Friday, November 12, 2010

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 119, No. 1 & 2 (July/August 2010) edited by Gordon van Gelder

Stories included:
Advances in Modern Chemotherapy by Michael Alexander
The Revel by John Langan
Mister Sweetpants and the Living Dead by Albert E. Cowdrey
Pining to Be Human by Richard Bowes
The Lost Elephants of Kenyisha by Ken Altabef
The Precedent by Sean McMullen
Recrossing the Styx by Ian R. MacLeod
Brothers of the River by Rick Norwood
The Tale of Nameless Chameleon by Brenda Carre
Epidapheles and the Inadequately Enraged Demon by Ramsey Shehadeh
Introduction to Joyous Cooking, 200th Anniversary Edition by Heather Lindsley

Poems included:
Physics by Annabelle Beaver

Science fact articles included:
How Low Can You Go? by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy

Full review: The July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction provides the reader with a varied array of stories, but drawn into a couple of broad themes. Four stories read like Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episodes in print form. Two excellent stories, one fantasy and the other science fiction, deal with the threat of global warming, two fantasy stories are heavily Asian influenced, and the issue is capped off with two humorous stories. As seems to be the case in many issues of genre magazines, there is also a story that doesn't seem to actually fit as a genre story at all, which is always frustrating. However, with that sole exception, the stories in this issue are all pretty good.

Mentioned on the cover, Recrossing the Styx by Ian R. MacLeod is the most Twilight Zone-ish story in the issue. The story is told from the perspective of a cruise line employee in a future in which those who can pay can extend their lives and even return from the dead so long as they have the cash to pay for the myriad of advanced procedures necessary. He falls in love with a beautiful woman married to an elderly, wealthy man, and conspires with her to free her from this situation while retaining access to wealth. All goes well until the Twilight Zone twist at the end, which, even though it is a little easy to spot coming, is still a somewhat creepy resolution to the story. Advances in Modern Chemotherapy by Michael Alexander also seems like a Twilight Zone episode, as elderly cancer patients begin displaying paranormal powers in their last days before they die. The story posits a cruel irony that only those who are advancing quickly towards death gain these abilities, making it very difficult to study them or figure out why it is happening. The story is well-done, both making the reader feel the tired sickness of the patients, and the joy and confusion they feel as they test their new abilities. As a side note, with the baby boomers moving into old age, it seems likely that more and more science fiction stories will deal with the effects of aging, so I suspect we'll see more and more stories like these in the future.

The other two Twilight Zone type stories in the issue are more horror themed than science fiction. The Revel by John Langan is one of the best stories in the issue and tells a fairly typical werewolf tale from the perspective of an outside narrator who is openly aware of the conventions of the genre, shifting from character to character as the story goes. With the typical cast including a small town sheriff, local weirdo, hapless victims, and of course, the werewolf, Langan weaves a fast moving and compelling story that moves towards the twist ending that both seemingly crops up from nowhere and fits the story perfectly. The other horror story in the issue is Mister Sweetpants and the Living Dead by Albert E. Cowdrey, a modestly comic zombie story involving a wealthy writer and his dead ex-boyfriend who is stalking him. The story is told from the perspective of the owner of a security company hired to protect the writer, and it is both creepy and somewhat funny. Of the stories I have described as being reminiscent of the Twilight Zone, this one is the least Zone-like, but it is still quite good.

One of the strengths of this issue is that it deals with a variety of topics from a variety of angles. The global warming story has become more and more popular in science fiction, but both The Lost Elephants of Kenyisha by Ken Altabef and The Precedent by Sean McMullen are strong enough to stand out in the crowded field. The Lost Elephants is a fantasy story set in Kenya, at some undefined point in the future, featuring a scientist struggling to preserve the elephant as a species in the wild. Strange events in Tanzania lead the Tanzanian government to lift a ban on hunting, and with the aid of a British psychic and an African witch-doctor, the mystery of the elephants is unraveled in an unsettling conclusion. Although The Lost Elephants is quite good, it is overshadowed by The Precedent, which is by far the best story in an issue full of good ones. Set in a future that feels very plausible, The Precedent focuses on what the societal reaction might be if global temperatures soar. The result is a society that has deluded itself into thinking revenge is the same as justice, and in which all people born before the "tipping" (or the millennium) are guilty until proven innocent of crimes against humanity such as driving SUV's, using their hose to clean leaves, or just watching a lot of TV. The story focuses on the trial of an elderly climatologist - all of the defendants are old, all of the prosecutors are young as climate change has divided the generations - and his efforts to demonstrate his innocence to the various charges brought against him. The story is chilling, both for the vision of the planet that it describes, and for the callousness of the legal system that this has created. There is a little implausibility in the story: it is hard to believe that a younger generation would turn on their own parents and grandparents so viciously, but this only serves to heighten the tension. On the whole, it is an excellent story.

The issue also has its almost obligatory examples of Asian themed fantasy which will probably both remind readers of tales from 1,001 Nights. The first, Brothers of the River by Rick Norwood concerns two magically inclined brothers with very different demeanors who challenge one another to a race of epic proportions. They both have adventures along the way which allow them to overcome later challenges and eventually, as in many fairy tales, their race becomes an explanation for a terrain feature. It is a decent read, but nothing really special. The Tale of Nameless Chameleon by Brenda Carre is a story set in a city that seems at times like it would fit in ancient China, and at others like it would make a good proxy for a medieval Baghdad in which magic was real. The story itself is a classic revenge story, with a hardscrabble protagonist angling to get revenge upon the man he holds responsible for the death of his only friend. The method of revenge (and the price the protagonist must pay) are unusual, and the resolution seems to tie the story in a strange way to the Arthurian legend, although not so tightly as to be annoying. The protagonist is interesting, the setting is colorful, and the plot is good, all of which adds up to a good story.

The first of the two out and out humor stories sees the return of the incompetent wizard Epidapheles and his invisible chair familiar named "Door" in Epidapheles and the Inadequately Enraged Demon by Ramsey Shehadeh. The story takes Epidapheles and his weary and not very happy companion to a demonic realm where they are confronted with the demon of the title. The story is convoluted, and since Epidapheles is involved, quite strange while still being quite funny. The other humorous story, Introduction to Joyous Cooking, 200th Anniversary Edition by Heather Lindsley, is a short and funny piece imagining The Joy of Cooking a hundred and fifty years from now, discussing the new recipes that have been added to the book, and the old ones that were taken out. It is quick, light, and funny.

For some reason the editors of genre magazines seem to think putting a non-genre story in their magazine is a good idea. Maybe they think this will earn them literary credibility. Maybe they think their readers want some non-genre material. Maybe they have some other reason. I don't know the answer. Pining to Be Human by Richard Bowes is an example of this phenomenon. The story features a gay protagonist in the 1960s struggling with his sexuality in a society that regards being gay as an abomination, and as a result struggling with life in general. he struggles through college, uses a lot of drugs, has some not very happy relationships, and tells all of this to his therapist that he can afford by doing nude photo shoots. The "fantasy" element to the story is his visions of a set of witches from a play he saw when he was a young boy that featured a witch boy marrying a human girl - the boy is "pining to be human", which serves as a metaphor for being gay and yearning to be straight. The story isn't bad in and of itself, but there is no fantasy and no science fiction in it, which makes it out of place in this magazine.

The science fact article titled How Low Can You Go? by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy is, as are most of the science articles in Fantasy & Science Fiction, a pretty bland affair. Although the subject matter of the article - the nature of absolute zero, how materials behave at very low temperatures, and other temperature related tidbits of information - might be useful to a very uneducated reader, most people who pick up a magazine heavily focused on science fiction will probably find the article an exercise in remedial learning at best. There is a running joke in the article about "contributing to the heat death of the Universe", but it gets pounded into the ground so much that it loses all humor value. The sad conclusion I have come to is that most of the science fact articles in Fantasy & Science Fiction are simply not worth the page count they take up in the magazine.

Overall, despite a weak science fact article and an out of place non-genre story, this issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is really good. In fact, those two missteps are the only elements that kept me from rating this issue at five stars. While The Precedent is the best story in the issue, all of the stories are at least good, even Pining to Be Human. In the final assessment, this is simply a standout issue of a good magazine.

Previous issue reviewed: May/June 2010.
Subsequent issue reviewed: September/October 2010.

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