Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Vol. 128, Nos. 1 & 2 (January/February 2015) edited by Gordon van Gelder

Stories included:
Prisoners of Pandarius by Matthew Hughes
Lightning Jack's Last Ride by Dale Bailey
Jubilee: A Seastead Story by Naomi Kritzer
Portrait of a Witch by Albert E. Cowdrey
Farewell Blues by Bud Webster
Telling Stories to the Sky by Eleanor Arnason
Out of the Jar by Eric Schwitzgebel
History's Best Places to Kiss by Nik Houser
The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner by Alan Baxter
The Man from X by Gregor Hartmann
The Gazelle Who Begged for Her Life by Francis Marion Soty

Poems included:
Robot Agonistes by Alan Ira Gordon
An Undiscovered Country by Robert Frazier

Science fact articles included:
Falling into the Unknowable by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy

Full review: Some issues of genre fiction magazines have themes that run through their stories, whether intentional or not. The January/February 2015 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is not one of those issues. There are a couple of stories that can be bundled together - there are a few folk tales, a couple of humorous works of light science fiction, and a couple of stories featuring the occult, but none of these connected bind together more than two of the stories in this volume's pages. If anything, the theme of this issue is "eclectic genre fiction". Fortunately, despite the disparate style of the various stories contained in it, this issue is mostly full of pretty good stories, and even the few stories that miss are worthy efforts.

Prisoners of Pandarius by Matthew Hughes is a heist story that turns into a mystery with a twinge of political intrigue all set in what seems to be a fairly standard fantasy world. Raffalon is a somewhat unhappy member of the Ancient and Honorable Society of Purloiners and Purveyors who was recently disappointed by what he judges to have been an unfair ruling by the masters of the Guild. Approached by the provostman turned sorcerer Cascor, Raffalon agrees to perform a break-in in exchange for information. After the robbery produces some unexpected results, Raffalon winds up imprisoned in a foreign city before a fortuitous turn of events sets everything to rights and the story ends. The characters are fun to follow around, and the individual scenes are well-crafted, but the story suffers somewhat due to the overly rushed ending and the fact that the nature of the nefarious plot that Raffalon almost unwittingly unravels is never actually explained.

A former NASCAR driver turned romantic outlaw, the title character of Lightning Jack's Last Ride by Dale Bailey hearkens back to the roots of stock car racing when moonshiners would try to outrace Federal authorities on the back roads of rural America. Except this story is set in the future, after NASCAR has collapsed due to gasoline shortages, and Lightning Jack's crimes are high stakes robberies involving hijacking moving tanker trucks full of precious gasoline. The story is told from the perspective of Gus March, former crew chief for Lightning Jack turned fellow outlaw as Gus looks back decades after Jack died, apparently in a car wreck during his final attempted hijacking. Except it turns out that isn't the true story, and the reality is both grimmer and more depressing than the dashing end provided by the video records. The story isn't so much a post-apocalyptic story as it is a mid-apocalyptic story, taking place during the chaos of a collapsing United States as sectional powers duel with central authority and ordinary folk just try to cope as the world bakes from global warming while coping with a decaying infrastructure built around the dying gasoline culture they grew up with. For anyone wanting to scratch their Mad Max or Car Wars itch, this story is perfect.

Jubilee: A Seastead Story by Naomi Kritzer is, unsurprisingly, another installment in Krizter's series concerning Seastead, a collection of offshore colonies of fugitives, libertarians, and desperate people living on ships converted into artificial islands in international waters. In this segment of the story, just on the brink of Seastead's Golden Jubilee, not one, but two plagues have swept the ships, either incapacitating or killing large numbers of seasteaders. One is a nano-tech plague that causes people to become fixated upon some task, and is called the "worker bee disease". The other is simply cholera. Beck, dealing with a newly arrived mother who wants to take her away to California, volunteers to help the Humanists as they attempt to get the surly and suspicious denizens of the various ships to let them try to halt the spread of these maladies. Under Beck's guidance, the Humanists navigate the quirky culture of the seastead and figure out what was causing the cholera epidemic, with the solution to the mystery illustrating in blunt terms why leaving the provision of public amenities to an unregulated private concern is probably a really bad idea. Despite Beck's affection for the place, seastead as presented is a nightmarish hellhole, which is about what one should probably expect from a lawless society run almost entirely by people seeking profits above everything else. The story itself rolls along fairly quickly, and in the end the plagues are put on the run, although it seems pretty clear that had there been some sort of functional government in place, many lives could have been saved.

An occult tinged mystery. Portrait of a Witch by Albert E. Cowdrey takes place on Little Antenora in the Caribbean, as hapless accountant Alfred Engle is pressured by the FBI into taking a position with the wealthy Lord Pye to help them unravel a series of murders that seem to be connected with Lady Pye. The story moves along, slowly building tension as it progresses from depicting a fairly bucolic, albeit somewhat quirky manor house on a remote island with an apparently kindly and generous English patron engaged in some minor and moderately benign lording over the native population and from there ratcheting things up the the revelation of the nastiness of Lady Pye and a couple of unexplained deaths. The story is somewhat devious, first making the reader think it is going in one direction and then reversing the field and dashing in the opposite direction. The only real weakness to the story is that the mystery isn't solved, so much as it is simply revealed when a character, for no real apparent reason at all, just explains everything near the end, almost as if Cowdrey got to the point where he was tired of the story and just wanted to cap it off in a hurry.

Set in a small town in the Louisiana bayou, Farewell Blues by Bud Webster features a jazz band that finds itself caught up in strange supernatural events that end up costing them their coronet player. Told by Juney Walker, a jazz trumpeter from the backwoods of Virginia, the story focuses on the small quartet, including Jake, who Juney describes as the best coronet player of all time. While the band is working a gig in a roadhouse in a town named Bayou Cane, strange things begin to happen, including the dead returning to walk among the living, and strange frog-like beasts rising up from the swamps. Despite these rather obvious supernatural events, the story has a dream-like quality that always seems to circle around the story, hinting at what is happening and what is at stake but never quite making everything clear until the big climax at the end, and even in its resolution the story has a bit of an enigmatic feel. There is a lot packed into this story ranging from a visitor from the dream world, to mysterious wise bayou dwellers, to reunions with dead relatives, to an epic battle against evil, but even with this much going on, the story avoids overflowing its bounds - although there are a few plot elements that are hinted at more than they are explained.

A story about a poor beggar girl who yearns to be a storyteller, Telling Stories to the Sky by Eleanor Arnason feels like it is itself a folk tale of the sort that would be told by a storyteller in the market square of an ancient trading city. The main character is an orphaned beggar girl named Swallow who loves stories, but cannot be a storyteller because of her gender, so instead she writes a story on a kite which ends up being carried away by the wind. In short order the North Wind asks her to join his court and tell him stories, which is where many stories would stop. But for Swallow her breezy benefactor is both a source of happiness and a source of troubles, which causes some interesting twists and turns. This being a mixture of a folk and fairy tale, everything works out reasonably well at the end, but Swallow has to endure a few bumps along the way to get there. Another folk tale based story, The Gazelle Who Begged for Her Life by Francis Marion Soty is a retelling of a story from 1,000 Nights involving a jealous wife, a doomed concubine, a shepherd girl with aspirations, a husband on a mission, and, finally, a Jinn with a dead son who serves as the audience for the tale. When the story opens, the merchant, a man named Kafar, is leading a gazelle to its death, with seemingly cold-hearted immunity to the creature's silent pleas for mercy. After accidentally killing a Jinn's son by throwing pomegranate seeds, Kafar recounts the series of events that led him to this point as a means of trying to placate the furious and vengeful Jinn. What follows is a story of love, betrayal, murder, and magic. By the end of the story, the emotional tone of the opening pages is completely reversed, making the merchant much more sympathetic, and the gazelle much more sinister.

Eric Schwitzgebel tackles the question of theodicy in Out of the Jar by imagining a protagonist who turns out to be living in a computer simulated world run in the computer of a somewhat callous teenager who takes the position of "God" for this world. Most of the story is taken up with examining the different ways that the teenaged "God" of the world justifies his whims and cruelties to the protagonist, who starts as a philosophy professor, and later connives his way into being a robot dinosaur. As the author is a philosophy professor who examines the question of theodicy in his professional life, this story seems to be a little bit autobiographical on some points, which gives the story an even creepier feel as it progresses. One hopes that the autobiographical nature of the story ends with the protagonist contemplating how God can commit evil, but in the back of the reader's mind one has to worry that Schwitzgebel has spent some time serving as the almighty's pet dinosaur while plotting his downfall, which is a somewhat disturbing thought. As a story, however, this works pretty well, and is a reasonably interesting take on an old philosophical question.

Combining time travel, with a bit of humor and a bit of romance, History's Best Places to Kiss by Nik Houser follows Ray and Karen Fox as they journey backwards in an attempt to stop the relationship that they believe has brought them both so much pain. The pair manage to shake their TimeGuide and evade capture as they rampage through first their own pasts and later through all of human history as they unsuccessfully attempt to derail their incipient romance. Eventually the pair find themselves huddled in a cave in the prehistoric era, at which point the story takes a turn that seem predictable before deftly evading the expected. The story turns out to be quite funny and a little bit endearing. Another humorous story, but with a little bit more of a bite, The Man from X by Gregor Hartmann imagines a writer so desperate to be noticed that he attempts to emigrate from his enormously overpopulated planet of eighty billion to the relative backwater of Zephyr, a planet still being terraformed that is home to a mere 100 million people. It seems that the competition in the arts fields on "X" is so fierce that it is nearly impossible to make any headway, so our protagonist has concocted a scheme to secure himself a position on more hospitable shores. Unfortunately, his conniving doesn't work out as he planned, to somewhat humorous effect, although the humor is tinged with just a hint of bitter satire.

A sea tale of obsession and regret, The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner by Alan Baxter follows the bloody pirate captain Reeve as he pursues a map that leads to madness and despair. Unfortunately, burdened by too many moving parts in a space too small to accommodate them, the story just doesn't really come together very well. We are told Reeve was obsessed with gold, but gave that up to be obsessed with revenge, which he gives up in the story to be obsessed with a map, but without being shown reeve's successive obsessions, they are just a collection of assertions without impact. We are told that Reeve and the narrator were both in love with a woman named Esme before she died, although in different ways, but once again there is no space in the story to give weight to the lost romance. Reeve is supposed to have been close friends with his first-mate, a relationship that is clearly intended to make it shocking when Reeve turns on him, but the reader is given very little that shows this friendship, so the scene falls a little bit flat. The story opens up with Reeve recruiting a new crew because his old crew mostly got killed in an engagement with the Royal Navy, which seems like an odd thing to wedge into a story that is already as crowded as this one is. Further, the encounter with the Royal Navy is placed in the past, making it little more than a footnote to the story. With more space to actually show the reader the obsessions, relationships, and events that are referenced, a longer version of this story could be quite good. As it is, however, it feels rushed and hollow.

The first poem in the volume is Robot Agonistes by Alan Ira Gordon, which offers a somewhat melancholy take on the question of robot nostalgia. It imagines a retired robot actor spending its last days in front of a television set watching old science fiction movies while lost in memories of his former fellow robot actors. The second is An Undiscovered Country by Robert Frazier, a rather creepy little work about an exploratory expedition gone wrong.

Fantasy & Science Fiction has a tradition of having fairly basic science fact articles, and this issue is no exception with Falling into the Unknowable by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy giving an overview of what black holes are and how they work. The article is fairly straightforward and won't supply much in the way of revelations for most science fiction fans who are reasonably well-versed in astronomy, but not everyone is, so there is definitely a place for this sort of piece. There appears to be one small error, as it talks about an event happening in 2014 as something to look forward to, and the article was published in 2015. Despite this, for anyone looking to gain a basic understanding of black holes, or just looking for a modest refresher, this is a decent place to start.

Ultimately, this is a fairly ordinary issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. On the plus side, even an ordinary issue of this magazine is a collection of pretty good stories, but on the down side, there aren't really any stories that are more than pretty good. From the intrigue-laden fantasy of Prisoners of Pandarius to the time-traveling hijinks of History's Best Places to Kiss to the libertarian insanity of Jubilee: A Seastead Story to the creepy occult mystery of Portrait of a Witch, this issue is filled with interesting and engaging stories. Even the stories that don't quite work, such as The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner are intriguing misses. Lacking in any stand out pieces of fiction, this issue is serviceable, but unspectacular, making it worth a read, but not particularly notable.

Previous issue reviewed: November/December 2014
Subsequent issue reviewed: March/April 2015

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