. The narrative’s style was sometimes stiff but generally effective and the plot was interesting but not quite enthralling. In the last and best story I’m lumping into this group, one fine “Thanksgiving,” after Uncle Jake has left, a family realizes none of them know whose uncle Jake is. This leads to a family discussion and a climactic next Thanksgiving. The spooky idea and the short story form go together like turkey and stuffing and it’s generally well executed. There are at least a couple of ways such a story could go and the one enhances the effect of the other. There are a couple of minor blemishes, though. Conversation as earthy as having someone “put shit in the oven” and stilted as “[t]he act of putting his jacket on” seeming to “drain” another didn’t mesh and, similarly, the segue from the mainstream to the fantasy parts of the story could have flowed better.

Moving to courtship rites, “Narrowing” is a deeply unpleasant story (the author provides his own trigger warning list after the fashion of Strange Horizons) in which all the women of Earth have followed Mary and disappeared, leaving men to hunt other men, wounding them with gunfire and claiming them as sexual trophies. But, eventually, races and other divisions of men start disappearing piecemeal as well. This seems to be a hodge-podge of the preoccupations of contemporary fiction and is probably saying something about “internet bubbles.” It seems to accidentally switch tenses once before decisively doing so when it also begins addressing the reader as the hunter who is trying to force a wounded narrator to satisfy you. That narrator insists he’s a Latino Californian gangbanger but calls redheads “gingers” and refers to being “in hospital.” “Mermaid” is the 122-word piece in which we get advice regarding mermaids and their winter clothes and what people interested in them might do.

Island” is a much more interesting tale as it’s not everyday one reads a fantasy about polygamous matriarchal Eskimo-like people on a moving island which orbits the pole until it breaks into more southerly currents and gets replaced by a baby island which serves as the new home of the people. One special boy doesn’t want to leave his familiar home (but is quite willing to explore the unfamiliar otherwise) and he must ally with a handicapped girl to complete his plan of secession. In the end, the plot is more of a deus ex than his own work (though it can all still be seen as a necessary test) and the ending is a bit sentimental or overwritten, but this was a decent tale. Perhaps a step above, “Floating Daughter” deals with a Prince visiting a Baron only to find the Baron’s daughter, Levita, stuck to the ceiling because she’d forgotten to eat the magic apple that keeps her from floating away. The Prince is enchanted by her and vows to succeed where others have failed and solve the problem of the magic tree with the magic fruit so that he can marry her. The Prince, the Baron, and Levita are all initially delightful and the tone is superb and it’s thoroughly enjoyable, Then it takes a surprising and very risky turn which it nearly pulls off but left me with a damaged character and confusion about the theme. It was so intriguing throughout, though, that I have to note it.

Better still, and recommended as the best story in the issue and likely one of the best of the year is “Butterflies.” When the inexplicable, enigmatic, and mostly amnesiac Morieth, apparently a native of a sometimes rival land, shows up on the grounds of the curiosity-collecting Emperor and his First Sword, Lady Rikara, the three find themselves drawn into a triangle of attraction set amidst more general and multi-sided court intrigues. Matters reach an action-packed climax when the king from that rival land arrives to treat with the Emperor and many are set at odds with one another and must make great sacrifices, before those events are followed by an appealing denouement. The Japanese-like fantasy setting is rich, the characters are complex and the bindings and divisions between them are powerful. One of my favorite elements of the story is its style which doesn’t derive from fancy words but uses plain, simple ones and derives its beauty from their arrangement and rhythm which produces a deliberate, but never slow or clotted pace. Similarly, an objection could be made that the Big Reveal isn’t all that surprising and so might be disappointing but, like the style, the plot works for me because it doesn’t rely on sometimes cheap surprise and reversal, but is made out of solid elements arranged well and seems to unfold with a sense of inevitability.


Review: F&SF, September/October 2018

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
September/October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Memorybox Vultures” by Brian Trent (science fiction short story)
  • “Shooting Iron” by Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard (fantasy novelette)
  • “The Men Who Come from Flowers” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (fantasy short story)
  • “Powerless” by Harry Turtledove (alternate history novelette)
  • “The Gallian Revolt as Seen from the Sama-Sama Laundrobath” by Brenda Kalt (science fiction short story)
  • “We Mete Justice with Beak and Talon” by Jeremiah Tolbert (science fiction short story)
  • “Taste of Opal” by Yukimi Ogawa (fantasy novelette)
  • “Suicide Watch” by Susan Emshwiller (science fiction short story)
  • “Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven” by Gregor Hartmann (science fiction short story)
  • “Impossible Male Pregnancy: Click to Read Full Story” by Sarina Dorie (science fictional short story)
  • “Blessed” by Geoff Ryman (fantasy short story)

The September/October issue of F&SF includes a couple of very long novelettes and some substantial short stories (one within the fuzz factor of a novelette and written like one) but provides the same number of novellas Analog did: 0. (In fact, looking ahead, it looks like F&SF will only emit three in all of 2018.) This issue tips slightly more to the SF side of the field than usual, with six stories of a science fictional nature plus an alternate history vs. four fantasies.

My favorite was one of the two decent SF cops’n’robbers stories. “Mete” takes us into the near future when someone tries to assassinate a mayor with a drone. The interesting element is the “cop” matched up against that drone: an eagle with a bird/human/AI gestalt mind. The story, itself, is a little thin, being a “person low in the pecking order trying to make good” template but the technical idea is fun and the aerial flight and fight is well done. “Vultures” is another crime tale but not another bird story as its birds are metaphorical. Its plot is too thick. In this near-future, a woman works with quasints (AI-like entities derived from people’s online personas). Her case seems to shift from a former bookstore owner to a former woman who is trying to take down an evil politician but that politician and his vulture (pet hacker) play hardball. The premise is fine (though shaky as presented) and the initial layout of actions and issues is fine. The political skullduggery in the meat of the story is okay in the abstract except for TV-episode-like melodrama. Unfortunately, the penultimate twist undercuts the story and hurts the ultimate twist which would have been superb and could have joined up with the start perfectly if the story had had a different middle.

Moving to stories with revolutionary elements and eventually seguing into fantasy for a bit, “Powerless” is a story about a propaganda poster from the West Coast People’s Democratic Republic being the straw that breaks Charlie Simpkins’ back. He throws it away, rather than hang it in his shop window as required, and that small act, after some pushing and shoving with the Powers That Be, leads him into a life of revolution. The sole speculative element of this story is, “What if California were, say, Cold War Romania?” but there actually was a Cold War Romania. This is effectively unpleasant but rather dull and underwhelming and, though it illustrates how one need not be powerless in bad political times, I’m not sure why the story took this particular retro-form. “Gallian Revolt” moves us off-world and well into the future in another underwhelming tale of a regular person in a revolt, this time as mostly an observer with key details of participation. Also, except for the surface of made-up names and indications of multi-planet empires and some trivial “laundrobath” tech and so on, this isn’t especially science fictional either. “Emissaries” is a little different and reminds me a lot of “Inquisitive” from two issues before in the same magazine. A disadvantaged but driven girl rises from her broken home and experiences a great deal in a larger life in a theocracy in which she’s a participant, though we’re supposed to be sympathetic to her. Here, she tries to find a way to combat a heresy of a group which believes humanity must shrink to pool its godhead vs. those who believe it must be fruitful and multiply throughout the galaxy. While interesting enough, it didn’t seem to connect to much for me. Finally, the fantasy, “Blessed” is one of several stories in this issue written in second person and/or present tense. You’re a white African woman with postcolonial malaise and an acute case of dorkiness who gets lost in a cave tour, endures a nightmare, and then experiences a Change. If I’m reading this right, it may well include a profound truth about the relation of the past to the present and future but its cave nightmare, while indeed theoretically nightmarish, constitutes almost all the surface story which meant it was actually uninvolving.

Two more fantasies are not your typical Western fantasies. “Opal” involves an opal blooded woman being sold by her parents to some merchants, meeting her jet blooded twin, and realizing that the status quo (or sacrificing some things for the benefits of others or something) is a good thing and I frankly didn’t follow it well. Some people may greatly enjoy its unusual fantasy elements, however. “Shooting Iron” involves an Asian woman traveling to the West (or a portion of it which has been consigned to a sort of dimensional hell by a sort of devil) to learn the martial art of the magic six-gun and go out into the world to take on a lieutenant of that devil in what is apparently the first installment of a larger story. While different and better, this reminded me unpleasantly of “Six-Gun Vixen and the Dead Coon Trashgang” from last year’s Lightspeed and had other issues such as repeating the protagonist’s full name “Jenny Lim” 103 times, “Jenny” another 43 times, and “Cowgirl Lim” another four in this forty-page story. I’m not a fan of Weird Westerns and I don’t see this converting many but, if you are a fan, you may find something here.

The last fantasy is one of two stories which invert notions of masculinity. “Flowers” is a flash piece in which a woman exults in her sweet little flower boy but must grapple with allowing him to become a big hulking ugly cruel brute of a man who won’t do the dishes. Moving back to a vague form of SF, “Male Pregnancy” gives us the first story about male pregnancy we’ve had in, gosh, it must be three or four months now, since “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group.” This one is much less interesting, dealing with chimeras and twin absorption rather than freaky alien sex and has a character who is presumably supposed to exemplify reproductive desires overwhelming rational thought but doesn’t have the freaky alien sex excuse and he comes off as too irrational and, frankly, stupid, to empathize with. Your mileage may vary. Other than it not happening to humans to my knowledge, this deals with scientifically factual sports of nature and isn’t particularly science fiction. Just more like “Elvis kidnapped by aliens” sort of tabloid SF, though it does deal with thematically serious things.

Because, like King Missile, I like to end on a “Happy Note” (and because empathy with this protagonist may also be difficult (at least, in this case, I hope it is)), “Suicide Watch” involves a future in which a company taking money to allow individuals to watch other people suicide is somehow acceptable and a narrator who has been sadistic since childhood and who can’t feel anything short of thrilling to people’s suicides. Naturally, he runs out of money paying for multiple such experiences (which, as he continually exults, are his and not shown in detail on the internet at large, though he gets lots of likes when he posts about them). Naturally, there is a twist in which the story takes a dark turn. Darker. Depending on how you look at it. The graphic suicides are powerfully portrayed and the reader is unpleasantly put into the position the protagonist volunteers to be in, each of which may be seen as a quality or a defect. However, leaving aside any other criticisms, given the ultimate content of the story, the narrative strategy for this tale simply does not work.

Review: F&SF, July/August 2018

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
July/August 2018

Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2018, cover by Bob EggletonOriginal Fiction:

  • “The Phobos Experience” by Mary Robinette Kowal (alternate history short story)
  • “The Prevaricator” by Matthew Hughes (fantasy short story)
  • “The Queen of the Peri Takes Her Time” by Corey Flintoff (fantasy short story)
  • “Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling” by L. X. Beckett (science fiction novella)
  • “The Adjunct” by Cassandra Rose Clarke (fantasy short story)
  • “Visible Cities” by Rachel Pollack (fantasy novelette)
  • “Bedtime Story” by James Sallis (science fiction short story)
  • “Morbier” by R. S. Benedict (time travelish short story)
  • “Hainted” by Ashley Blooms (fantasy short story)
  • “Broken Wings” by William Ledbetter (science fiction novelette)

The July/August F&SF features Martian cover art with related opening and closing stories. This might lead one to expect a very science fictional issue but  half the issue is pure fantasy while only a couple of the SF tales are thoroughly SF. Whatever the genre, while this lacks many great stories, it’s full of good ones and makes for a good read.

The Phobos Experience” takes us back in time to an alternate 1970s with a Martian colony and features a heroine with vertigo who accompanies two other soldiers to explore the cave system in Phobos which has been the object of disinformation and is now being used as a piece in a game between civilian and military authorities. “Broken Wings” takes us more traditionally to an inhabited Deimos of the future and features a paraplegic heroine and her obese love interest who has discovered an alien artifact which is sought after by an inspector and pirates. (“Phobos” had a whiff of space pirates, too.) This latter tale is unabashedly neo-pulp and rather fun.

Of the remaining not-entirely-fantasy tales, “Morbier” is a tale which tries to toe the line between mainstream and time travel with a skeptical narrator and her girlfriend who claims to be a time traveler. This tale uses a very uncommon cheese metaphor in this slight extension of a very common time travel motif. “Bedtime Story” is another one of those New Wavy “make a comment on the human condition… hm, let’s throw in inscrutable offstage aliens as the metaphorical gimmick” apocalyptic short-shorts. “Freezing Rain” is initially so choked with “future lingo” that it is off-putting but becomes more readable as it goes on. A journalist who wants to be a musician has had all his “social credit” destroyed* due to an unfortunate incident and falls into the clutches of an obscenely wealthy old woman who is an artist of a very peculiar sort as he tries to make a deal to get an illegal brain-enhancing drug in exchange for undergoing unnecessary chemotherapy at a corrupt clinic as both part of his journalism and her “art.” While the woman may be a symbol of the rapacious wealthy and there are such people, she’s still hard to believe as a character and the journalist is unengaging even though he’s the focal point. Despite these problems, the story becomes quite powerful and even horrifying until it reaches its somewhat muddled, improbable end.

Turning to the fantasies, “Visible Cities” is connected to other stories and may appeal more to fans of those but, taken by itself, is a fairly dull tale with no discernible connection between its scenes which depict a woman training to be a sort of sorceress and then losing track of and seeking to reconnect with her teacher. “The Prevaricator” is a much lighter and more entertaining tale about a scam artist figuring out what he thinks is an easier way to get his riches and joining forces with a wizard to scare the people into paying money to avoid having a wizard for a neighbor. Naturally, things don’t go entirely as planned. “The Adjunct” is also a light tale (for one set at Miskatonic University, anyway) and as cheese metaphors are uncommon, so are tales about citation systems from hell. A professor has to deal with “CFSR” when she just wants to be able to tell her students to use MLA. When she learns more about CFSR, things only get worse. “Queen of the Peri” is more serious but still breezy, as a race car driver seeks help for his problem with an angry peri (Persian winged spirit) first from an old man known for having had a similar problem and, ultimately, from a djinn. “Hainted” isn’t light at all and is probably the most impressive tale of the issue. Young Dallas is a coal-miner’s daughter and has noticed problems with her dad and his relation to both mother and daughter. Turns out that an important piece of him has been broken off down in the mines and she needs to get that haint to rejoin him. She gets her best friend’s dad to guide her down the mines to where the haints work but must do the hard part herself and it turns out to be much harder than she imagined. The haints are vividly conceived and are indeed, quite haunting. The journey below is powerful and painful and may resonate on personal, familial, and social levels.

* The editorial blurb says, “Creative people, like writers, have some of the most experience with this awkward collision of social capital and the new gig economy, but the novella that follows is the first across our transom that fully imagines a near future where this trend is pushed to its potential extreme.” While he’s speaking only of F&SF and may also set a high bar for “fully,” all I can say is that I’ve read a lot of stories a lot like it in this regard. Some examples from just the past six months:

  • “Black Friday” by Alex Irvine (
  • “#CivilWarVintage” by Nan Craig (Terraform)
  • “Confessions of a Con Girl” by Nick Wolven (Asimov’s)
  • “Life from the Sky” by Sue Burke (Asimov’s)
  • “Logistics” by A.J. Fitzwater (Clarkesworld)
  • “The Narcissus of Titan” by Tyler Wells Lynch (Terraform)
  • “Razzibot” by Rich Larson (Analog)
  • “The Streaming Man” by Suzanne Palmer (Analog)
  • “Sucks (to Be You)” by Katharine Duckett (Uncanny)
  • “Top of Show” by James Rowland (Compelling)

Review: F&SF, May/June 2018

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
May/June 2018

Cover of May/June 2018 F&SF

Original Fiction:

  • “Tender Loving Plastics” by Amman Sabet (science fiction short story)
  • “The Barrens” by Stephanie Feldman (horror novelette)
  • “Inquisitive” by Pip Coen (science fiction novelette)
  • Plumage from Pegasus: “Live by the Word, Die by the Word” by Paul Di Filippo (science fiction short story)
  • “Argent and Sable” by Matthew Hughes (fantasy novelette)
  • “The Bicycle Whisperer” by Lisa Mason (science fiction short story)
  • “Unstoppable” by Gardner Dozois (fantasy short story)
  • “Crash-Site” by Brian Trent (science fiction novelette)
  • “What You Pass For” by Melanie West (fantasy short story)
  • “Ku’gbo” by Dare Segun Falowo (fantasy short story)
  • “Behold the Child” by Albert E. Cowdrey (fantasy novelette)
  • “The Properties of Shadow” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (science fantasy short story)

This issue of F&SF is about half science fiction/science fantasy and half fantasy/horror. Di Filippo has another Plumage from Pegasus piece, of course, and, after taking an issue off, Hughes, Mason, and Dozois return (in a block) from the January/February issue. Long-time prolific contributor Cowdrey also returns. It’s a strange issue in that almost everything is at least pretty good though I didn’t feel that any story was especially remarkable. Aside from “Crash-Site,” which was a nice science fictional treasure hunt, the two that stuck out most for me both dealt with driven main characters summed up in a word: “Inquisitive” (SF) and “Unstoppable” (fantasy).

Tender Loving Plastics” is a time-lapse journey through Issa’s life from baby to young nurse, focusing on her time at The Dewey Home for Foster Children (specifically Dewey Foster Home #12) where she’s raised by “Mom,” a somewhat, but not especially, sophisticated robot. It focuses on what this does to Issa and children like her.

This basically tackles a human version of the Harlow experiments. It’s well-written, with precise language full of sensory details without being preciously styled and is constantly on the verge of tugging at the heartstrings but ultimately seems a little underdeveloped and is certainly lacking in dramatic plot, though some may appreciate its quiet presentation.

The Barrens,” as a place, has lakes, mountains, woods, and deserts and, as a story, is a teen horror movie in which five kids gather to search for a mysterious radio station’s “Spring Equinox Party” and end up being hunted all night through all these places by hungry monsters.

These characters have a stereotype or two thrown over them and a primal force or two exudes from them but are not otherwise very well-developed or distinguishable. The murders are very well-depicted in the sense that they are initially almost discreet but the casual gory horrific references to them later give them an odd creepiness twice over. How the reader reacts to this probably depends on whether they like stories of this kind and are excited by the danger these figures are in or are bored by the sequence of violence.

Saffi Kenyon is the sort of genius who can be stupid because she disdains some things most people value which can cause her to overlook sometimes important things. This and her poverty don’t stop her from being “Inquisitive,” though, which takes on a double meaning because she lives in a society which has long been ruled by a cabal of scientifically advanced torturers. Since access to information is what drives her and they have it, she’s determined to become an Inquisitor, despite their exclusion of females. The story details her troubled relationship with her mother, her first break when a psychiatrist gives her an old digiPad, and her subsequent struggles to achieve her goal, along with her breakthrough invention (which I very much want).

Everything occurs in an ambiguous light because this society, which is taken for granted by most of the characters, is repugnant and Saffi, herself, is not always sympathetic, but both she and her world are at least unusual. The plot generally moves too easily (way too easily in that the final contest is even possible) so that the story lacks true drama, but the narrative moves briskly and maintains interest anyway. The whole struck me as being above average.

A strange comment in Time about the social perquisites of writers forms the epigraph of this issue’s Plumage from Pegasus installment, “Live by the Word, Die by the Word.” Literalizing the quote, this scene hearkens back to the rise, and describes the fall, of the “fabulocracy” in which storytellers rule the world.

In a confusedly remembered past, the wizard Ederwold created “the Gantlets of Enduring Grasp”: a pair of magic gloves. He used them to reach into another plane and grab a demon, which wasn’t wise, as the demon ripped him apart. And that wasn’t wise, either, as the demon got stuck between planes, with most of him back where he wanted to be but part of him stuck in Ederwold’s plane due to the gloves. Enter Baldemar, the wizard Thelerion’s henchman, who goes on a quest to test his new configuration and luck (implemented in the previous story in this series) and to try to acquire these gloves at the place where “Argent and Sable” meet.

While this tale’s plotting is aided by Baldemar’s new “luck” in place of the “instincts” used in the previous installment, it’s a much tighter tale with much more direct action. This may make it less appealing to some, but was more appealing to me. I also liked some of the humor. (A friend lends Baldemar a coat, prompting him to say, “I’ll try to bring it back in one piece,” to which the other replies, “That’s all right, it’s not my best coat.”) This tale should appeal to people who like its “demons and wizards” sort of fantasy.

The Bicycle Whisperer” is a parable of about 1500 words which describes a woman repairing a sentient bicycle who’s become a “runaway” (shouldn’t that be a “rollaway”?) from her abusive owner.

While it’s not revealed until a quarter into “Unstoppable,” Prince Kalgrin (several siblings and a father away from becoming king) wants to become the greatest warrior of all time and knows he’s not physically cut out for it; he decides to remove the obstructions blocking him from the throne and its treasury so that he can hire a wizard to change that. Wars naturally ensue.

Kalgrin makes me think of several parts Caligula with one part Trajan which makes for a very bad combination; the ending makes me think of something I can’t put my finger on. The nicely crafted elements of the story weave together well and the quietly ironic fairy tale style, with its purposeful occasional dissonance, works well, both helping to make the story above average.

After a human native of a planet finds a “sporegun” and uses it on an enemy, a pair of corporate hunters from one corporation track him while a pair from another track them, both pairs trying to get to the “Crash-Site” of the old interstellar vessel that brought the gun and which may produce riches for their masters.

This is a sequel to an earlier story (“A Thousand Deaths Through Flesh and Stone”) and feels like it but seems to mostly stand on its own. I had nitpicky problems throughout, some of which were actually resolved, but it was a generally exciting and entertaining tale, though the ending was ultimately unsatisfactory. Overall, this may be yet another slightly above average story.

In the heavy-handed “What You Pass For,” a black man can paint black people white or even paint white people whiter which he regrets as helping them to commit the evil of assimilation.

While not a direct sequel to “We Are Born,” “Ku’gbo” is another lyrical tale set in the same Nigerian village. What some take to be invisible rams are eating the village’s food and one of the villagers is attempting to take advantage of a nearby owl to transcend in wisdom. As the story goes on, there are more changes in store than he knows, if perhaps no more than he feels.

Behold the Child” feels like it could be part of a series, too. It opens with someone who turns out to be a second banana before shifting to the main focus of a couple of lawyers and a couple of ex-spouses going at each other with a telekinetic homicidal child mixed in with all of it. After the odd opening, there’s an internally inexplicable dinner date between a client and a lawyer who’s already been hired. The client tells the long version of his story (which one lawyer must already know) to another lawyer (who should have already been told by the first lawyer) and there is no other apparent purpose to the dinner/conversation. Then a sequence of running around, punctuated by a few deaths, occurs and then a simple, but insufficient, moral is reached.

I still don’t understand what “The Properties of Shadow” are, as it seems like it wants to turn dark matter/energy into a trope but it’s possibly pure fantasy about literal shadow. However, the rest of the tale is science fiction, dealing with an artist visiting one of many inhabited worlds, this one by descendants of humans. She and her shadow assistant are working on their next art project when a stalker arrives and quickly becomes invasive and dangerous. The resolution to this is too curt and bald and the story is one of those which feels like not all of it made it to the page. However, its oddity was interesting during the actual course of reading.

Review: F&SF, March/April 2018

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
March/April 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Satyr of Brandenburg” by Charlotte Ashley (fantasy novelette)
  • “The Next to the Last of the Mohegans” by Joseph Bruchac (science fantasy short story)
  • “Likho” by Andy Stewart (science fantasy novella)
  • “The Beast from Below” by William Ledbetter (science fantasy short story)
  • “Hideous Flowerpots” by Susan Palwick (fantasy novelette)
  • “A Swim and a Crawl” by Marc Laidlaw (short story)
  • Plumage from Pegasus: “The Varley Corps Wants You” by Paul Di Filippo (time travel short story)
  • “A Dog of Wu” by Ted Rabinowitz (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Harmonic Resonance of Ejiro Anaborhi” by Wole Talabi (science fantasy short story)
  • “Down Where Sound Comes Blunt” by G. V. Anderson (“science fantasy” short story)

This issue of F&SF takes special delight in genre-bending. I don’t care for that in the abstract, but many do and, either way, it has some good stories.

First, there are several mostly short, mostly light, mostly minor stories. “The Varley Corps Wants You” takes as its point of departure the appalling toll 2017 took on our creative talents (and it’s disheartening to realize how many more he could have added in late 2017 and even this year). In the story, the reason for this is that people from the future have applied eugenics incautiously and bred creativity out of their gene pool, leaving their utopia rather lacking. So, akin to Varley’s Millennium (in this story, though I think the original “Air Raid” version was so much better), they’ve gone back in time to nab our artists. What the artists do when they get there concludes the story. This has a couple of practical implausibilities (even granting the time travel) but is a reasonably interesting short, light bit. “The Beast from Below” might have been science fiction had it been a 1950s movie but is some kind of fantasy about a giant irradiated mutated armadillo with a very weak “romance” between Mayor Mable and Sheriff Harry. I find the casual comment about Japan in the context of a radiation “comedy” to be odd, at best. Comic storyteller Billy tells us about another of the fixes his eccentric inventor friend Arlin Sweetwater got himself into in “The Next to the Last of the Mohegans.” It doesn’t pay to mess with the Little People, even with SF tech, as Arlin will attest after calling Billy to help get him out from the inside of a tree (which is the least of Arlin’s troubles). Feels like a part of a series but apparently isn’t. “The Satyr of Brandenburg” is the second of a series (following “La Héron”) and somewhat suffers from it. It’s longer than the others of this group, and perhaps darker, but still feels fundamentally light. This is set in a sort of Sardinia in 1700 but one in which the “Otherworld” is a known thing and from which Heron comes. The story mostly addresses her relationship with ex-nun Alex while she competes in a dueling tournament under the auspices of the Marquess of Soleminis. Its ending is too quick and easy and the premise doesn’t appeal to me but some may enjoy this.

There are also a few mostly short, mostly dark, not entirely successful stories. “A Swim and a Crawl” is a surreal, rather than fantastic, tale and seems to be making a statement on the human condition with its protagonist trying to transit from the sea to the peaks, though the apparent suicidal beginning is at odds with that idea. It’s basically a writing exercise conveying the sea and a cliff, otherwise. “Down Where Sound Comes Blunt” is impossible to review (or even categorize properly) without spoiling it. It’s bizarrely similar to “Ice,” which I read last month in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, in that both deal with the child of an explorer heading off to frozen lands to search for their missing father and encountering strange critters there. In this case, it’s a science fictional take on fantasy “selkies” and I can’t say much more. Suffice to say, it is also like “Ice” in that the setting is effectively evoked but I wasn’t as impressed by the rest of the tale and had logical and aesthetic issues with the ending but some may enjoy it. “A Dog of Wu” ultimately does some things pretty well but is fatally undone by initially talking about a “Way” developing as a result of a “Drift” and focuses on “Milano” who is a follower of “Wu” without defining or giving meaning to any of these people or things for at least half the story, so we have nothing to root for or against, no parameters of success or failure, nothing to connect with. Eventually, it seems we’ve had a bit of a radiation accident and a shadow government of biochemically/genetically controlled people have been produced to follow the ideology of the Way and partially control things in a dystopian fashion. It conveys the idea that the only walls you need are those in your mind (which is to say it’s all fine, if conventional, SF stuff) but it’s too little, too late.

Of the better stories, two are quite similar in a way. “The Harmonic Resonance of Ejiro Anaborhi” and “Hideous Flowerpots” both deal with humans in pain and the outpouring of love and/or understanding of the “other” that can heal this. “Resonance” takes a young girl as the focal point but applies her, and her find of a magic alien gizmo in Nigeria, to a social story of her father and others protesting at an oil company that is damaging their environment. Through experimenting with the gizmo with her friend, she has learned that their consciousnesses can fuse while in contact with the device and each other. The climax comes when government troops at the protest turn violent. “Flowerpots” takes a middle-aged art gallery owner as its focal point and delves into her self-loathing, despite all her measures of success, which causes her to lash out at others. She meets a woman who leads a sort of support group which possesses a similar, unrationalized device, to the one in “Resonance.” The crisis here is more personal, dealing with the pains of love and hate and, while not expressed this way, of being born again. Similar to Palwick’s recent “Remote Presence,” this is an ecumenical tale which doesn’t address any particular religious or spiritual label and doesn’t use words like “charity” but conveys a general power of love and understanding. The primary running symbol of the “hideous flowerpots” is good and plays into the story’s substantial humor which never undercuts its serious intent and I much prefer its ending which is physically as easy but psychically more ambiguous, harder earned, and indicative of hard things to come compared to the easier one of “Resonance” (though “Resonance” has elements (opening segment, temporal setting) which may show that it knows it’s an idealistic tale). So I honorably mention “Resonance” and highly recommend “Flowerpots” but both are good and some might reverse the two.

Finally, perhaps an even stronger story is “Likho” (sequel to, or at least kindred story of, “Wormwood Is Also a Star”) which is another story that is very hard to pin down. It’s basically a very tense and compelling tale of Sonya and her guide sneaking into the sealed off regions around Chernobyl so that she can investigate a mural that has generated urban myths of its magical properties, related to the tale of some children who were left behind in the disaster and magically protected, only to meet tragic fates anyway. So it opens with a pretty thorough blend of SF & F and things only get fuzzier as Sonya follows her guide in taking “Yaga” and tripping though some of the rest of the story which particularly features the troubling apparition of the title figure (who runs ambiguously throughout the story). In more literal terms, it involves getting caught up in a tiny subset of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and encountering the scientific labs where the children did much of their suffering. “Likho” basically does everything right that “Wu” did wrong and was absolutely captivating and intense. I had my arms clenched together, with the “real world” falling away as the story took over, especially when the protagonist was with the Ukrainian freedom fighters and the Russian-sympathizing captive. It has a conventional plot element or two and an odd word choice or two but was very good and is also strongly recommended.

Review: F&SF, January/February 2018

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

(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 Fischer (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 Fischer), 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 Fischer (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.