Fantasy and Science Fiction, August/September 2009

With F&SF sending out advanced copies to a dozen or so bloggers this month, and their reviews appearing as much as four weeks ago, it felt like a long wait to get my copy in the mail. But at least it did arrive eventually, which the last two issues never did.

“The Art of the Dragon” by Sean McMullen, starts out with a mysterious 2-mile-long dragon eating the world’s art treasures, but the central plot is actually about our reaction to the invincible dragon. The writing is well-executed, and the plot moves along briskly. The predisposition in politics to treat every catastrophic event as a vindication of one’s own prior beliefs is well-captured, though perhaps without subtlety. A good read.

Nancy Springer’s “You are Such a One” invites comparison with the work of F&SF regular Carol Emshwiller with its take on the theme of the invisible middle-aged woman. Springer is much more explicit than Emshwiller usually is, with the central idea here being that the central character (“you”, in the second person) can be literally a ghost without realizing it. With smooth and careful writing, Springer makes this idea feel new, even if this is surely not the world’s first-ever ghost-who-doesn’t-know-it story.

“A Token of a Better Age”, by Melinda M. Snodgrass, is a story told between condemned men before a gladiatorial execution in a slightly alt-history Rome. Other than a few clunky parts where developing an anti-religious theme is allowed to break the flow of the story, a nicely written piece. A classic SF twist at the end is well set-up, and makes a satisfying conclusion, without the whole story having been just a setup for the twist.

“Hunchster” gives us a chance to see Matthew Hughes doing something other than his usual excellent take on Vancian beyond-the-far-future science fantasy. And it shows that Hughes is not a one-sided author. This contemporary science fiction story is enjoyable and engaging, in a classic mold, with a theme of “unintended consequences”.

The first of this issue’s retrospective stories, selected by Gordon van Gelder, is Tina Kuzminski’s “The Goddamned Tooth Fairy”, first published in 2000. This is contemporary fantasy at its best. The characters are believable and sympathetic, and the fantastic elements are just enough that you know its fantasy, without making the central story about human interaction irrelevant.

“The Bones of Giants”, by Yoon Ha Lee, is competent, but somewhat “off the rack” fantasy. The setting, a region dominated by a necromancer overlord, has its novelty, but the story has occasional lapses. One character, Sakera, has a tremor that affects her ability to do magic, whose origin is never revealed, even when other revelations suggest it should be. In another case, the key fact to solve a puzzle (“A necromancer can only raise people who died during his lifetime”) is only revealed at the point of solving the puzzle, leaving the reader no opportunity to solve the puzzle himself. On the other hand, this story could very well be the germ of a good novel, by a writer who should be at least that ambitious, given the quality of her recent work.

“Icarus Saved from the Skies”, by Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud (translated by Edward Gauvin) is something I probably shouldn’t review without going back and rereading The Metamorphosis first. The protagonist is growing wings from his shoulders, much to his own disgust, but his lover persues him mostly out of attraction for his wings. The somewhat stiff language of translation serves the story well, lending an otherworldly atmosphere to the story.

Lawrence C. Connolly‘s “The Others” is an interesting story about planetary exploration by a team of, … well, call them clones, though they’re actually produced by replication in something like a Star Trek transporter. The focus is on the substantial personality differences between the various copies of Cara. All are ambitious, and none of them really want to “retire”, as mission protocols demand. One flaw is the idea that anyone, clone, copy or whatever, would be expected to accept “retirement” as a matter of course, which strikes me as seriously unrealistic, even if it is a widely used assumption in SF. On the other hand, the idea is well-developed, with the personality variations between the copies being carefully set out.

“Three Leaves of Aloe”, by Rand B. Lee, strikes me as one of the most believable stories in this magazine. The protagonist is told her daughter must have a personality-altering chip implanted in her, in order to be allowed to stay in school. The setting in urban India gives extra weight to the need for education to allow an easier life. A very strong story.

“The Private Eye”, by Albert E. Cowdrey, is a whodunnit with a psychic p.i. set in rural Louisiana. The unambitious habits of the locals are played up for laughs, but if you don’t mind that the jokes are probably derogatory to somebody it’s a fun and readable piece.

“Snowfall”, by Jessie Thompson, is the second reprint story in this issue. It’s a story about fantasy as a means of escape, for someone who needs to escape from just about everything in her life. Its made even stronger by an introduction by Harlan Ellison giving a biography of the author in which possible parallels with the story’s protagonist are not quite made explicit.

The last story, Bruce Sterling’s “Esoteric City” explores Turin, here considered as the one city in the world that is a center of both white and black magic. A local corporate ladder-climber has made his place with the help of the necromantically animated mummy of an ancient Egyptian pyramid-builder. It’s an energetic romp, with plenty of wry and sarcastic humor thrown in, but I found it hard to really cheer for the action to go one way or the other since the protagonist is not at all sympathetic.

Overall this was a pretty strong issue of the magazine. Rand B. Lee’s “Three Leaves of Aloe” was the standout among the serious stories, and the Matthew Hughes and Albert E. Cowdrey stories provided excellent value in the comic relief department. The reprint stories were also excellent, as they have been all year.

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