Review: F&SF, March/April 2019

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

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Original Fiction:

  • “The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets” by Gregor Hartmann (sf short story)
  • “The Plot Against Fantucco’s Armor” by Matthew Hughes (f novelette)
  • “At Your Dream’s Edge” by S. Qiouyi Lu (f short story)
  • “All of Me” by R. S. Benedict (f novella)
  • “miscellaneous notes from the time an alien came to band camp disguised as my alto sax” by Tina Connolly (sf short story)
  • “The Mark of Cain” by John Kessel (f short story)
  • “Playscape” by Diana Peterfreund (f short story)
  • “The Free Orcs of Cascadia” by Margaret Killjoy (short story)
  • “Dear Sir or Madam” by Paul Park (sf short story)
  • “Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Jerome Stueart (f novelette)
  • “Bella and the Blessed Stone” by Nick DiChario (short story)
  • “Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous” by Rich Larson (sf novelette)

I enjoyed F&SF last year. It had more stories I regarded as the “best of the year” than any other magazine. Things are inexplicably different so far this year, though this issue does have two stories of note (one recommended). The remaining ten divide evenly into “okay” and “not so much.” One striking feature of this issue is how fuzzy they are in terms of science fiction vs. fantasy with some not being much of either one. Another is that GWAR and Ozzy Osbourne are referenced in separate stories. Along with alto saxes, clarinets, and Debussy.

Plot” is another novelette about the wizard Thelerion’s henchman Baldemar. He gets caught up in an elaborate plot which seems to be about the succession to the throne. Baldemar is shown to be extraordinarily slow-witted and unlucky immediately before we are reminded that he’s been changed by an entity and his “mind worked faster and with more precision now…. And he was lucky.” Luck aside, this is conveniently plotted, with amazingly thin walls plus convenient ducts and ear trumpets for overhearing things and so on. It’s also longer than it needs to be. For example, while the threat of a torture which doesn’t happen can be useful in a story, this red herring gets an entire section rather than a more effective line. Overall, though, the tale was engaging enough and fans of the series will probably be satisfied. In “Unbearable,” Inspector Philippa Song is on the case when a currency trader is murdered. There are several logical glitches such as introducing another cop as a “Pather” or religious fanatic and then describing him as “an ordinary cop,” a “pragmatic man,” and thinking “touche” when arguing with him rather than rejecting his axioms. More significantly, the story is written like a murder mystery but then is solved by action which makes the whole thing deflate like a popped balloon and, worse, ends like it’s a middle. Still, there were several moments of potential.

In slighter middling tales, a child has gone missing from a “Playscape” and the mother is suspected of murder. Another mother tries to suspend judgment and sympathize. This much of the “basically fantasy but SF tale if you want it to be” and its creepy traumatized atmosphere is effective enough but the story undercuts its own theme. (See comments for spoiler.) “Dear Sir” is a dead man’s letter, so to speak, which seems to be by an alien whose business in VR personality re-enactments has gotten a bit strange. “Bella” issues her first prayer when her abusive father comes after her again and he’s killed by a rock flying through the window. This is taken as Sign and she becomes a famous social media saint but the rock must have been of iron because irony is on the way. This is one which is hard to call fantasy or science fiction though its more the latter.

Of the lesser tales, “All of Me” is a tabloid-toned “abused girl’s revenge” novella which puts me in mind of stories like an upside-down “Aurelia” from the same magazine. Instead of a butterfly, we have a starfish who becomes a masochistic movie star after a vicious pretty boy falls into the water near her. We follow her wanderings through interminable murders, usually of her, as we head-and-body hop through manifestations of this regenerating, multiplying entity. With “Postlude,” F&SF matches Asimov’s by having a story which references Debussy but this one’s actually about jazz (well, it’s actually about ham-handed homosexual symbolism but it’s definitely not about classical). A clarinet teacher finds that a football-player-cum-musician has his long-lost “Shaft of Moonlight” as he calls his magic clarinet, which was taken from him by the evangelist baseball player Billy Sunday (who also crushed his legs). While I found the musical portions of the program overwritten, some may respond to it but, if you just want a satyr/musician story, try Lester del Rey’s “The Pipes of Pan.”

Miscellaneous Notes” is about a girl trying to make out with a cute guy at band camp, is written in Teen Girl Gush, and has absolutely no need for its “alien” other than to make it “science fiction.” “Dream’s Edge” is another of these stories which completely melt down any notion of “objective correlative.” A person uses a fantasy “app” to experience nightmares: “An arrow pierces your neck. An arrow pierces your eye. Stop, you want to say, but the word will not come as blood pours from your mouth. Stop, you want to say, but they will never stop.” This is for desensitivity training to make a visit to a family who will “use the wrong pronouns” relatively bearable. Finally, “Free Orcs” fails on several levels, including the basic level of believability. Just as one example, the protagonist is a self-described “good journalist” who goes to a group of pseudo-medieval counter-culturalists to interview an admitted murderer. Without checking anyone else’s story, she believes everything the murderer says, including that he killed his victim because that guy was a leader of a group of fascists while his people are matriarchal. Then the journalist implies majority voting is “dumb” and advocates behaving like the driver at Charleston. Despite the use of the word “orc” and having a made-up group, there’s also nothing more fantastic or science fictional here than what you might find at Burning Man.

Finally, turning to the stories which redeem this issue, it’s hard to call “Cain” (which is a metafictional collection of scenes which nod to alchemy and posthumous fantasy and are interspersed with commentary) a fantasy or even a story but, though a little footloose, it’s not fantasy-free and is story-like. The protagonist, whom we call Cal, narrates some of his less virtuous moments in life and some of these scenes, which all meditate on “the mark of Cain” and man’s innate goodness, badness, and ugliness, have power, especially the one which occurs while fetching the milk. I can’t exactly recommend this and could almost question its being published in this form but, at the same time, have to note the quality, nuance, and power of its parts.

Noctambulous” is a fine story which is thoroughly science fictional but feels almost like a Poe horror story as it describes the rich survivors of biological apocalypse commemorating the event with a get-together and festivities. It’s also a clinic in how to do certain things. It opens in the midst of the action of a boy or young man playing with a servant and produces a sense of the society which can contain these two people who interact the way they do. Because this is an exceedingly unpleasant society, it quickly introduces the protagonist’s brother and the main conflict. Sparked by the vicious older brother’s behavior toward the servant, the younger impulsively humiliates the elder. This makes us sympathetic to the younger without absolving him of his society’s sins. Later, the story preserves contrast by including elements of humor (with an undercurrent of darkness) such as when the father lets his eyes literally wander. The only quibble could be the speech (long-delayed infodump) which tells us about the deeper, darker background to it all. But the action immediately returns with the Doppel hunt, in which the young “kill the weak parts” of themselves by shooting their specially (mis)designed clones. Finally, the dark and twisting ending gives readers a sense of completion while simultaneously compelling them to carry the story into the future with their own imaginations.

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Review: Asimov’s, March/April 2019

Asimov’s,
March/April 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “The Peacemaker” by Gardner Dozois (1983 science fiction short story; reprint)
  • “Instantiation” by Greg Egan (science fiction novella)
  • “Tourists” by Rammel Chan (science fiction short story)
  • “Eighteen Songs by Debussy” by Michael Swanwick (science fiction short story)
  • “How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” by Lawrence Watt-Evans (science fiction novelette)
  • “Terrible Trudy on the Lam” by Eileen Gunn (fantasy short story)
  • “January March” by Tom Purdom (science fiction short story)
  • “The Starry Sky over the Southern Isle” by Zhao Haihong (2017 science fiction short story; “self-translated”)
  • “Transport” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (science fiction novelette)
  • “Isla Tiburón” by Alex Irvine (science fiction short story)
  • “The Lights Go Out, One by One” by Kofi Nyameye (science fiction short story)
  • “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” by Jack Dann (fantasy short story)
  • “The Lost Testament” by Allen M.Steele (science fiction novella)

The March/April 2019 Asimov’s is a special issue in honor of former editor Gardner Dozois. It features some writers with special connections to him such as Jack Dann, Tom Purdom, and Michael Swanwick, as well as people like Greg Egan (who received a lot of support from Dozois) and Lawrence Watt-Evans (who has a sequel to his Hugo-winner that Dozois edited). Some of this may be specially commissioned or just serendipitous but the bulk of the tribute consists of special non-fiction. Regular columns have special content: Sheila Williams writes an Editorial on the great editor; Robert Silverberg Reflects on him; James Patrick Kelly finds connections to him On the Net. A special column includes touching and/or hilarious memorials from over a dozen writers. Returning to fiction, the capstone is a reprint from Dozois himself: the Nebula-winning “The Peacemaker” from the August 1983 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, as it was then known, as it was then edited by the underrated Shawna McCarthy. I don’t ordinarily review reprints from current magazines but I will say that this slow-moving tale of a boy washing up on the shores of a religious cult after the ice caps have melted and the seas have risen is an inarguably well-written tale which concludes powerfully and its generational and personal significance is apt.

Turning to the regular fiction, there are four novelettes and novellas among the twelve stories and at least three of them are in series.

Instantiation” is a superior sequel to “3-adica,” a novella from the Sep/Oct 2018 Asimov’s (review). While the earlier story was generally good, I felt it had some problems that this one avoids. It also orients the reader more clearly so that they might not even need to read the first one to follow along, though I wonder if the characters of Sagreda and the others would seem as fleshed out (so to speak). This installment deals with the fact that the business which runs the gameworld in which our AI cryptopeople exist is starting to fail, making them realize they face a mortal threat. They discover a possible escape route via a game in which logical positivists kill Nazis (I don’t know how the business could be failing) because one of the players is using a special VR rig which has useful features (any sufficiently advanced bug is indistinguishable from a feature). The problem is, that player has recently quit. In order to draw the player back in, Sagreda goes undercover. One of the most effective elements of this story, which sets it apart from most other VR/AI stories is the clear double perspective with which we read about data that’s human and machines that are worlds and how, well, “haptic” it all seems, with genuine stakes. While this story’s plot arc does conclude, those stakes are made even more tangible in an epilogue which shows more is to come.

Lost Testament” is a sequel to “Starship Mountain” (Jul/Aug 2018 Asimov’s; review) and “Sanctuary” (Tor.com, May 17, 2017; review). It features the same cast of characters as “Starship Mountain.” In this one, Pilot and Philip drop into private investigator Jeremy Crowe’s life again, this time soliciting his help to go to another rich family’s estate and steal a valuable document and a gizmo. This is a decent read but less interesting than its predecessor with the only tension coming from being followed by the fuzz and with little plot for a novella. (There are also several glitches, ranging from the non-word “stalagtite” to making a big deal about not taking a gun because they’re illegal but later revealing lockpicking tools which are just as illegal.) Even if the blurb didn’t say so, the pause to this one also makes it clear there will be more.

How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” is the third tale in that milieu, the most notable one of which is “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers.” In that award-winning tale from the July 1987 IAsfm, Harry runs a diner which serves as a nexus for travelers of parallel worlds and sometimes receives strange payments from them but the story primarily concerns his assistant. This one primarily concerns a PI who is compelled to go to Harry’s after a client hands him a sort of rock Harry pawned to him that makes the PI feel really good. The narrative describes the lengths to which the PI goes to get his hand on another one. While explanations are possible, it’s not clear why the current owner’s not as affected.

Finally, in “Transport,” which is a tale apparently unconnected to the Diving Universe but in which space travel is just as bizarrely unreliable, a kid disappears from a spaceship, causing a cover-up to unravel, an unpleasant lawyer to go on the warpath, and an ex-engineer to come out of retirement. The whole story feels like something impatiently thrown together to get across its point but the last two pages/chapters feel especially hasty, schematic, easy, didactic, and sentimental.

Of the short stories, “Lights Go Out” is very nearly a novelette. The Solar system is about to be destroyed by a black hole and a few starships go out looking to move a sun to a rogue planet. This has a humanizing family component to its intergalactic scope and places its characters in an agonizing moral dilemma after a wondrous discovery in another solar system but the science and a lot of the plot details were simply unbelievable. “Tourists” involves a race that loves to be just that but their activity once resulted in a massive loss of life when they revealed themselves to a xenophobic race so doing that is now forbidden. There is some nice paranoia regarding urges to come out but it all depends on an “idiot plot” and annoyingly repeats the phrase “[some language] or whatever” over fifty times in just over eight pages. I wouldn’t ordinarily review “Starry Sky” but wouldn’t ordinarily review “Peacemaker” either, so the former is an excessively passive tale about a damaged ecology resulting in poor economic policies which damage families, but a dad and his daughter at least have a phone. As only the rich get clean air in “Starry Sky,” so only they get clean water in “Isla,” while security teams working for the company hunt poor terrorists. It’s an initially interesting and serious tale (with a hilarious bit on water, wine, and beer) but ennobles its terrorists while not giving its bad guys any wives or children because that would complicate its moral clarity. The better “Eighteen Songs” is about sex and violence in an AI-dominated post-human future of body-swapping written in the key of (WT)F. (I prefer Mr. Mojo Risin’s formulation: “I tell you this, no eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.”)

Terrible Trudy” is a bizarre little comic fantasy set in the 1940s about a tapir who escapes from the zoo and becomes an entertainer but eventually meets Firrup Mumble (Philip Marlowe?) and happens into another career change. “January March” is an unusual and nicely written but modest story about a bureaucrat accompanying some participants in the international portion of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade. They face windy situations which the “cyber” autopilot has to deal with while the guy reflects on all this and the current romantic relationship in his life. My favorite of the shorts was “Mr. Death.” This is one of those “heresy of paraphrase” stories which makes it hard to summarize. A sick boy is at the beach with his famous model mom when he sees a boy and a very strange man. When the boy disappears and the man appears by him, the boy has a strange experience. While I would have liked something “bigger,” the thing that sets this slightly apart is the effective weirdness which seems to suspend time for the reader just as time is suspended for the boy.

Review: Analog, March/April 2019

Analog,
March/April 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “Beneath a Red Sun” by James C. Glass (science fiction novelette)
  • “Hop and Hop with Gleepglop-Geep! A Bedtime Reader” by Tim McDaniel (science fiction short story)
  • “Negotiating Traffic” by Brad Preslar (science fiction short story)
  • “The God of All Mountains” by Jo Miles (science fiction short story)
  • “Parenting License” by Leah Cypess (science fiction short story)
  • The Little Sailboat, James Gunn (science fiction short story)
  • “Fine-Tuning” by Bond Elam (science fiction short story)
  • “Running the Gullet” by Vajra Chandrasekera (science fiction short story)
  • “Second Quarter and Counting” by James Van Pelt (science fiction short story)
  • “Final Say” by Eric Del Carlo (science fiction short story)
  • “Dangerous Company” by C. Stuart Hardwick (science fiction novelette)
  • Probability Zero: “Tea Time with Aliens” by Jack McDevitt (science fiction short story)
  • “The End of Lunar Hens” by M.K. Hutchins (science fiction short story)
  • “The Invitation” by Bud Sparhawk (science fiction short story)
  • “Rising Stars” by Elisabeth R. Adams (science fiction short story)
  • “The New Martian Way” by Brendan DuBois (science fiction short story)
  • “Slow Dance” by Jay Werkheiser (science fiction short story)
  • “The Walk to Distant Suns” by Matthew Kressel & Mercurio D. Rivera (science fiction novelette)
  • “Better” by Tom Greene (science fiction novelette)
  • “A Mate Not a Meal” by Sarina Dorie (science fiction novelette)

This issue of Flash Fiction Offline presents us with five novelettes and fifteen short stories. As I indicated in the review of the last issue, I won’t review all the short stories.

Second Quarter” involves the notion of “Backspin,” which is a process of rejuvenation which may make people young, but may also cost portions of their memories and personality. This story is recommended after surviving its poor opening of a 350-word monologue from an old man with a “get off my lawn” vibe. After that, the background narrative describes the platonic relationship of two swimmers which has lasted from their teens to their seventies while the foreground narrative describes the man’s decision to be rejuvenated and the woman’s handling of this. The general science fictional notion is familiar but explored in detail very well here and the highlight of the story is the wonderfully done relationship.

In “Lunar Hens,” a woman is trying to make a lunar biosphere sustainable as a step on the way to colonizing Mars but the chickens don’t, uh, do well. Nor the rabbits. This doesn’t please the project’s backers. What can she do to improve the unsustainable crop yield? This is an example of the microgenre of colonizing nitty-gritty, somewhat in the fashion of parts of The Martian. It lacks a really great ending but it was short, darkly whimsical, and pretty entertaining

A couple of others aren’t quite technically “notable” but I’ll discuss them anyway. “Slow Dance” is the more successful of two off-Earth murder mysteries which suffers from a needlessly unlikable main character/investigator but sets up interesting dynamics and semi-cryogenic ideas (somewhat reminiscent of one of my favorite novels, Between the Strokes of Night). “Hop and Hop” is a story written in the form of a children’s bedtime story with very non-human (or is it all-too human?) mores. While the story has a certain energy, what makes it stand out is that the usually double-columned Analog presents this in single-column pages and with numerous uncredited large interior illustrations. They give the entities anthropomorphic bodies though a “second left arm” is mentioned in the text, but they’re interesting and fit the twisted “children’s” story motif.

While uncharitable interpretations are possible, a generous one for why there are so many stories that are so short in issues of Analog these days is that SF is a literature of ideas and a short story can adequately explore an idea and this approach gives the reader a large array of ideas. Unfortunately, most of the stories, as stories, are only indifferent (five of the remainder) or inadequate (the other six). But at least they do introduce a nice twist on the already tired motif of autonomous vehicles, take us to Mars (twice, once for the other murder mystery), question whether parenting should require a license, warn about post-human survival strategies, show how future people might be given coherent last words on dying, and add examples to the climate change, robot, time travel, first contact, and “evidence of alien visitors” subgenres.

Turning to the novelettes, three are quite short. The story and writing in “Red Sun” wasn’t satisfactory with, for instance, a romance delivered with “John thought she had a nice smile and was glad to have her on his team,” before moving on to “[t]he relationship between John and Carol had gone well beyond friendship, and Captain Soder married them just after their second awakening.” The ending has a similarly simple “here’s the summary and now good night kids” ending but there was a good core of scientists exploring a weird ecology under the flares of a red sun with a trite but true “battling the elements to survive” motif.

Dangerous Company” is a lot like”Red Sun.” While it starts off with a battle to survive against a crazy person, it then turns into a similar, second struggle against nature, this time on the Moon. The way the two characters and their situation are introduced led me to ask “Who are these people? What is going on? Why should I care?” It did improve later, but I’m not often a fan of secret history (which this turns out to be) and especially not this particular secret history (which I won’t spoil).

To give a flavor of one of the many problems with “Distant Suns” and its contrived plot, when the Company raises the cost of taking that walk to a distant sun (think Stargate), a disadvantaged tech with a sick mother hatches a lunatic plot to smuggle her family through and, when her improvisation catches the eye of security types and they are interrogating her as a possible terrorist who might have been trying to destroy a zillion dollar station with massive loss of life, she tells them they’d really enjoy stopping the interrogation to go take a look at people actually walking through the stargate. And they do! They tell her to go to her room and not turn off her phone, so she turns off her phone and flees. Anyway, there’s a predictable twist which is well-drawn but way too little, too late.

Of the longer novelettes, some may enjoy “Mate,” the alien lesbian spider story which describes the protagonist’s struggles with a murderous male imposter and her confusion when she meets a four-limbed “spider” that she falls in love with but it reads like an animal fable rather than science fiction for a long time and I could never shake that feeling, especially with all the symbolism. (By the way, this is similar in ways to “Hop and Hop” and there are several stories which could be paired up in this issue.)

Much, um, better, for me was “Better,” which vies with “Second Quarter” as the best story in the issue. Humanity has basically been drafted in a galactic war between “Proxies” and “Pancakes.” Earth has been largely depopulated when Nick returns from the fighting without all his legs and with the assignment to make the Morphos (alien slugs inside prosthetic bodies who have no sense of sight or smell but only extraordinary hearing) productive members of what’s left of society. The stakes? Well, he’s also been poisoned by the enemy and, for the cure to run through the right neural pathways, he has to succeed here. The good news is, he has plenty of time: two days.

This whole story is extremely weird and wonderful without ever being so weird as to block engagement. The background scope and the foreground drama create a canvas of breadth and depth and, without the story doing anything ostentatious, Nick is a very sympathetic character. This story took me a long time to read in the good sense: I kept stopping and thinking with Nick about all this stuff and these weird aliens and what made them tick. Their sensory world and mentality fully meet Campbell’s demand to show him aliens who think as well as men (or better), but not like men. My only quibble is that it’s set up somewhat like a mystery or puzzle and we are given plenty of clues on the road to solving it but, at least to me, I don’t feel like the ending was fully prepped, though it does make a counter-intuitive sort of sense. Regardless, this is another of the few Real Science Fiction™ stories and is the second tale I recommend from this issue.

Review: To Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg

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Date: December 1984 (originally May 1967)
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-24502-3
Pages: 222
Price: $2.75
Publisher: Bantam (originally Ballantine)

After “To See the Invisible Man,” (review) Robert Silverberg published five more short stories* before embarking on a series of five novelettes, all published in Galaxy, which were collected as To Open the Sky (1967). The blurb to my 1984 Bantam paperback says it is “filled with a scope and vision comparable to Asimov’s Foundation series.” This is hyperbole, as Asimov invented a science, set it in a galaxy-spanning epic, and covered a half-millennium of the fall and rise of interstellar empires, initially in three volumes. To Open the Sky invents a technophilic religion, is bound to this solar system (specifically, Earth, Venus, and Mars), and covers about a century of effort towards longevity and interstellar travel in one volume. Still, the comparison is interesting, for there is a master visionary (Vorst in the role of Seldon) who creates a social force which takes over a world and then creates a schism for even greater control. However, with the religion and the longevity, there’s as much of Heinlein’s Future History as Asimov’s Foundation Universe.

Blue Fire” (June 1965) is set in 2077 and introduces Reynolds Kirby, a U.N. diplomat, who has to play host to Nathaniel Weiner, a Martian settler. Kirby tries to hold the drunken and rambunctious visitor in check and that hard-bitten frontiersman comes into conflict with a religious cult, The Brotherhood of Immanent Radiance or Vorsters, whose members “worship” science, as symbolized by the glow of Cerenkov radiation. An initially skeptical Kirby, on the other hand, find that his internal emptiness (indicated by his dependence on a Nothing Chamber, or ultimate sensory deprivation chamber) might possibly be filled by something these cultists have.

The Warriors of Light” (December 1965) advances to 2095 and introduces Christopher Mondschein as a man desperate for the immortality the Vorsters promise to achieve. His overzealous efforts to gain entry to their scientific citadel lead to his being compromised by the schismatic sect of Harmonists. They turn him into a spy and send him to the very redoubt, governed by Brother Capodimonte, which started his troubles. The somewhat melodramatic plotting for this tale is more action-oriented than most of the stories.

Where the Changed Ones Go” (February 1966, set in 2135) sends the orthodox Brother Martell to Venus. There, he finds Mondschein settled in to a position of power among the heretics and a minority of susceptible Venusians, despite most of the society being violently opposed to them. Martell high-handedly tries to convert them to the orthodox faith with bad results which compels him to fall in with the schismatic group, himself. This tale expands on the notion of a poisonous Venus which is habitable only with radical changes to one’s body which also results in radical changes to one’s offspring, including the manifestation of psi powers.

Lazarus Come Forth” (April 1966, set in 2152) is a sort of origin story for the Harmonist schism. The sacred texts of the Harmonists tell how Vorst, or his acolytes, martyred David Lazarus. Thus Lazarus’ being found on Mars in a suspension chamber causes some consternation. This story shows the ruthlessness of Noel Vorst and his devious machinations, particularly as seen by Kirby, who has risen from empty diplomat to being Vorst’s right hand man. Vorst draws the powers and resources of the disparate societies of the three worlds together through this prophet ex machina and continues to drive towards his goal of interstellar immortality.

To Open the Sky” (June 1966, set in 2164) deals with the final stage. (I won’t spoil its doings but will note that, somewhat as Silverberg “invented the CD player” in a 1961 article (fascinatingly described in his Reflections column in the September/October 2018 Asimov’s) so he has a prescient description of the exoplanet hunt which began in earnest in 1992: “Astronomers had found hundreds of planets scattered through other systems. Some could dimly be picked up by telescopic sensors; other could only be inferred by computations of disturbed stellar orbits. But the planets were there.” This sounds like Doppler spectroscopy which was postulated in 1952 but not practicable until four decades later.)

With its relatively small set of recurring characters and its overarching goals and themes, it reads very much like a novel though, with its changing settings, time jumps, and shifts in focus, it also reads like a set of stories. I’m not sure how satisfying each story would be alone, as there is relatively little action and few cataclysmic conclusions to end each tale but, as a single book, it reads well. The characters are all strangely interesting, the conceptions of Mars and, especially Venus, are vivid, and the drive for the satisfaction of lofty goals pursued by flawed men keeps the pages turning. This wasn’t a masterpiece and its themes would be visited again in later works such as Tower of Glass (1970) and The Book of Skulls (1971), but I did enjoy it.


* Four of the five stories are “The Shadow of Wings” (If, July 1963) which may be a misfired alien contact joke, “The Pain Peddlers” (Galaxy, August 1963) which is a biter-bit involving reality television, “Neighbor” (Galaxy, August 1964) which is set on a malicious version of Solaria and involves a weirdly mortal conflict between neighbors, and “The Sixth Palace” (Galaxy, February 1965) which may be a metaphor for getting the most out of an irrational universe when an almost Fafhrd and Gray Mouser-like duo confront a riddling robotic guardian of treasure. The last two are more interesting than the first two. The other is the uncollected “The Unbeliever” (Magazine of Horror, August 1963) which may have been written before the Pohl phase. Similarly, early in the course of the To Open the Sky novelettes (and possibly written before them), he also published the uncollected “At the End of Days” in New Worlds (which was reprinted in the May 1969 Magazine of Horror).

Month in Review: January 2019

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

Noted Stories

Recommended

Science Fiction

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

Fantasy

Also Mentioned

Science Fiction

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

Fantasy

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

Reviews

Magazines

Books/Other

News

Weekly Review: 2019-01-21 (BCS/Tor.com)

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Original Fiction:

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #269, January 17, 2019

Tor.com, January 16, 2019

El” inflicts Connor, an inert nothing of a “food crafter,” and his unbelievably repellent sister on us as he tries to recreate a recipe of his recently deceased mother’s and allows the domineering sister to abuse him yet again. This is billed as SF but other than something trivial about a handwaving server inexplicably cooking food in words 630-669 (which may simply be something I don’t understand) this is a painfully mainstream story which gave me the feeling of the famous nightmares involving running without making any progress as its nearly six thousand words of expository writing microscopically examines food such as “the decadent unctuousness of foie gras” and makes asides about Connor’s love interest, the singer Nick, and his “jazzy piece of atonality” with “Bernstein’s setting of the Ferlinghetti poem, ‘The Pennycandystore Beyond the El.'”

Despite being in a different magazine, “Deepest Notes” shares a theme of sibling troubles with “El.” The two female outlaws make me think of a sort of Thelma and Louise in a medieval forest but Jane’s killed her sister and Molly’s killed a bunch of folks before they meet each other and fall in love–also they’re not looking for “a blaze of glory.” The magic element is the fact that instruments made of animal bones can sing of the things that bother them and, when you’ve fed your sister to the pigs and someone makes instruments out of pig bones, it makes a body nervous. This isn’t a satisfying tale to me (the moral calculus eludes me), but it’s concisely told and some may appreciate it.

Carrying on the themes within the same magazine, “Orpheline” also deals with female enemies and allies and with music, in this case repeating the familiar BCS refrain of being an operatic tale set in 18th century France. The intrusively metafictional narrative (and its musical and thematic motifs) reminded me of “Variations on a Theme from Turandot” by Ada Hoffmann (Strange Horizons, May 14, 2018) and also of the many, many selkie tales of late, even though this uses a catwoman. A “girl” has been deprived of her catskin by a magician, so haunts an opera house as a menial and spars with the malicious Head Soprano but, when the magician’s mistress accompanies him to a performance and she offers the girl a deal which may make them both happy at the expense of the other two characters, the wheels of grrrl power and liberation begin to turn. The narrative style may appeal to some but didn’t sit right with me, seeming to intermittently shift focus as well as degree of intrusion, and the ending was too abrupt and easy but the tale was otherwise effective.

Robert Silverberg’s “To See the Invisible Man” and “Hawksbill Station”

(This was going to be a “Classic” installment of the “Weekly Review” but Tor.com put out a story at the last minute, so this is a sort of “Birthday Review” now.)

The story goes that, when Frederik Pohl was editing Galaxy and its siblings, he made Robert Silverberg a deal: you can have indefinitely guaranteed sales–send me anything and, if I consider it quality work rather than hack work, I’ll buy it and the next story you send me. If I think it’s hack work, I’ll still buy it but then the deal’s off. So, from April 1963 to February 1969 (Pohl’s last issue of Galaxy was May, 1969), Silverberg sold Pohl nineteen pieces of short fiction and a serialized novel. The first of these stories, “To See the Invisible Man,” appeared in Worlds of Tomorrow, while the rest appeared in Galaxy and If. During this period, Silverberg sold to few other short fiction markets: one story each to the original anthologies, Dangerous Visions and Orbit 4, and one to F&SF, plus less noted stories to The Magazine of Horror, New Worlds, and Worlds of Fantasy.

While Silverberg had been a prolific, successful, and relatively well-regarded author of pulpy adventures, it was this spate of stories, along with the novels which began with the 1967 publication of Thorns, that is generally taken to mark the start of Silverberg’s more literary and even more acclaimed era. He went on to continue writing at an extraordinarily high volume while simultaneously aiming at and frequently achieving an extraordinarily high quality which resulted in more memorable works than most authors will ever have forgotten. While observing the field from at least 1948 to the present, he acquired accolades too numerous to mention, including serving as President of the SFWA, and having a career as editor that alone could have resulted in Grand Master status.

“To See the Invisible Man” is clearly not action-oriented pulp, but is a dark tale of alienation and of a form of reconciliation or enlightenment. The protagonist has been “cold” to society, not sympathizing with his fellow man. This isn’t an offense that receives jail time, but the “lesser” sentence of being made Invisible for a year. A temporary brand is placed on the perpetrator’s forehead and anyone who acknowledges his existence will be made Invisible, themselves. The story follows the man’s testing of the limits, experiencing quickly paling cheap thrills, and moving through more painful, fearful, and depressing experiences as he adjusts to his condition. Finally, he is released from his sentence as a changed man, but his change is not without irony.

The problem with this story is that it is contrived and implausible, with a social structure created for thematic ends rather than seeming to arise naturally, but that has never and still does not stop others from writing similar stories. The virtues include the assured storytelling, the largely plausible emotional journey of the protagonist, and the partly ironic ending that distinguishes not just between lone wolves and society, but between “society” and humanity. It’s also interesting to contemplate the differences between this future society of Invisible social punishment and our current one with its arguably even less humane, extremely Visible aspects.

While “To See the Invisible Man” is not his greatest story, it is good, historically interesting, and indicates the greater things to come. It’s not online, as far as I know, but it was collected in the 1966 edition of Needle in a Timestack, as well as in Earth’s Other Shadow, The Best of Robert Silverberg, later varieties of “Collected Stories” series, and numerous anthologies, most recently in Chasing Shadows: Visions of Our Coming Transparent World (2018), edited by David Brin and Stephen W. Potts.

Other than the lesser biter-bit, “The Pain Peddlers,” the only story from this Pohl/Silverberg connection that I know is online is “Hawksbill Station” (Galaxy, August 1967), which was later expanded into a novel of the same name. Like “Invisible Man,” this deals with the bizarre crimes and punishments of a (then) future society. In 2005, Edmond Hawksbill’s time machine was established as a way to send political dissidents on a one-way trip to the Cambrian by the reigning syndicalist capitalist government. In this land of the lost, a one-legged man is king. Barrett has, originally by dint of physical power and now through vestiges of mental strength and custom, become the leader of the outcasts. Occasionally, new prisoners arrive and they always cause a commotion but when the perplexing Hahn arrives, things become more unsettled than usual and revelations are in store.

As this and “Invisible Man” share some themes, so they share some weaknesses in that the idea of a society expending such technology and energy on people who’ve regularly been simply killed throughout history is contrived and implausible but this is more of a background issue, without the omnipresence of the problem in the earlier story. A problem not shared with “Invisible” is that it seems strange to me that this would have been expanded into a novel. It must have had entire plotlines added rather than simply being lengthened because even a novella really needs some combination of a very complicated plot, a very complicated setting, or a large cast of characters. The plot to this is intriguing but fairly simple, the setting’s technical background is effective, but cursory, and the 1967 conception of the Cambrian foreground is beautifully evoked but very simple rather than complex and, while Barrett has many lieutenants and Hahn to deal with, he’s almost the sole character. The strength of each of these elements and of the general writing is what maintains interest throughout but I don’t feel the need for any further expansion.

The core, however, is extremely effective. One really feels, with Barrett, that “home was a billion years away” and sympathizes with the psychic trauma and creeping madness of the populace which comes from this. The social background, while unnecessarily dated by being set relative to 2029 and featuring Marxists, rather than being set in 2129 and featuring Made-upists, bitingly addresses groupthink and the repression of individuals by the political leadership of “good” people and perceptively observes how these ideologies, which gripped people in their usual social context, fade into insignificance when they are faced with issues of bare survival. Finally, the ultimate fate of the protagonist is poignant.

I recommend seeking it out. Aside from being available online (p.81 of the PDF, which wrongly lists it as a Hugo winner when it was a nominee), it was collected in The Reality Trip and The Best of Robert Silverberg, as well as various “Collected” volumes and anthologies, including Wollheim and Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction: 1968.