Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 119, Nos. 3 & 4 (September/October 2010) edited by Gordon van Gelder

Stories included:
Orfy by Richard Chwedyk
Eating at the End-of-the-World Cafe by Dale Bailey
The Door in the Earth by Alexandra Duncan
The Literomancer by Ken Liu
Uncle Moon in Raintree Hills by Fred Chappell
The Window of Time by Richard Matheson
How Seosiris Lost the Favor of the King by James L. Cambias
Blind Spot by Rick Wilber and Nick DiChario
Steadfast Castle by Michael Swanwick
F&SF Mailbag by David Gerrold
About It by Terry Bisson

Full review: Billed as an "All-Star Anniversary Issue", the September/October issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is severely hampered by the non-fantasy and science fiction nature of much of its content and the dark tone so many of the stories take, either dealing with death or written as out-and-out horror tales. Though most of the stories are quite good taken individually, taken together they add up to a very heavy issue without much in the way of real science fiction or fantasy content.

Featured on the cover of this All-Star Anniversary issue is the reprinted The Window of Time by Richard Matheson, a gentle time-travel story in which an elderly man climbs through a window back to the days of his own childhood. The story is literally a walk down memory lane, but the narrator also finds out that while memories may be good, they are locked in the past. Despite the story being sixty years old and Matheson's first published piece of fiction, it holds up as a great story even today, demonstrating what a superior storyteller Matheson is. Taking a very different angle on looking back at the days of one's youth is the baseball infused Blind Spot by Rick Wilber and Nick DiChario, which tells the story of a man dealing with the death of his abusive alcoholic father who was also a former professional baseball pitcher. The story captures the anger and rage the main character feels, while also giving the reader a view into the complexities of an abusive relationship that keep serve to tie the abused and the abuser together for far longer than most outsiders can understand. In the end, despite the protagonist more or less reconciling with his father's memory by the end of the story, the distance between them proves to be too great, and he retains his "blind spot" where his father is concerned, which gives the story its name. The story has tragic overtones, and is worth reading.

Ancient Egypt has always provided fertile ground for fantasy, and as a result How Seosiris Lost the Favor of the King by James L. Cambias, featuring a court wizard in a magical version of Egypt should come as no surprise. The story, told from the perspective of the wizard's apprentice, describes the fall from grace of a powerful Egyptian wizard whose position is usurped by a barbaric northerner. Eventually the interloper's true intentions are revealed, which puts the two sorcerers on a collision course and seals both of their fates. The story isn't deep or mysterious, but it is a well-told fantasy tale with interesting characters and an enjoyable plot.

The longest story in the issue is Orfy by Richard Chwedyk, which sees the return of the sentient toy dinosaurs from Chwedyk's running series. The only trouble with the story is that because it is the latest installment in a long running series, there are so many characters packed into its pages that for a reader who hasn't read the previous ones it is hard to sort all of them out and make sense of what is going on. Couple this with a bunch of unexplained plot elements such as the "space guys" and the SANI Corporation and you get a story background that is quite confusing at times. The story itself, dealing with the death of one of the saurs, is a fairly straightforward story about the grief of children dealing with a loss they didn't expect, with the hyperintelligent but emotionally innocent saurs serving in the role of children. Each of the various sentient toys deals with the loss in their own unique and perfectly in character way. Despite the complicated and confusing background, the story ends up being quite good. Ending on a somewhat less than happy note is About It by Terry Bisson, a story about the very short life of a lab experiment that has outlived its usefulness and been brought home as a pet. Though told in a slightly humorous fashion, the story's ending is somber, and raises serious questions about the morality of creating life without a plan for what to do with that life later.

Eating at the End-of-the-World Cafe by Dale Bailey mixes the mundane and the infernal into a frightening mix. A waitress apparently working in a diner in a version of Hell is faced with a dead-end low-paying job, a deathly ill child, and alternatively overly friendly and scarily creepy customers. Exactly where the protagonist lives, and who the various authority figures are, and what horrible fate awaits everyone in the story is all left ambiguous, which heightens the unsettling nature of the story. Caught stealing, she is threatened with the loss of her only means of support, but also offered a deal with the devil that turns out to be not what she expected, and also far more costly than she imagined. Putting a very different spin on the horror genre is Steadfast Castle by Michael Swanwick, a love-triangle murder mystery in which the psychotic killer turns out to not to be who the investigator expected, and yet seems perfectly natural to the reader. Unusual in that it is a science fiction horror story (as opposed to a fantasy, or quasi-fantasy horror story) and its somewhat quirky choice of a viewpoint character, the story is both faithful to the genre and appropriately creepy at the same time.

As this issue covers October, and therefore Halloween, there are several other horror-tinged stories included in its pages. The only problem with these is that they are written with such a subtle (one might say nonexistent) supernatural or science fiction element that they don't seem like they belong in a magazine that has the words "fantasy" and "science fiction' in the title. The most overtly supernatural of the bunch is The Door in the Earth by Alexandra Duncan, the story of a teenager and his younger brother who go to visit their estranged mother and her boyfriend who have dropped off the grid and live in a cave. The living space in the cave is not finished, and as they settle into the rustic existence of gas lamps, camp stoves, sleeping bags, and building cinder block walls, the narrator begins to hear unintelligible voices that draw him to a door set into the back of the cave. After both his mother and her boyfriend disappear, he explores beyond the door, makes a grisly discovery, and returns to his brother. The problem with the story is that the supernatural element, to the extent there might be one and the voices aren't just a trick of the wind or something, is so slight that it may as well not be there. Similarly, Uncle Moon in Raintree Hills by Fred Chappell, featuring a young girl who imagines a world around her full of magic, witchcraft, and evil grinning uncles, is also devoid of any real supernatural content. The young protagonist and her trusty sidekick brother wander through a world that, to them, is full of pumpkin headed villains and evil spirits that no one else can see, but from the perspective of the reader, the story seems like nothing more than the somewhat dangerous delusions of children. The story seems to be the more or less obligatory "Halloween" based story for the issue, and it is not bad as a story, but like The Door in the Earth and Literomancer it just seems out of place in Fantasy & Science Fiction.

The final "horror" story in the issue is the Cold War influenced tale The Literomancer by Ken Liu. With an elementary school age girl as the viewpoint character, the story begins with what appear to be some fairly mundane schoolgirl problems dealing with bullying from her peers. She meets an elderly Chinese man who is alleged to be a "literomancer" (that is, someone who predicts the future by reading the meaning in Chinese characters) and his grandson who loves baseball. The story descends into Cold War paranoia and things turn dark and violent as an inadvertent admission by the protagonist sends her new found Chinese friends into a man-made Hell. The story itself is gripping, tragic, and quite compelling. But the "literomancy" that supposedly makes it a fantasy story is no more convincing than tarot cards, and since it is not established as anything other than a parlor trick, and there is no real connection between the literomancy and the story itself, it simply isn't a "fantasy" story. Consequently, despite being a good story, it is, like so many other stories in this issue, completely out of place within the pages of a genre magazine.

With so many stories involving death, horror, or both, the issue needs a couple light moments to lighten the mood. This is supplied by David Gerrold in F & SF Mailbag, a quick series fake letters to the editors of Fantasy & Science Fiction that imagine what magazine publishing might be like if various scienfictional ideas were actually true. The story is quite funny, as the possible consequences of time travel, alternate realities, and other science fiction ideas upon the publishing industry are lampooned. As the only really humorous story in the issue, this story has to do a lot of heavy lifting to lighten the black mood set by much of the remaining stories, and while it is good, it simply isn't up to that Herculean task.

Someone needs to tell the editors of Fantasy & Science Fiction that even though they are making an issue that includes the Halloween season, that dark and macabre tale of horror and death after dark and macabre tale of horror and death makes for a weak issue. Someone also needs to tell them that the words "science fiction" and "fantasy" on the cover mean that most readers will pick up an issue expecting a magazine that provides a healthy helping of both. Despite some pretty good stories, the steady diet of woe and suffering offered by this issue wears on the reader, and those looking for a collection of stories of imaginative fantasy and science fiction will be disappointed by their absence. Even taking into account the relatively high quality of most of the stories contained in it, this issue, as a genre magazine, is only modestly above average overall.

Previous issue reviewed: July/August 2010.
Subsequent issue reviewed: November/December 2010.

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