The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 2007

Thursday, 29 March 2007 02:11 Danny Adams
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"The Master Miller’s Tale" by Ian R. MacLeod     
"Kaleidoscope" by K.D. Wentworth
"Telefunken Remix" by A.A. Attanasio
"The Tamarisk Hunter" by Paolo Bacigalupi  
"The Great White Bed" by Don Webb

“The Master Miller’s Tale” by Ian R. MacLeod is nothing less than an historical epic—albeit one primarily centered on just one character, Nathan Westover.  When we first meet Nathan, he is a boy who has spent all of his short life immersed in the milling business—he is the latest line of a long generation of English master millers.  The last, as MacLeod tells us, “although it took most of his life to know it.”  Through the course of the story we see Nathan’s life, from learning the mill to becoming a master miller himself, falling in love, later betrayed, and—sooner rather than later—how his wind- and magic-powered mill, and Nathan himself, increasingly become relics as steam-borne industry takes over the countryside and magic seems to fade as it’s used up.

MacLeod’s twist, making this a fantasy story rather than a strictly historical one, is that magic is occasionally employed to keep things going during the hard times, like those driest and calmest of summer afternoons.  One part of magic that particularly fascinates Nathan is how some winds can be captured in bits of grass or twine, or anything they happened to blow through, bound up to be used later.  As Nathan grows older, then old, these bits of magic become far more to him than just wind; their worth is critical to the little he has left. 

“The Master’s Miller Tale” is rich but not top-heavy with details on all levels.  The characterization is just right—Nathan’s is sparse initially but rightly so, for the only two times we see him blossom are when he’s close to the only two things he really loves, the mill and young Fiona Smith.  The historical atmosphere is well done, the magic fits right in, and MacLeod does an excellent job of making the reader feel the weight of inevitability as Nathan is slowly but inexorably forced into obsolescence.  Not an easy read but a good one throughout.

By comparison, K.D. Wentworth’s “Kaleidoscope” is light and breezy, though the main character, Ally Coelho, is soon dragged along for a dizzying ride through alternate realities.  Her bizarre unwanted adventure starts with rescuing a dog named Sadee—and not rescuing it.  For right afterwards, Ally has two clear, distinct memories: one where the family gratefully retrieves the animal and another where Sadee bursts away and is hit by a car.  From there, Ally’s life continues splitting more and more, but in every case, the memory of each is preserved. This becomes especially upsetting when she meets and falls in love with a man named Barry, but one particular Barry, not the horde of others she continues to run across during her unwilling reality-hopping.  Wentworth’s conclusion, how Ally finally anchors herself into one reality, struck me as a little too easy, perhaps, but it was still satisfying.

“Telefunken Remix” by A.A. Attanasio introduces us to Noel, a human living two million years in our future, long after humanity has become extinct.  Or rather he is an anamnestic: a “memory,” a being created from the genetic material from a two-million-year-old shoulder bone.  His world is made up of Heavinside, a place where all of his needs (including a soulmate of sorts named Ny’a) are provided by the Contexture, a pan-dimensional presence responsible for the creation of the multiverses.  And Noel has been given permission to not only travel back in time to meet the source of his existence, but to trade places with him—giving the “doppler” a chance to live in this paradise, an act Noel believes to be compassionate.

Needless to say, things don’t go quite as Noel planned.  Readers will recognize several tropes in the story: to start, Noel’s “Doppler,” Leon, is much worse than Noel ever envisioned.  For another, Noel carries a vital artifact from the future that he then loses and Leon subsequently steals, putting Ny’a’s existence in danger.  But Attanasio makes these tropes work and doesn’t just leave Noel and Ny’a on old Earth at the end of the story.  Instead, their characteristic compassion drives them to another goal: using their knowledge of the future to try to prevent the extinction of humanity by pursuing those who helped bring that extinction about.  Overall, “Telefunken” becomes a sharp tale of sacrificing almost everything personal to you so that everything else of the world might be saved.

“The Tamarisk Hunter” by Paolo Bacigalupi started life in the June 26th, 2006, issue of High Country News after that magazine, as F&SF says, “put out a call for stories about futures in which people have learned to live sustainably in the American West.”  The sustainability in Bacigalupi’s tale is hard-scrabble, though.  Lolo is a tamarisk hunter in a West left almost a wasteland by a perpetual drought (and most of the still-extant water being sucked up by California), eking out a living on the $2.88 per day plus water bounty he gets by chopping down these water-guzzling plants.  What the government doesn’t know—or apparently doesn’t—is that Lolo has gotten some job security for himself by keeping and replanting some of these tamarisks elsewhere.

I was tempted to say that Bacigalupi’s writing is as dry as the southwestern desert the story is set in, but that would be a badly misinterpreted pun.  In fact, the atmosphere is so well-written that reading the story made me thirsty.  I almost felt the heat on my face, and I certainly started feeling my own anger at California’s water greed, as well as sympathy for those who’d tried fighting to keep their own water so they wouldn’t need to abandon their homes.  As for the conclusion…well, it will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever had dealings with the federal government.

And finally, Don Webb’s “The Great White Bed” starts out as a deceptively plainly-written story about a thirteen-year-old boy staying with a grandfather who is growing increasingly senile, though still with a fair amount of lucid moments.  The strangeness comes in small pieces: an odd book that Grandpa enjoys reading to the point of complete distraction, Grandpa asking if his grandson would ever like a book to read him.  But the book is merely a catalyst, as something greater has a design on them.  The story ends in nicely understated horror, with Webb resisting other authors’ regular temptations to fly off into more overblown gore and thus being even more unsettling for it.