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

Fantasy & Science Fiction, Aug./Sept. 2009

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The Art of the Dragon” by Sean McMullen

A Token of a Better Age” by Melinda M. Snodgrass

The Bones of Giants” by Yoon Ha Lee

The Others” by Lawrence C. Connolly

Three Leaves of Aloe” by Rand B. Lee

The Private Eye” by Albert E. Cowdrey

Esoteric City” by Bruce Sterling

You Are Such a One” by Nancy Springer

Hunchster” by Matthew Hughes

Icarus Saved From The Skies” by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud

Reprints:

The Goddamned Tooth Fairy” by Tina Kuzminski

Snowfall” by Jessie Thompson


Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk

As surprising as it may seem, there are fans out there who’ve never seen F&SF. A friend, who’s been active in Canadian fandom for over 20 years, came over and saw this issue sitting on my couch. She picked it up and said, “This looks interesting. What is this magazine?”—which nearly knocked me and my wife out of our socks, so to speak. The “biggest SF/F magazines,” which designation changes depending on what year we’re in, used to always, since the ‘fifties, include F&SF. You couldn’t mention the top magazines in the ‘50s to the present, without mentioning this magazine. I don’t know if it ever got to be the biggest in terms of circulation, but its editors, which have included Anthony Boucher, Ed Ferman, Avram Davidson, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and the present editor, Gordon Van Gelder, have held the magazine to a standard of excellence that I doubt has been surpassed in any present-day magazine, SF/F or not.

And for the price (cover price $6.50 US/Canadian), you get a lot of verbiage… and what verbiage! One editorial, one poem, two book review columns, one film review column, 12 stories old and new, and a “Curiosities” page in the back. Too bad they had to cut down from monthly to bimonthly due to the economic climate. So let’s find out whether the stories are keeping up the standards, shall we?

The Art of the Dragon” by Sean McMullen confused me. I liked the writing, which told a straightforward story about a giant metallic dragon that suddenly appeared in Paris and ate the Eiffel Tower. And then Notre Dame Cathedral and a number of British and Continental monumental works of art, including Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge and St. Pancras Station. The narrator, Scott Carr, is an art historian with a doctorate, and he realizes what the dragon is doing, and at the climax of the story, why.

SPOILER ALERT—if you don’t want to know all about this story before you read it, please skip this paragraph! The story posits that the dragon is the expression of the “collective unconscious” of mankind, telling us that we took the wrong path, forty thousand years ago when humans developed art. The dragon means that we have been “playing in the sandbox” for too long and it’s time for us to grow up, stop playing with art, and do what we were meant to do as adults (without actually telling us what that is). And that’s where the story and I diverge big time. I like my fantasy (including SF) to have some grounding in reality. And the idea of a collective unconscious of humankind (especially one that has a monolithic point of view!), doesn’t work for me, nor does the idea that humankind is “meant” to do something. I don’t believe in fate, or destiny, or predestination, so these ideas grate on me.

But maybe I’m taking this all too seriously, and it’s just intended to be somewhat satirical (there are many lighthearted moments in this story) and allegorical. You will, of course, have your own views, which will influence how you feel about this story.

You Are Such a One” by Nancy Springer concerns a woman in the throes of menopause who is having the same dream every night. It’s not bad enough that she’s suffering hot flashes approximately every 15 minutes, but she has to suffer through this dream, in which she is entering a strange house and climbing its spiral staircase in her nightgown, every night. Then her great-uncle dies and, driving to his funeral along unfamiliar streets, she sees the house of her dreams. Of course she stops. Wouldn’t you? She goes to the house to discover that she is the reason the house stays empty, but for a caretaker. The house is haunted, and she’s the ghost haunting it.

What follows is, perhaps, inevitable—you may guess part of the ending, but you won’t guess all of it. Nicely written.

A Token of a Better Age” by Melinda M. Snodgrass takes a particularly non-English view of dragon-slaying. Two men meet in the pits below a Roman arena; both are condemned to die in the morning. One, the Patrician, is scheduled to be “broken on a wheel of swords and then beheaded”; the other, the

Centurion, must try to be a sole survivor in a melee. The Patrician is resigned to his fate, as the Emperor (Diocletian) will kill his mother should he try to escape. All he wants to do is make sure the Centurion survives to take his story to his mother. The Centurion is there because he’s a thief, and got caught; the Patrician has a very different story, and he tells it while the two wait for the dawn.

The so-called Patrician was actually a high-ranking official in Diocletian’s personal bodyguard; he has a slave who’s extremely unusual, and together, he and his slave, Scientius, have investigated and sealed many “tears” in the fabric of the world. He hears of a new one in Cyrene (Libya), where a dragon has appeared and is wreaking havoc locally. He defeats the dragon, and that eventually leads to his downfall and punishment by the emperor. An extremely well-done story, which mixes religion, science and appears to be well-grounded historically, or as much as it needs to be.

How the Patrician defeated the “Old One” and bequeathed his belt to the Centurion forms the bulk of the story, which definitely kept me turning the pages. I always enjoy an authentic-seeming historical bit of SF/F.

Hunchster” by Matthew Hughes is a funny little story about a poker-playing kid who lives in a town that survives only because it’s home to a prison. The whole town depends on the prison for its bread and butter, from the suppliers of food to the guards. The kid is an electronics whiz who used to work for a Bill Gates-type dot com gazillionaire who promised to bring diversification to the town’s economy, but whose promises were victims of the dot com bust.

The kid plays great stud poker, and doesn’t seem to lose. “I’m an intuitive,” he says, which is why he likes to be called “hunchster”… but he’s not depending on that. The kid’s also an inventor, and he’s come up with a machine that lets you view the past.

What happens then probably shouldn’t surprise you, but I’ll bet it does. It did me, at least a little. An amusing story.

Icarus Saved From The Skies” by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud shouldn’t really qualify as a new story (although maybe the translation is new) because it was published in a collection in 1997. No matter; we’ll accept the translation as a “new” story. The unnamed protagonist discovers he’s growing wings, and this disturbs him.

He doesn’t want to fly; he doesn’t want to stand out from the crowd in any way. But his lover, Maude, is fascinated by these nascent pinions and clearly wants him to grow them all the way and learn to fly. As years go by, their relationship waxes and wanes with the growth of the wings, until finally, the wings are the reason their relationship becomes cemented. This is the sort of story that Alfred Hitchcock’s magazine likes a lot. I liked it to an extent, but in the end I was unsatisfied. Maybe it’s the Continental outlook, but the whole story seemed a bit distant to me.

The Bones of Giants” by Yoon Ha Lee is an extremely polished story of a suicidal soldier, a sorceror who is gradually turning the whole Rimlands into something unpleasant, and a necromancer who may be more than she appears. The titular bones are those of what we can assume are dinosaurs, although it doesn’t really matter, and the necromancer, Sakera, is going to use the bones, reassembled, into both a conveyance and a weapon.

Tamim, the protagonist, was raised by ghouls (read zombies), and is not really disturbed by the bones. He agrees to accompany Sakera in her quest to kill the sorceror. In order to help confront him, Tamim must learn, during the journey, how to control the bones himself, and how motion is formed (it’s little pieces of stillness strung together in sequence). When they finally confront him, some unpleasant truths are revealed, and Tamim learns another thing—that life consists of little moments strung together. I’ll be watching for more of Lee’s fiction. I really liked this one.

The Others” by Lawrence C. Connolly is about a group of duplicate people. They’re all copies of a woman named Cara Randall, who has been sent to explore a distant planet with significantly humanoid intelligent life.

It’s easy to create these copies; they are linked by a cybernetic link, and they are completely disposable. They call each other by Greek letters (Alpha, Beta, Gamma and so on), and they are expected to “retire” themselves when no longer needed. Indeed, they are supposed to be eager to retire themselves. But each one knows what the others know, and they are a cheap way to explore without risking “real” humans.

Except that Gamma has had an accident, and is cut off from the cyberlink, and now thinks of herself as Cara. Meanwhile, they have to rid this particular landmass of a bunch of very fast, very nasty and very prolific predators that are endangering the intelligent species.

And Epsilon has a plan for being the only Cara left on-planet. Gamma/Cara has to stay true to the mission even though she has no desires to retire. The resolution is funny, if you have a morbid sense of humor like I do.

Good SF, plainly and clearly written, and I think I’m going to have to search out some more fiction by Connolly.

Three Leaves of Aloe” by Rand B. Lee does what I love about SF/F, it completely takes you to a different time and place. The time is the near future, and the place is Mumbai (used to be called Bombay), India. Amrit Chaudhury works the phone lines at Mumbai-Astro Telecom, Ltd., trying to make enough money to keep her family from poverty and her daughter Meera in the Gupta Academy, a private school.

Amrit is being called into the supervisor’s office to speak to the vice-principal of the Gupta Academy about Meera’s propensity for gettting into dustups at school. And unfortunately, Meera has been in trouble more than once before, which means that the school can expel her under the “three strikes” principle (borrowed from the Americans). And will, unless Amrit agrees to have Meera fitted with a “nannychip” (a very clever wordplay, by the way, between “nano” and the British “nanny”) to control her behavior.

Amrit is unwilling to go along with this, but it appears she simply can’t control her daughter and she may have to, until a surprise intervention from a family member changes everything. And Amrit learns the value of feeling and the meaning of personal freedom. This is one of my favorite stories in the issue.

The Private Eye” by Albert E. Cowdrey concerns a man named Jimmy John (JJ) Link from Bougalou, Louisiana. JJ’s favorite pastime is being alone in a room with some aloe vera skin lotion and a skin magazine, but his talent is being able to read the front of a card from the back. In other words, he’s an esper, like The Hunchster; in fact, he’s so good at it that he won enough money to quit his low-level job and buy a Winnebago, but in the process, got banned for card counting. Since he protested in the local weekly (“I’m not a cheater, I’m psychic!”), he gets noticed by the local authority, Sheriff Russell Chew (“Ah’m just an ole slant-eyed country boy, doin’ his best”), and co-opted involuntarily to help solve the case of the kidnapped 12-year-old daughter of a local bigwig.

As you can probably tell right from the git-go, as them ole country boys might say, this story is rather tongue-in-cheek. Think a bit of Elmore Leonard (or Carl Hiaasen) mixed with ESP. A mite clunky in spots, but overall, sustains the mood well. (The Sheriff reminded me of our old Sheriff, M.J. “Doc” Daffin, back in Bay County, Florida, in the late fifties.) Good for a chuckle, at least.

Esoteric City” by Bruce Sterling rounds out the new fiction. It’s a modern tale set in Turin, which as everyone knows (well, Bruce knows) is one of the world’s great capitals of black magic: Lyon, the City of Heretics; Prague, the City of Alchemists; and Turin, the Esoteric City. Achille Occhietti is an auto executivce and a black magician. One of his closest companions is a three-thousand-year-old Egyptian mummy, Djoser, whom Achille keeps corporeal by feeding it his own blood.

Achille has led a successful life, using black magic and the Holy Grail (yes, the very clay cup found in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and now the time has come for him to repay his debt; like Don Giovanni and Faust, he must go to Hell. Djoser has come, bidden by Achille’s master, to convey him thither.

But surprises are in store… the very person that Achille believes to be Satan is not; in fact, Achille himself may be (or may be turning into) Satan. And then the story turns into what? A parable? A polemic? I’m not sure. According to the story (and we can’t be sure whether this is a viewpoint Sterling espouses—I’m very wary of attributing an author’s ideas or motives to anything a character might do), Achille and his car-manufacturing ilk may be the good guys here, because they’ve actually done something in the world. The “Greenies,” he seems to be saying, will never accomplish anything, will never save the world, because they lack conviction. They are weak-willed, limp-wristed do-nothings who will even agree with their enemies because they are so wishy-washy.

Am I reading this right? And if I am, does Sterling agree with it? For that matter, does it matter? Does a political view expressed in a story by a character necessarily spoil the story, or does it give the story weight? In this case, the story turns on whether the Satan character (not Achille) has the strength of will to drink from the Holy Grail and acquire the strength to do what is necessary to save the world. In the end, the story becomes a “lady or the tiger” story.

Do we need to agree with this view to enjoy the story? I don’t think so; the story works on its own right up until we get to the meaty political argument. And since the argument forms the crux of the story, you can say that it stays true to itself. And maybe Sterling is just being a bit of a rabble-rouser, though people I know insist he’s very leftist. You’ll have to decide, I’m too wishy-washy.

The reprints are “The Goddamned Tooth Fairy” by Tina Kuzminski and “Snowfall” by Jessie Thompson; both are definitely good, readable stories, but I’m afraid I wasn’t as impressed as Harlan Ellison, who chose it, was by the latter story. While good, it has echoes of Saki’s (H.H. Munro’s) “Sredni Vashtar,” and maybe a touch of “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken. I don’t understand the reverent tone Harlan uses or the fact that he prefers this story as a reprint over hundreds of possibly better stories from F&SF. It was good, but was it great? But that’s the beauty of our genre—it has something for every taste. The story deals with childhood abuse, from the child’s point of view. The other story is a semi-humorous story about a man’s brush with destiny, and how sometimes we need to be saved by something other than ourselves. Which is where the eponymous TF comes into the story.

Altogether, I’d say Van Gelder is doing just as good a job as his predecessors; F&SF is still consistently good.