Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Vol. 128, Nos. 3 & 4 (March/April 2015) edited by Charles Coleman Finlay

Stories included:
What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Bao Shu (translated by Ken Liu)
A Residence for Friendless Ladies by Alice Sola Kim
The Mantis Tattoo by Paul M. Berger
Things Worth Knowing by Jay O'Connell
La Héreon by Charlotte Ashley
This Is the Way the Universe Ends: With a Bang by Brian Dolton
Last Transaction by Nik Constantine
Little Girls in Bone Museums by Sadie Bruce
A Small Diversion on the Road to Hell by Jonathan L. Howard
How to Masquerade as a Human Before the Invasion by Jenn Reese
A User's Guide to Increments of Time by Kat Howard
Bilingual by Henry Lien

Full review: The March/April 2015 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is not the first issue edited by C.C. Finlay, but it is the first issue edited by C.C. Finlay after he took over that position full-time. If one can take the collection of stories found in this installment of the magazine as evidence for "how with the shift from van Gelder to Finlay will affect the magazine", then the answer is more or less "not at all". This issue contains the usual mix of strong selections of science fiction and fantasy stories that cover a broad range of styles, themes, and subgenres.

Originally written in Chinese and translated by Ken Liu, What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Bao Shu imagines a world in which history moves backwards with the story beginning with a strange celestial event a handful of years "before" China hosts the Olympics and then regressing through much of the twentieth century to the depths of World War II. Despite history moving backwards, people live their lives forwards, existing in a world that becomes less technologically advanced and overall less prosperous as they advance in age. Told from the perspective of Xie Baosheng as he lives through this reverse history and experiences the economic stagnation of China, takes part in the protest at Tiananmen Square, sees the rise of Communism and eventually the terrors of the Cultural Revolution, and finally, endures the civil war that rages between the Communists and the Nationalists as the Japanese take advantage of the chaos to claim large portions of the country. Woven through these large-scale historical events is Xie's ill-fated romance with Zhao Qi, in which the pair are doomed to be separated by political realities, and alongside this romance is Xie's life with his wife Shen Qian, a marriage that through no fault of any person is just one more piece of the tragedy. As the story progresses, the reader is aware of the big events that lie in Xie's "future", and can feel the rising dread that comes with that foreknowledge as one can almost see what will happen to him and those he cares about before it happens. The story is sad and melancholy, and very aware of this fact, climaxing in a conversation between Xie and Sartre about the nature of reality. Despite some stiffness that seems to be characteristic of Chinese science fiction, the story is brilliant on many levels, and quite emotionally moving.

Both disturbing and uplifting, A Residence for Friendless Ladies by Alice Sola Kim is an emotionally powerful tale about the preservation of self-identity in the face of oppression. The unnamed narrator of the story turns to his grandmother as a last resort to avoid being shipped away to Jamaica, but finds that life in the restrictive halls of the titular residence requires giving up his hard-fought masculine identity and returning to living as a demure, feminine, and obedient woman. He knuckles under for a bit, making a few friends, and obeying the rules, terrified of the alternative. From the start, the narrator is told never to answer the late night knocking on her door. At first he scoffs, but when he actually hears it, it fills him with an existential dread. As the story progresses, the reader gets hints of what kind of woman is able to leave the residence - how they are shaped and molded into something more "acceptable", losing themselves in the process. Eventually, the narrator rebels and pushes so far past the boundaries that he is considered irredeemable, but he realizes that this also frees him, and in the final lines he steps out to embrace his true self, regardless of the cost. The story is a powerful treatment of gender identity mixed with just a little bit of classic horror elements to show the very real struggle faced by people trying to assert their identity in the face of a society that just wants them to disappear into the box it has chosen for them regardless of their wishes.

Set in a dystopian future in which the U.S. has degenerated to a collection of slums interspersed among a collection of multinational corporations, Things Worth Knowing by Jay O'Connell tells the story of Stanley, the last teacher working at a public high school. As the story opens, it seems that calling Stanley's job "teacher" is a bit of a stretch, as all public education in this fictional world is automated and the only real role Stanley has is to keep a lid on things if the students get out of hand. Then Joel walks into Stanley's boring, stable school and displays talents that get multiple mega-corporations interested in his services. From there the story becomes one of heavy-handed corporate arm-twisting while Stanley, wishing he could still have the kind of impact on a kid's life that he used to have, sticks his neck out so Joel can make his own choices. The story is a brief glimpse into a somewhat bleak world, but shows that even in a depersonalized educational system, a teacher can still make a difference to a student.

Resting at the border of fantasy and fable, La Héreon by Charlotte Ashley follows an enigmatic rapier-wielding female duelist who goes by the name "La Héreon" as she enters an illegal tournament. After recruiting a young nun (who has some reservations about being a nun) to be her second, she engages in a series of fights with odd opponents from the land of faerie. Each foe presents a unique challenge, and each victory results in a unique reward in return.  The duels are staged well, and fun to read, and the characters are interesting, but the story feels more like the prologue to a bigger story than it feels like a complete story in itself. Another story told ins a folk tale style, The Mantis Tattoo by Paul M. Berger follows Nudur, a young stone age hunter and member of the "Human Beings", who is chosen by Mantis, one of the powerful spirits that guide his tribe. He is sent northward on an errand to find the Fathers of Man and lead them to their new home. Finding the Fathers proves to be easy, but when Nudur arrives in their camp, things don't go the way he expected. The Fathers want Nudur's tribe's greatest secret, which will give them power enough to drive Nudur's people out of their home and claim it for their own. Forced to try to outwit the stronger and more numerous Fathers, Nudur engages in a series of increasingly desperate schemes, each of which is almost casually countered by the Fathers. The story seems to be framed as an encounter between Neanderthals and modern men, and is just mystical enough to be satisfying as a piece of fantasy fiction.

This Is the Way the Universe Ends: With a Bang by Brian Dolton imagines a distant future in which the entire universe is populated only by a handful of virtually immortal sentient beings. Titus happens upon something new, which is quite unusual in the waning years of reality, but when she investigates, she is attacked by the Galasphere, another immortal entity. After fending off its attacks she discovers that the novel object is an engine, and is confronted with a mystery. Woven through and integral to the story are the various alliances who all have different ideas about how to confront the impending death of the universe: The Faction are simply content to expire along with the rest of their reality, the Conclave hope to pass through to the next iteration of time and space, while the Cabal seeks to return to the beginning of the current universe and relive through it from the beginning. Titus discovers that there is a conspiracy to speed up the end of everything, and Titus follows the increasingly disturbing clues to an even more disturbing finale. This story accomplishes the neat trick of making the inevitable end of the universe into something that is tense and uncertain.

Told with a series of commands and computer responses Last Transaction by Nik Constantine gives an extremely limited view of a financial crime in progress. Through the back and forth, citizen 79867 discovers that their account has been overdrawn by many thousands of credits. What follows is a series of interactions showing various efforts to work around the computer system and engage in a little larceny. The story is decent, but not particularly interesting, with the only notable element being the somewhat unusual way in which it is told. Just barely science fiction, Bilingual by Henry Lien is told as a series of tweets from Akari Yamaguchi, a young girl horrified at the Taiji dolphin hunt, all of them sandwiched between a pair of corporate memos, one from Seatopia's CEO, the other from Seatopia's counsel. In the opening memo, Seatopia's CEO wants to prosecute Yamaguchi for the actions subsequently detailed in her attached tweets, which describe her plan to create a warning for dolphins to keep them away from Taiji. Of course, Yamaguchi has to make a warning that the dolphins can understand, and that is where the science fiction (and Seatopia's unhappiness) comes into the story. Yamaguchi works at interacting with some of Seatopia's dolphins to try to figure out how to communicate with them, all the while dogged by the security guards at the park. Eventually she decides she has figured out dolphin language and, presumably, executes her plan. This is, essentially, an alien contact story in which the protagonist has to try to figure out how to communicate, and it is both reasonably interesting and told in an unusual enough manner that it is pretty good.

Laced through with macabre ideas about beauty, Little Girls in Bone Museums by Sadie Bruce explores the lengths women will go to be seen as attractive and the disposable nature of those women. Part of the story explores the life of Piedra, who becomes a "bone knot", a young woman who has gone through a procedure in which the muscles in her contorted body atrophy away until she is frozen in one position, to be displayed as a piece of art. The other part of the story follows a young girl, fascinated by the skeletal remains of such "bone knots" after viewing them in a museum, and the child's grandmother, who hopes to dissuade her from volunteering for such a fate. The reader follows as Piedra endures the painful process to turn her into living sculpture, becomes part of a wealthy man's collection and is put on display to be admired at parties and social events, and is relatively quickly forgotten to be set aside in a back room, and eventually donated to a museum, where her short life comes to an anticlimactic close. Interspersed throughout Piedra's story is the conversation between the admiring child and cautious grandmother, with the child having thoughts only of the glory and prestige of becoming a "bone knot" and entirely discounting the cost. This counterpoint makes Piedra's story seem all the more tragic, as one can see the motivations that caused her to choose the brief and limited life she has, and highlights that she was once potentially so much more than a wealthy man's toy. Tragic and frightening, this story is a brutal and bitter taste of the pressures placed on young girls, and the cost they pay in the name of beauty.

Time travel is inherently odd. In A Small Diversion on the Road to Hell by Jonathan L. Howard, time travel is also a source of wry and self-aware humor. Set in a bar named Helix, in the city of Helix, next to the tourist attraction called the Helix, the story is told from the perspective of a bartender as he interacts with a succession of time traveling customers, each of whom has a story that folds back upon the story told be one of the others, making what can only be described as a metaphorical helix. This sort of self-referential humor is woven throughout the story as the bartender uses his inner monologue to make pithy observations about what he is observing. Eventually the whole story turns on the existence of acronyms, and the whole adds up to a somewhat absurdist commentary on the futility of existence. Another humorous story, How to Masquerade as a Human Before the Invasion by Jenn Reese, provides exactly what the title says; A list of instructions for the inhuman agents of a distant alien invasion force that will be taking over Earth at some vague and unspecified point in the future. The story is quite brief, and manages to be both silly fun and fairly unsettling at the same time.

A tale of chronomancy and love gone wrong A User's Guide to Increments of Time by Kat Howard details the bitter fight between two ex-lovers who both have the magical ability to steal time. Siobhan and Finn each manifest their time-manipulating magic in different ways, and as the story progresses, we find out that they have different motivations for stealing bits of time. Unlike many romance stories, this one starts in the aftermath of the love affair, with the torrid passion only a lingering memory by the time the action takes place. But as we learn more and more about the two, one wonders how much they actually knew about one another, and whether they actually loved one another, or instead loved what they thought the other was, or what the other could provide for them. The back and forth proceeds almost methodically to its almost inevitable conclusion, but it is a bittersweet ride to get there.

Though there isn't really anything resembling a thematic bent to this issue as a whole, the array of stories found in its pages is well worth reading. The best stories in the issue are probably What Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear, A Residence for Friendless Ladies, and This Is the Way the Universe Ends: With a Bang but every story in this issue is at least average quality, with most of the stories being above average to excellent. Both La Héreon and A Small Diversion on the Road to Hell provide some humorous interludes as well, which is generally difficult to execute well in genre fiction. Overall, this is a fairly representative issue of one of the best genre fiction magazines in print, and as a result, is definitely worth reading.

Previous issue reviewed: January/February 2015
Subsequent issue reviewed: May/June 2015

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