The first issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, for 2017 contains a wide range of stories, including a novella, four novelettes and five short stories, as well as a poem and all the usual non-fiction pieces. Instead of reviewing the stories from longest to shortest, this time I’ll cover them in the order in which they appear in the magazine.
The colourful cover image by Charles Vess illustrates all the key themes of the first story in the magazine, Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s fantasy novelette ‘Vinegar And Cinnamon’. Fourteen year-old Sam has no magical powers, so has to help do the chores around his parents’ farm, where they grow wizarding supplies. On the other hand, Sam’s twelve year-old sister Maura is a trainee wizard and enjoys lazing around while Sam is working. When he finally persuades her to help clear an irrigation ditch of stingweed, Sam doesn’t think to warn his sister to be careful. She immediately gets stung and in her pain and anger, she transfigures Sam into a rat! The trouble is, she doesn’t know how to turn him back and, in any case, Sam quickly grows to enjoy his new life. That is, until he remembers that the family’s pet cat is called Slaughter for a reason. Although there’s nothing hugely original here, I enjoyed the story a great deal. The passages describing what it’s like to be a rat are extremely well done and the characters of both Sam and Maura are closely observed.
In the SF short story ‘The Regression Test’ by Wole Talabi, the daughter of a renowned Nigerian physicist is summoned to the tech company her mother founded, shortly before her death, to check if the AI that has made all their key research decisions for the last four decades is still recognisably thinking like her genius mother or has evolved into something different that may be leading them down a blind alley. This is an excellent piece of scientific speculation with a surprising plot twist at the end.
‘A Gathering On Gravity’s Shore’ is Gregor Hartmann’s third SF short story featuring Franden, a man trying to make a new life for himself on Zephyr, a planet far from home whose locals tend to look down on recent immigrants like himself. On this occasion, Franden has been invited to a high society party to celebrate the coming of age of Duvant, a friend of his from their recent time together in the military. When there’s a sudden security lockdown, everyone’s comms units stop working, which is fortunate for Franden as it leaves him as just another guest, rather than being someone whose lowly status can be found out early enough that the snobs can avoid talking to him at all. When a high-caste woman called Maya chooses to talk to him, therefore, it seems like it may be his lucky day. Who is she, though, and why is she so interested in his views on the fledgling independence movement? This is a fun, interesting and at times surprising piece which provides an excellent mix of the personal and the political. I liked spending time with Franden and Maya and hope to catch up with them again soon.
The next story is by far the longest piece in the magazine, weighing in at over twice the length of any of the novelettes. Rachel Pollack’s urban fantasy novella, ‘Homecoming’, features her series character, supernatural private investigator Jack Shade, in his fourth outing in ‘MoF&SF’. When boring suburban housewife Carol Acker turns up at his office, bearing one of his business cards, Jack wonders if he’s really in the right line of work. Carol says that she feels she’s missing something and, when Jack probes further, she explains that she wants him to perform a soul retrieval. He’d like to say no but his business cards create a magical obligation, so he can’t refuse her.
Jack heads off into the spirit world, wondering what can have happened in Carol’s early life to rip one part of her soul away from the rest. Three times he finds what seems to be the missing part of Carol, each time imprisoned in a different setting by people who insist he’s making a mistake. On the first two occasions, he’s thwarted at the last minute. Third time he gets lucky and makes it out with Carol’s soul fragment. That’s when Jack’s troubles really start and he soon wishes he’d listened more carefully to the warnings he was given. Can he rescue the situation before it goes to hell in a handbasket?
I’ve got a great deal of time for Pollack’s writing. She’s good at filling out even her most minor characters and the dialogue is consistently on the money. Jack Shade is the quintessential noir PI, right down to the fact that he’s actually a bit of an oaf, annoying potential allies left, right and centre and being far too prone to act first and think later, if at all. Thankfully, he’s a hugely exciting character to watch and his heart is, ultimately, in the right place. This may be a long novella but it certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome.
In Rick Norwood’s SF novelette, ‘One Way’, we meet Professor Harvey Gold, a physicist seemingly in the twilight of his career. While his conference talks used to regularly draw crowds, on the latest occasion there is but a single audience member. Thankfully, that one young man, Dr. Jerry Morgan, turns out to be a longstanding admirer of Gold’s work and has flown in specially to hear his newest theory. Not only that but Morgan has grasped the revolutionary nature of what Gold is saying and believes that, between them, they have the potential to turn his theory into a very lucrative practical invention that could change the worlds of energy and transport. Once the experimental prototype is turned on, though, they find out that Gold’s theory may be a little over-simplified, with potentially disastrous results if they can’t work out a solution very quickly indeed. This is a fascinating hard SF story, taking an intriguing piece of physics and seeing where it might lead. Norwood also takes the time, though, to explore the back story of his principal protagonist, Harvey Gold, painting him almost as the tragic hero of ancient Greek drama. I would have welcomed a sub-plot or a little more conflict in the story, which runs pretty linearly from A to Z. Nonetheless, what we have here is interesting and enjoyable.
The fantasy short story which follows wins the prize for the longest title in the magazine. ‘On The Problem Of Replacement Children: Prevention, Coping, And Other Practical Strategies’ was inspired by a diagnosis of autism in author Debbie Urbanski’s son. As her brutally honest interview on the ‘MoF&SF’ website makes clear, it was written in an attempt to address the conflicting feelings that she felt when faced with an outcome to her pregnancy that she hadn’t expected and wasn’t sure how to deal with. The story is told in the form of a Q&A booklet for parents of ‘replacement children’. These are parents whose real children have been stolen away in the dead of night and replaced by near doppelgangers, who look very similar to the original child, except for different coloured hair, but whose behaviour is strange, reclusive and extremely difficult to deal with. This is a sad, wonderful and haunting story, open to all sorts of different interpretations. I can only applaud Urbanski in the strongest possible terms for managing to capture so vividly the mixture of strong emotions that must be the lot of many parents whose children have turned out other than they expected, for whatever reason.
That hugely prolific SF author Robert Reed returns to the magazine for the second issue in a row with the novelette, ‘Dunnage For The Soul’, which asks what might happen if medical researchers managed to develop a brain scan that could detect the electrical activity associated with your ‘soul’? Particularly if they then discovered that although two in five dogs has a soul on this measure, around 6% of humans don’t. Although otherwise impossible to tell apart from the other 94% of the population, the new test quickly enters widespread use. For example, in employee selection, with predictably bad results for those now characterised as somehow less than fully human. Is there any way for them to fight back against this blatant discrimination? As always, Reed takes an interesting story concept and explores it comprehensively. In this case, though, I felt that the author’s decision to tell the story from the perspective of an unnamed and somewhat unsympathetic narrator blunted the emotional impact that I would have expected a story based on such a promising scenario to have.
The next piece of fiction is ‘Kingship’, a very short fantasy poem by Mary Soon Lee, which concerns a king, his son and a dragon. If you like fantastical poetry on the short side, you may enjoy this. I’m afraid the strange grammatical construction of the poem left me confused, despite repeated readings.
‘Alexandria’ is Monica Byrne’s first sale to ‘MoF&SF’ but you’d never guess that about this supremely assured short story about Bethany Miyake, an elderly American widow who decides to create an extraordinary memorial to the memory of Keiji, her Japanese husband of over fifty years, based around their shared interest in history, poetry and archaeology. Despite the fact that Bethany is a quiet, understated person and very little actually happens in this story, the impact, on this reader at least, of the protagonist, the memorial to her dead husband and its legacy was stunning. Ursula K. Le Guin apparently encouraged Byrne to complete the tale, which just goes to show what insight she has. I hope to see ‘Alexandria’ on many SF awards shortlists later in the year.
Marc Laidlaw’s ‘Wetherfell’s Reef Runics’ is a short fantasy set on a fictional Hawaiian island. The protagonist, Ambrose Sabala, is the owner of a second-hand bookshop who becomes intrigued when he comes into the possession of a beautiful and slightly mysterious leather-bound volume, donated anonymously to his shop. The book describes the spiritual journey of the eponymous Mr. Wetherfell as he searches for nirvana by meditating at various leyline crossing points, each of which seems to be somewhere inaccessible and generally dangerous. When Sabala realises that the final entry in the book describes a reef just off-shore from his island, where a tourist seemingly committed suicide only a few days earlier, he guesses that this can’t be a coincidence. Was it really suicide or is something spooky at work here? I enjoyed this very much. Sabala is an easy character to spend time with, Laidlaw’s prose has great energy and I was fascinated by the plot idea, even if it did get a little bit confusing at times.
The final story in this issue is ‘There Used To Be Olive Trees’, an SF novelette from Rich Larson. In a post-apocalyptic future, sixteen year-old Valentin runs away from his walled town in central Spain, armed only with his nanoshadow, a nanotechnology-enabled cloak that turns him into a virtual superman and a brain implant that allows him to control it. However, Valentin is pretty naïve and it only takes a single cold night’s sleep in the surrounding desert for him to wake as a prisoner of a teenage scavenger called Pepe, who has confiscated the nanoshadow and demands Valentin’s help as the price of its return. The autofabricator used by Pepe’s tribe has broken and having seen the implant in Valentin’s head, Pepe is sure that he will have the ability to fix it. Can the two teens learn to work together or will their very different life histories ensure they remain enemies? I loved this scenario and there’s lots of detailed invention that brings the story setting to life. Unfortunately, although both Valentin and Pepe are classic damaged teenage characters, with lots of back story hinted at in each case, I didn’t really warm to either of them and so wasn’t particularly invested in their perilous situation. Perhaps I’m just getting old.
In addition to all the fiction, there’s the usual two informative book review columns, a review of an original Netflix SF/horror series, the usual ‘Curiosities’ column and finally the semi-regular ‘Science’ column, which is accompanied by the welcome news that from now on, it will cease to appear as a long column twice a year and instead appear as a shorter column in every issue. As I always find the ‘Science’ column fascinating, this is welcome news indeed as far as I’m concerned.
Now a little bit of bad news. I’ve left it to the end, as it’s not a comment on the magazine’s content, but it’s important to note that with this issue the cover price has increased from $ 7.99 (US) to $ 8.99 (US). The Canadian price has also gone up by a dollar. However, I’ve been reviewing ‘MoF&SF’ since the July/August 2014 issue and the price has remained unchanged for those last two and a half years at least. Averaged out across that period, I guess the increase isn’t that bad.
Price increases aside, ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ starts 2017 in excellent form. Reading it over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reminded again and again of how exciting it can be to open the magazine and know that, just a few short months ago, virtually nobody else in the world had seen the stories I’m about to read. That’s why the short genre fiction magazines are so worthy of support. The short stories by Monica Byrne and Debbie Urbanski were my stand-out successes this time round but the majority of the other stories in this issue are also well worth your time. My congratulations to editor Charlie Finlay on another job well done.
(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 8.99 (US), $ 9.99 (CAN). ISSN: 1095-8258)
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