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: BCS #270-271

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #270-271
Jan. 31, 2019/Feb. 14, 2019

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Original Fiction:

Since BCS would now be the only magazine left in the “weekly” reviews, I’ve discontinued that series and now plan to review two or three issues of BCS once a month. This is the first review in the new tempo.

BCS #270 is the fantasy-free inversion issue. “Lion” deals with a matriarchy of female warriors. Talaan is a woman’s woman but her husband, Eefa, is a small and crippled woman whom many might just as soon put to death. Eefa’s had enough of war and death but the Emperor (who happens to be Talaan’s mother) will never have enough. When Talaan loses her favorite child and gives birth to another, things change between the three women. Behind what strikes me as a repellent surface (YMMV) is a powerful background current of emotion and interpersonal conflict. Fantasy fans may note that there  is nothing supernatural here at all. Just mundane primitives fighting. Similarly mundane, “Knife” is a brief but dreary sketch with a background of war and a foreground of backwards tokens and unrequited love, in which one woman sleeps with another because she can’t fully connect with the one she wants.

BCS #271 is the Sorcery Against Death issue, which at least brings back the supernatural. “Adrianna” is a dark fantasy of magic writing or “calligramancy” and an estranged couple and their lost daughter. The father wants to try to bring the girl back and the mother wants her back, as well, but feels this is not the way; that there is no way. The writing about the fetish of writing is elaborate and good and there is drama in the climactic sequence but it’s otherwise all very familiar and plain. “Blood” is a strange science fantasy romance/erotica/porn horror story in which an entire, elaborately detailed, society is motivated to try to find a way of avoiding the “After” (death). A sort of Victoria Frankenstein creates a homunculus in the course of her studies which goes badly until she figures out how the male and female animalcules come together to create life in her universe. Then things go worse. This tale may repel some, attract some, and do both to some.

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).

Review: Tor.com, January/February 2019

Tor.com Short Fiction,
January/February 2019

tor-2019-01_02

Original Fiction:

  • “Beyond the El” by John Chu (short story)
  • “Deriving Life” by Elizabeth Bear (science fiction novelette)
  • “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light” by Mimi Mondal (fantasy short story)
  • “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by JY Yang (fantasy novelette)
  • “Articulated Restraint” by Mary Robinette Kowal (science fiction short story)
  • “Old Media” by Annalee Newitz (science fiction short story)

Tor.com has at last produced the first issue of the bi-monthly presentation of their weekly(ish) web content. I’ve already reviewed the previously released “Beyond the El” and “His Footsteps.” (I’ve also reviewed “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir” which, for whatever reason, was published on an atypical Monday as the first story of the year but isn’t included in this issue.)

As for the remainder, starting with probably the second-best story in the issue after “Footsteps,” “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” is a multiple first-person narrative from those three entities which describes how Circus Girl once lost her reflection to Mirror Boy before she escaped her horrible old life and made something of a tolerable one for herself. Now Mirror Boy’s back with word that they’re both being hunted. Circus Girl flees to a wise witch and learns some stuff before the final confrontation. The ending seems like cheating. While the story may be taking issue with bad apples and not the bunch, there’s a pervasive flavor of misandry. It’s odd that Mirror Boy is specifically characterized as an atypical entity that upends conventional wisdom and yet the Hunter is an unreasonable fanatic type we know all about. (Even odder given a “twist” in the story I won’t spoil). Finally, the multiple first-person, which at least gives everyone a chance to speak, is probably better than simple first-person but that old-fangled non-MFA third-person omniscient would have been best. Still, unlike a lot of SF/F mixups lately, this post-climate change magic world works pretty well and the fantastic elements are imaginative.

Old Media” opens with two guys making out and builds up a backstory of futuristic bondage of brown people in a climate-changed world to get across the notion that there are alternatives or additions to sex and slavery and the dangerous world outside, demonstrated via the love of the protagonist and a sort of robot. While the bulk wasn’t especially appealing, the ending makes the story clever and nice enough. (Incidentally, the “old media” refers to things like this story as seen from the future.)

Articulated Restraint” is basically identical to “The Phobos Experience” (F&SF, July/August 2018) set in the same alternate history by the same author except that, this time, the selfish female astronaut endangering people’s lives is hiding her sprained ankle instead of her vertigo. The main difference is that, while the other wasn’t great, it had an actual adventure with space pirates and everything while this is a “wet run,” so to speak, for the actual rescue operation in space in which our protagonist tests out possible approaches in a pool on Earth.

Deriving Life” involves, Marq, a narcissistic narrator whose lover, Tamar, has invited a sentient alien cancer to inhabit the lover’s body (somewhat akin to the better “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group” and numerous earlier tales) and is now dying. To quote Marq, “Don’t I get to be broken about this? The worst thing that’s ever happened to me?” Yeah, especially with it being so great for Tamar. Marq is confused about why everyone keeps leaving. Marq’s a slow study and so the story doesn’t even really have much of an ending. The Old Standard Future was depicted in social epics of city slidewalks, robots, flying cars, galactic civilizations, etc. Now it’s self-centered microcosms of self-driving cars, climate change, a disproportionate focus on gender and sexual identity and made-up or altered pronouns and honorifics. Like several stories to a lesser or greater extent in this issue, this is a completely Current Standard Future story.

Review: Clarkesworld #149, February 2019

Clarkesworld #149, February 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “East of the Sun, West of the Stars” by Brit E. B. Hvide (science fiction short story)
  • “Painwise” by Robert Reed (science fiction short story)
  • “The Final Ascent” by Ian Creasey (science fantasy novelette)
  • “Give the Family My Love” by A. T. Greenblatt (science fiction short story)
  • “The Face of God” by Bo Balder (fantasy short story)

Clarkesworld #149 is a science fantasy issue, with stories which are not, or do not feel like, science fiction.

In “Family,” Hazel is recording messages to her brother, describing her efforts to reach an alien “library” to recover some lost human research to help us with our climatic (and perhaps climactic) apocalypse. It turns out even the largest, most social issues have personal motivations. This is actually something which impairs the story, for me, and the whole library/journey/dilemma seems contrived but the narrative is crisp and the surreal, fantastic, hyper-VR library is a lot of fun.

Ascent” is nearly as much fun, but essentially a fantasy. A dying man on an alien world is given an alien organ to ingest by his semi-estranged ex-lover which turns him into a ghost. Most of the natives are kept in a sort of sociological stasis by their hierarchy of ghostly elders and none of those living or dead approve of humans. They also don’t approve of the few natives who reject the afterlife and live a hedonistic life. This community becomes the wedge for the human ghost to occupy himself with as he attempts to improve their lot. A lot of this struck me as pretty silly but the “bored god” vantage point and many related bits of food for thought were interesting.

In the other stories, “West of the Stars” is a sort of “Amish in space” story in which a woman discovers that her society’s foundations are just creation myths and that she’s been taken advantage of as well. Neither the interleaved fantasy sections nor the obfuscated SF sections worked well for me. “Painwise” borrows a title from James Tiptree, Jr. (1972) to talk about a plague of pain afflicting humanity because, while vaccinations are good, drugs are bayud, m’kay? The narrator is an unappealing broken man and every silver lining in this story, including the big fantasy twist, comes with a honking big black cloud. I couldn’t make “Face” the least bit science fictional no matter how I tried and, while it may be some kind of response or riff, it reads like a clone of Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” (1964). A tiny little person tries to harvest godflesh from a fallen giant and gains a different perspective. It could mean anything or nothing, and may specifically focus on compassion but initially made me think of more cli-fi as well as the Doors song, “When the Music’s Over” (1967).

What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered
and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives
in the side of the dawn
and tied her with fences
and dragged her down.

I recommend the Doors song.