- “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.