Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Vol. 129, Nos. 1 & 2 (July/August 2015) edited by Charles Coleman Finlay


Stories included:
Johnny Rev by Rachel Pollack
The Deepwater Bride by Tamsyn Muir
The Body Pirate by Van Aaron Hughes
The Curse of the Myrmelon by Matthew Hughes
Dixon's Road by Richard Chwedyk
Oneness: A Triptych by James Patrick Kelly
This Quintessence of Dust by Oliver Buckram
Paradise and Trout by Betsy James
The Silicon Curtain: A Seastead Story by Naomi Kritzer
Into the Fiery Planet by Gregor Hartmann

Science fact articles included:
Traveling Through Time by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty

Full review: The July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a strong issue with several quite good stories that range from detective stories with a magical twist to tales of frightening dystopias where humans are kept as beasts of burden by bird-like creatures. There is no real unifying theme to the stories in this issue, they are simply a collection of good to excellent pieces of short fiction all traveling together under a single cover.

The longest story in the issue is the cover story Johnny Rev by Rachel Pollack, a kind of cross between a noir detective novel, a folk tale, and a nightmare. In the story, the title character is a private detective who had duplicated himself rather than tell his mother-in-law that his wife had died and his child had become so dangerous that she had to be exiled to a magical forest. oddly, he had created the duplicate imperfectly, and, as needed to balance the scales, he had destroyed the duplicate as well. Or at least Johnny Rev thought he had until the duplicate began showing up in his dreams bearing Johnny's card, a development that poses something of a problem for the protagonist as he is under a magical compulsion that requires him to take any case from a person who brings him his card. The story wanders through a magical version of New York as Johnny tries to figure out how his duplicate came back, and how to get rid of it for good. Along the way, Johnny has to revisit some painful events of his past and reconnect with a number of people he had mostly cut off contact with. The mystery itself is pretty well laid out, and Johnny's path to solving it is interesting and well-written, including the reversal that takes place once he figures out the somewhat unexpected identity of who is behind his troubles. As a stew pot melange of a detective novel, an urban fantasy, a personal tragedy, and some comedy, this story could have collapsed in on itself quite easily, but Pollack's deft handling of the diverse elements keeps it moving, and carries the reader to its conclusion in quite an enjoyable manner.

A creepy Lovecraftian love story, The Deepwater Bride by Tamsyn Muir is centered on Hester Blake, a teenager from a long line of women blessed (or perhaps cursed) with the gift of prophecy who is living in a small town with her Aunt Mar. From the outset of the story Hester begins seeing omens that presage the arrival of one of the deep old ones to claim their bride. As a Blake, she realizes that her role is to document the coming catastrophe in which the old one will rise from the dark places of the oceans, kill everyone in the vicinity, and then take its chosen mate back to the vasty depths. Hester becomes obsessed with finding out who the bride is going to be, and locates Rainbow Kipley, a another young teenage girl that all the signs point towards being future bride. Hester and Rainbow form an odd friendship, over which Hester feels considerable guilt as she knows what is in store for her companion. The story rolls along until the almost inevitable twist, which really isn't all that surprising but is still well-executed, and then the old one takes its lover home. The story is horrific and terrifying, made even more so by the almost casual attitude of the two adolescents at its heart, but is also a touching, albeit wildly off-kilter, love tale.

The most experimental, and I think best, story in the issue is The Body Pirate by Van Aaron Hughes, which imagines a world in which "souls" move about between a handful of "bodies" that ostensibly belong to them. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the "bodies" are essentially humans while the "souls" are bird-like creatures that fit themselves into slots on the bodies and take control of them. The practice of a "soul" possessing multiple bodies that it rotates through is relatively new at the time the story takes place, and "souls" flit between them to be able to accomplish more, leaving the "bodies" to handle smaller tasks on their own while they head off to direct the actions of a different "body". The story uses an interesting presentation whenever a soul and its body are separated but still acting in the story, dividing the text into two parallel columns showing what each is doing while they are apart. The story is, at its core, a mystery that unfolds somewhat horrifically over the course of the pages, revealing that the neither the "souls" or the "bodies" are exactly what they were originally presented as. The title of the story refers to the criminal act of one "soul" taking over a "body" belonging to another, but as the various secrets are revealed, it turns out to refer to something that is much larger, and more unsettling than that.

The second pure detective story in the volume is The Curse of the Myrmelon by Matthew Hughes, although it is set in a much more traditional fantasy milieu than Johnny Rev. Cascor is a "Discriminator", making him more or less a private detective in a world in which the use of unauthorized magic by those who are not a member of an appropriate guild is a serious matter. This poses something of a problem for Cascor, as the case he is presented with involves the use of magic and requires him to dance just along the edge of what is acceptable, and what will run afoul of the strong arm of the wizard's guild. The mystery, involving some miscounted merchandise, turns out to be quite convoluted, and Casco's efforts are made more complicated by repeated visits from Jihr, a wizard guild's agent who says he suspects Cascor to be treading on wizardly prerogatives. The story winds and twists, coming to a few dead ends and a few reversals before Cascor untangles the knot and unravels the mystery, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. There are a few coincidences in the story that seem to be just a little too serendipitous, but overall it holds up well despite these minor flaws.

A story of nostalgia, history, and wistful regret, Dixon's Road by Richard Chwedyk features an engineer specialized in terraforming who returns to the home of his former lover, long since dead, after traveling through the stars to transform other worlds. Told from the perspective of a tour guide working at the preserved home of the famous poet Laura Michel, the story starts up with the arrival of Dixon, the man who terraformed the world on which all of the action takes place, and Laura's former lover. He spends the better part of the day exploring the house, revealing the connection between his work and the poetry of his long departed love. But he also reveals the distance that existed between them - in its most stark form when he describes catching up with forty-five years worth of her work after emerging from a long voyage in cold sleep. The story is beautifully bittersweet, and almost tragic, as it shows a figure walking out of history into the present to remember what was lost along the way.

Oneness: A Triptych by James Patrick Kelly isn't really a story, but as the title suggests three separate vignettes, each focused on one person sharing themselves with someone or something else. In the first, two people apparently in virtual reality have an encounter, with one desperately wanting to do whatever they can to make the other happy, while the object of their affections has become bored with their trysts. Things proceed in a desultory manner until a somewhat significant curve ball is thrown into the mix. In the second, an elderly couple meet and have an extremely unusual encounter, the description of which probably is not for the squeamish, although they do end up quite together as one. In the third, a Christian missionary seeks to convert the members of an inhuman faith by accepting the challenge of their altar, and finds herself one with everything. Each mini-story is, in its own way, both touching and slightly disturbing.

Oliver Buckram poses the question of what one does when one is deprived of purpose in This Quintessence of Dust. Officer Judy 42 is a robot designed to serve as a peace officer in a future where much of the mundane tasks of the world have been handed over to mechanical servitors. Unfortunately, humanity has unexpectedly died off as the result of a virulent plague leaving all of the nannybots, butlerbots, and various other bots without anyone to actually serve. Unable to come to grips with the fact that their beloved charges are not alive any more, the various robots continue to try to service the needs of their inert masters, becoming increasingly agitated as they receive no response to their ministrations. Judy 42 finds purpose in bringing order even in the absence of humans, while others such as Bernard 93 seem to be satisfied serving other robots, but the deeper question posed by the story centers on the question of the validity of externally imposed purpose. If one cannot determine purpose for oneself, how does one cope with the removal of a purpose you didn't choose? This story, although quite short and straightforward, poses an extremely interesting philosophical question, and as a result is much larger than the sum of its pages.

Paradise and Trout by Betsy James is unusual in that the starts after the protagonist, a ten year old boy named Harry, is dead. The story doesn't flash back to when Harry was alive, but rather takes place entirely during Harry's journey through the afterlife as he sets out to navigate his way to the fortress where his uncles and other ancestors man the walls. After his father hands him a bridge and an admonishment not to speak to anyone on his journey as part of the funeral ceremony, Harry sets out only to be approached by a fox, a vulture, a lioness, and finally a fly. He finally makes it to the crossing, but finds the independence to make his own choice at the end. The story is an odd coming of age story, made so by the fact that the central character is already a corpse when it begins, and it carries the interesting suggestion that it is almost never too late to decide one's own fate.

The latest in a series of stories about a collection of man-made islands in the Pacific Ocean, The Silicon Curtain: A Seastead Story by Naomi Kritzer shows the somewhat subtle sinister side of a "libertarian paradise" like Seastead. Told from the perspective of Rebecca Garrison, the story recounts her and her friend Thor's expedition to Sal, an island given over to biomedical research. Once they arrive, they find the entire island in lock-down, with all of the partners - the actual citizens of the island - having left, while all of the associates - the hired workers - all abandoned to fend for themselves inside of locked laboratory facilities. Rebecca and Thor shift from what is essentially industrial espionage to a rescue operation, doing the right thing even in the face of intransigence from Sal's security chief. Kritzer jumps from a subterfuge-laden adventure, to a jail break, to commentary on the deficiencies of a lawless society, all the while weaving in moral choices, family issues, and political maneuvering, capably working all of these elements together with a remarkable economy of pages. This story manages to explore big ideas and pack lots of action into its brief length with the end result being a beautiful, intriguing, and exciting read.

The last story in the volume is Into the Fiery Planet by Gregor Hartmann, an odd tale about terraformers on the very geologically active planet Zephyr who find themselves at risk of losing the support of their interplanetary nation due to an impending conflict. Franden, like many of Zephyr's other inhabitants, enjoys immersing himself in the freshly spewed volcanic sands on the surface of the planet. Most of the story is taken up with a conversation between Franden and a visiting filmmaker who suggests that the best way for Zephyr to ensure that it is not among those planets discarded as too expensive to maintain would be for Franden to make a film showcasing the benefits the planet has to offer. The story is quirky and enjoyable to read, but never really rises much above being an entertaining diversion.

The science fact article in the issue is Traveling Through Time by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty, which is something of a deceptive title for the article, as it is not actually about time travel. Instead, the article is about how scientists look at clues in the present to determine what the past looked like, and how our view of the past has evolved and changed as our store of information has grown. Using examples from paleontology, paleobiology, and geology, Murphy and Doherty outline how scientists came to our current understanding of how dinosaurs walked, what the climate of the past was like, and how an ancient and slow-moving reactor formed. The article is fairly good, although the science it contains is somewhat basic.

The best stories in the volume are The Body Pirate, The Quintessence of Dust, and The Silicon Curtain: A Seastead Story, and Johnny Rev is quite good as well. While those stories are the cream of the crop here, there are really no bad stories in this bunch. Even the weakest story - Into the Fiery Planet - is still pretty good even if it is not quite as good as the other stories found in the volume. Fantasy & Science Fiction consistently puts out high quality issues full of genre fiction stories that range from good to excellent, and this issue is no exception.

Previous issue reviewed: May/June 2015
Subsequent issue reviewed: September/October 2015

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