The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2014
Gordon Van Gelder (Editor)
(read on Kindle, page count unknown)
As happens occasionally with fiction magazines featuring a range of talent, voices, and themes–especially one in a genre as diverse as fantasy and science fiction–this issue didn’t resonate very well with me. Many of the stories were disappointing, especially from regular contributors whose work I’ve come to admire. Some of the stories felt as though they were deliberately meant to be offensive, as suggested by editor Gordon Van Gelder in the introduction of one story:
There was a time … when writers turned to science fiction to explore ideas they couldn’t touch in any other medium. A fair number of stories regarded as classics today were transgressive when they first came out.
These days, however, the internet seems to thrive on posts by people who aren’t keen on tolerating viewpoints that differ from their own, and some of those posts focus on the science fiction and fantasy field. They’ve inspired us here at F&SF to give this issue an extra helping of stories that deal with touchy themes or go beyond the bounds of Political Correctness.
I’m not sure which instance (or instances) Mr. Van Gelder is speaking of–there surely has been a lot of PC controversy this year in the sci-fi and fantasy community–so I can’t speak directly for or against whatever point he is making here. All I can say is that several of the stories in this issue seem to have been given the green light to be as crass and offensive as their authors can make them, at times losing the narrative in a feel of overwhelming ‘ick’.
That said, there were other stories in this issue that were a delight to read, offering refreshing, diverse viewpoints, or contemplative plots.
For better or for worse, the fantasy and science fiction genre is a mixed bag, and while there were stories in this final issue of 2014 that I didn’t agree with, the community benefits from having them added to the archive, regardless.
Read on ahead for uncomfortable topics and spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Rand B. Lee
This story continues Rand B. Lee’s Changes from the May/June issue of last year. While I wasn’t altogether impressed by its predecessor, The Judging takes the reader back to a very imaginative and chaotic world that I remember liking from the previous story. It ties up the plot and character arcs nicely without spending too much time in recapping. Although there were a few minor expository bumps along the way, I felt that on the whole, The Judging was a much better composed story than Changes.
After traveling through the mist with his burro Francesca and the husky, Treats, Whitsun, a circuit rider for the Fair Dealers arrives in a rustic community, surprisingly unChanged by all the rest of the reality bending chaos that has descended on the rest of the world. Sure, they’re living a much simpler life than what had once been the height of technology, but after what Whitsun has seen in his travels, the people in this community are rather unscathed. But you know what they say about the quiet, unassuming ones, and from the start the people in town are a little too normal, even by post-apocalyptic standards. There’s a mystery bubbling just under the surface–a dangerous one–but the wealfire within him won’t let Whitsun abandon the people to the fate of the coming Change-storm, even if it means the end of his own life.
In Hollywood North, Michael Libling paints us a slow, dramatic picture of a small town horror through the growth and decline of the first person narrator Gus, who starts out as a curious ten year-old, and finishes as an emotionally ruined adult.
Throughout this long novella, Gus becomes close friends with Jack, a boy a year his senior whose specialty is finding things. Not the sort of, ‘I once found a five dollar bill on the sidewalk’ finding, but the finding of long lost objects that don’t want to be found–until just the right moment. When Jack finds a box of old intertitles–the bits of exposition and dialogue placed between scenes in the old silent films, he begs Gus to be the one to claim the discovery, wanting to sit out of the limelight for this one. After the discovery comes out, however, it seems the town collectively loses its mind. Suddenly the newsman, Bryan McGrath is making all sorts of ominous, vague threats, and the laundryman, Mr. Blackhurst suddenly and temporarily goes catatonic. It’s enough to spark the curiosity in even the most grounded of boys.
However, life gets in the way of the mystery when Jack is suddenly forced to move, and the rift between them only grows when it comes out that Jack and Gus’s long time friend and secret crush, Annie have been dating behind Gus’s back. As if the struggle to reconcile his friendships with his jealousies isn’t hard enough on poor Gus, Trenton, Ontario and its dark movie history aren’t finished with him. Or Jack and Annie, for that matter.
As mentioned, this is a long one, but Libling keeps it interesting with a non-linear pot and fantastic characters. The voice is natural and authentic, and the story itself skirts the boarder of reality so closely that you could almost believe something like this really could happen. It’s horrific not in what specifically transpires in the story, but that the ring of truth in it makes the reader question how much of this story is true, and how much is fiction.
I’ll Follow the Sun
Honestly, I started out liking this one. I liked the characters in the beginning, and the plot seemed like it was going some place interesting. But then the story derails and I felt as though I was left to look at the wreckage, wondering what the hell happened.
Dan Wishcup is by all accounts a brilliant student of mathematics, under the mentorship of the equally brilliant, if a little eccentric, Professor Chan Davis. Things are looking pretty up for Dan, until he receives his draft for the war in Vietnam–a war which Dan opposes. Unfortunately, love of country and the guilt over the fate of his ancestor of the same name who died in WWI put Dan in the uncomfortable position of not being able to hide out the war in Canada until the draft ends. Davis sympathizes, naturally, and not wanting to lose a bright student (and wanting to test out his own research), he suggests that Dan not hide in a where, but a when. Specifically, he proposes to send Dan to the future to wait out however many years the draft will last, and then return to that point in history, unscathed. (Admittedly, I was a little confused as to why Dan couldn’t just step into that point to begin with, and cut out the whole waiting in the future thing, but I let it go.) Still feeling guilty about being untrue to the courage of his fallen namesake, Dan goes on a jaunt to the past to bring the ill-fated turn of the century Dan Wishcup to the 1960’s. Without many words of advice, caution or explanation, 1960’s Dan leaves 1910’s Dan in his apartment and rushes off to not miss his meeting with Davis. (Again, he can time jump as easily as some of us walk to the corner store. Why he can’t arrive at his own pace escapes me.)
Here is where the story really did lose my interest. Dan (1960’s Dan) is presented as a mathematical prodigy, one who is well aware of time paradoxes and their complications, yet not only does he pluck his ancestor out of a previous time stream and plunk him in his own present as if he were adopting a stray dog, he doesn’t bother to tell anyone about it. My suspension of disbelief suffered multiple blows at that one. It didn’t recover very much either, before the rest of the story shot and buried it once and for all.
Dan of the 1960’s doesn’t like the year 2014 very much. He finds it obnoxious and shallow and vapid, and in a stunning example of cherry picking information, asserts that humanity of the past fifty years failed to have any of the great advances on par with what his own generation achieved. (This he grumbles after spending a week hunched over an iPad on the internet, catching up with the world.)
While failing to grasp the irony of hating on the hipsters of the early twenty-first century, Dan meets and falls in love with Zinnia Wishcup, who looks startlingly similar to his sweetheart Marigold, whom he left behind in the 1960’s with nothing but a note of apology left in the hands of 1910’s Dan. Of course this must be his own daughter, but time paradoxes, incest and the knowledge that he’s leading her on only to later break her heart aside, Dan goes for it, because, ‘the power of boners’, as they say.
The story only tumbles into what felt like a rushed anti-climax from there. For a story that started so strong, and so interesting, to say that this one was a disappointment is an understatement.
Albert E. Cowdrey
Of all the stories in this anthology, this one bothered me the most, for reasons I’ll get to. However, subject matter aside, Cowdrey is a very talented writer, and the story itself is more or less well written.
Doreen is a young woman, as independent as she can be while attached to a nagging Catholic mother who is insistent she get married and become domestic, already. That, and her mother insists that Lucien Valois killed Doreen’s grandmother and permanently hospitalized her grandfather. It might have been farfetched, but two other tenants of the same building have died mysteriously, only to have their properties immediately bought up by Lucien. So Doreen takes a job with Lucien to organize his vast collection of rare books. Despite receiving all the signs that Lucien is a creep of the highest degree, Doreen remains stubbornly in his employ, and fumbles through all the horror movie bimbo tropes.
Of course she is caught. And raped. And raped. And raped. It turns out, not only is Lucien a crazy old pervert, but he has something of an obsession with bees and their home-made fountain of youth, royal jelly. Now that he has a queen, Lucien has no intention of letting her leave.
What bothered me most about this story is that by all accounts, Doreen starts out as an asexual, yet through a combination of being force-fed royal jelly and being repeatedly raped, she transforms into a sexually hungry bee-woman, eager for more men. Asexuals are already a hyper rare breed in media that has only recently become more inclusive to homosexual characters. As an asexual myself, not only did the story and its outcome make me feel unclean in ways I just can’t shake, I couldn’t help but read it in the same way one might read a story of a gay man ‘cured’ by being repeatedly raped by women. Maybe that was the intent, and maybe not. As I said, Cowdrey is a keen wordsmith no matter what his subject matter. I only hope that the next story of his I read doesn’t leave me feeling so molested myself.
I think I liked this one from the start, from the narration to the story, to the neat little twist at the end. Everything about this rendition of biblical events made me smile.
Tim Sullivan gives us the story of Yeshua the liar. Well, storyteller really, who regales the people of his home in Kfar Nahum with the most impossible stories. Elijah is his apprentice in carpentry, and so frequently hears Yeshua’s tall tales, and, if we’re honest, is a bit endeared to the old liar. Eventually, Yeshua’s fame spreads outside of the village, throughout the Roman empire, until a Greek doctor named Lucanus pays Yeshua a visit and offers to pay him for his stories, which he intends to publish. The book becomes so wildly popular that Lucanus returns for a second volume, however the townspeople aren’t so keen on him, so that ends up being the last book.
When Yeshua finally dies of old age, his faithful dog, Judas refuses food and drink, and soon follows his master. The people of Kfar Nahum feel it’s only right to bury the dog with Yeshua, but no sooner has the dog been entombed but up pops the dog star, earlier in the year and brighter than ever before. Terrified that they have committed sacrilege by burying the dog, the townsfolk beg Elijah to go back inside the tomb and see whether or not the dog really has risen to heaven. What he finds inside the tomb will shake the world forever.
Like Hollywood North, the charm of this story is how plausible it could be as true life. Sullivan sprinkles in biblical figures casually and with enough and as much loyalty to the text as to the laws of reality for the entire story to be believable as the real origins of the story of Jesus. The lighthearted narrative was a rather welcomed palate cleanser after the previous two stories.
Nanabojou at the World’s Fair
As I’ve mentioned before, folk and fairy tales hold a special place in my heart. When mythology is woven into a piece of speculative fiction like Barbeau does with Nanabojou at the World’s Fair, I get a special kind of gleeful.
Nanabojou goes by many different names, depending on who you ask, but these days it doesn’t really matter. The whitemen are creeping into everyone’s lives, changing things and demanding that which is perfectly fine to begin with change as well. When they refuse to even pay Nanbojou anymore, he decides to seek his fortune at the World Fair. What a world away from the world that is! Nanabojou is instantly transfixed by the sights and sounds around him, and is eager to be a part of the fair. Unfortunately, he’s told he’s not authentic indian enough to take part in any of the shows. He doesn’t even have a headdesss! Well, Nanabojou doesn’t take no for an answer (a god isn’t without powers of his own) and one way or another, he’s going to be a part of this strange new carnival.
With themes of cultural identity and what it means to hold onto it in the rush of technological advancement carrying the story forward, Barbeau weaves a memorable and sympathetic character out of Nanabojou in a story that is as fun as it is serious.
This was another story that I wanted to like in the beginning. It has an interesting, psychopathic protagonist who, bizarrely, the reader wants to root for. The first person narration is sympathetic, even if the characters actions are horrifying. Yet, the story doesn’t do much to redeem itself beyond this point, and eventually it careens off the edge of sanity into… well, I’m going to assume that this one is meant to be serialized, because the ending itself wasn’t all that satisfying at all.
Greg doesn’t really like cats. Ok, they’re good for his business. Wrangling feral and unwanted wildlife is kind of Greg’s thing, but when he discovers that he can sell dead kitties for a much higher price than bringing in live ones, things get a little weird. Greg goes on a kitty killing rampage, electro-shocking pet cats to death and selling their corpses for top dollar. That is, until he gets caught. The photographic evidence is hard to ignore, and Greg falls hard. After a stint in jail, he’s ready to pick up the pieces of his life. Unfortunately, no one wants to hire the Kalifornia Kitty Killer. When Greg finally lands a steady job as a furniture delivery man, he’s desperate to keep it. But what do you do when you have to make a delivery to a cat cafe, when you are a cat lover’s number one most hated human ever? Yes, that does include Hitler.
I was willing to ride the wave of strangeness with this story, until it got to the end. There, it takes a turn for the surreal that lost my interest in the characters and my appetite for the story.
This story disappointed me the most. It just doesn’t live up to the quality I’m used to in Kabza’s writing, and given that I was really looking forward to this story, I felt a bit let down. It didn’t help that this story was meant to be a reverse of I’ll Follow the Sun, set in the same universe at that. Everything about it felt awkward, from the shared setting, to the clunky conflict, to the sexy alien sent to study humans by boning them, as if there’s any other way. No matter what angle I approach this story from, be it the time travel device or the inter-personal relationships between the characters, I just can’t find anything in it to like, unfortunately.
The Old Science Fiction Writer
This is a bit of a familiar story to those who frequently read science fiction, which is probably what it was intended to achieve, so there you go. It’s an introspective piece that asks, “What will become of science fiction writers, when science has solved all the world’s problems?” While I found it at times a bit hostile to progression and progressive thoughts, it nonetheless serves its purpose.
It would be difficult to summarize this story without either giving away its ending or diving into its specific critiques of science, modernity and the placement of creative thought within both, so I’ll end with the suggestion to read it for yourself, and come to your own conclusions.
The next book on my reading list is Perdido Street Station by China Miéville.