‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ was first published in the autumn of 1949, making it sixty-five years old this year. For the last seventeen years, it has been edited by Gordon Van Gelder, but this particular issue has been guest-edited by the American SFF writer C.C. Finlay, who has selected seven short stories and six novelettes to accompany the five columns that appear in every issue. Has he done a good job?
We open with ‘Palm Strike’s Last Case’ by the Hugo Award-winning author Charlie Jane Anders. This SF novelette, which also provides the inspiration for the magazine’s striking cover art by Maurizio Manzieri, is an intriguing mash-up of super-hero noir and SF colonisation stories. Former millionaire Luc Deveaux has spent all his spare time and most of his fortune on becoming the masked crime-fighter Palm Strike. Like Batman, he took on the role following a personal tragedy. He is well-equipped but relatively poorly-skilled and getting older and slower all the time. After his latest mission nearly ends in his death, his faithful butler finally persuades Luc to abandon both his alter-ego and a slowly dying, polluted Earth and join the next colonisation mission to a distant planet. However, someone sabotages Luc’s cryo-module and when he finally wakes up at their destination, he finds a twenty-year old colony whose crops have failed and half of whose members are drug addicts. Who tried to kill him? Are they the same people who are selling narcotics to the colonists, rather than try to sort their food problems out? Luc tries to answers these questions himself but gets nowhere, until he resurrects Palm Strike for one last case. I really enjoyed this story. Anders gets the noir tone of the first half just right and the transition from super-hero story to SF colonisation story, though a surprise, was expertly handled. Luc’s character has just the right combination of righteous anger, intelligence and declining physical capabilities to make him a sympathetic and realistic hero who has to use his brains as well as his brawn if he’s going to work out what’s going on. All in all, an excellent start to the issue.
Paul M. Berger’s fantasy novelette ‘Subduction’ is next. Oliver has lost his memory and has wound up on the North Pacific island of Macquarie. It’s on a subduction zone and subject to frequent earthquakes. Oliver found himself drawn to the island and, once there, the same mysterious feeling leads him to the town’s baker, Moira. When she seduces him the following evening, it turns out that both of them have magic in their blood. Just as well, because the earthquakes aren’t what they seem. Can Oliver help Moira stop them from destroying Macquarie? This is an excellent story, full of telling details and subtle character interactions. Despite having no memory, Oliver comes across as a strong person but the real star of the story is Moira, who is tough, independent and the unacknowledged saviour of her island and everyone on it.
According to the introductory blurb above the title, ‘Seven Things Cadet Blanchard Learned From The Trade Summit Incident’ is Annalee Flower Horne’s first published short story. It’s a pretty impressive achievement to sell your first published story to a magazine with the history and reputation of F&SF and Horne’s story doesn’t disappoint. It is told in the form of an essay written by Cadet-Captain DeShawna Blanchard as punishment for the various practical jokes, pranks and other minor misdemeanours of which she has been found guilty by the captain of the starship she is aboard. However, although Cadet Blanchard is a Grade A prankster and so the obvious person to have set off the stink bomb that opens the story, she knows she didn’t do it. In an attempt to prove her innocence, she becomes an amateur detective and soon uncovers a serious conspiracy on board. But will anyone believe her? This is a very impressive debut story, mixing hard SF and comedy together brilliantly. I hope Horne writes more stories in this vein in future.
David Erik Nelson’s SF novelette ‘The Traveling Salesman Solution’ is a hard SF story where the unnamed protagonist finds out that someone has basically invented a teleportation machine and is using it to cheat in marathons. Having found out what they’ve done, he then needs to decide what to do about it and them, given that the machine could be used for all sorts of nefarious purposes once the secret is out. This is an interesting story which will particularly appeal to readers who enjoy mathematical puzzles, although I personally found the story’s conclusion morally troubling. What is particularly noteworthy about this story, though, is that the protagonist is in a wheelchair, yet that doesn’t form a major part of the story. It’s just one part of who he is. It’s always good to read stories that focus on people’s abilities, rather than the opposite.
‘End Of The World Community College’ is a humorous post-apocalyptic SF short story from Sandra McDonald. It is written in the form of a prospectus for the college and covers such issues as registration, course options, attendance and conduct requirements with wit and verve. This kept me laughing all the way through, despite the serious nature of the story’s dystopian setting.
Cat Hellisen’s ‘The Girls Who Go Below’ is a short fantasy/horror story set in the author’s home country of South Africa. Millicent and Lucienne Stephenson are white teen-age sisters spending the school summer holidays exploring their Aunt Vera’s farm and lake. They meet the son of their aunt’s neighbours and both fall in love with him, with tragic consequences. The story is beautifully crafted but I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it. On the one hand, not much actually happens during most of the story. Then, at the conclusion, two of the three main characters suddenly turn evil for no apparent reason. I didn’t find this credible or particularly interesting, though others may well disagree.
‘The Day Of The Nuptial Flight’ by Sarina Dorie is a surreal fantasy novelette told by a male drone bee whose sole interest in life is mating with a queen, chewing off his own genitals and then becoming a living honey pot for the queen to use for the rest of his short existence. However, when he gets his chance, he finds that he can’t perform. Unsure what’s wrong, he flies off, trying to find another queen to mate with. Instead, he finds a pregnant woman and on this planet, bees and some of the carnivorous animals they share this world with and, from then on, our drone becomes her guardian and protector. Will he ever be allowed to mate? I really enjoyed this story, which is told with just the right level of authenticity, innocence and humour. The world-building is excellent and the plot resolves itself beautifully.
Dinesh Rao is an Indian Professor of Ecology. He puts his knowledge to good effect in ‘The Aerophone’, an SF novelette in which the main character, Shanker, is a biologist who studies the ecology of fish in the sinkholes of the Yucatan Peninsula. When he goes to a party with his wife, he is invited to see the host’s collection of ancient Mexican aerophones, small clay flutes traditionally used in Aztec rituals. However, when he tries to play the wonderfully named ‘Aerophone of Death’, he gets a lot more than he bargained for. This is a quiet, understated story which nonetheless explores several interesting ideas at once. Definitely one that will benefit from re-reading.
The award for most impressive title has to go to that of Ian Tregillis’ fantasy short story, ‘Testimony Of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events Upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14-22 June, 1818, With Diagrams’. As the title suggests, the story is told in the form of Seaman Frobisher’s personal account of what happened aboard the navy ship he was serving on after they rescued what everyone else thought was a lady overboard. Only Frobisher, due to temporary deafness following a gun accident, can see that this is no lady, but some form of malevolent harpy which has bewitched the rest of the crew with its voice. Frobisher tries to warn his captain and crewmates, with no success. What he can’t work out is what the creature wants from them and whether there is any way for him to stop it. This tale has a wonderfully authentic ring to it and Tregillis forced me to read on with ever-increasing dread from the first page to the last. You can’t ask much more than that.
Spencer Ellsworth’s surreal fantasy short story, ‘Five Tales Of The Aqueduct’, is short but uses its brevity to good effect. Each of the five tales revolves around an aqueduct in Southern California, starting with the story of a drunken old woman who fishes a giant intelligent catfish out of the aqueduct, then moving on to dinosaurs, sexy aliens, a former governor of the Golden State and the final fate of our planet. I’ve read this story several times now and it’s extremely enjoyable every time.
‘Belly’ by Haddayr Copley-Woods is a grimy, bloody tale of witches and it’s all the better for that. The unnamed protagonist spends thirteen years in a witch’s stomach after the she swallows her for trying to steal food from her at the market. Thirteen years of being intimately aware of everything the witch chooses to eat, waiting for her to digest you along with everything else, would probably be enough to drive most of us mad but the girl uses her hatred of the witch to keep herself sane, slowly coming up with an escape plan. All the time, though, she keeps wondering why the witch has kept her alive, rather than simply digesting her. What does the witch want with her? I really enjoyed this story, albeit in a slightly queasy way. Copley-Woods shows us what it might be like to be trapped inside a witch’s body and she doesn’t hold back. The storytelling is visceral and engages all five senses. Whatever you do, don’t read this while you’re eating.
William Alexander’s SF short story, ‘The Only Known Law’, is the shortest piece in this issue. It is an intriguing morality tale about the ethics of colonising other planets which is told with confidence and verve.
‘A Guide To The Fruits Of Hawai’i’ by Alaya Dawn Johnson is the final story in the magazine. This fantasy novelette features a near-future dystopia where vampires have taken over the Earth and farm humans for food and entertainment. Key is a thirty-four year-old woman who has survived to that age by making herself useful to the vampires, helping run one of the camps where they keep the farmed humans. When she is transferred to another camp, where the youngest and most valuable captive humans are kept, Key comes face to face with Tetsuo, the first vampire she ever encountered, half a lifetime beforehand. She fell in love with him then, only for him to walk away. All these years later, Key is not sure whether she loves or hates him, let alone the job he wants her to do at the new camp. Should she be compliant and hope for the ultimate reward of immortality at Tetsuo’s side or should she assert her humanity and rebel? Although the above summary may make this story sound suspiciously like some sort of ‘Twilight’ knock-off, there’s a lot more emotional complexity to it than that. It wasn’t particularly my kind of story but I could certainly appreciate the comprehensive world-building and the complexity of Key’s conflicted character.
On top of all those stories, this issue contains five regular columns, too. Charles de Lint’s ‘Books To Look For’ reviews five books with de Lint’s usual candour, warmth and good humour. Chris Moriarty’s ‘Books’ column is an excellent extended essay on the optimistic tone present throughout the SF novels of Iain M. Banks. Kathi Maio’s ‘Films’ column reviews a number of recent dystopian YA films with female protagonists, each based on a book, drawing interesting and insightful comparisons between ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Twilight’. ‘Beautiful Creatures’, ‘Divergent’, ‘How I Live Now’ and several others. ‘Coming Attractions’ highlights some of the stories that will appear in the next issue. Finally, Paul Di Filippo’s ‘Curiosities’ column focuses on ‘The Robot Lovers’, a 1966 SF novel by Dean Hudson, a pseudonym of none other than Ed McBain, that played with the softcore porn tropes so frequently used in pulp SF of that time and used them to satirical effect.
To sum up, the July/August 2014 issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ is a great anthology of interesting genre stories. C.C. Finlay has done a fine job of guest-editing this issue, pulling together uniformly high quality stories that kept me entertained throughout. If you don’t already read ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’, this would be a great introduction. You can get it in hard copy from ‘Forbidden Planet’ in the UK or it’s available digitally from all the usual places.
(pub: Spilogate Inc., 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 7.99 (US). ISSN: 1095-8258)
check out websites: www.fandsf.com and www.ccfinlay.com