The mid-year issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ provides plenty of options for reading material, including an alt-history novella, three fantastical novelettes, six short stories of various denominations, an SF poem and six columns of mixed regularity. All of this is introduced by an arresting cover image, provided by Mondolithic Studios, of a Terminator 2-style humanoid figure seemingly in the process of forming out of the accumulation of shiny metallic bubbles. The picture loosely illustrates one of the concepts underlying the first story in the magazine, Gregor Hartmann’s SF short ‘Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful’, which I’ll talk about a little later on.
The longest work in this issue, Lavie Tidhar’s alt-history novella ‘The Vanishing Kind’, is one of four stories that I thought were pretty close to perfect, along with one of the novelettes and two short stories. What was so good about these four? Well, I’m glad you asked…
‘The Vanishing Kind’ is a noir tale set in the 1950s in a world where the Nazis won the Second World War. Tidhar tells the tale of Gunther Sloam, a German screenwriter and former soldier, who has travelled to London in search of his former lover, the famous screen actress Ulla Blau, who has written to him claiming that her life is in danger. It quickly becomes apparent that Blau, who seems to have fallen on hard times, has disappeared. As Sloam searches the slums of the British capital for clues to Blau’s fate, he encounters many unsavoury people and every conversation he has leaves him more confused than before. Will Sloam get to the truth before someone gets to him? This is an entertaining, exciting and, ultimately, thought-provoking story that will, I’m sure, find itself on various awards shortlists in the months to come. The ‘Nazis won WWII’ alt-history scenario has been explored numerous times in recent years, most obviously in the 2015 TV adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel ‘The Man In The High Castle’ for Amazon Prime. However, Tidhar genuinely adds something new here, making it his own through the seediness of his run-down London and its defeated and defective residents, the period detail and the darkly comic noir style, which satirises almost everything it can lay its hands upon. Tidhar fans will know what to expect. If you’ve not read him before, this would be a great place to start.
My favourite of the three novelettes is David Gerrold’s ‘The Thing On The Shelf’. This is another story written in his trademark recent style, as an alternate history version of his own life. In this case, the tale is told through a supposed letter to MoF&SF’s publisher, Gordon Van Gelder, who is supposed to have asked Gerrold to write a report on the 2014 World Horror Convention, at which Gerrold received a Bram Stoker Award for his short story ‘Night Train To Paris’. The current story revolves around the award statuette he received at the convention, a small model of Poe’s House Of Usher, allegedly designed by the legendary writer Harlan Ellison and the strange things that happen to Gerrold from the moment he is given it. This brief summary may make the story sound like an exercise in megalomania by David Gerrold but nothing could be further from the truth. As with all his recent stories for MoF&SF, this one is humorously self-deprecating throughout and is filled from start to finish with witty anecdotes, asides and digressions that make it an absolute pleasure to read. As a footnote to this story, it’s worth noting that the current (September/October) issue of the magazine is a Special Author issue dedicated to David Gerrold, which features a short memoir and two novellas written by him. So if, like me, you’re a fan of the man who came up with ‘Star Trek’s tribbles half a century ago, you’ll want to go out and get a copy while it’s still on sale.
The other two pieces I thought near-perfect were both short stories. Oliver Buckram’s ‘An Open Letter To The Person Who Took My Smoothie From The Break Room Fridge’ is a brief but hilarious story of a domestic dispute at Supervillain HQ, while ‘Last One Out’ by K.B. Rylander is a wonderfully humane and gentle post-apocalyptic SF story which provides that all-too-rare thing, an optimistic view of human/robot relations. Both are excellent examples of the power of the short story.
There are another two novelettes in this issue. The first is ‘The Desert Of Vanished Dreams’, another tale of Alaric the Bard from Phyllis Eisenstein. She has been writing stories about this wonderful character in MoF&SF for forty-five years, which is an impressive record. To celebrate the anniversary, this story does something unexpected, integrating some fascinating SF elements into the usual fantastical storyline and so showing Alaric in a totally new light. The other novelette is David Prill’s ‘Vishnu Summer’, a surreal fantasy about a one-armed teen-ager who makes friends with a three-armed visitor to her town. I loved this story right up until the last couple of pages. However, I felt that the ending let the tale down, leaving matters unresolved and this reader, at least, unsatisfied.
The remaining fiction comprises four more short stories. Gregor Hartmann’s ‘Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful’ is an SF story about the risks of taking a product to market before you’ve finished the R&D. It’s also the subject of this issue’s cover image. I found this interesting and fun but felt that the story rather fizzled out at the end.
Dominica Phetteplace’s short fantasy story, ‘Spells Are Easy If You Have The Right Psychic Energy’ is a thoughtful story about trying to find your way in the world without resorting to gimmicks.
‘Killer’ by Bruce McAllister is an extremely short fantasy story about angels and demons that have come to Earth for real. It’s an intriguing concept and McAllister writes well, but I’m afraid I couldn’t make sense of it.
Finally, Betsy Phillips’ ‘Jesus Has Forgiven Me, Why Can’t You?’ is a fantasy story set in the world of amateur wrestling which includes many entertaining moments but never made me believe in the central conceit that’s hinted at in the title.
In addition to the fiction, there’s an SF poem by John Philip Johnson called ‘Martian Garden’. Fans of SF poetry may well enjoy this example.
This issue includes six columns. In addition to the two regular book reviews and a film review, there’s a thoroughly interesting article on the science of ice as it occurs throughout the solar system, yet another amusing ‘Plumage From Pegasus’, in which Paul Di Filippo gently queries the value of Masters degrees in creative writing when compared to the benefits of real world experience and the usual ‘Curiosities’ column at the back of the magazine, this time about a 1946 SF novel by Franz Werfel, the third husband of Alma Mahler, that has echoes of Olaf Stapledon’s far future histories of man.
All in all, the July/August issue of ‘The Magazine of Fantasy And Science Fiction’ packs an awful lot of high quality material between its covers, with only a couple of near-misses. Well worth seeking out.
(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 7.99 (US). ISSN: 1095-8258)
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