Review: F&SF, May/June 2019 (at Tangent)

This issue of F&SF is markedly populated by familiar, ideological, misanthropic, underplotted stories which tend to focus on dysfunctional spouses and parents. One of the few exceptions (though a little cynical about human nature, itself) is a reprint of an obscure picaresque fantasy and it’s also the best story in the issue, though a few others have their points of interest and elements of merit.

Continue reading at Tangent.

I don’t ordinarily review reprints but didn’t read the blurb at the front that acknowledged its reprint status until I’d already reviewed it. Tangent doesn’t review reprints at all, so here’s what I wrote on “Sternutative Sortilege” by Matthew Hughes:

Raffalon is a thief who is looking for a new home after the partial destruction of the city he’d previously called home which was not at all his fault, no sir. Instead of setting up comfortably in virgin territory, he finds himself captured by a cult who uses their sneezing prisoners as tools of divination and must escape before their sneezing powders kill him.

This picaresque tale (one of several with this protagonist) has a style that smacks slightly more of artificiality than artifice and a conclusion that is a little underwhelming but the concept and phrasing of “sternutative sortilege” is as amusing as it is disgusting and the structure and pacing is sound, though the mortal threat to the protagonist initially depends on some wasteful priests who don’t seem to appreciate simple pepper. All in all, it’s good entertainment.

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Review: F&SF, March/April 2019

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

FSF-2019-03_04

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.

Review: F&SF, January/February 2019

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
January/February 2019

FSF-2019-01_02

Original Fiction:

  • “To the Beautiful Shining Twilight” by Carrie Vaughn (fantasy short story)
  • “The Province of Saints” by Robert Reed (science fiction short story)
  • “The City of Lost Desire” by Phyllis Eisenstein (fantasy novella)
  • “The Right Number of Cats” by Jenn Reese (fantasy short story)
  • “Survey” by Adam-Troy Castro (short story)
  • “Blue as Blood” by Leah Cypess (science fictional novelette)
  • “The Washer from the Ford” by Sean McMullen (fantasy short story)
  • Plumage From Pegasus: “A Walk on the Mild Side” by Paul Di Filippo (science fiction short story)
  • “Tactical Infantry Bot 37 Dreams of Trochees” by Marie Vibbert (science fiction short story)
  • “Fifteen Minutes from Now” by Erin Cashier (science fictional short story)
  • “The Fall from Griffin’s Peak” by Pip Coen (fantasy short story)

This issue also includes a reprint of “Joe Diabo’s Farewell” from Andy Duncan’s November 2018 collection, An Agent of Utopia. In terms of original fiction, this 2019 issue wasn’t up to 2018’s standards but had enough in it to be okay, overall.

The titles are split pretty evenly between fantasy and things that might be considered science fiction but the science fiction is fairly weak, especially considered as science fiction. “Blue as Blood” was particularly hard to swallow, as a girl was born on an alien world where they sometimes apply their great medical skills to random humans and have a reputedly sometimes fatal aversion to the color blue which the girl somehow acquires. It’s a story which would seem to be about social tolerance but its theme, as presented, is probably less compelling than even its science fictional clothing. “Infantry Bot” is a fairly flat riff on Dickian “autofac” endless-war sorts of stories, with a “female”(?) bot spouting verse while her companions say “ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do or die” until the “god into the bot” ending. “Fifteen Minutes” is a nearly 3,000 word monologue in which a time-traveling torturer (and I’m not sure how the time travel is supposed to accomplish anything) threatens an alleged terrorist. Somewhat similarly, “Survey” is a 5,000 word dialog and thought-experiment on sadism rather than science fiction or even fiction. The flash of “Mild Side” takes the real Kate Hamill’s frenetic adaptations of classic novels and simply extends it (“if this goes on”) and then contemplates the backlash to that. Finally, the most interesting of the SF pieces is “The Province of Saints,” another sort of “love song for the very awful,” in which a family is destroyed and a cop is called in to figure out how by interviewing a surviving family member with strange powers. It’s a riff on better killing through brain chemistry which burns the motherhood statement regarding empathy.

The fantasy pieces are both more interesting and more fantastic except for “Cats” which is not so much a fantasy as a surrealist piece in which a woman with a dying or dead girlfriend must embrace the pain to come out the other side, with a razor-bladed spiky cat as a sleeping companion and symbol. Turning to more straightforwardly fantastic pieces, a thief confesses her “Fall” after being coerced by a dandy and a cop into stealing something for them, though nothing turns out to be as it seemed. Either the narrator is a pathological liar in addition to being a thief (in which case nothing in the story can mean much) or it’s all a case of misfortune more than her fault (in which case the story’s kind of pointless) and the tone was off-putting but some may appreciate the reversals.  “Twilight” has a lot of backstory (which stories can have without being sequels but this feels like it is and apparently isn’t) but little plot or action as it presents a woman with another visitation from fairyland which forces her to decide between it and the life she’s made for herself in Mundania. Despite its simplicity, it’s pleasant enough. “Washer” is a very strange story based on a real myth (so you can’t fault the author for that part) in which an ominous woman washes clothes for the dead. A man sees a murder and later sees that weird woman before finding that they and he are connected. He learns he has a curse and a power and has to skirmish with the washerwoman in an effort to maintain his power and do something with it. The theme is not burning any motherhood statements but the tale was interesting and some might find the modernization of the myth especially so.

I’m not sure why “City” needed to be a novella but it reads quickly and is probably the best of the issue. Extending the “Alaric the Minstrel” series, this is a sumptuous tale about a trading caravan arriving in a decayed city after a strange, magical interlude in the desert. It seems to be about a lot of things (including, especially, “drugs are bayud, m’kay?”) but turns out to be about the unraveling of a romantic knot (along with the revelation of some backstory). It’s well-constructed and effectively evokes an exotic “Arabian Nights” feeling.

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 every day 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 (Tor.com)
  • “#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.