I’m rather late in reviewing the March/April 724th issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’. My excuse is that it arrived in the same post as the May/June issue, so I focused on that first and this earlier one went to the back of the queue. In any case, this issue contains one novella, four novelettes, five short stories and the usual assortment of non-fiction.
The longest story in this issue is John P. Murphy’s fantasy novella, ‘The Liar’. Based in and around the small town of Versailles in New Hampshire, this piece revolves around the activities of Greg Kellogg, a forty-something widower who has the magical ability to change reality at a local level by telling lies which are sufficiently convincing that they become true. As an example, when the handle of his rake snaps while he’s out gardening, he fixes it by quietly telling it that it was never really broken. Greg is friends with the newly arrived local pastor Julie Philips, herself a widow. When she asks if he’d be willing to take on the role of running the local graveyard after the current incumbent. Joe, has to retire due to ill health, Greg says yes as a favour to her. However, when he goes round to see Joe, to find out how busy he’s likely to be, he’s upset to be told that there will definitely be a death soon, on 5 November.
This is the date when Greg’s older brother Adam died, many years earlier, after falling through the ice covering the local lake and drowning. Apart from the coincidence, Greg wants to know how Joe can be so sure. Joe calmly explains that someone has died on that day every year for as long as he’s been in charge of the graveyard. When Greg looks into the official records, he sees that not only is Joe correct, but the victims are invariably teenagers who die in freak accidents, just like his brother. He goes to the cemetery to see some of the teens’ graves and is disturbed to find that each one is marked with a small logo of a black bomb, just like the ones that decorate the fuselage of a B-17 bomber that crashed into the local mountainside in early November 1943, on its way back from a mission. Are the yearly deaths somehow connected to the crashed plane? If so, can Greg work out how, and break the connection by telling an appropriate lie, in time to prevent yet another teen from dying this year? I enjoyed this novella hugely. Murphy lets the story unfold at its own pace, including lots of local colour, that makes you feel like you’re inhabiting Versailles right alongside Greg, Julie and the rest. The mystery that Greg needs to solve is set up brilliantly and I loved the fact that, for much of the time, it’s clear that Greg isn’t really sure what he should do next. His fallibility and lack of certainty makes him a deeply endearing character and one I became very keen to see succeed. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more of Murphy’s work in future.
Next in order of length are four novelettes. The first, ‘The Ghost Penny Post’ by Marc Laidlaw, is the subject of Jason van Hollander’s intriguing cover image, which portrays a bespectacled postman handing a letter to a phantasmagorical queen in a wheelchair. The story is set in Victorian England and follows Royal Mail Inspector Hewell as he tries to locate the source of a sudden increase in postage bearing strange counterfeit stamps. His investigations lead him to the small village of Binderwood, where odd things seem to happen in the dead of night. Hewell’s patient investigations uncover a parallel world of strange, spectral beings who communicate with each other via a ghostly postal system not unlike his own. However, now he knows what’s going on, can the queen of this other land afford to let him go? This story is well-written and entertaining enough. It even appears to make an interesting allegorical sideswipe at the replacement of physical mail by email. However, I didn’t find myself particularly drawn in by any of the main characters, so ended up rather unconcerned about what happened to them.
The second novelette is Cat Rambo’s near future SF story ‘Red In Tooth And Cog’. Renee is an office worker who likes to eat her lunch in a park near the office. One day, she puts her phone down on the bench she’s sitting on, so she can open up her lunch, and is surprised to see a small robot rush out of the undergrowth and steal her phone! She complains to the humanoid park attendant robot. who reluctantly admits that there’s little it can do to help as the park is full of small, feral robot runaways that steal electronic devices from time to time in order to improve themselves. Renee is intrigued by this and starts spending more and more time in the park, watching the electronic ecosystem as it evolves. However, when the robot attendant tells her that the park is overdue for a detailed inspection, which could result in all the little robots being captured and recycled, Renee is forced to decide how much she cares about the strange creatures she has befriended and what, if anything, she’s prepared to do to protect them. I’ve read quite a few of Cat Rambo’s short stories before now and I have enjoyed almost all of them. This one was particularly good. It’s a great piece of extrapolation from our present day fixation with gadgets and gizmos. What I particularly admired was the way that Rambo made the little robots relatable while remaining distinctly robotic.
Next up is ‘The Language Of The Silent’, co-written by Juliette Wade and Sheila Finch, which tells what happens when xenolinguist Ifigenia Chimalli loses her hearing while on an important trade mission to the planet Enikiu. No longer able to perform her role as the human ambassador’s translator, she finds herself learning more about the alien society through silent observation than she might have wished, with potentially life-changing results. This is a complex story, weaving elements of SF and fantasy together in original ways. Unfortunately, I found the central character to be so tediously self-involved and so sure of the correctness of her views over those of others, such as the ambassador, that I quickly lost interest in what was happening to her.
The fourth and final novelette in this issue is Sarina Dorie’s ‘A Mother’s Arms’, which forms a loose sequel to ‘The Day Of The Nuptial Flight’, a story which appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of MoF&SF, coincidentally the first issue of the magazine that I reviewed for SFCrowsnest. This story is narrated by an eight-legged alien creature which has just given birth to eight healthy babies. She is in the middle of counting her blessings when a spaceship from Earth engages in a vicious dog-fight with some of the local flying creatures over her swamp. The end result is the destruction of half of the trees in the swamp, including the one she was nesting in. When she comes to her senses again, it is to find that her new family has been mortally wounded by the explosions. Filled with a mother’s righteous anger, she is now on a mission to find the evil aliens that have caused such harm to her family and to get her revenge upon them. When a spacecraft crash-lands nearby, she gets her chance. However, cold-blooded murder is never as easy as it sounds once you’re face to face with your intended victim, as she finds out. I enjoyed this SF story enormously. Dorie is extremely good at describing the situation from the perspective of a truly alien creature, whilst retaining the reader’s interest and emotional engagement. The story reached a truly satisfying resolution and left me feeling that I’d very much like to see more stories set in this intriguing and enjoyable universe.
Turning to the five short stories, the first of these is ‘Belief’ by multiple Nebula and Hugo Award-winning SF author Nancy Kress. The story is an intriguing exploration of the eternal conflict between hard, rational science and spiritual matters, here illustrated by the continued misunderstandings between research scientist Andrea and her fifteen year-old daughter Natalie, whose fascination with new age mysticism so irritates her. I enjoyed the interplay between them but would ideally have liked a little more character development.
Next is ‘Nanabojou And The Race Question’, another in Justin Barbeau’s stories of the American trickster god. This one sees Nanabojou taking on the legislature in Virginia in 1924 when they are considering whether to pass an apartheid-style law that would classify everyone in the State as white or non-white depending on their ancestry. As with previous outings, Nanabojou comes across as both funny and wise but I, personally, found that this time the attempt to poke fun at this historical example of racism didn’t really work as the seriousness of the subject matter didn’t lend itself particularly well to a humorous treatment.
My biggest disappointment in this issue came in the form of the next story, Chris DeVito’s ‘Diamond’. This is a baseball story used to illustrate one aspect of sexism in such an obvious way that I could see the punch-line from before the end of the third paragraph. The lack of any fantastical elements or engaging characters didn’t help neither.
At the other end of the spectrum, I was completely bowled over by ‘The Silver Strands Of Alpha Crucis-d’, not least because it is N.J. Schrock’s first published story! This is an extremely accomplished hard SF story about the potential risks that human exploration of other planets could pose for any native ecosystem, mixing rigorous science with an emotionally engaging human dilemma. I can’t wait to read more fiction by Schrock.
Finally, ‘Golden Gate Blues’ by James L. Cambias is an entertaining super-hero/noir mash-up where gumshoe Tony Mace is engaged by a retired super-villain to find out who is busy killing off various giant sea creatures and why. What follows is fantastical, funny, surprising and hugely enjoyable.
On top of all that, we have two book review columns, both as informative and thought-provoking as ever, an interesting film review column by Kathi Maio. where she provides a potted history of the mixed bag of previous Hollywood films about exploring Mars before giving an insightful and positive review of ‘The Martian’, a hilarious ‘Plumage From Pegasus’ tale from Paul Di Filippo, recounting what happens when a Wall Street millionaire gives up his position in order to become a famous SF and fantasy author and, finally, a ‘Curiosities’ column focused on a 1931 fantasy novel about a monk in search of the elixir of life.
I may have taken some time to get round to reading the March/April issue of MoF&SF but it was well worth it in the end, with the novella, two of the novelettes and two of the short stories scoring very highly in my eyes.
(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 7.99 (US). ISSN: 1095-8258)
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