The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Mar/Apr
Wow, I’m so late on this one I almost didn’t review it. Between doing the readings for Crash Course and participating in April A-Z, I had no time for my usual reading list and schedule. I still don’t think I’m going to be reviewing the books I read for Crash Course, in part because my reviews of classics usually boil down to “As expected, this was an amazing book; let me summarize it for you”, and in part because I don’t have the time: I still have twenty-eight books on my 2014 reading list to get through, as well as a bunch of other books I’m drooling over that will probably be squeezed in somewhere in between; I’m picking my way through another rewrite of Bone Wall, which is going much more smoothly that the previous ones, thankfully; my san-dan kendo examination is fast approaching, so very soon all my time and energy is going to have to go to study and practice for that. I’ve got a bit of a full plate, is what I’m saying.
But I’m getting off topic. The reason I’m not skipping the review of this issue of MF&SF is that I really enjoyed it. Most of the stories pulled me in from the start, and kept me there with the competent, interesting prose and compelling narratives. This is probably in part due to the overall spec-fic feeling of this issue that really spoke to my fiction interests.
Slow start, brilliant finish
Collar – Leo Vladimirsky
It’s no secret that I prefer the anti-heroes over the heroes, the protagonists straddling the line of morality and naked self interest. They’re the complex and interesting characters. They’re the ones that make me feel uncomfortable with my own ethics and worldview. They’re the ones I cheer for.
Collar by Leo Vladimirsky gives us such a protagonist in Tom, a labor smuggler helping the unemployed find work on the Chinese factory ships sitting on the fringes of US waters, ready–in an ironic twist of events–to snap up cheap American labor in those recently unemployed. But the patrol boats prowl the waters, eager to arrest those desperate enough for work to run to the Chinese–and they have quotas to fill.
The descriptions in this story fill all the senses and as a result, the reader feels as though she is walking right there with the characters, whether she wants to or not. Unfortunately, this story also falls in with the incapability of some sci-fi and spec-fic to imagine a future that isn’t dismal. After a while, all futures being dystopias makes me unwilling to get out of bed in the morning.
A Struggle Between Two Rivals Ends Surprisingly – Oliver Buckram
Like all of his stories, Oliver Buckram delights the reader with freshness, originality and clever twists on old sci-fi themes in A Struggle Between Two Rivals.
When conducting trade negotiations with alien races, it’s an absolute necessity to have a knowledgeable translator on your side, especially when your prospective business relations communicate only in musical, theatrical tropes. Fortunately, Treya is the best at what she does. She knows all three thousand, six hundred and two plots the beetles use to communicate, and is determined to win her client the much coveted herring catch with her expertise in beetle communications. Only her troublesome ex-boyfriend is negotiating on behalf of their rival. Why must he always be such a thorn in her side?
I love the way Buckram tells his stories, and A Struggle Between Two Rivals is no different. It’s always fun to dive into one of his worlds, expecting only the unexpected.
The Lightness of Movement – Pat MacEwen
I always look forward to the novellas in each issue with one part anticipation and one part anxiety. On the one hand, if the story is a good one, I’m glad it’s the longest. On the other, if the story doesn’t hold me, then it takes forever for me to finish the issue. The Lightness of Movement was somewhere in between.
Shannon is a graduate student on a research mission to the world of the Neons–a humanoid, sentient species. There, with the help of a specialized Neon suit she will observe, record and participate in their complex mating rituals. The success of the mission and her thesis sits entirely on her shoulders, but can Shannon resist the temptation of anthropomorphizing her study subjects?
At first glance, this is an interesting if droll twist on the human sex with aliens theme in sci-fi, but thankfully it goes deeper than that. As Shannon tries and fails to adequately fit in among the aliens the reader is given insights on what it is to be human, in particular, what it is to be an alien among fellow humans.
The plot and the premise are strong in this story, but the characters failed with me. Shannon, I felt, channeled too much of the gutsy maverick who doesn’t care what superiors have to say, despite being fully conscious of the fatal dangers of failure. Her bi-polar switches between “I’ll do what I want” and “I’ll do what you say”, sometimes on the same page were sudden and jarring and made me wonder if she was really the best candidate for this kind of mission. In the end, I enjoyed the story, despite the twists it took. I would probably read it again.
Hark, the Wicked Witches Sing – Ron Goulart
First of all, I’m not a huge fan of noir in any genre, fantasy noir is no different, so that may have played a hand in my rating of this story. The other, more major issue to me was the protagonist. He was wholly unlikable, and wholly uninteresting. I can enjoy a character that has one or the other of these characteristics, but both together leaves him dead in the water to me.
Anyway, the story is about Hix, an egotistical hack Hollywood writer, as he attempts to solve the watery mystery of who is sabotaging his actress friend Polly’s casting chances. I say watery because the story and Hix seem more concerned with reminding the reader that OMG the setting is 1940′s Hollywood, than it actually cares about the mystery plot. One only needs to read the ending to get the full feeling of this.
A Stretch of Highway Two Miles Long – Sarah Pinsker
First of all, I almost want to make my rating system longer to accommodate how much I loved this story. From the setting, to the characters, to the beautifully simple spec-fic elements. I adored the theme of identity and loss of humanity and not-so-distant future feel of it. It is, in my opinion, the best story in the issue.
Andy is a young farmer fond of the old ways. The horse and plow feel better in his hands than all the new machinery his parents farm with. So when a violent combine accident takes his arm and his parents decide to fit him with the latest in prosthetic technology before he’s conscious enough to make the decision himself, he unsurprisingly feels a bit of out of sorts with his new limb. And that’s before it becomes convinced it’s a stretch of highway in Colorado.
This story goes deep down the path of self exploration and identity, from small town Saskatchewan, stretching out into the vast unknown. It’s beautifully written and easy to sympathize with.
Byzantine History 101 – Albert E. Cowdrey
This one is a sort-of continuation of another story from last year, and as far as Cowdrey’s usual writing goes, not one of his stronger narratives. I didn’t much enjoy the first part of this story, and the second installation doesn’t do much for me either. In both cases the protagonists are the sort of mean, antagonistic, selfish assholes that make the reader uncomfortable being put in the position of sympathizing with them (if that’s even possible).
Terrence is opportunistic, selfish and manipulative and he knows it. His fiance, Adam has just the sort of meek personality that Terrence can roll all over. Unfortunately, his grandfather is another story. The stubborn old man doesn’t care much for Adam, which means Terrence will never get his hands on all of Grandad’s money. Matching wits with the old codger might take all of Terrence’s skill, but every so often, life throws you a wild card that you’d be a fool not to take.
The perspectives in this story jump a little too quickly to be comfortable with, and the ending was predictable and anti-climactic. Still, there’s something in Cowdrey’s writing that makes up for it in Byzantine History 101.
Albion upon the Rock – Daniel Marcus
I really liked the dialogue in this story, both between Brown and Ship (which was entertaining all by itself) and between the humans on board Ship, such as that dialogue is. The personification of all the characters is sweet and made sweeter by the quietly tragic ending. I don’t want to spoil this very short story with a summary; it’s best taken in fresh. Suffice to say that it’s a very well written piece.
Apprentice – Jon DeCles
Like YA and romance stories, my days of utter delight in high fantasy are mostly behind me. Yes, I still enjoy the occasional story and smile a little nostalgically at the familiar characters and themes, but I have, for the most part, moved on to other interests. Jon DeCles’s Apprentice brings me pleasantly all the way back again.
Dafyd is a gormless stable boy whom everyone in the village has marked as lazy and unteachable. When one day the local wizard is called to get rid of a griffon that is terrorizing the villagers and killing horses, the locals are a little shocked when the powerful man names Dafyd as the price for his services. Surprised, but also pleased to see the last of him. Dafyd, however, thrives under the wizard’s guidance, but the impatience of youth can be dangerous, and even fatal if left unchecked.
The pacing and characterization of this story are perfect and the ending tearfully bitter-sweet. DeCles shows us the follies and pitfalls of growing up that we’re all familiar with in this fantasy setting, and the emotional attachment to the characters and the events of the story linger long after it has concluded.
The Uncertain Past – Ted White
I appreciated this story for keeping the science parts of it interesting, which is something I’ve been disappointed with in science fiction in the past. The story applies a sort of Schrödinger’s cat theory to time travel, in which the act of going back and observing an event alters it, and so one is never able to go back in time and see the event exactly as it unfolded in history… until one takes the trip with another. The story is worth a read just for the interesting thoughts on the nature of time travel, but I couldn’t connect well with any of the characters, so ultimately, the narrative itself didn’t do much for me.
Butterscotch – D. M. Armstrong
In general, I liked this story, though there were some parts in which I felt it sort of wobbled a little off its track.
Grey skinned, shambling and utterly vacant, it’s not hard to imagine ‘travelers’ as zombies. Except they don’t want brains. Or human flesh, or really, anything at all it seems. Arthur and Alexis have a good life and a good marriage. What they don’t have is a child, or the certainty that they even want one. Unfortunately, life doesn’t pay much attention to stuff like that, and when Alexis discovers she’s pregnant, a traveler suddenly appears in their yard. And that’s not the end of their troubles.
I really did feel for Arthur as a character and felt he was unfairly mistreated in the story. I would have liked a more solid conclusion, or at least some closure on all the emotions I was building up through out the reading. This one sort of left me dangling.
I Said I Was Sorry Didn’t I – Gordon Eklund
The voice and the narration in this story really tickled me, as did the lack of quotation marks in dialogue. The combination of these makes the reader feel almost uncomfortably close to the protagonist.
The universe is ending and it’s all the protagonist’s fault. How he did it the reader never comes to know, but that’s not important. There is no future, so what he will do isn’t important either. No, the important thing is what he does now, in the present, for his family and the people around him.
Ultimately a story about living in the now, I Said I Was Sorry is very touching, despite the crass protagonist. The unconventional prose is jarring in a way compatible with an end of the world story, and the character’s journey to try and find the peace within himself that he isn’t entirely aware that he needs is something that I think most of us can identify with.
Our Vegetable Love – Rob Chilson
A lot of the stories in this issue focus on what it is that makes us human. Our Vegetable Love is one of the ones that asks this question more directly.
Agnes is a little girl in a big hurry to be grown up. She wants more than anything to attend the bonfire ceremony in which the adults of her village in tandem with the animated trees containing the souls of their dead burn the saplings of the dangerous soul-suck trees that have begun to outgrow their allotted land. Roger Tree used to be a man, the grandfather of Agnes. He also used to be a tree. What he is now is a confused mix of both, and when Agnes rages against his refusal to let her attend the ceremony and accuses him of not being her real grandfather, it puts poor Roger Tree in a painful existential crisis. Where does Roger end and Tree begin? What, if anything is his real relationship to Agnes?
I especially liked this story as I’m watching a lecture series on the philosophy of death at the moment that asks precisely these same questions, so the themes are fresh in my mind. If all that is left after death is our personalities, are we still alive? Are we still the same person we once were? The realization that Roger Tree comes to at the end of the story shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, but the message is still powerful.
Draft 31 – Michael Libling
This is one of the more chilling stories in the anthology, not because it throws the reader into a depressing dystopian future, but because there is no clear intentional antagonist in the story. By that I mean it’s not stated that any of the events of the story are done with malicious intent or even awareness.
Cap is a small town doctor, who has recently moved with his wife and his small daughter Tess back to his roots. The old familiar faces and places seemed to be doing him good, until an old high school flame knocks on his door. Allie’s son has been acting strange, and she’s at the end of her rope. He talks about people and events which not only aren’t there, but have never existed. Cap is the last person she wants to ask help from, but when her son starts accusing the doctor of making his father disappear, Allie knows there’s no one else she can turn to.
This is another story that will lose its impact if over summarized, so I’ll end by saying, if our lives played out like an endlessly repeatable choose-your-own-adventure book, how many of us would consider the morality of how many lives we would change if only we tweaked things down a slightly different path?