Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 117, Nos. 3 & 4 (October/November 2009) edited by Gordon van Gelder

Stories included:
Halloween Town by Lucius Shepard
The Far Shore by Elizabeth Hand
Bandits of the Trace by Albert E. Cowdrey
The Way They Wove the Spells in Sippulgar by Robert Silverberg
I Waltzed with a Zombie by Ron Goulart
Another Life by Charles Oberndorf
Logicist by Carl Emshwiller
Blocked by Geoff Ryman
Mermaid by Robert Reed
Never Blood Enough by Joe Haldeman
The President's Book Tour by M. Rickert
Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot - LXXI by Ron Partridge
Shadows on the Wall of the Cave by Kate Wilhelm

Full review: So here it is, the Sixtieth Anniversary issue of the oldest running magazine in the genre. Plus, it has a fairly star studded contributor list with Joe Haldeman, Robert Silverberg, Kate Wilhelm, Lucuis Shepard, Robert Reed and a pile of other high profile writers represented. Each writer also introduces their own story with a brief story about their first encounter with Fantasy & Science Fiction, most of while make for entertaining little anecdotes. Unfortunately, even with this high-profile lineup of writing talent, the magazine is oddly average, with only a few stories deserving more than a "pretty good" rating.

My favorite story in the issue is Kate Wilhelm's Shadows on the Wall of the Cave, about the strange and sudden disappearance of a small boy and the effect this has on his two playmates. The story is appropriate scary, capturing just what people find spooky about dark caves, and the resolution is at the same time sad, hopeful, and realistic (or as realistic as one can get in a story that involves people vanishing into the shadows of a cavern). Bandits of the Trace by Albert E. Cowdrey, is also quite good. Told from a shifting viewpoint , the story is about a small town college professor and his attempts to unravel the mystery of the location of a treasure trove left by a notorious band of frontier bandits. The story is a little bit mystery, involving a complicated code left by the bandits, and a little bit fantasy, as the fate of Justice Urquhart, the worst of the bandits, is revealed. Overall, it is one of the best stories in the volume.

The longest story in the volume is Lucius Shepard's Halloween Town, which is sort of a grab-bag of odd ideas strung together: An empathic protagonist, a mysterious town in a canyon sheltered in perpetual twilight by a canopy of trees run by a strange ex-rock star in a fairly tyrannical manner, a strange cat-loving alien life form and, of course, a beautiful and dangerous love interest. The story meanders, and doesn't really go much of anywhere. I sort of got the impression that Shepard was clearing his desk of a bunch of ideas at once without a whole lot of point. I was not particularly excited by Elizabeth Hand's contribution The Far Shore. The story is a sort of fairy tale involving a ballet dance instructor fired from his job who takes up residence for the winter at the summer camp facility owned by a friend of his. He finds a strange young man naked in the snow, gets involved in a sexual fling with him (working in the tired cliche of a gay male ballet dancer) and ends up traveling to a fairy world across the lake with the young man. The story is pretty, but predictable, and there's not much to it.

Robert Silverberg contributes the Majipoor story The Way They Wove Spells in Sippulgar. Like most Majipoor stories it is quirky and weird, involving a strange mix of science fiction and possible fantasy. Unfortunately, the story involving a merchant's quest to discover the fate of his brother-in-law kind of meanders and doesn't actually come to much of a conclusion. The protagonist ends up refusing to press the issue in order to prevent the possibility of overturning his personal beliefs, in this case, the belief that the supernatural is not real. While the lack of resolution to the mystery in the story is frustrating, the personal internal tension experienced by the protagonist (reversed from the normal version of a person refusing to run the risk that their belief in the supernatural could be disproved) makes the story worthwhile, but not much more.

Another Life by Charles Oberndorf is set in a world in which brain-taping - reminiscent of that used in Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline - is used to revive dead soldiers for an extended war, with the protagonist remembering his long-ago first revival and attempts to understand the mystery surrounding the time period he lost (i.e., the time between his last brain-tape and his death). The story is fairly sordid, as he takes up with a hermaphrodite prostitute to make ends meet when he discovers that his enlistment has been mysteriously erased. One side note: There is a trend among current science fiction to make sure to include a lot of gay, lesbian, or bisexual characters and make this a feature of the story, apparently in an attempt to make the story seem cutting edge. It doesn't. First off, Samuel R. Delany got to this territory a couple decades ago, so it is not new. Second, it makes the story smack of desperation as the writer seems to be trying to prove how open-minded and edgy he is. Where it makes sense, like in Ben Francisco's Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts (Realms of Fantasy, October 2009) it adds to the story. Otherwise, it just seems tacked on for titillation like a naked breast shot in a cheap B movie.

Ron Goulart's I Waltzed with a Zombie is a fun, kind of silly story about resurrecting movie stars as zombies. It is fun to read, but not particularly noteworthy. Never Blood Enough by Joe Haldeman is another readable but ultimately forgettable story about life on an alien planet. Ron Partridge's Ferdinand Feghoot installment is, as usual, merely a set up for a pun-filled punch line. As usual, if you hate puns, you will hate this story, since there is nothing else to it. I generally find these to be a waste of a page, but they keep running them, so someone must find them amusing.

Both Blocked by Geoff Ryman and Mermaid by Robert Reed are stories about men making choices against their better judgment for emotional reasons. In Blocked humanity is, abandoning the surface of the Earth in fear of an alien invasion, and the protagonist is driven by his wife to accept this underground exile, even though he has doubts about whether the threat is real, or whether survival is worth giving up the sky. Mermaid is a fantasy about the power of the mythical creature to ensnare men with magic, even though the end result of that enchantment may not be to the mermaid's benefit. The central character is obsessed, and though he knows that his obsession is bad for both his love and himself, he struggles to break free. Carol Emswhiller's Logicist has a kind of darkly humorous element to it as well, following about a teacher of logic as he logically makes a series of fairly stupid choices ending with him turning his back on a potentially loving relationship. It is a sort of inverse of Blocked in that regard.

The President’s Book Tour by M. Rickert is a post-apocalyptic tale about the resulting mutant children and the parents who love them anyway. It is not so much humorous as absurdist, as the bizarrely mutated children grow up, begin to randomly have sex, and then the President shows up to try to sell his latest book. He breaks up the one mutant couple that has been formed to make the female child his bride but then she tries to kill him and he abandons the town. The plot of the story isn't the point, rather one is supposed to focus on the bizarre post-apocalyptic life of the town’s residents, and the extraordinarily bizarre nature of the President's sojourn in the town. The ending somehow, despite the absurd dark humor of the story, ends up being touching and sad.

For a special anniversary issue, there are a surprising number of quite ordinary and unmemorable stories, and as far as I can tell, no truly superlative ones. The bulk of the stories fall into the average to good range though, and only a few fall short of this mark (Feghoot, I'm looking at you among others). While not as exciting an issue as I would have thought given the lineup of writing talent assembled, the overall quality is still an above average issue. Despite being something of a disappointment considering that this was supposed to be a special Sixtieth Anniversary extravaganza, I give it a recommendation with the caveat not to expect much more than an ordinary run-of-the-mill issue would deliver.

Previous issue reviewed: August/September 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: December 2009

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