Monday, November 29, 2010
Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 119, No. 5 & 6 (November/December 2010) edited by Gordon van Gelder
Dead Man's Run by Robert Reed
Plinth Without Figure by Alexander Jablokov
Swamp City Lament by Alexandra Duncan
Death Must Die by Albert E. Cowdrey
The Exterminator's Want Ad by Bruce Sterling
Crumbs by Michaela Roessner
Venues by Richard Bowes
Planning Ahead by Jerry Oltion
Free Elections by Alan Dean Foster
Ware of the Worlds by Michael Alexander
The Closet by John Kessel
Teen Love Science Club by Terry Bisson
Full review: The November/December 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a fairly strong issue, loaded with a very strong featured story about a kind computer generated ghost, three more traditional ghost stories and several fairy tale like stories. Also included are two post-apocalyptic stories. Overall, every story in the issue is at least average, and several are good to very good, making for a an enjoyable reading experience.
One of the two stories featured on the cover, and the longest entry in the issue, Dead Man's Run by Robert Reed is a murder mystery dealing with a death that has struck a small seemingly close knit community of aging runners. The "dead man" of the title is a virtual version of the murder victim, who keeps in contact with the various other characters, prodding them to find out who killed the real version of himself. The mystery unfolds against the backdrop of training runs and races. All the runners are filled with nostalgia, recalling the halcyon days of their youth when they were faster and stronger (and, it is implied, the world was a better place), which highlights the fact that the virtual reality version of the dead man has nothing but memories. The killer is eventually uncovered, although the final resolution is ambiguous in a way that raised some fairly disturbing questions. Although the story seems at times like it is going to descend into triviality, but in the end the story smacks the reader in the face with the danger that has been lurking behind the surface for the whole story, exposing the true danger posed to people by the technology some of them have unthinkingly adopted.
The magazine also features three more traditional ghost stories, featuring ghosts of the supernatural kind. Plinth Without Figure by Alexander Jablokov is a quirky story mixing urban planning architecture with something of a ghost story. The story revolves around two architects, former lovers, and the seemingly supernatural encounter they had years before the events of the story. The story has some interesting things to say about the place humans hold in an urban environment, but doesn't really go anywhere with them. Venues by Richard Bowes is another quirky ghost story, this one centering on a publicity seeking writer and the ghosts that seem to show up at his appearances. There seems to be a message concerning the fleeting nature of fame hidden in the story, but it is pretty subtle. The final ghost story in the issue is Death Must Die by Albert E. Cowdrey, featuring a somewhat upset ghost, and a more upset homeowner that hires an investigator to deal with it. The character of the ghost-antagonist is fairly interesting, and the story as a whole seems to be a commentary on the lies that people tell themselves to justify their actions. Of the three traditional ghost stories in the issue, I found it to be the most satisfying.
The issue contains two post-apocalyptic stories with something of a comic bent. The first, The Exterminator's Want Ad by Bruce Sterling, takes the form of a combination of a want ad and a personal ad. The exterminator, living in a future in which all of the worst fears of climate change have come true. All of this comes out by way of the exterminator explaining why he is a criminal, but not a bad guy, with the whole tale told quite humorously. The second, not as openly comic in tone, is Swamp City Lament by Alexandra Duncan, another future in which the characters live in the aftermath of widespread ecological disaster. In this case, they live in a dusty world in which no plants grow and human fertility has dropped to the point where a woman's most valuable sexual asset is her ability to bear children. This would seem infertile soil for a mildly humorous piece, but Duncan weaves comedy with the tragedy as she follows the main character about the edges of the palace intrigues that dominate the lives of those scrambling for the scraps of civilization. The story is both depressing and hopeful.
The very short story The Closet by John Kessel also has something of a humorous element, but for most of the story it is basically just a description of a fairly ordinary day in the life of a fairly ordinary person. In the end the reader finds out exactly why the story is titled The Closet, which provides a dark but still moderately amusing twist to the tale.
Most of Planning Ahead by Jerry Oltion seems to lack much in the way of a speculative fiction element, the story centering on a man who becomes an inveterate hoarder after being unprepared for an impromptu sexual encounter. The story is told well, but I was prepared to be annoyed at the lack of speculative fiction in it when the science fiction popped up at the very end and threw a twist into the story that was both unexpected and thought-provoking. The main character in Ware of the Worlds by Michael Alexander is a kind of mirror image of the protagonist in Planning Ahead, at least by the end of the story. The plot reminded me of LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven, but if the protagonists power to change the world with his thoughts extended to everyone. As one might expect, the plot progresses fairly rapidly until an equilibrium is reached that might not be what one would expect. It is a pretty good story, although it ends happier than I would have thought it would given the initial set-up.
Crumbs by Michaela Roessner is a kind of reverse version of Hansel and Gretel, told from the perspective of the evil witch, with a different, albeit somewhat predictable ending. As a horror twist on a classic fairy tale, it is fairly decent. Free Elections by Alan Dean Foster and featuring the recurring character Mad Amos Malone is an Old west style tall tale involving a sit off between a villainous blackmailer and Mad Amos. The story is fun to read, but not much more than light entertainment. I will warn potential readers that the title and the resolution to the story is an example of groan inducing wordplay. Though somewhat dark, Teen Love Science Club by Terry Bisson is told with something of a fairy tale sensibility. Set in a reality that seems reminiscent of Atwood's misogynistic dystopian in The Handmaid's Tale layered with some creationist wingnuttery the story follows a high school girl as she tries to navigate her way through the pitfalls of teen love while indulging her love for the school's science club. The story has something of a happy ending, although not for everyone. Overall, it is pretty good, even if the symbolism is a bit heavy handed.
With its collection of average to well above average stories, the November/December 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is quite good. The best story of the issue is probably the feature story Dead Man's Run, but every story is worth reading. As usual, this publication delivers a solid issue that will probably be an enjoyable read for any speculative fiction aficionado.
Previous issue reviewed: September/October 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: January/February 2011
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