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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 2003

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"Dragon's Gate" by Pat Murphy
"Tutorial" by John Langan
"The Chambered Fruit" by M. Rickert
"Spawning" by Harvey Jacobs
"Doggy Love" by Scott Bradfield
"Red Leather Tassels" by Benjamin Rosenbaum
"Foreign Exchange" by Robin Aurelian

"Dragon's Gate" by Pat Murphy

"Dragon's Gate" is by far the best story in this issue. It's a fantasy story in which a storyteller gets caught up in her own story of heroism, must face a dragon, rescue maidens too numerous to count, and right ancient evils. Circular in construction, it is also about the process of storytelling, and does a fine job of discussing what stories should be, what they must be, and how the stories we've heard and the stories we tell put pressures on us as far as who we should be. It also provides a quiet, ongoing feminist critique of fantasy literature that manages to work as a critique without taking the magic out of the fantasy. Indeed, part of the quiet wonder of this piece is watching how Murphy manages to transform fantasy archetypes so that there are places for active women in them. I sighed with pleasure as I read this story, and I recommend it to all writing high fantasy today.

"Doggy Love" by Scott Bradfield

"Doggy Love" is an e-epistolary canine love story, in which lovelorn doggies seek significant others through an Internet dating service. In case that introduction didn't give it away, the story is meant to be humorous, and it largely is. There are a few points where it breaks down (in jokes that are too cute, spam imitations that are accurate, but go on too long, one too many riffs on human ugliness), but for the most part, Bradfield captures a wide range of tones accurately. In adapting the personals language of self-description to dogs, he shows how ridiculous it is. In showing how clumsy and transparent some forms of self-promotion are, he critiques even as he entertains. More of a smile in recognition kind of humor than laugh out loud funny, I enjoyed this piece.

"Tutorial" by John Langan

John Langan walks a dangerous path in this story, and he almost lost me. "Tutorial" is a story about an aspiring genre fiction writer who must justify his work to a series of writing tutors and editors. The dangers in the story are that a) stories about writers and how hard they have it are always dicey—too easy to tumble into self-indulgence, b) the challenges the writer faced seemed dated, and c) more importantly, the criticisms that the various writing tutors and editors offer for the fictional writer's work seem accurate. They seem to be right on target not just for the story within a story that they are critiquing, but for Langan's larger story. It seems wordy, repetitive, and in need of an editor and yes, a good batch of Strunk and White.

That said, I'm glad I finished the story. The later sections of "Tutorial" are very vivid, and Langan incorporates more contemporary literary theory in the later sections of the story in a pleasing and original way.

"Red Leather Tassels" by Benjamin Rosenbaum

The editorial note for this piece labels this story as surreal, and indicates that Rosenbaum's earlier pieces in F&SF "raised a few eyebrows." The surrealism I freely grant. In "Red Leather Tassels" Rosenbaum presents a series of events that are bound neither by physical laws nor any single psychic tradition (magic, genre conventions, etc.). The prose is good, and many of the images quite lovely; I particularly enjoyed the businessman who fell in love from his vantage point in the sky, where he was being transported by birds. But as for raising eyebrows...not really. The images don't add up to much, and after a while the juxtapositions (hi tech plus fairy tale plus Indian tradition plus cartoons plus...) dulled. By the end, I was left with a flat feeling and the sense that the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

"The Chambered Fruit" by M. Rickert

"The Chambered Fruit" isn't much of a fantasy piece, but it's a wonderful story about loss. The early sections, in which the narrator is reviewing her surroundings and musing in an aching way about what's happened, are quite lovely. The prose is emotionally precise, the descriptions nicely eerie at times. The sheer pain of remembering decisions that contributed to the narrator losing her daughter come through powerfully, as do all of the emotional nuances that accompany it: guilt, self-loathing, doubt, alienation. All of this is nicely done. The fantastic element of the story, which allows the narrator to literally communicate with the dead, seemed almost unnecessary, and pretty familiar.

"Foreign Exchange" by Robin Aurelian

Gordon Van Gelder's brief editorial preface to "Foreign Exchange" indicates that this story is funny. Unfortunately, it isn't particularly funny. It's a hilarious situation: well-meaning human family with a tradition of taking in foreign exchange students takes in an alien with no manners and great power. Hijinks ensue—but not enough of them. The idea for the story is really rich with possibilities, but Aurelian shies away from most of them, leaving the story as a concept and a few choice moments, but not a fully realized humorous piece.

"Spawning" by Harvey Jacobs

Except for the final line of the story, this could be a mundane story about a man who has a brief hallucination (or even a vivid imagination) that triggers a mid-life crisis. The main character, Alan Bragle, is interesting enough. He's an aging would-be writer living in San Francisco in the early 1960s when a fish speaks to him and tells him to "Spawn." Since spawning involves returning to the place of one's birth, having sex, and then dying, Alan sets out to do just that. Alan's activities before and after this piscatorial intervention are mildly interesting, and Jacobs' prose is solid enough, but I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. When Alan doesn't die after spawning, he too keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, so this mood fits the story, but that doesn't make it satisfying. If I had to sum up my dissatisfaction with the story, I'd say it stems from two related sources. First, the story seemed to want to have it both ways—to be whimsical and serious—and some key factors, like character motivation, seemed to fall between the cracks. Second, the story is rife with underexplored fantastic possibilities—even metaphoric possibilities. (Males don't spawn alone; lots of males experience the same triggers, for example.) So, while the story details were realistic, and there were some nice touches along the way, the story wasn't all that it could be.

Greg Beatty was most of the way through a PhD in English at the University of Iowa when his advisors agreed that letting him go to Clarion West 2000 would be a good idea. Bad idea. He finished his dissertation on serial killer novels, then gave up on traditional academia and returned to his original dream of writing fiction. He's had a number of stories published, since then, with acceptances by SCI FICTION, 3SF, Palace of Reason, The Fortean Bureau, Would That It Were, deathlings.com, Abyss & Apex, Paradox, Oceans of the Mind, and several anthologies. For more information on Greg's writing, visit http://home.earthlink.net/~gbeatty/.