F&SF, April/May 2009

On the second try the US Post Office managed to deliver the first of the new bimonthly format F&SF. For two months I’ve had to watch the forum at SFSite discussing the issue without knowing what they’re talking about.

This issue is fantasy-dominated, with four, mostly short, science fiction stories and five, generally longer and stronger, fantasy stories. There seems to be a connecting theme of returning to youth, which might be unintentional given the thematic stories span the whole mag but the decision to combine the April and May issues appears to have been made, or at least confirmed, only at near the last minute.

First up is “The Spiral Briar” by Sean McMullen. A determined band build a steam-powered self-propelled boat to cross over to Faerie and take revenge on the elves who have wronged them. One point seems to be that science defeats magic. But juxtaposing the descriptions of engineered devices with magical ones clearly shows that the kind of magic portrayed here is just mumbo-jumbo powered engineering. For example, the portal between worlds must be located “where boundaries exist on both sides”, and the boat can defeat the elves because it “combines all four elements”, fire, earth, air, and water. In the end, the victory of humanity over Faerie is explained in terms of revolutionary social rhetoric rather than science vs. magic, but this seems tacked-on. An okay read, but only a shallow exploration of the ideas at hand.

The next story is “The Brave Little Toaster, a Bedtime Story for Small Appliances” by Thomas M. Disch. I’m not sure if this is included as part of the ongoing series of reprints from each of the magazine’s former editors, or if its a special memorial to the recent passing of Tom Disch. This story pushes the reader back into a child’s mindset with a fairy tale narrative about the adventures of the titular toaster and three electrical companions searching for their missing master. With all the discussion of Disch’s suicide in the back of my mind, I got it into my mind to expect a dark mood and kept trying to find bitter satire behind the whimsical story, which I don’t think did the story any good.

Jack Skillingstead’s “The Avenger of Love” is a present-day story about a late-middle-age man whose memories are being, literally, stolen by an unknown force. Pursuing the thief, he steps out of reality into a fantasy world where he has to reclaim his childhood belief in heroism, and restore the love which has been mostly absent from his life. Written as an homage to Harlan Ellison, the story is peppered with gritty, noirish Ellisonian asides, and blends fantasy with dirty reality, effectively achieving its goals.

“‘A Wild and Wicked Youth'”, by Ellen Kushner, explores the early days of a character who it seems we’re supposed to be familiar with from Kushner’s novels. Richard St. Vier is growing up as a hanger-about in the castle village of a wealthy country lord. When an aging and drunkard swordsman comes to the village Richard gets the opportunity to learn a craft for which he shows instant aptitude. The more central story, though, is that Richard is also the best friend and companion of the lord’s heir. This is a well-written fantasy, written in a straightforward, modernised style. More importantly, and especially unusual for a short piece giving backstory to an established novel, there’s a real plot here, making it interesting even for readers who aren’t already attached to the characters.

S. L. Gilbow’s “Adreanna” gives us the internal dialog of a robot who’s had her emotional capabilities upgraded one too many times, leading her to, as far as we can tell, attempt suicide. Adreanna gets only piecemeal views of what’s going on around her as her owners and then her designer attempt repairs, and this builds up the mystery of how and why she came to the point of falling (or jumping) off a high observation platform. Although robots-developing-personality stories are widespread (for example, Eric Brown’s “Cold Testing” in last month’s Asimov’s was well-written but ultimately trivial) the careful characterization and slowly-developed pathos of “Adreanna” makes it a cut above, and well worth reading.

“Stratosphere”, by Henry Garfield, is a well-written throwback story, giving a nostalgic reinvention of everyday life on the moon, in this case the telling of a baseball tall tale.

The second retrospective story in this issue is “Sea Wrack”, by Edward Jesby, which originally appeared in the ’60’s. A genetically (or otherwise) modified underwater-living “seaman” is washed ashore on the island vacation ground of wealthy land-dwellers. The releationships among the “lubber” aristocrats date the story. As well, the central question, of when society becomes so decadent that it might be overthrown by a more primitive one, has also lost some of the immediacy it might have had in the days when the old European empires, and especially the British Empire, were in their final years of collapse. Even so, the narrative is carefully written, the characters are believable if not contemporary, and the secrets of the underwater culture are revealed slowly enough to keep me hooked. The dated narrational point of view only adds to the sense of foreigness of the future world. An excellent choice for the magazine.

Deborah J. Ross‘ “The Price of Silence” is a nice piece of space opera. The highlight is an interesting conception of the social structure that might develop on an isolated space vessel. The plot is nothing special: the story is in the human relationships.

Finally, “One Bright Star to Guide Them”, by John C. Wright, returns to the theme of childhood regained. Middle-aged businessman Thomas was once Tommy, one of four children who had magical adventures in a fantasy world, reminiscent of (or an outright pastiche of) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Now fairyland evils are threatening the real world and Thomas must try to regroup his old companions to defeat them; which of course is no longer possible. The story is fun to read, but I quickly started skippping over long mood-setting digressions on the old adventures with the “ships of Lemmergeier” and “Gloomshadow Forest”, and the eventual resolution was not excessively predictable, but not particularly novel, either.

So, indeed, the new format does pack a lot of stories between two covers. The stories ranged from good to excellent, with the fantasy being somewhat stronger than the science fiction. And my favorite reprint turned out not to be the one everyone’s been talking about (though Suite 101 agreed with me).


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