Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 118, Nos. 5 & 6 (May/June 2010) edited by Gordon van Gelder

Stories included:
Why That Crazy Old Lady Goes Up the Mountain by Michael Libling
Thief of Shadows by Fred Chappell
Dr. Death vs. the Vampire by Aaron Schutz
The Crocodiles by Steven Popkes
A History of Cadmium by Elizabeth Bourne
The Real Martian Chronicles by John Sladek
Remotest Mansions of the Blood by Alex Irvine
Seven Sins for Seven Dwarfs by Hilary Goldstein
Silence by Dale Bailey
Forever by Rachel Pollack
The Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe by Robert Onopa
The Gypsy's Boy by Lokiko Hall

Full review: The May/June 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is heavily skewed towards fantasy. While this is not a big deal, since the need for magazine based science fiction can be filled by Analog and Asimov's, it is somewhat disconcerting to see a magazine that has half its title devoted to science fiction devote a mere third of its stories to the genre. Even so, this is a very good issue of the magazine, as the stories are all at least average, with several being decidedly above average.

The Real Martian Chronicles by John Sladek is science fiction in form, but is mostly a humorous story that, to a certain extent, apes the style of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, positing a Mars colonized by British and American settlers from the 1950s, complete with nuclear paranoia, and quaint ideas about how to keep house and what sort of work is important to get done. This is contrasted with the somewhat less than plush living conditions the settlers have to put up with. It is silly and funny. Steven Popkes dark version of a George Romero zombie apocalypse set in the Third Reich titled The Crocodiles is anything but silly and funny. Combining the horrors of a brain-eating zombie plague with the cruel indifference of Nazi Germany, the story is bleak and depressing, and yet still excellent. Following on the theme of cruelty, is Silence by Dale Bailey, which I classify as science fiction here, although the story is ambiguous enough that it could be fantasy (substituting a fairy creature for an alien). Smaller in scope than The Crocodiles, but with a more personal and familiar form of human cruelty, this story is close to being just as bleak, and is also quite good. The final science fiction story in this issue is The Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe by Robert Onopa, a nanotechnology run amuck story that wraps its horror elements in some light comedy, with a series of decisions by a young boy that unintentionally lead to a rather frightening conclusion.

The meat of the issue is the fantasy. The cover story is Why That Crazy Old Lady Goes Up the Mountain by Michael Libling, a somewhat convoluted tale about an orphaned girl seeking God, and a neglected boy who tries to bring her to him. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, dealing with the subject of death from multiple angles. The writing in the story is good, and the characters are well-drawn, but the ending seems to come out of left field and leaves most of the question raised in the text completely unanswered. Another story that places the subject of death at its core is Remotest Mansions of the Blood by Alex Irvine, in which a strange sort of love triangle involving an American man in love with a Haitian or possibly Belizeian woman he has never actually spoken to who is seemingly in love with a collection of dead potential lovers that she never spoke to when they were alive. Situated in Caracol, following an earthquake which killed large portions of the population, the American protagonist becomes obsessed with following his love-interest to find the mansions of the blood, where the ghosts of the freshly departed are trapped until no one remembers them. The story is full of imagery and deep meaningful metaphors, and one is never sure if any of the people involved in the story are actually alive, or if they are all dead and are simply lost souls play-acting at being alive. I'm not sure if the story is as insightful as the author intended, but it is still disturbing and worth reading.

Thief of Shadows by Fred Chappell is a more traditional fantasy, set in a world in which shadows contain the essence of a person, and can be stolen by people with the right skills. The protagonist is the apprentice of a prominent dealer in shadows (and who has something of a dark history as a stealer of shadows). The story is a fantasy whodunit, as the characters are drawn into a web of intrigue concerning a stolen shadow. The story is full of action and mystery, and the resolution of the story is both unexpected, and perfectly in line with the clues provided to the reader. Also more or less a traditional fantasy is Dr. Death vs. the Vampire by Aaron Schutz, although this is an urban fantasy involving a confrontation between a supernaturally gifted vampire-hunter and a vampire who both happen to be riding the same intercity bus. The story has a well-defined cast of characters, and a fairly vividly described fantasy reality. One interesting element of the story is that the vampire does not feed on blood, but on pain, and the portrayal of the creature runs almost directly counter to the currently popular vampire-as-Lothario imagery used in most fangbanger stories.

Two of the fantasies draw upon fairy tales for their inspiration, but have decidedly un-fairy tale sensibilities. Seven Sins for Seven Dwarfs by Hilary Goldstein is, as one would expect from the title, a variant on the classic story of Snow White mixed with the Greek myth of Pandora's box. Each of the dwarves in the story is the guardian of a box holding, presumably, one of the seven deadly sins, and each one seems to have had their personality affected by their charges, making for some somewhat risque banter. Of course, the introduction of the nubile young Snow White, exiled for her beauty at the behest of her jealous stepmother (which seems like a contradiction in the story if the deadly sins are really locked away), sets events in motion with somewhat disastrous consequences, although the ending is somewhat ambiguous as it seems like maybe the dwarves have not been as good stewards of their responsibilities as they claim. The second fairy tale inspired story is Forever by Rachel Pollack, which seems to draw from the same well that Neil Gaiman used when he created his Sandman series. The title character Forever loses a bet with her sisters and has to become mortal for a day. As might be expected, things go awry, which throws the cosmic balance off kilter. In the end, Forever is confronted with a choice between her new mortal life and her old immortal life, which proves to be more difficult than one would think. The story is both sad and moving.

The remaining two stories in the issue are fantasies that deal with the questions of heritage and loss. In A History of Cadmium by Elizabeth Bourne, a young woman's primary legacy from her famous artist mother is a single painting. The story winds through the woman's life until the final resolution when she discovers that some things she thought were true about her and her mother have turned out to be not as clear as she thought. The fantasy of the story is, of course, the painting, which demonstrates a woman's love for the girl she raised. This was, in my opinion, the best story in the issue. Also dealing with heritage and loss is The Gypsy's Boy by Lokiko Hall, a fantasy about a young blind boy sold to a gypsy to serve as her hands. The story packs a lot of elements into a few pages: the boy growing into manhood, his loss of the only mother he had known, and his first love and loss, as well as the price of getting what we have always wanted. Though not as good as Cadmium, it is still a very good story.

Overall, this is one of the better issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction, although the issue was a little heavy on stories with themes of death and loss, and two of the four science fiction stories were more horror than science fiction. Even so, the generally high quality of the writing and the engaging nature of the stories makes up for this. This issue could have been turgid and depressing, with all the death oriented stories, but each writer manages to make their story sad without making it so dark as to be unreadable and the issue is punctuated with just enough other stories to give the variety needed to keep one's interest.

Previous issue reviewed: March/April 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: July/August 2010

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