Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 116, Nos. 4 & 5 (April/May 2009) edited by Gordon van Gelder

Stories included:
The Spiral Briar by Sean McMullen
'A Wild and Wicked Youth' by Ellen Kushner
The Price of Silence by Deborah J. Ross
One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C. Wright
The Avenger of Love by Jack Skillingstead
Andreanna by S. L. Gilbow
Stratosphere by Henry Garfield
The Brave Little Toaster by Thomas M. Disch
Sea Wrack by Edward Jesby

Full review: The April/May 2009 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction marks the end of one era in the magazine's history, and with luck, the beginning of another. From this issue forward, the magazine will be published six times per year with larger "double issues" instead of the previous eleven issues per year schedule. This makes for fatter individual issues, but means that they will have to incur mailing costs less often. Gordon van Gelder's editorial focuses on the feedback on the internet from the previous month's announcement of the format change, and includes some musings on the nature of the internet as a forum of discussions in general. As a double issue, this installment includes not one, but two classic reprints, one of which is really good, the other is merely pretty good.

The lead story in the issue is The Spiral Briar by Sean McMullen, a fantasy that takes on the medieval folklore about fairies and the fairyland they inhabited. In this story, a knight and an armorer, both having suffered injustices at the hands of capricious fairy dwellers, plot revenge through technology. The story is quite well done, and takes a couple twists and turns on its way to a fairly satisfying conclusion. One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C. Wright is a Narnia-style fantasy, but the protagonists are older people who had journeyed into a magical land as children, but lost touch with the magic as they grew older. They are called upon to take up the cause of goodness again, but the years have robbed them of their child-like bravery and innocence and they struggle to deal with problems that they would have easily overcome in their younger years. The story has definite Christian overtones, much like C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, and seems to pull in some Arthurian mythology as well. Even though the story is about an older protagonist, it is still something of a coming of age story. I thought it was an okay story, but for this type of fantasy one would be better off simply pulling books off the shelf by C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, or even Lloyd Alexander.

'A Wild and Wicked Youth' by Ellen Kushner is a prequel to Swordspoint and the rest of Kushner's Riverside series in which Richard St. Vier's childhood is revealed. For a coming of age story detailing the life of a subordinate in a feudal society, the story is quite good. There's not much more to the story than that, but as a well-executed fantasy it is decent. The Avenger of Love by Jack Skillingstead is a dark fantasy about a man trying to deal with the anger stemming from the loss of his father under strange circumstances as a boy. This story walks the fine line between fantasy and simple delusion, in that you are never sure if the protagonist is actually experiencing the events described, or if he has merely gone insane, and it walks that fine line successfully.

The Price of Silence by Deborah J. Ross is a science fiction story following the crew of a supply ship that uncovers a terrible secret on a destroyed colony. A terrible sacrifice is made to keep a secret (hence, the title). The story is a little cliched in the "secrets that must not fall into the wrong hands" vein, but it is told well enough that it was at least adequate.

Andreanna by S. L. Gilbow is a little story about a damaged robot (and androbriefer) that had been uploaded with some after market enhancements that may have led to her being damaged while wandering about a lunar base. The story doesn't really resolve, it just unfolds long enough for the reader to figure out what might have led to the robot's odd behavior and then ends. This isn't as unsatisfying an ending as one might think, and the final result is a decent little story. Also set on the moon is Stratosphere by Henry Garfield, a story about a legendary baseball hit in a lunar baseball league. On a side note, the author takes a swipe at the Apollo program, or rather the criminal abandonment of the moon by the U.S. at the end of that program. This little dig at the shortsightedness of the U.S. space program is told in passing, but I think it is well-deserved. On the other hand, the author clearly loves a style of baseball that is simply self-defeating, and sets up a lunar baseball league designed (against all rationality) to emphasize "little ball" in a low gravity environment. The story is a nice little physics problem other than that, and is mostly fun.

The "really good" classic reprint in this issue is The Brave Little Toaster by Thomas M. Disch. I have not read a lot of Disch, but this is probably the best story of his that I have read. It is a cute fairy tale about what our creations do when we are not around, and what they might try to do if we abandon them. The story has been made into an animated children's movie (which I have not seen), which I think must have gutted much of the story as there are certainly elements that, to my mind, simply wouldn't fit into typical children's fare. The story is good, even if the idea of anthropomorphized household appliances embarking on a quest to find their long-lost owner seems like an odd place to start.

The other classic reprint, Sea Wrack by Edward Jesby, is merely good. Originally published in 1964, it still reads well and is an example of what I call "ocean science fiction" which is a subgenre of science fiction that one does not see very much any more, so it seems like a novelty in a modern magazine. In the story humans in what is clearly an unequal society host a visitor from beneath the sea who reveals the vast civilization that has emerged among the modified humans living in the world's oceans. There is a hint of social conflict that marks this story as a creation of the 1960s, but other than that there is little that would mark this story as dated.

The issue also includes a science fact article titled A Lighter Look at Science by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty that goes into the possibilities of lighter than air flight in various atmospheric conditions (and undersea conditions). Though the article is well-written, and gives a clear and comprehensive overview of the subject, there isn't really anything in here that a science fiction fan who has read Arthur C. Clarke's 1971 novella A Meeting With Medusa wouldn't already know. I suppose for someone new to the science fiction genre (and who had no science background of any kind) it would be mildly useful, but the material simply isn't really interesting enough that I would think it worthy of inclusion.

Once again, the classic reprints save an otherwise mediocre issue and make it pretty good. Other than those two, the remainder of the issue is filled with a mixture of good stories and weak stories. While this even mix would have normally resulted in a completely average final rating that would have been dragged down to poor by the weak science article, the inclusion of the two reprints pulls the overall rating back up to the slightly above average range. This is certainly not an auspicious start to the new era of larger issues of the magazine, but it is at least worth a moderate recommendation.

Previous issue reviewed: March 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: June/July 2009

1980 Locus Award Winner for Best Novelette: Sandkings by George R.R. Martin
1982 Locus Award Winner for Best Novelette: Guardians by George R.R. Martin

List of Locus Award Winners for Best Novelette

1981 Hugo Award Nominees
1981 Locus Award Nominees
2010 Locus Award Nominees
1981 Nebula Award Nominees

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