Thursday, September 9, 2010

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 93, Nos. 4 & 5 (October/November 1997) edited by Gordon van Gelder

Stories included:
Deus X by Jerry Oltion and Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Everything's Eventual by Stephen King
God Is Thus by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Transcendence by Nancy Springer
The Hole in the World by Jack Williamson
Paul and Me by Michael Blumlein
To Church with Mr. Multhiford by Robert Reed
Down the Fool's Road by Lisa Goldstein
The Player by Terry Bisson
Like the Gentle Rain by Lewis Shiner

Science fact articles included:
Selfness by Gregory Benford

Full review: The October/November 1997 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is both a double issue, and the 48th Anniversary issue of the magazine. In my experience reading genre magazines, either one of these elements is often a recipe for a subpar issue. This issue, however, is a happy exception to this trend, with several good stories, a good science fact article, and a very good "celebrity author" story.

Featured on the cover is the novella Everything's Eventual by Stephen King, concerning a man with a very strange talent, a very strange job, and even stranger working conditions. The story fills in slowly, revealing the oddities of the main character's life. This being a Stephen King story, there has to be a monster lurking in the corner somewhere, but the twist in this story is that the monster is front and center, staring everyone in the face for the whole book. Eventually the protagonist figures out who the villain of the story is, and he doesn't like the revelation very much. The story sits at the intersection of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and King blends them skillfully to produce a great story. Unlike many featured stories contributed by famous authors for special magazine issues that seem to be little more than whatever the author had on his desk when the request came in, this story is excellent. Also sitting at the intersection of science fiction and horror is Jack Williamson's The Hole in the World a very short story in which a man has to face the titular threat, with disastrous personal results. There isn't really much more to it than that.

One mini-theme of the issue appears to be stories with a religious theme, starting with Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s God Is Thus, set in the same post-apocalyptic world as A Canticle for Liebowitz. In the story, a disgraced monk traveling with a motley crew that includes a powerful church official going incognito come across a colony of outcast mutants. The protagonist discovers more about himself and his traveling companions than he probably wanted to. The story is more or less an excerpt from Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, although people who have not read Canticle might find it a bit confusing. As with other Miller tales, this one is layered with people confronting reality as it is, while attempting to reconcile it with their faith in God. The longest religiously themed story in the issue is Deus X by Jerry Oltion and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a tale about a minor politician who has his seemingly insane sister committed to prevent her from messing up his reelection chances. When the invisible people she had been talking to begin to show up on the protagonists doorstep, he gets a little in over his head. The story is basically a "what if" about the birth of Jesus, but the authors make a rather unusual speculation about the saviour's possible parentage in a way that leads to speculation but no conclusions. The only weak part of the story is the ending, which seems both rushed and forced, like the authors decided that the story was long enough and needed to end it in a couple hundred words or less. The last, and most tangentially religiously related story is To Church with Mr. Multhiford by Robert Reed, a tale about a teenager who lets himself get dragged into some mischief by his friends, and finds himself confronted by a victim who knows a lot more about him than he expected. The church angle comes from the fact that the kid's father is a minister, but it doesn't go much further than that. The story takes an unusual view of the relationship between humanity and agriculture that is a little unsettling, but also quite interesting.

A second mini-theme of the issue is fairy tale inspired stories. Transcendence by Nancy Springer is a sort of twisted modern tale, in which an ardent young fan communicates with the author he has fallen for, despite her protestations concerning her unattractive appearance and vile personal nature. The story is told in a series of back and forth letters that detail their initial contact, modest relationship, and eventual parting. It is cast as a modern fairy tale, but if it is an effort to evoke a classic fairy tale either I am too dense to see which one, or the story is too opaque. Another modern take on a fairy tale type story is Paul and Me by Michael Blumlein, which takes on the Paul Bunyan legend and sets him into the modern day. The story is told through the eyes of a man as he grows from adolescence into middle-age, and Paul's story more or less parallels the protagonist's increasing disillusionment, as the world stops valuing what Bunyan stood for. The story takes a tall tale about a giant lumberjack and makes it into a touching tragedy. The third fairy story is Down the Fool's Road by Lisa Goldstein, in which a collection of enigmatic fairies lead a woman away from her daily routine into a bizarre series of encounters. The story is confusing through most of its run, but eventually winds up in a manner that ties up the confusion and makes it makes some semblance of sense.

The Player by Terry Bisson is a very short, quirky story about an interstellar wanderer and the people who find and repair it. The story seems to aspire to be deep and meaningful, but I must have missed the deep lesson, because it just seemed to me like a technically inclined version of a catch and release fish story.

Also included in this issue is the science fact article Selfness by Gregory Benford, written in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of Dolly the cloned sheep. Although many of the more heady predictions following the announcements have not and likely will not come to pass - cloning livestock appears to be so impractical as to likely never be worthwhile - the question of identity in a world potentially full of genetic duplicates remains timely. Benford takes on the question of identity in such a world from the point of view of someone who already has a genetic duplicate in existence: he's an identical twin. Benford allows his imagination to range freely on the issue of personal identity coming to conclusions that are both intriguing and disturbing. This is by far the best science fact article I have read in Fantasy & Science Fiction. Somewhat related to the article is the dystopian story Like the Gentle Rain by Lewis Shiner which imagines a world in which children determined to be destined to be "scientists" are taken from their parents in infancy to be radically altered into coldly rational beings. The story follows a mother's attempts to find and recover her son after he has been taken. Along the way she discovers that the world doesn't work the way she thought it did, and that even when she gets what she wants it isn't what she expected. The future the story posits is all too plausible, which makes it that much more effective.

In the end, despite a couple mediocre stories, this is a very good issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Both the King and Miller stories are very good, and the Oltion and Rusch piece is pretty good too. The Shiner story is the scariest in the issue, which is odd for an issue in which King has a contribution. Lacking any poor stories, and with a very good science fact article, the October/November 1997 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction avoids both the double issue flab and the anniversary issue doldrums. One generally expects good material from one of the flagship genre magazines out there, and this issue delivers.

Previous issue reviewed: April 1987

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