The first issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ for 2015 is packed full of content, including five novelettes, six short stories, two poems and the usual set of non-fiction columns.
What greets you first as you pick the magazine up is a gorgeously colourful, if somewhat static, image of a ghostly figure in a rowing boat on a lake that’s as still as glass. The cover picture by Kent Bash illustrates an important moment in ‘Farewell Blues’ by Bud Webster, the final story in the magazine. More on that later.
The first story in the magazine is the fantasy novelette ‘Prisoner Of Pandarius’ by Matthew Hughes, another of his stories featuring the thief Raffalon, who last graced the pages of F&SF in ‘Avianca’s Bezel’ two issues ago. In this adventure, Raffalon is hired by Cascor, a novice sorcerer, to steal the most precious possession of a local merchant called Pandarius who has been blackening the sorcerer’s name in revenge for a previous incident between them. Cascor hopes to blackmail the merchant into stopping his rumour-mongering. However, when Raffalon breaks into a secret chamber in the merchant’s house where the item is stored, what he finds is not gold or jewellery but an emaciated prisoner who has had his memory wiped. Raffalon rescues him from captivity but, when he and Cascor try to work out who the poor chap is and why Pandarius should have locked him up, they stumble across a wide-ranging conspiracy that puts both their lives at risk. This story provides a very enjoyable start to the magazine, romping along at a rapid pace with great wit and humour. Raffalon is a classic loveable rogue and I was more than happy to spend some more time with him here.
Next up is Charles de Lint’s regular book review column. This time he reviews six titles, including two fantasy novels by Seanan McGuire (who also publishes SF and horror novels under the name Mira Grant), a zombie comic, a classic fantasy novel by William Morris available for next to nothing as an ebook on the web, a collection of Andre Norton fantasy stories and an SF novel about alien abduction. As always, de Lint does a great job of picking a wide-ranging set of genre titles and then reviewing each of them with honesty and intelligence.
Another book review column follows de Lint’s, this one by James Sallis, who focuses his attention on two complex, metafictional novels, one American and the other Polish in translation. Sallis does a good job of getting across his views on both novels whilst explicitly acknowledging the difficulty of reviewing ambitious and multifaceted books of this kind in just a few pages.
Dale Bailey’s SF novelette, ‘Lightning Jack’s Last Ride’, comes next. Lightning Jack is a famous and talented former NASCAR driver. We’re in a dystopian near future where the USA is breaking up into individual states and petrol has become so expensive that it’s almost completely unavailable to anyone except the military, shutting down the motor racing industry and putting Lightning Jack and his team on the scrapheap. Unable to live without driving, they become notorious pirates of the highways, repeatedly swooping down on petrol convoys and hijacking one of the tankers each time. Trouble is, the new job has made them all murderers and, though Lightning Jack may be able to live with that, it’s not clear that everyone in his crew feels the same. Is there a peaceful way out for them or are they destined to go out in a blaze of glory? The story rattles along at a good pace and Bailey’s style makes it very easy to read. However, though the characters are well-drawn, it’s difficult to feel a great deal of sympathy for any of them, least of all Lightning Jack. In the midst of what appears to be massive social and economic change worldwide, his only interest is in continuing to drive cars fast and he’s entirely prepared to kill people to make this happen. I enjoyed the story as I was reading it but, I must admit that at the end, I was left thinking, so what?
‘Telling Stories To The Sky’ by Eleanor Arnason is a short fantasy about Swallow, an ugly, lame beggar child with a squint whose one gift is her ability to tell stories. The only problem is that in the city where she lives, only men are allowed to be storytellers. To get round this, she writes a story on a kite and lets it fly away. That night she is visited in her dreams by the North Wind’s Ambassador, who tells her that the North Wind liked her story and would like more. She obliges him and, in due course, is persuaded to visit the North Wind’s palace in her dreams. However, while she lives a life of luxury there, as chief storyteller to the North Wind’s court, her body back on Earth is slowly dying. If it dies, she will die, too. What to do? This is a beautifully written, gentle and entertaining tale that celebrates not only the power of story but the power of friendship, too. I loved it.
Next up, Paul di Filippo has written a short parody article ‘Plumage from Pegasus: the Stealer of Marketshare’ in the style of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories which makes some serious points about the state of book publishing by pitting Elric and an Amazonian princess against Myshella, the Dark Lady of Kaneloon, who prefers to run her publishing empire as it has been run for centuries past. This may be a piece of whimsy but it’s a very funny piece of whimsy at that.
‘Jubilee: A Seastead Story’ is an SF novelette from Naomi Kritzer, one in her series of dystopian futuristic stories about the independent ship-based Nation known as Seastead. In this tale, Seastead is now 49 years old and they are starting to plan the Golden Jubilee celebrations when disaster strikes in the form of two different plagues at once. The first is common or garden cholera while the second is an odd disorder, nicknamed the ‘worker bee flu’, which makes people become OCD, fixating on some detail of their lives to the exclusion of all else. Many residents, including those employed in important jobs, are abandoning ship to avoid the plagues, leaving the Seastead increasingly unable to function properly. When protagonist Beck Garrison, a feisty teenager, comes up with a clever way to persuade people to get vaccinated against the worker bee flu, the adults ask her if she’ll help them find the source of the cholera infection, too. Despite the reservations of her mother, Beck is all too happy to oblige and sets off to the cholera blackspot on the ship to see what she can find. Trouble is cholera may be the least of her troubles once she gets there. I’ve not read any of the previous Seastead stories and I feel I might have understood this one a little better if I had. Nonetheless, Kritzer has created a fascinating self-contained world and populated it with a diverse set of characters who each speak with their own voices. Beck comes across as a likeable lead character with an attractive mix of intelligence and attitude. I look forward to encountering her again soon.
Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy and psychology whose SF short story, ‘Out Of The Jar’, apparently grew out of some philosophical thought experiments he discussed on his blog. The story’s narrator is the author himself but in a parallel universe where he finds out that the Earth is part of an AI simulation run by a bored teenager on the ‘real’ Earth. The unnamed teen gets his kicks by playing God over the simulation, killing random people or releasing unusual monsters or diseases to run amok amongst his flock. Eric realises what’s going on when the boy talks to him in his dreams. He tries to argue that what the lad is doing is wrong to little effect. However, the boy likes to brag to someone, so takes Eric into his confidence. Can Eric persuade him of the error of his ways over time, using the power of philosophy? This is an interesting take on the relatively well-worn trope of the Earth as AI simulation. Schwitzgebel uses his professional knowledge to good effect whilst avoiding the cardinal sin of lecturing us. In fact, there’s a thread of wacky humour running throughout this story that makes it extremely entertaining.
‘History’s Best Places To Kiss’ is another humorous SF short story. Nik Houser introduces us to Ray and Karen, a married couple going through a messy divorce, who hit upon the brilliant idea of going on a time travel holiday to their own wedding, so they can break it up. The way they figure things, if they never get married, they’ll never have to get a divorce. Unfortunately, the timestream doesn’t seem to agree with them and, no matter what they do, they seem unable to stop the wedding. Undeterred, they go on an increasingly desperate journey further and further into the past, trying to stop themselves from becoming a couple or even from meeting. Yet the more trouble they get into, the more they remember why they first fell in love. Is it really a divorce that they want? This is a very funny story which mixes slapstick humour with some poignant material about the nature of true love. One to re-read.
Next up is David J. Skal’s movie review column, which he dedicates to a take-down of Ari Folman’s 2013 SF film, ‘The Congress’. Skal makes his points intelligently and in detail, so I’m pretty sure I won’t be watching Folman’s film any time soon.
The next piece is ‘The Chart Of The Vagrant Mariner’, a fantastical pirate short story from F&SF virgin Alan Baxter. It is told by Daniel, loyal cabin boy to Captain Reeve, a pirate who spends his life tricking British Navy ships to a watery grave in revenge for the death of his woman at British hands some years earlier. While on shore leave, Reeve is accosted in a pub by a mad, drunk ex-sailor who starts rambling on about a mysterious treasure map that led to the deaths of all of his crew-mates. Reeve is intrigued enough to buy the man more booze and, by the end of the evening, the madman is dead and Reeve has the map in question. From that moment on, Daniel tells of his Captain’s increasingly unhinged behaviour as he takes his ship onto the high seas, searching for whatever is hidden in the coded symbols on the map. Will they find the treasure before the Captain goes mad or the crew mutiny? I really enjoyed this story which marries a set of strong characters to an authentically drawn setting and a ‘Boys Own’ plot, albeit with levels of violence that wouldn’t be out of place in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Gregor Hartmann’s ‘The Man From X’ is a comedic SF short story about Franden, a resident of the massively overcrowded planet X, who is trying to emigrate to the liberal and civilised planet Zephyr. When he gets to immigration control, he claims to be a writer as Zephyr supports artists through state funds. But given that his own fiction is as yet unpublished, how can he prove his worth to the official in front of him? Hartmann fits a highly effective and humorous morality tale into a very small number of pages here.
‘Portrait Of A Witch’ by Albert E. Cowdrey is a fantasy novelette set in the Caribbean. Alfred Engle is an estate manager who has unwillingly just helped the FBI to put his previous employer, a crooked billionaire hedge fund manager, behind bars. Now they’ve got their claws into him, the FBI set him up with a new employer, the eccentric Englishman Lord Pye, who owns a small island called Little Antenora. Engle is to keep tabs on Lord Pye and, more particularly, on his artistic and bad-tempered wife, Lady Fay, a photographer whose images are famous. What very few people know is that increasing numbers of her photographic models are turning up dead under mysterious circumstances. The FBI smell a rat but they can’t figure out what she’s doing or why. Can Engle find out what’s going on or will he fall victim to Lady Fay’s camera, too? Cowdrey tells an engaging story here, providing an authentic setting, introducing a wide range of characters into it and showing you their interactions in a way that seems entirely natural. I really wanted to know what happened and was genuinely surprised by the twist ending.
‘Robot Agonistes’ by Alan Ira Gordon is one of two poems featured in this issue of F&SF. This is the longer of the two and tells the story of a robot in a care home, reminiscing about its past. I wasn’t really sure what to make of it but SF poetry isn’t my strong suit, I’m afraid.
Next up is Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy’s science column, in which they discuss the science of black holes. This is an excellent column, going from the very basics right through to some advanced material I’d not seen before. Well worth a read.
The second poem in this issue follows. Robert Frazier’s ‘An Undiscovered Country’ is a short poem about the survivors of a spaceship crash, told in eight two-line stanzas. It was a little too elliptical for me but as I said earlier, I’m no expert.
‘The Gazelle Who Begged For Her Life’ by Francis Marion Soty is a retelling of a story from the classic collection, the Arabian Nights. A merchant is riding away from his home town of Aleppo, dragging a reluctant gazelle after him. When he encounters an angry genie, the merchant buys his life by telling the story of the gazelle, which is actually his evil wife magically transformed. How she got that way and what he intends to do with the gazelle when he gets where he’s going, provide such a stunning tale that in due course the genie lets him live. Not having read the original story, I’m not quite sure how much Soty has changed but what you get here is a tale that would work brilliantly if told out loud, with the exotic setting and the brutality of some of the main characters’ actions combining to create a story that, just as Scheherazade originally intended, you want to hear right to the bitter end.
The final story in this issue is Bud Webster’s fantasy novelette ‘Farewell Blues’, the author’s first fiction sale to F&SF. Set in the summer of 1937, in the sweltering heat of Louisiana, the tale is told by Juney Walker, a gifted trumpet player in a jazz quartet who have been booked to play for a week at a music club near to a swamp. The band is popular and, by the third night, the club is packed. So when the owner asks them to stop playing half-way through the evening, Juney knows something is wrong. Nobody will speak openly about the problem but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s something to do with Jake Fell, their cornet player. Juney wonders if it’s the fact that Jake is black but is assured that the problem lies elsewhere. When they retire back to their digs for the night, Jake confides in Juney and what he tells him is so strange, so other-worldly, that she has trouble taking it in. However, talking isn’t enough and as the problem continues to get bigger, Juney is faced with a dilemma. Should he side with his friend or with the town that his friend’s continued presence seems to be endangering? This is an effective story which combines a supernatural plot with sufficient realism to make the threat seem real. The characters and the setting both seem authentic and, although this is the longest story in this issue of F&SF, it didn’t outstay its welcome.
As usual, the magazine closes with the single page ‘Curiosities’ feature. This time it’s provided by Stephen Haffner, who summarises a 1940 novel called ‘The Devil And The Doctor’ by David H. Keller, a neuropsychiatrist and early SF writer.
So, what’s the verdict? There’s a pretty even split between genres in this issue’s eleven stories, with six being fantasy and five SF. My favourites were a mixed bag of SF and fantasy, novelette and short story. The non-fiction articles were all worth reading, although I’d single out Doherty and Murphy’s piece on the science of black holes as particularly good. All in all, this is a great start to 2015 for F&SF. If you enjoy a regular dose of new short genre fiction, you could do a lot worse than subscribe.
(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 7.99 (US). ISSN: 1095-8258)
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