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

Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 2003

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"Scabbing" by Mark W. Tiedemann
"The Lightning Bug Wars" by Gary W. Shockley
"Seeing Is Believing" by Paul Di Filippo
"The Dog Movie" by Albert E. Cowdrey
"Legend of Conquistadors" by Robert Sheckley
"Bread and Bombs" by M. Rickert
"The Haunting" by Joyce Carol Oates

I was going to start this review by observing that F&SF still has more fantasy than science fiction, despite editor Gordon Van Gelder's pleas for more SF. But then I counted up the stories again, and realized that, in fact, four of them are science fiction, one is slipstream fantasy, and two fall somewhere between dark fantasy and horror. (Not an elf in sight.)

Which only goes to show that Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty are on to something in their discussion of the "edge" in a non-fiction article that also appears in this issue. The line between science fiction and fantasy, and for that matter, mainstream literature, gets harder and harder to define. Maybe that's a bad thing for purists who don't want to sully their minds by reading something that isn't exactly what they had in mind, but for people like me who like good stories of all kinds, it makes reading a great adventure.

Out of all the stories in this month's issue, M. Rickert's "Bread and Bombs" stayed with me the longest, perhaps because I was reading it while the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense were making a lot of scary pro-war speeches. It's a "post September 11" story—that is, a story that speculates on where our response may lead us. It starts innocently enough as a tale of young children reacting to unusual new immigrants in the community; only gradually do we find that the world has changed. A provocative story, well worth your time.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Gary W. Shockley's "The Lightning Bug Wars." I labeled it "slipstream" because if you want to, you can assume that the whole story is taking place inside the mind of William, the lead character. But I'd rather just see it as William's rather circular raft trip down a mythical Mississippi River, with pauses on shore. William meets two strange women, and engages in the lightning bug wars of the title with one of them. The wars involve feeding the bugs to carnivorous plants and watching them light up; that image alone made the story worthwhile for me. By the end, I wasn't sure if William was waking up from a long weird dream, or about to dive deeper. And I didn't care. A great trip.

I found Mark Tiedemann's "Scabbing" more personally difficult, perhaps because unions don't come off well in the story and I'm a card-carrying member of The Newspaper Guild. Nonetheless, I easily identified with Rich, a bright teenage boy whose father has been implanted with a chip to help him recover from a stroke. Because of the chip, his father is doing some work prohibited under union rules, and the union is all-powerful in this community. Rich's father's choices lead to some very ugly, and unfortunately very realistic, actions by other people.

I like Rich, and would make the same choices as he makes in this story. And when I watch the movie On the Waterfront, I cheer when Marlon Brando's character finally agrees to turn on the mob-controlled union. But I suspect it is stories like "Scabbing" that make British SF writers term American science fiction "conservative," even though most writers would bristle at the accusation. Perhaps this is because Tiedemann, like Elia Kazan, has only given us the abuses that occur on the union side, without showing us the bigger picture. He hints at one interesting fact—the passage of the 29th Amendment, defining labor as property—but gives us no more context. I frankly can't tell whether he intends that to be a good thing or a bad one, but I like the concept and wish he'd explained it further.

I have as strong an individualist streak as the next American, and I despise union corruption. But a story about union abuses that doesn't show me what the big corporations and government are doing makes me feel like I've only read half the story.

I tend to think of Joyce Carol Oates as a mainstream writer, even though I know she frequently crosses boundaries. I found her boring when I tried reading her in college, and frankly haven't been moved to try her stuff since. So I started "The Haunting" with something of a negative attitude. But her depiction of two children living in the ultimate dysfunctional home (their father is dead, and their mother, who may or may not have killed him, has dragged them a thousand miles from home) won me over. Fantastic elements in the story serve to make the children more real. It's hard to read this story and not want to take little Ceci home (you're not sure you can save her brother) and give her some real love. The title sounds rather basic, but it's quite descriptive: This tale will haunt you.

Albert E. Cowdry's "The Dog Movie" is also haunting. This conversation between two New Orleans cops about an odd little case is a nifty little excursion into the ongoing war between good and evil. The image on Mr. Cavallo's television will likely stay with you long after you finish the story.

Robert Sheckley's "The Conquistadors" is a prime example of a science fiction story—about alien invasion—that reads more like a fantasy. Perhaps that's because it's really a fable. The way the people of Earth CB122XA deal with a conquering horde is as instructive as Mr. Aesop's tales.

I always enjoy Paul Di Filippo's romps, and "Seeing Is Believing" is an entertaining one. Detective (and former pitcher) Stingo Strine, with help from brilliant and attractive Professor Parrish Maxfield, thwarts a crime spree that involves some unusually programmed Palm Pilots. Di Filippo can't resist having fun with everything from baseball to the English language ("Pitchers do it until they get relief" and "I thought that was what 'defenestration' meant" come to mind). Readers who are aware that Di Filippo has done some collaborations with Michael Bishop will probably catch the references to Pine Mountain, Georgia, home town to both Bishop and one of the villains.

I'm not sure this story has any redeeming social importance, but it's a great way to while away some time.

Nancy Jane Moore has stories forthcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and the anthologies Imaginings and Mota 3: Courage.