The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
July / August 2014
Edited by C.C. Finlay
The stories in this volume were deeply visceral, diving to the core of that invisible organ the pumps human emotion. Guest editor C.C.Finlay chose works that grip the reader with their imagery, and place them firmly in those places we sometimes fear to shine light on. Many of the stories in this issue are disturbing and not for the squeamish, but incredible reads all the same. As much as I missed seeing some of my usual favorites in Fantasy & Science Fiction, the new names and the titles that go with them were refreshing and entertaining all the same.
Not to be read while eating.
Palm Strike’s Last Case
Charlie Jane Anders
In this very well written superhero/sci-fi crossover, Charlie Jane Anders mixes the two genres without making either of them feel campy. In fact, aside from a few familiar tropes sprinkled here and there, the interconnection between the two is seamless.
Luc has been fighting against the drug lord Dark Shard for years now, ever since he lost his son Rene to their foul underworld. He’s getting old, and tired–but even then it takes some heavy pushing to get him to actually retire on a newly colonized planet far, far away. At least, retirement was on his mind before someone sabotaged his cryo-module, someone who knows he’s the crime fighting vigilante Palm Strike. Someone who has brought the drug war to what should have been a fresh, new start.
Told masterfully in present tense, something which is difficult to pull off at the best of times, Anders succeeds in placing the reader directly at Luc’s side, silently cheering for the old guy to put a fist to one more bad guy, and save the new world from certain disaster.
Paul M. Berger
This is easily the best story of the issue, and not just because I have a lingering soft spot for dragons from my high school days. Berger’s story of subterranean reptiles and tectonic plates and the destruction of Earth scenarios really puts the realism in magical realism.
Oliver doesn’t know who he is. He woke up in a bus stop with no memories of anything before that moment, and a pretty damn strong wanderlust. Following the pull from California all the way to a small fishing island on the north Pacific, Oliver isn’t sure that he’ll find any answers for the strange tingles of familiarity and flashes of a life previously lived. But one thing he does know is that he doesn’t like the earthquakes that are coming stronger, and more frequent than they have any business doing. And the pretty baker Moira is giving him more attention than any single stranger in a small community ought to get.
The amnesia element of the story gave it a wonderful sense of mystery, and while I wasn’t entirely sold on Moira’s role when she was first introduced, by the end of the story, I was quite attached to her, and more so to Oliver, who is just the sort of helplessly likable character I can easily fall for.
Seven Things Cadet Blanchard Learned from the Trade Summit Incident
Annalee Flower Horne
I liked the narrative structure of this one, even if the story itself was short, with a very Scooby-Doo feel to it. Told in the first person by smart-ass cadet Blanchard as a sort of confessional, the events in the story take a distant second to the personality of the characters.
A stink bomb has gone off in Blanchard’s ship, Stinson, right in the middle of a trade summit. As the ship’s resident prankster, she naturally gets blamed for it, but of course, no one believes her when she insists she’s not the one responsible. It falls to her now to explain her side of the story, of how she and her group of plucky friends uncovered the real culprit, and the reasons behind the unfortunately hilarious prank.
The Traveling Salesman Solution
David Erik Nelson
Here’s the thing: I distinctly remember studying the traveling salesman problem in university, but either my memory is terrible (always a possibility) or I wasn’t paying attention in class, because I had no idea what the problem was in this story. Understanding the math isn’t necessary to understanding the story, but if you’re like me and like the science in your science fiction to at least be accessible to the layman, it can be a little distracting. It’s possible that I may go back and read this one after glancing through my old textbooks, just to see if I might pick up something more on the second pass.
Being confined to a wheelchair isn’t all that much fun, especially when your brother-in-law is a marathon runner who won’t shut up about his most recent upset. But when our protagonist* gives in and finally agrees to hear the man out, it’s clear that he’s got good reason to be upset. Someone is cheating on marathons, and it looks suspiciously like teleportation.
Don’t ask me to explain any of the technical details of this one as even though there’s a lengthy passage describing it all, I still don’t get it. It was an entertaining read all the same, and the ending was something I absolutely didn’t expect, which earned my respect.
*One of the difficult things about reviewing stories written in first person is that I don’t get a name to latch onto, and when I do, I’m often too engaged with the story to write it down. If I missed the protagonist’s name in this story, my apologies.
End of the World College
I wasn’t too impressed with this one at first, but its tongue-in-cheek qualities saved it, in the end. It is, as the title suggests, one massive collection of every doomsday scenario come to life.
Bad things don’t come in threes. They come in hundreds, and they bring about the destruction of the world. But even in these trying times, the value of a good education is undeniable. Thus, the End of the World College is here to serve, and its course calendar neatly explains to readers everything that has gone wrong in the world, and what can be done to continue to survive in it.
I loved the style of this one, but it unfortunately seemed to stray in a few places into a more traditional narrative that bounced me around a bit, and reminded me of the story I was reading. Also, not being a huge fan of post-apocalypticals, this one wasn’t all for me.
The Girls Who Went Below
I’ve thought about this one for a while now, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it has a very unique setting among most fantasy and sci-fi I’ve read, as well as a somewhat unique storyline. However, especially near the end, it felt somewhat uncomfortably familiar, though part of that might be how well Hellisen captures the adolescent experience in fiction.
Lucy and Milly have always been close. As sisters living with their aunt out in South Africa, they’ve had a life far removed from the polite society of an England they don’t know. It seems that nothing can split the two apart. That is until the strange boy Mallery appears in their lives. Suddenly Milly is acting all sorts of strange, and pushing Lucy further and further away. Of course, Lucy isn’t blameless in this as well. As much as she hates Mallery for what he’s doing to her sister, she can’t help but feel there’s something about him…
Deeply disturbing by the end, this is one of those stories that you can see the road its taking. You pray it won’t go where you know it’s going to go (but secretly you want to see the traumatic crash at the end).
The Day of the Nuptial Flight
This one surprised me. I really wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did. The alien narration at first put me off, but as the story progressed, I found I liked the characters more and more, even if they story itself is very familiar. I don’t want to talk too much about this one, because the charm of it is definitely in the narration, and it should be taken as a whole. It is a very good story, though.
There were a couple things about this story that niggled me as I was reading. Part of it was the language used was in places too cliche for my tastes. (Though, to be fair, in other places the imagery is stunning and very beautiful.) The plot also seemed to be loosely connected and not satisfactorily concluded. Finally, the main character was too inwardly leaning for the direction of the story, I felt. Not introspective or self-centered, per se but for a third person narration that didn’t seem at most points to be particularly close to the main character, only he felt developed. This made the secondary characters’ personalities and actions appear inexplicably erratic and ungrounded. It made me feel as though the protagonist was the only living human among a cast of marionettes.
Shanker is in a bit of a bind, at the moment. His research isn’t going very well, and he’s still struggling with the effects of an accident a few weeks prior. When his wife Julia introduces him to Dr. James, and indirectly, to Dr. James’ research, Shanker’s life takes a turn toward the supernatural. But what possibly could he have expected, blowing into a skull shaped aerophone, he was explicitly told not to blow into? Certainly not whispers and strange visages haunting him in mirrors. But that’s only the beginning.
The Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence 14-22 June, 1818, with Diagrams
First of all, I want to point out that this story is disappointingly lacking in any diagrams. I almost knocked a star off just for that, but for the fact that it was amazingly entertaining, with a clear, unique voice, and a trembling tale of seafaring horror. Still wish it actually had those diagrams, though.
Call Samuel Frobisher crazy if you must–certainly everyone else must have already–but he solemnly swears that everything he has written in his report is the truth. It came from the ocean. She… it, whatever it was, it came from the ocean, and bewitched the entire crew. Only an unfortunate accident spared Samuel from her spell, but not from her wrath.
If you like horror and 1800’s sailors’ narratives, this is just the story for you. Again, the story goes where you expect it will go, but it doesn’t bore the reader in the process. In fact you might just feel a slimy tentacle binding you to the pages.
Five Tales of the Aqueduct
I admit, as much as I enjoy reading surreal fantasy and science fiction, half the time I have no idea what’s going on. I think that’s why I like surrealist fiction, actually. I can disappear for a few pages into the free falling imagination of someone else’s brain, and experience what the disconnected world feels like from a different mind.
Five Tales of the Aqueduct is self explanatory. It’s five tales from the unnatural reservoir in the middle of the Californian desert. The tale takes you from the point of view of a drunk old woman and a talking catfish to a fishing pterosaur; from a young man and his elusive dream girl to a politician and a talking koi; and finally, all the way back to a catfish again.
I have a soft spot for fairytales, even dark, horror tinged fairytales (as most of the early ones were anyway). Belly, with its disgusting imagery, its helpless, trapped feeling, its down to the guts nauseating setting was no different. I loved it. I loved the narration, and the character, and while the ending went to places I hadn’t been expecting, it kept the fairytale feeling throughout the entire story.
Our protagonist has been swallowed by a witch. You’d think that was bad enough, but it’s far from the worst. See, this witch seems bent on making the protagonist’s life hell by swallowing all sorts of fowl, disgusting things, and making the poor girl swim around in it. But went one day a goat swallowed whole nearly thrashes a hole through the witch’s stomach, our protagonist gets an idea. One way or another, she’s escaping, but no one is going to be happy about it.
The Only Known Law
This is maybe the most bitter-sweet story in the issue. For a while I was sucked into the protagonist’s indifferent, almost apathetic voice, but this is the trap. I was so moved by the end of the story that I couldn’t read the last one for a few hours while I recovered.
Nicolao doesn’t particularity dislike the jelly-like alien puttering around in a nutrient tank in his lab, but he doesn’t particularly like it either. Or maybe it’s just because his wife Yaretzi is going down to a new, uncolonized planet without him. And no, he doesn’t want to go with her. But Yaretzi is big on taking risks, and there’s nothing Nicolao can do about it except wait. And talk to this strange little alien Messenger who has some secrets to reveal, when it’s good and ready.
A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i
Alaya Dawn Johnson
In A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i, Johnson gives the reader a vampire story that isn’t unlike many other vampire stories that have been written. We still have a protagonist who, for most of the story, longs to be a vampire and is in requisite love with one (I suppose that vampires are good at inducing Stockholm syndrome). The vampires themselves reminded me of those from the movie 30 Days of Night, which also placed the undead blood suckers in an unfamiliar environment. It is the Asia-Pacific setting that injects any newness into the story, and keeps it fresh enough to make it palatable. What endeared me to this story wasn’t the vampire element, or the human element–I’ve read that story before–but the Hawai’ian setting, and the way, as the title suggests, that fruit plays its part in preserving what remains of the human spirit.
Key is an overseer at a middle grade feeding facility for vampires. They’ve come, they’ve conquered, and now humans all over the world are but bottles in an endless bar chain. For Key’s part, being an overseer is better than being a bottle, but she still longs to see the man she loves, a vampire, perhaps the vampire who started all this on her Hawai’ian islands. When one of the humans in her care slashes up his veins and bleeds out all over the floor, Key might just get a chance. Her boss Mr. Charles sends her to investigate a similar suicide at the high end facility her vampire love Tetsuo runs.
The next book on my reading list is The Essential Bordertown edited by Terri Windling and Delia Sherman.