Thursday, September 9, 2010

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 71, No. 4 (November 1986) by Edward L. Ferman (editor)

Stories included:
Killing Weeds by Bradley Denton
Stones Edward F. Shaver
Face Value by Karen Joy Fowler
The Year All the Kennedy Children Ran for President by Gerald Jonas
The Uncorking of Uncle Finn by Jane Yolen
On the Dream Coast in Winter by Richard Mueller
The Deathtreader by Julie Stevens
Agua Morte by Alan Boatman
The Place of Turnings by Russell Griffin

Poems included:
Epicenter by Robert Frazier

Science fact articles included:
The Unmentionable Planet by Isaac Asimov

Full review: Reviewing an older issue of a genre magazine is always interesting because of the perspective that the distance of time gives one. In the November 1986 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction one can see the lingering effects of the Vietnam war, and the newly discovered knowledge the Voyager probes revealed concerning our outer solar system. Despite the passage of more than twenty years, the stories contained in this issue have mostly held up, with a few exceptions.

The lead story, and featured cover story is Face Value by Karen Joy Fowler, a sad love story involving two people, a xenologist and a poet, separated from humanity trying to understand an enigmatic alien species. The story delves into what is and is not art, and what a species may or may not value. The tale turns tragic at the end when the protagonist realizes that despite his best efforts he has completely misunderstood his companion and the aliens. The story is a bittersweet story of the cost of success, and is quite good. Another story involving the convoluted path of lover is On the Dream Coast in Winter by Richard Mueller, which uses the traditional Hawaiian gods as a framing device in a story in which a man discovers that the relationship he has with the woman he loves is not, as he had thought, as satisfactory an arrangement as he had believed. While Face Value is tragic, On the Dream Coast in Winter is hopeful, but is equally as good a story. Another story dealing with the interaction between alien cultures is The Place of Turnings by Russell Griffin, in which human explorers encounter something truly alien in a bizarrely mutated human culture on a distant planet. Two different expeditions plunge forward, confident that their technology will ensure their survival without taking into account the wholly alien culture of their hosts, a miscalculation that proves to be most unwise.

The story Killing Weeds by Bradley Denton is an example of "Vietnam veteran" speculative fiction, which one does not find very often these days, but once was incredibly common. The story itself would not even really be speculative fiction, but instead just be an examination of the delusions of a veteran gone crazy save for one element: his twelve year old son sees the supposed delusions as well. And the delusions are threatening: Viet Cong popping up out of nowhere around the struggling family farm as the characters try to kill the weeds that threaten to overwhelm their crop. In the end, one comes away wondering if anything that the veteran sees is real, including the protagonist himself. This is not the best veteran cracking up story I've read, but it is a fine effort nonetheless. Also a story about a man coming unhinged, and billed as a modern day version of the Jekyll and Hyde story, Agua Morte by Alan Boatman is more or less that, although it is not anything more. The story is so spare and bare bones that it seems to be lacking, especially in comparison with the original.

In Stones Edward F. Shaver mixes together astronomy and marine biology in a manner somewhat reminiscent of David Brin's Uplift series as the protagonist blindly tries to unravel the language of the whales at the behest of the armed services. Shrouded in fairly clumsily executed mystery through much of the story, the motivation of the military men is revealed at the end, with potential dire consequences for humanity. In a twist unusual for a science fiction story, the sinister looking military men that surround the protagonist turn out not to be the villains, although the story offers little comfort concerning humankind's potential survival when the nature of the villains is ultimately revealed. Stones is a decent story that isn't nearly as good at hiding the mysterious part of the story as it thinks it is.

The Uncorking of Uncle Finn by Jane Yolen is a fantasy supposition involving a pious Christianized elf and a drunken not so pious human abbot. The two come into conflict with fairly humorous results. The story is funny, but nothing more than that.

Taking on both telepathy and death, The Deathtreader by Julie Stevens is a story about a woman with the gift to telepathically ease the way for people who are on the verge of death. Set in a strangely warped future in which Portland has become an isolated backwater, she bargains her services for a horse to give to the man who means the most to her. The ideas contained in this story seem to have been reflected in the way telepaths handle people about to die in the Babylon 5 television series, and the timing is such that this story may have served as a partial inspiration, although that is pure speculation on my part. The story has a promising beginning, and develops well, but the ending is a rushed mess that cuts off abruptly.

One recurring set of oddities in genre magazines are stories that aren't actually genre stories, and The Year All the Kennedy Children Ran for President by Gerald Jonas falls into this category. A tale involving a protagonist who appears to have multiple personality disorder, it is quirky and fun, but lacking any science fiction or fantasy element, it is simply out of place.

The issue also includes the science fact article The Unmentionable Planet by Isaac Asimov, focused on the "unmentionable" planet Uranus written shortly after the exploration of that celestial body and its satellites by Voyager II. Asimov begins the article by referencing his own Lucky Starr series of book (a series that I have a somewhat unexplainable fondness for) and noting that not only did he not write a book about Uranus for that series, it was the only planet that he had no intention of writing a book for in the series. he attributes this lack of interest to the then presumed boring nature of the planet, a presumption that the information supplied by Voyager II shattered. Although the information about Uranus discussed in the article will probably be old hat to anyone who is interested in planetary astronomy, but it is an interesting window on how the information was viewed when it was first revealed, and should be interesting for anyone who has not immersed themselves in amateur astronomy for the last couple decades.

Despite the inclusion of one completely out of place story, one story that simply isn't very good, and two stories that more or less fall apart as they near their end, the remaining fiction in the issue is good enough to make the overall issue a serviceable one. With stories that have held up reasonably well over the last two decades, this issue is a reminder of the generally good quality fiction that Fantasy & Science Fiction is known for.

Subsequent issue reviewed: January 1987

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