The latest issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ starts with some big news. Gordon Van Gelder, who has published and edited the magazine for the last eighteen years, has decided that it’s time to pass the editor’s baton on to someone new. He has chosen C.C. Finlay, who was allowed a dress rehearsal for the job when he guest-edited the July/August issue last year. Mr. Finlay sets out his editorial intentions in a brief note, promising to respect the magazine’s traditions while also seeking out new voices and unusual stories. It will be interesting to see what he does with MoF&SF over the coming months and years.
This issue includes a novella, two novelettes, nine short stories and the usual non-fiction columns. I’ll consider them in that order.
The novella, ‘What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear’ is by Chinese SF author Bao Shu. It has been translated into English by the Chinese-American writer Ken Liu. Before I talk about the story, I think it’s worth applauding Finlay for starting his tenure at MoF&SF with a foreign novella in translation. Science Fiction is a global genre, yet most of us probably don’t get many opportunities to read short fiction originally written in a language other than English. Moving on to the story itself, it concerns a young Chinese man called Xie Baosheng who is born in 2012, but who lives in an alternate reality where time runs backwards, compared to our own timeline. So his first memory is of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when he was four.
As he gets older, the computer technologies he learned to use as a child cease to be available, replaced by more primitive versions, while Chinese and world politics runs backwards through 9/11, the wars in the Middle East, Soviet glasnost and back through one of the most infamous events of modern Chinese history, the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June 1989. By this point, Baosheng is a radical student and he takes part in the demonstrations despite his girlfriend’s warnings, with tragic results for them both. I really enjoyed this novella. The central idea, of time running backwards, is hardly new but Shu uses it in an interesting way to consider what our ideas of ‘progress’ really mean. What makes the story particularly special, though, are the deeply sympathetic characters at its heart and their desperate struggle to survive through the repeated political upheavals they’re unlucky enough to have to live through.
Alice Sola Kim’s novelette ‘A Residence For Friendless Ladies’ is about an unnamed, orphaned teenager whose grandmother sends her to the eponymous residence to give her the space and time to sort out her personal problems. This seems unlikely, not only because those problems stem from a deep-seated uncertainty about her gender identity but also because the residence is full of washed-up old women who seem likely to be of limited help. Oh and it’s haunted by something that knocks on people’s bedroom doors at night. The most important rule in the place is not to answer these late night interruptions. So guess what happens? I have to admit that I didn’t get much out of this story. The supernatural content is so understated as to be almost non-existent and the lack of any significant action made it a slow read. My main issue, however, was with the protagonist, who came across to me as a whiny brat who expected everyone else to sympathise with her personal problems but showed not the slightest sign of empathy towards the problems of the many other damaged women in the residence. By the time the story ended, I’d ceased to have any sympathy for or interest in her or her fate.
The second novelette is ‘The Mantis Tattoo’ by Paul M. Berger. Set in prehistoric times, the story follows the fate of Nudur and Bialo, two teenage hunters who are desperate to gain access to the privileges of adulthood. When they manage to kill a giant porcupine, they are scared out of their wits when its dead body sits up and speaks to Nudur. Its carcass has been temporarily inhabited by Mantis, one of their animal gods, who has chosen Nudur as his next agent on Earth. Mantis is the trickster god, which displeases Nudur no end as he was planning to become a brave hunter who would be popular with all the tribe’s females. Instead, Mantis instructs him to head off into the wilderness on what he sees as a wild goose chase, looking for the fabled ‘Fathers of Man’, who supposedly split from their tribe many years earlier and headed off in search of a better life.
Just when Nudur is thinking of turning back, the Fathers of Man find and capture him. They are giants compared to him and he quickly starts to worry that they may not have his tribe’s best interests at heart. How can he do what his god asked without betraying his family and friends to these aggressive new giants? This was a story which kept my interest throughout. The setting seemed authentic, the mood switched easily between humour and tragedy and the primitive protohumans and Nudur, in particular, were given enough depth to ensure that I wanted to find out how it all turned out.
Rather than review all nine of the short stories, I’ll focus on the three I enjoyed most. Top of the pile is Jay O’Connell’s ‘Things Worth Knowing’. This is set in a near future school, the TeachNet Resource Centre, where administrator Stanley Gurtz spends his days breaking up fights and cleaning food off the computers at the end of each day. There are no teachers. Kids learn from the net and come to the centre to take on-line exams. When an eighth grade kid called Joel starts getting top grades in university level physics exams, he becomes the subject of an aggressive recruitment war between several large corporations who will stop at nothing to sign him up for life. O’Connell has written a sharp but highly amusing satire on the place of private business in the education system.
Kat Howard’s fantasy story, ‘A User’s Guide To Increments Of Time’, charts the aftermath of the collapse of Siobhan and Finn’s tumultuous love affair, when Siobhan realises that Finn has been stealing moments of their time together. Literally stealing them, via a magic necklace he gave her. Siobhan’s revenge is suitably poetic. I loved the way that Howard took the emotions that often follow the break-up of a relationship and turned them into something quite different by observing them through a magical lens.
Brian Dolton’s far-future SF story, ‘This Is The Way The Universe Ends: With A Bang’, gets the prize for the strangest story in this issue. Titus is number seven, the seventh oldest entity of the ninety-two still remaining in the universe. Humanity and just about every other species is gone, many annihilated by the megalomaniacal Schen Ko, who wanted the universe to themselves. Titus is waiting for the end of this universe and the coming of the next one, when she is attacked by the Galasphere, number five of the ninety two. Titus fights back and barely escapes with her life, realising late in the battle that the Galasphere has been taken over by an enemy unknown. Can Titus work out who is out to get her and how to stop them? This is prototypical ultra-hard SF but there’s real heart at the centre of the story.
The non-fiction columns are up to their usual high standard, with interesting and insightful book reviews from Charles de Lint and Michelle West and two enjoyable film reviews from Kathi Maio. Paul Di Filippo brings up the rear with the ‘Curiosities’ column, summarising a very odd-sounding Spanish fantasy novel from 1952.
The cover image by David A. Hardy which accompanies Bao Shu’s novella is a composite of multiple Chinese-themed images which relate to the very first pages of the story. The picture struck me as a little too busy, with too many competing subjects superimposed over each other, to work as a magazine cover but perhaps it will grow on me over time.
The change of editor after eighteen years makes this a landmark issue of F&SF. I’m pleased to say that C.C. Finlay has done a great job on his debut, providing readers with a wide range of high quality SF and fantasy stories from new and established writers. I’m eager to see what he comes up with next.
(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 7.99 (US). ISSN: 1095-8258)
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