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

Fantasy & Science Fiction, Oct/Nov 2005

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NOVELLAS:
"The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi
Image
cover art by Cory and Catska Ench
"Help Wonted" by Matthew Hughes
"Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle

SHORT STORIES:
"Helen Remembers The Stork Club" by Esther M. Friesner
"Foreclosure" by Joe Haldeman
"Spells for Halloween: An Acrostic" by Dale Bailey
"Billy and the Ants" by Terry Bisson
"The Gunner's Mate" by Gene Wolfe
"Fallen Idols" by Jaye Lawrence
"Silv'ry Moon" by Steven Utley
"Echo" by Elizabeth Hand
"Boatman's Holiday" by Jeffrey Ford

(Reviewed by Eugie Foster, E. Sedia, Sherwood Smith, and Lois Tilton)

"The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi

(Reviewed by E. Sedia)

I've been a fan of Paolo Bacigalupi's work for some time, and his "Calorie Man" does not disappoint. This story takes place in a near future, when all varieties of crops are genetically modified and therefore patented and copyrighted, and distributed according to the wishes of their manufacturers. Human life is governed by calories converted into joules of labor, generated by genetically enhanced "mulies" and mastodonts, so that food supply determines the energy supply as well. Of course, the manufacturers of the food make sure that supply does not outstrip the demand. Lalji, an Indian immigrant and a smalltime lawbreaker, agrees to transport a man who can change all that.

Mr. Bacigalupi's talent lies not only in creating chillingly convincing visions of the future, but also his unflinching portrayal of people who live in that scary world. In a time like that it does not take a hero to change the world—just a normal man, haunted by his past failure and cowardice. Lalji still remembers what life used to be like when the food could be grown on a family farm, and there was variety beyond SoyPro and HiGro. Through his eyes, the readers can experience this world, all the more vivid because it is possible, considering some of the recent trends in agriculture.

I could spend pages talking about GMO's and their effect on agriculture; instead, I urge you to read this story. I dare you not to fear that this future is all too accurate, and I dare you not to cry at the end.

Help Wonted" by Matthew Hughes

(Reviewed by Lois Tilton)

Matthew Hughes has created a fascinating premise for the series of stories which includes “Help Wonted”: in the far, far future, scholars have explored and mapped the Commons—the realm of humanity’s collective unconscious, also known as the noösphere. This invention does not seem to be based on the work of Teilhard de Chardin, as some readers might suppose, but rather the psychological theories of Jung.

Guth Bandar used to be a lowly adjunct scholar of the Commons, but the Institute  has rejected his great discovery: that the collective unconscious has attained self-awareness. Yet not only is the Commons indeed conscious, it has its own plans, and they include Guth Bandar, whether he is willing to be included or not. Bandar thus finds himself trapped  in the dreamworld, in the persona of a mute slave. He is determined not to allow  his own personality to be submerged into the archetypical landscape, but he discovers that resisting the will of the collective unconscious is not as easy as he supposed.

There is interest for the reader here on several levels: in following Bandar’s adventures, in the various archetypical personality types he encounters, in his reflections on the more philosophical questions of the nature of consciousness. In the Commons, Hughes has created a universe with particularly fertile prospects for speculative activity, and this reader finds herself looking forward to the further adventures of Guth Bandar.

"Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle

(Reviewed by Eugie Foster)


"Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle returns to the beloved characters from his classic and charming novel, The Last Unicorn (1968).  The foreword states that it is a bridge to a new novel currently in production.  The reader revisits the now-wise and powerful magician, Schmendrick, and the ever-practical, good-hearted Molly Grue, meeting them for the first time through a young girl, Sooz, fifty years after the events of the novel.  There is a griffin, menacing Sooz's village, eating the children and terrorizing the people.  The king of the land has sent his knights against it, but they have failed to vanquish it.  Only a true hero, King Lir, can defeat it.  But Lir is an old man now, not the youth he used to be.  His mind wanders, and he forgets himself and his companions.  But inside him is still the hero forged by the love of a unicorn.

Beagle's novel was an elegy, a poignant threnody grieving the passing away of magic in a world, and also a voice of hope around a theme of mortality.  Its symbolism and subtext also included the war between the generations, as demonstrated by sentiment surrounding the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement.  It was one of the first post modern fantasies—light in tone, but deep in theme.  "Two Hearts" is the closure, the final chapter on happily ever after—not so much a sequel as a cap stone.  Beagle's writing is less ornamental than it was in the novel, but that's not surprising.  He's changed and evolved as a writer, much as his characters have.  "Two Hearts" is a clean, poignant read.  Where the novel railed against the foolishness and foibles of the older generation, this conclusion makes its peace with the passing of time and aging.  An eminently satisfying finale to a fabulous story. 

"Helen Remembers The Stork Club" by Esther M. Friesner

(Reviewed by Sherwood Smith)

A month before I read Esther M. Friesner's story, “Helen Remembers the Stork Club,” I happened to be in New York.  One morning I  walked to Paley Park on 53rd streetand sat beside the enormous wall fountain, listening the traffic-drowning roar of falling water and enjoying the cool breeze it sent ruffling out under the trees.  I looked up at walls surrounding the park, noting the scarrings of past renovations, and realized that  New York is a kind of living palimpsest—you can be staring at a hip chrome-and-steel façade and then turn around and see the brick side of a building unchanged from the 1880s, and for a moment you are seeing exactly the same angle perhaps glanced at by a bustle-wearing lady strolling under a gas lamp 125 years ago.   Some time not so long ago Esther Friesner stood where I stood and what she saw was a story.

Helen is the narrator.  At first she appears to be another of those resolutely stylish older women living alone in million-dollar flats and lunching every day at hotel restaurants, whose names are known by the snobby waitstaff at famous stores.  As Helen’s day and night unfolds she reaches into her past until its events become a palimpsest, centered round the Stork Club, which once stood where that pleasant fountain now plashes. 

You do not really need that factoid to get the punch of the story.  The real palimpsest here is human, layered with observations on the cost of time, the effect of experience, and the immediacy of human emotion no matter how old one is. Friesner gets the voice just right—Helen is wry, smart, not particularly likeable but honest in her passions—and her long view is believable, raising some interesting questions.

"Foreclosure" by Joe Haldeman

(Reviewed by Lois Tilton)

If “Foreclosure” by Joe Haldeman seems overly familiar, it is because it is a contract story—the deal with the devil is one variation—in which the protagonist’s task is to discover the escape clause. This time, the contract involves a real estate deal. It seems that an alien species has purchased the rights to develop and settle Earth, and they are not pleased to discover human squatters on their property. The escape clause turns out to be one which any real estate agent, as our protagonist is, ought to recognize immediately. However, this would end the story almost before it has begun, so Haldeman presents us with a couple of diversions while we are waiting  fifty years for the contract’s grace period to expire: it is particularly amusing when the real estate agent  turns to a shabby, starveling science fiction author for help in dealing with the aliens. But this diversion runs its course, the fifty years are up, the agent duly pronounces the name of Rumpelstiltskin, and the devil is confounded, once again.

"Spells for Halloween: An Acrostic" by Dale Bailey

(Reviewed by Lois Tilton)

“Spells for Halloween: An Acrostic” by Dale Bailey is essentially  what the title implies and the editorial blurb describes: a series of vignettes forming an acrostic on “Halloween.”  The terms of the acrostic are mostly taken from various myths: Hecate, Abaddon, etc. , and the individual vignettes are appropriately spooky, though Bailey might have used a more suitable word for E than Eunuch.  The  piece as a whole  might also have been more interesting had there been some unifying theme or narrative.

"Billy and the Ants" by Terry Bisson

(Reviewed by Sherwood Smith)

Terry Bisson’s parable, “Billy and the Ants,” is short, doesn’t waste a word.  If you like parables, especially those that etch their lesson in acid, this one is for you.

"The Gunner's Mate" by Gene Wolfe

(Reviewed by Sherwood Smith)

In “The Gunner’s Mate” by Gene Wolfe, Muriel is vacationing on a tiny Caribbean Island, one so small it really has nothing much else but the hotel.  Her friends all think the place creepy, but she’s right at home.  Each of her contented discoveries is swapped with the memory of one of Henry Morgan’s pirates, who seems to have decided she’s the one for him. 

Muriel is waiting for her boyfriend to show up.  He’s working aboard a rebuilt tall ship, sailing south, and plans to meet her on the island.  Muriel loves it so much she begs for a job from a manager who has trouble keeping staff from leaving.

Wolfe’s story is an exquisite balance between yo ho ho romance and disquieting moments—brief as a shadow over the waves.  We want Muriel to be able to leave the New York rat race she obviously hates and stay, because everything looks so wonderful and welcoming.  But.

One of the things I appreciate most about Wolfe’s stories—besides his diamond-polished prose—is that after I finish reading a story of his I need to reread it.  What I expected, what I discovered, almost always looks different when the story is in effect reversed: I’m remembering the ending as I revisit the beginning.  This one is no different.  The smiling sun of the last page lingered until, pow, there’s that memory, right on the first page, a hurricane’s white line on the horizon.

"Fallen Idols" by Jaye Lawrence

(Reviewed by Eugie Foster)

"Fallen Idols" by Jaye Lawrence begins with Zeus—yes, the Greek Father of the Gods, that Zeus—showing up at a sex addiction meeting, despondent and despairing because his wife has finally left him.  It's a tale of finally accepting the consequences of one's actions, even if one happens to be a lofty god of Olympus.  Lawrence succeeds in telling a rich tale, in spite of the brevity, evoking an ambiance of the troubled and awkward, in many ways reminiscent of the beginning of Fight Club.

"Silv'ry Moon" by Steven Utley

(Reviewed by E. Sedia)

"Silv'ry Moon" by Steven Utley is another piece set in the future—and the past. It's another installment of the Silurian time travel stories. This time, F. Scott Fitzgerald leads a self-proclaimed doctor and an extraterrestrial investigator, Canepi, and his wife on a trip to a time when radio signals did not pollute the atmosphere. Dr. Canepi hopes that these conditions are perfect for sending out a signal to alien races—it would reach quite far between the Silurian and the present time. The guide and the scientists are less enthusiastic.

While the premise is neat and the characters are well-drawn (especially the beach bum, Fitzgerald, and the pompous Canepi,) the story ends rather abruptly. Neither of the conflicts are really resolved (Fitzgerald vs. the windbag fraud, or the scientific community vs. the pseudo-scientist.) This is a common issue with series of stories—it reads like a chapter of a really great novel. A worthwhile read, since the settings are incredible, and the characters are fascinating.

"Echo" by Elizabeth Hand

(Reviewed by Eugie Foster)

"Echo" by Elizabeth Hand is an esoteric tale, set in a post-apocalyptic future, where the world, its society and ecology, is winding down due to some unknown, untold catastrophe.  "Echo" is predominantly a mood piece, full of lush imagery and soulful phrases: "Words like feathers falling from the sky, black specks on blue."   Thematically based upon the Echo and Narcissus Greek myth—he's vain and beautiful; she's a nymph who loves him and can only repeat his words back to him; it ends in tragedy for all—there's an aura of obsession and desolation throughout.  While it has a lovely cadence, this reader found the story to be fleeting on the psyche.  The point of view character is too tenuous and wistful to make much of an impact, but perhaps that's wholly fitting.   

"Boatman's Holiday" by Jeffrey Ford

(Reviewed by E. Sedia)

Jeffrey Ford's "Boatman's Holiday" is a stunningly strange and beautiful tale. Charon, the boatman of the Greek legends who assists the dead in their crossing, is due for a holiday. He is going to visit the legendary island, Oondeshai, where the only escape in hell is possible. An escaped sinner had created this island while he was still alive.

Along with intensely visceral imagery of hell and more lyrical descriptions of Charon's journey, the philosophical themes of the story are challenging, and quite deep. Do we create our own hell? Is the memory of the life lost, or forgetting who we used to be the greater punishment? The complex interplay of the profane and the divine, the gripping prose, and the intensely sympathetic protagonist make for a memorable story.