Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 116, Nos. 6 & 7 (June/July 2009) edited by Gordon van Gelder

Stories Included
Paradiso Lost by Albert E. Cowdrey
Firehorn by Robert Reed
Adaptogenia by Wayne Wightman
Economancer by Carolyn Ives Gilman
The Spaceman by Mike O'Driscoll
The Motorman's Coat by John Kessel
Corona Centurion FAQ by Terry Bisson
Retrograde Summer by John Varley
Sooner or Later or Never Never by Gary Jennings
Full review: With relatively pedestrian stories, this is a rather uninspired issue of the magazine. Even the classic reprints included in this issue are only decent, but not great. Further, I can't figure out why Sooner or Later or Never Never was published in a speculative fiction magazine to begin with.

The anchor story, the Cowdrey novella Paradiso Lost, is a decent tale involving an inter-service rivalry, murder, and betrayal on a interstellar mission to rescue the inhabitants of a colony of cultists. The story is functional, but not particularly insightful, relying on gross stereotypes and clichéd plot devices. The Spaceman is a fantasy story disguised as a science fiction story that suggests people would be happier if they gave up rationality in favor of unfettered imagination, which I think is a fairly weak argument. The plot of Economancer advocates still more anti-rationality, but this time applied to the financial system, suggesting that since the banking system supposedly runs solely on belief, then it is nothing more than magic, and relying upon magical is just as valid as rationality.

The best story in the issue is Adaptogenia, a tale about mutations running amuck to doom the human race (and all other non-insect life) to extinction. It is a good story, although a fairly dark one, continuing a trend towards depressing science fiction that Sheila Williams recently suggested was occurring in an editorial in Asimov's Science Fiction. Robert Reed's Firehorn does a much better job than The Spaceman at exploring the power of imagination, and does it in a way that doesn't suggest throwing common sense out the window is a good idea. Corona Centurion FAQ is a funny short piece about the glowingly described benefits and highly downplayed drawbacks of a new product.

Continuing the magazine's series of classic reprints, this issue includes the John Varley story Retrograde Summer, set in the eight worlds universe that first appeared in the novel The Ophiuchi Hotline. The story gives a view as to what life on Mercury would be like in this future, as well as some insight about family and gender attitudes, but it isn't really anything particularly memorable. For a classic reprint, it was fairly disappointing. The other classic reprint in the issue is Gary Jennings' Sooner or Later or Never Never about the travails of a dimwitted Baptist missionary in the wilds of Australia. I can't figure out why this was printed in Fantasy & Science Fiction to begin with, since there isn't any actual fantasy or science fiction in the story. While it is somewhat funny, it is out of place. As it appears in the same volume as Economancer, there are two stories in the issue that resort to the "narrator writing a letter to someone to form the text of this story" motif, making for a modestly repetitive issue. I really can't figure out why it was included as a classic reprint.

Which brings me, finally, to The Motorman's Coat by John Kessel. This story, about a swindle set ostensibly in the future, is the weakest in the issue. The main character is a dealer in antiquities from the 20th century which is ancient history by the time the story takes place. The entire plot is essentially the main character being offered a motorman's coat that turns out to be a fraud. Other than telling the reader it is set in the future, there is nothing that would mark this story as science fiction (or fantasy), and there is no real point to the story. In the end, the story seems like wasted pages.

On the whole, this is a very uneven issue, with the moderate peaks just barely compensating for the deep valleys. I had hoped that with the shift to a bimonthly format, each individual issue would be more likely to contain one or two superior stories, but that hope is not realized in this issue, which has a collection of decent stories marred by the inclusion of some really quite bad ones. For me, this issue was a disappointment.

Previous issue reviewed: April/May 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: August/September 2009

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