Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 118, Nos. 1 & 2 (January/February 2010) edited by Gordon van Gelder

Stories included:
Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance by Paul Park
The Long Retreat by Robert Reed
Writers of the Future by Charles Oberndorf
Nanosferatu by Dean Whitlock
City of the Dog by John Langan
Bait by Robin Aurelian
Songwood by Marc Laidlaw
The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales by Steven Popkes
The Late Night Train by Kate Wilhelm

Full review: The January/February 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is filled with mostly good stories with one glaring exception. Unfortunately, that glaring exception is the featured novella in the issue. Despite the generally good quality of the remaining stories, Paul Park's tedious Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance is so awful that it drags down the whole issue, and has made me push A Princess of Roumania way down my "to read" list.

As the longest story in the issue, written by one of the more famous authors represented, one would expect that Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance by Paul Park would be a decent story. Instead, it is a self-indulgent waste of paper and ink. In the story the protagonist Paul Park (yes, the protagonist is a fictionalized version of the author as an old man) spends his time trying to unravel mysterious family mysteries that come down to him from both sides of his family. This is, of course, set in the future, where urban decay has emptied cities, a militarized United States has apparently become something of a dysfunctional police state, and rates of autism among children have climbed to twenty percent. The story meanders through the fictional Park's memories as he jumps from thread to thread (and some of the threads are even known to be fictional by the fictional Park) until Park apparently decided that he'd written enough to get paid a check large enough to cover this month's rent. And then the aimless, pointless, and useless excuse of a story ends. This story by itself drags down the entire issue like a lead weight.

The Long Retreat by Robert Reed is a somewhat funny tale about the imperial court of a losing nation that is wandering from place to place, always one step ahead of the invading armies. The paradox is that as long as they avoid being captured, their nation is supposedly big enough that the invaders can never conquer everything. This is a sort of "Czar fighting Napoleon" story writ even larger, and set in a fantasy world. The end of the story contains a moderately predictable twist, but it is still a decent read.

Writers of the Future by Charles Oberndorf is the most interesting story in the issue. Set in a future in which massive AI's have taken control over most of Earth, the remaining humans while away their lives in more or less idle pursuits indulging in literature that looks backward to the past and rehashes old glories. The story is told through the lens of a writer's workshop, and introduces a new writer who wants to look forward rather than backward. While one might think that a story that extols the value of science fiction as a genre would be somewhat indulgent of a topic for a science fiction writer to address, the story still works well and was but fun and thought provoking.

With its mixture of condemnation of corporate greed and class warfare, Nanosferatu by Dean Whitlock seems to be a product of the current "string up the wealthy" sentiment that is popular in American politics right now. Despite this, the story is not too bad, although the big twist at the end is pretty much telegraphed by the title of the story.

Bait by Robin Aurelian is a story about a family hunting trip in a world where fairy tale creatures are the quarry for such expeditions. The central character is the oddball in his family, as he is lousy at hunting and attracts bites and stings like he were made of candy. He gets infected and the tables are somewhat turned, at which point the story ends. I think there was some sort of oblique political statement about the evils of hunting in the story, but it wasn't very clear if it was there. Still, the story is silly and funny, and seems very much like an adult version of one of Bruce Coville's juvenile works. The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales by Steven Popkes is a funny take on several fairy tales - a sort of "behind the curtain" version of The Emperor's New Clothes, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rumplestiltskin, and Cinderella in which the "true" story of the classic tales is revealed with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor.

Songwood by Marc Laidlaw is a fantasy that sees the return of the gargoyle Spar (previously seen in Laidlaw's story Quickstone in the March 2009 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction) stowing away on a ship and falling in love with the figurehead. What results is a kind of star-crossed love story that has a kind of touching ending. On the other hand, City of the Dog by John Langan is a dark and twisted love story involving betrayal, loss, and obsession. The story is somewhat disjointed, and much of the fantasy element is thrown at the reader in a giant info-dump, which is kind of an artless way to go about doing things, and there is no real reason given for the betrayal that takes place. To a certain extent the lack of explanation makes the story seem even darker and fouler, so maybe the mysterious motivations of the ultimate villain are better left unrevealed.

Finally, The Late Night Train by Kate Wilhelm is a kind of story that seems to me to be becoming more and more prevalent. That is, the suicide (or murder) by fantasy story. I'm not sure if this is the result of the aging baby boomers staring their own mortality in the face and trying to come up with a poetic alternative, or merely that I am noticing these stories more. In any event, I'm not a huge fan of the seemingly growing subgenre. In this case, the story is one of abuse and the toleration of that abuse which is a creepy backdrop for any story. The fantasy element is very slight, almost nonexistent, but apparently real. In the end, any story that can make me angry at every character in the narrative has probably done its job well.

While every other story in this issue is at least good, Park's story is just a waste of space. Even the regular movie and book review columns are good, but none of it is enough to raise the issue as a whole above average. I give a cautious recommendation for this issue with the huge caveat that one would simply be better off skipping the roughly seventy pages that Park's story occupies.

Previous issue reviewed: December 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: March/April 2010

2011 Locus Award Nominees
2011 Nebula Award Nominees

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