Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 72, No. 4 (April 1987) by by Edward L. Ferman (editor)

Stories Included
Cage 37 by Wayne Wightman
Olida by Bob Leman
The Glassblower's Dragon by Lucius Shepard
The Thunderer by Alan Dean Foster
Letters to Mother by Chet Williamson
Behind the Night by George Zebrowski
Agents by Paul Di Filippo
Ballads in 3/4 Time by Robert Charles Wilson
Science fact articles included:
The Light-Bringer by Isaac Asimov
Full review: The April 1987 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is very uneven in terms of quality. While the issue has a number of very good science fiction dystopias, and a couple of appropriately disturbing horror tales, it also has a couple of rather disappointing fantasy stories and an annoyingly intentionally incomplete science fact article.

The issue also features several dystopian science fiction stories. The first is a story that seems to be set just outside of reality, Cage 37 by Wayne Wightman, in which a high school student devoted to actual science struggles in a world in which the school system appears to have adopted creationism as its science curriculum. Even his own science project, hunting for ghosts, has a clear unreal element to it, while he must navigate the familiar teen pitfalls of beautiful women with musclebound boyfriends and a best friend who he really should pay more attention to. The bizarre world surrounding the protagonist is eventually explained to a certain extent, but the story leaves plenty open to interpretation. In the end, the insanity makes a sort of certain twisted sense, and the protagonist winds up in decent shape. The story is funny and enjoyable.

The second piece of dystopian science fiction is Behind the Night by George Zebrowski, which imagines a future in which fertility in the United States has fallen to next to nothing, leaving an aging population rattling around by the thousands in cities originally built for millions. With a depleted population struggling to survive, let alone find a cure, the President must decide how to deal with impending waves of immigrants, choosing either to repel them or accept them. The third dystopian story is a cyberpunk tale titled Agents by Paul Di Filippo in which the world is divided into the "haves" who are able to access the world wide information stream via their virtual agent, and the "have nots" who are shut out of the system. The stories of a desperate "have not", a criminal "have", and a police investigator all flow together and result in some interesting implications for the future of the world depicted in the narrative. Despite the stark nature of both settings, each of the two stories is quite good, and both end on a hopeful note.

The final dystopian story is Ballads in 3/4 Time by Robert Charles Wilson, featuring a pair of genetically engineered people who, rather than being built as superhuman, have been designed with severe limitations and are regarded as little more than property. While one might argue that making one's living as a barroom floozy is as good a profession as any, the story presents the disturbing prospect of a world in which technology is used to construct and condition certain people specifically and solely for that purpose, regardless of what other hopes and dreams they might harbor. Although the central characters manage to find their way to a kind of happiness, the horrific regime that effectively enslaved them is still in place, giving the entire resolution a kind of Pyrrhic air. Alternately sad, touching, and violent, the story is one of the best in the issue.

The fantastic horror Olida by Bob Leman is set in a rural county dominated by a wealthy family whose members end up confronting the creepy Selkirks, a family of seemingly insane hillbillies that live in the county hinterlands. One of the scions of propriety in the county has become entangled with a Selkirk woman, and the others try to come riding to his rescue. The story draws the central characters further and further into the bizarre and frightening domain of the Selkirks, their own scary mirror image in the hills. The story builds to an appropriate climax, and then takes an even scarier left turn, making for a very satisfying, and yet simultaneously disquieting story. Also creepy in a very disturbing way is the story Letters to Mother by Chet Williamson featuring a daughter obsessed with her dead mother and the father she doesn't think treasures his dead spouse's memory quite enough. Technology allows for her fixation to manifest itself in a way that is both touching and truly frightening at the same time. Though it is quite short, the story packs a lot of punch into its handful of pages.

While I generally like his fiction, The Thunderer by Alan Dean Foster seems to be little more than a paint-by-numbers folk tale featuring modern day characters. A bunch of geologists in search of oil venture into the Louisiana swamps and run afoul of a Cajun legend, which is pretty much the sum total of the story. Also disappointing was Lucius Shepard's The Glassblower's Dragon, featuring two people in the midst of a disintegrating love affair. A highly symbolic magic glass dragon is produced, but the story sort of tails off without going anywhere.

The science fact article in the issue is The Light-Bringer by Isaac Asimov, which focuses first on the discovery and isolation of various chemical elements, and then switches to primarily discussing phosphorous and the development of usable matches. As usual, Asimov presents the history of the development of chemistry quite well, but also manages to make the invention and evolution of matches interesting too. Like many of his science fact articles, Asimov stops at what seems to be about the halfway point of his full train of through with a promise to complete the article in the next issue. While this is probably good policy in a regular column in a monthly publication, it is somewhat annoying nonetheless. In Harlan Ellison's Watching, his regular column about movies, Ellison discusses the then contentious issue of movie colorization (a technology whose fad seems to have thankfully passed). The column is mostly noteworthy for the obvious glee that Ellison takes in correctly thumbing his nose at movie directors whining about how their artistic vision is being violated by the process, pointing out that movie directors have been trampling on the artistic vision of writers for the better part of a century. As Ellison notes, turnabout is fair play, and he has limited sympathy for the wounded pride of movie directors who finally get a taste of their own medicine.

Despite the somewhat disappointing contributions by Foster and Shepard and the maddeningly incomplete article by Asimov, the balance of the issue is full of good stories that are variously creepy, depressing, and hopeful. Add to the mix a column from Ellison that is deliciously full of his sharp-tongued vitriol and the end result is a pretty good issue. In the end, the good stuff outweighs the weak material in the issue, but only slightly, so this edition of Fantasy & Science Fiction gets a modest recommendation.

Previous issue reviewed: February 1987.
Subsequent issue reviewed: October/November 1997.

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