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

Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 2006

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"Painful Upgrade" cover art by Mark Evans
“The Revivalist” by Albert E. Cowdrey

“Shambhala” by Alex Irvine

Short Stories:
“The True History of the Picky Princess” by John Morressy
“From the Mouths of Babes” by Trent Hergenrader
“The Capacity to Appear Mindless” by Mike Shultz
“Czesko” by Ef Deal
“Intolerance” by Robert Reed

Every month for over 55 years, Fantasy & Science Fiction has published issues consistently full of wonderful fiction. March’s magazine, full of stories exploring the effect of warped time on human consciousness, is no exception.

The sprightly, mind-twisting novelet, “Shambhala,” sets the stage for F&SF’s rumination on life, death, and other states of mind. Alex Irvine envisions the collapse of a virtual world, both from the view of a panicked software engineer and from a puzzled woman, Shannon, “Squirted” into virtual space, who seeks to return to her body before the system fails. While the engineers run around, trying to give the crisis a marketing massage, Shannon’s once-comprehensible existence becomes dreamlike and unpredictable.

In a scenario with echoes of the dot-com madness, Irvine pokes fun at the engineers. They debate whether the “Squirts” are human, but, in their obsession with image management, miss the very human uncertainty that Shannon and other virtual citizens go through. Deftly shifting between a colloquial, parodic tone for the engineers and a more disturbing, poetical mode for Shannon, “Shambhala” effectively exposes the cracks in Utopia.

Another story that exposes an uglier reality beneath the shiny perfect patina, “The True History of the Picky Princess” takes a cue from the beginning of Sleeping Beauty. What if all those fairy blessings of beauty, goodness, and grace turned the princess into an insufferable snob? In the spirit of sharply satirical stories like George MacDonald’s “Light Princess,” John Morressy details the consequences. “Picky” has flashes of humor (the self-absorbed princess is, of course, named Infatuata), but doesn’t run far enough with the idea. A self-righteously gifted princess calls for more energetic humor than Morressy’s restrained morality tale delivers. I love upside-down fairy tales, but the passionless writing turned me off to this one.

By contrast, Albert E. Cowdrey’s ebullient, gee-whiz prose drew me right into F&SF’s novella, “The Revivalist.” It’s a delightful picaresque hosted by our protagonist, Edward, a man of unusual sleeping habits. How would you feel if you hibernated for weeks or years at a time, missing friends, family, and key world events? Thanks to Cowdrey’s talent, we’re right there in Ed’s head as the wheel of time turns and he struggles to understand the great march of Progress. With the zing of Ray Bradbury at his best, Cowdrey follows Ed through the highs and lows of the past hundred years, which are mirrored in Ed’s stormy relationship with his nerves-and-tongue-of-steel wife, Myra. I was expecting more to be done with Myra, whose persistent “wise elder” attitude forms such a humorous counterpoint to Ed’s eternal boyish wonder. She is a bit underexploited, but that’s my only complaint about a story that provides a surprisingly good-humored commentary on time warps and the turmoil of the 20th century.

“The Capacity to Appear Mindless” by Mike Shultz breaks the thematic mold of time and warped perception. A loving parody of the anarchy that is high school math class, “Mindless” is set in a world of forced human/goblin interaction. Mr. Spinesnapper, the goblin math teacher, wonders why a puny human student of his feels so threatened by his goblin students’ casual brutality. Culture clash and amusing hijinks ensue.

Because he deals fairly, but funnily, with the goblins and the humans, Shultz could be commenting on the difficulties of human desegregation, from the 19th Amendment and women’s formal induction into the U.S. political sphere to the breakdown of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s. Or it could just be a silly experiment. Either way, “Mindless” made me laugh aloud (especially the redundant notice about the staff meeting), demonstrating that you can write about intolerance without being intolerant. Robert Reed (below), take note.

Back to the subjects of life, death, and the weirdness in between with Ef Deal’s short, sparkling gem “Czesko.” Like David Gerrold’s tour-de-force novelette “thirteen o’clock,” which appeared in last month’s F&SF, “Czesko” is driven by its urgent, casual, and utterly unique narrative voice. In this case, it’s a small-time drug dealer who must figure out how to kill his already-dead friend. The fantastical blurring of life and death seems entirely believable when told in the unintentionally deadpan (pun intended) tone of a blue-collar criminal. Hearkening back to all those folk tales about deals with the Devil, Deal puts a modern, intelligent, compulsively readable spin on the story with an exquisitely mordant punchline for an ending.

We’re back into fairy-tale mode in the next story: “From the Mouths of Babes.” On the surface, Trent Hergenrader writes about a worried father protecting his genius son. But soon we realize that the father is an experimental scientist, and the boy is…well, somewhat of a techno-changeling, to use folk tale terminology. Simple and restrained, told almost entirely in dialogue, Hergenrader’s affecting prose challenges our ideas of youth and age, while evoking the timelessly strong parent-child bond. Unlike “Picky Princess” (above) and “Intolerance” (below), “Babes” shines with psychological and emotional intimacy.

“Intolerance” by Robert Reed closes the issue. While the popular TV show Family Guy uses a baby with an adult mind, Stewie, as a comic device, Reed takes the concept to more serious levels. Given the biotechnology, what sort of person would “de-age” himself? “Intolerance” looks apprehensively at the way such eugenics might alter people’s ideas of age, maturity and, most of all, ethics. Featuring a repellently precocious protagonist and a plot full of ingenious double-crosses, “Intolerance” manipulates its characters as cleverly as they toy with each other.

He purports to be writing about intolerance, but Reed’s generally venomous tone (and predictable, rather misogynist ending) propagates, rather than indicts, his subject matter. Though smartly conceived and compellingly written, “Intolerance” deals a blow to itself—and the whole issue—with its unrelenting nastiness. Nevertheless, except for the somewhat tasteless last course, this month’s F&SF fed my demanding appetite for good fiction with high-quality fantasy that you too will enjoy sinking your teeth into.