Friday, September 10, 2010
Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 72, No. 1 (January 1987) by Edward L. Ferman (editor)
The Order of the Peacock Angel by Cooper McLaughlin
The Temporary King by Paul J. McAuley
The Greening of Mrs. Edminston by Robin Scott Wilson
Salvage Rites by Ian Watson
The Million-Dollar Wound by Dean Whitlock
Addrict by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis
What Bleak Land by Robert F. Young
The Man Who Wrote Shakespeare by E. Bertrand Loring
Friend's Best Man by Jonathan Carroll
Science fact articles included:
Opposite! by Isaac Asimov
Full review: Science fiction and fantasy, like all other literary genres, are subject to trends. In the January 1987 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the trend seems to have been trepidation, fear, and melancholy. Leavened only by a handful of stories that break the pattern, this issue of F & SF is full of stories that evoke trepidation about the future, sadness for the past, and fear for the present. Despite this theme, or perhaps because of it, this is a strong issue of the magazine, and full of stories that remain as relevant now as they were when they were first published.
The Order of the Peacock Angel by Cooper McLaughlin is set in what is presumably an alternative version of England during the Napoleonic Wars. A military officer is informed that he has inherited a title and estates when his uncle is unexpectedly killed, but when he goes to claim his inheritance, he discovers that he has been left far more than that. he soon discovers the existence of a secret war that may determine the future of the human race. The story is full of twists and turns, and several characters turn out to be more than they seem to be at first glance. The story is basically a reasonably well-crafted science fiction action adventure with an unusual setting.
The future earth setting of The Temporary King by Paul J. McAuley reminded me to a certain extent of the future Earth setting of the Gordon R. Dickson novella Call Him Lord, in which a technologically advanced interstellar civilization keeps the Earth as a non-technological backwater. The most substantive difference in the stories is that this one is told from the perspective of on the the denizens of the primitive Earth confronted by the intrusion of a man from the stars. It becomes clear that the newcomer is not all that he seems to be, and the villagers move from worship to hatred as his layers are peeled away. The action of the story is more or less predictable, but the seeds that the newcomer plants simply through his disruptive presence have far ranging and somewhat unexpected consequences for the protagonist, and it is on this layer that the story truly shines.
After the box office success of Coccoon, it is perhaps inevitable that science fiction featuring aliens making geriatric humans young again would be in vogue for a while. The Greening of Mrs. Edminston by Robin Scott Wilson is a decent, if fairly pedestrian story in this vein. Two residents at a nursing home discover a miniature alien spacecraft, help them repair their ship, and in compensation have the aging process reversed. The story doesn't go any further than that, which is a shame, as the patronizing attitude that the nursing home staff have for the residents is fairly well-established and it would have been nice to see some examination made into how they react to two of their charges unexpectedly recovering their health, or some similar plot development in the story. As it is, the story is adequate, but could have been much better.
Set in a depressing future in which garbage has become a valued commodity, Salvage Rites by Ian Watson is another story that appears in the magazine that seems to be a little too close to modern reality for comfort. Having emptied out their spare room a couple takes their junk to the local dump, and when they get there they discover that they are expected to donate a little more than they bargained for. A combination of science fiction and horror, Salvage Rites is brutal and riveting, although the ending is pretty much a horror genre cliche. Also set in a bleak future, but with a more humorous bent is Addrict by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis, a story which follows an addict on Christmas Eve as he tries to locate funds to fuel his addiction. The story is told in a sort of sing-song slang, and reveals the nature of the dystopian future the addict lives in only slowly until the final punchline reveals just how restrictive the world has become. The story is something of a long set-up for the big reveal at the end, but the writing is good enough that one doesn't mind.
The Million-Dollar Wound by Dean Whitlock is a Vietnam War inspired look at the application of advanced medical technology to warfare, and how the ability to return wounded soldiers to duty no matter how damaged their bodies might get in the field might take a deadly toll on the mental health of those soldiers. In 1987, this was science fiction. In 2010, where soldiers with prosthetic limbs are eligible to return to active duty and participate in a seemingly endless guerrilla war in the Middle-East, the story seems too real for comfort.
Published after the author's death, What Bleak Land by Robert F. Young is a sad time travel story, told by an old man spurred by the discovery of a strange object on his property into reminiscing about a stranger who lived with his family decades before during the Depression era. Given the title, one might think that the "bleak land" of the story is the cold autumnal landscape of rural America in which the narrator and his family struggle to make ends meet, working long hours for little compensation. The tale takes a turn when one of the children in the family asks their visitor about the classic H.G. Wells story The Time Machine, and the reader begins to realize that the world the characters live in may not be such a bleak one after all. The story is powerful, clearly written by a man facing his mortality, and is laced with melancholy and regret. Sitting at the exact opposite thematic end of the time travel story is The Man Who Wrote Shakespeare by E. Bertrand Loring, a comic story about a genius from the future chosen to be the first traveler back through time, and whose mission is to meet William Shakespeare. Things don't go quite like he assumed they would, with comical and for the traveler, disastrous results. The story is silly comic relief, and much needed in an issue loaded with weighty and sad stories.
The final story in the issue is the Hitchcock-esque Friend's Best Man by Jonathan Carroll. The story starts with the main character losing his leg while saving his dog named Friend from being crushed by a train. While recovering, Egan meets a crippled young girl in the hospital who claims she gets messages from Friend, and conveying the methods that Friend proposed to thank the narrator for saving his life. The story moves through Egan's recovery and then a love match with his neighbor blossoms. At this point, the story takes a very sharp left turn into territory that would be familiar to those who have seen The Birds. The seeming supernatural elements in the story are just vague enough that one can understand the conflicting emotions Egan has in the final passage of the book, making for a disturbing and interesting story.
Featured on the cover, the Isaac Asimov penned science fact article Opposite! is a brief guided tour through the history of the physics of antiparticles, from the discovery of the 'antielectron" or positron, to the discovery of the antiproton, the antineutron and so on. The article is pretty straightforward, and probably would not have been mentioned on the cover had it not been an Asimov piece. Although Asimov does muse on the possibility of entire star systems or galaxies comprised of antimatter, a possibility that was discarded as an option by most scientists, he engages in little speculation concerning antimatter in science fiction or even whether it might have practical real value. Asimov does state that he intends to discuss practical uses of antimatter in his next column, which will probably be interesting, but it does leave this article as little more than a fairly dry history lesson.
Despite the odd choice for an article to feature on the cover, this remains a strong issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Perhaps the issue is so strong because the editors were unafraid of allowing the issue to be dominated by what most would consider to be depressing stories. These stories are, however, almost all so good that despite the sad topic, they are able to evoke emotional responses int he reader without causing the issue as a whole to drag, which is always a danger when you have numerous melancholy stories in a row. As is expected by those familiar with F & SF, this is a fine selection of strong stories and well worth reading.
Previous issue reviewed: November 1986.
Subsequent issue reviewed: February 1987.
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