The closing issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ for 2015 includes one novella, two novelettes, eight short stories, a poem, several book and film reviews, an index of the magazine’s contents during 2015 and even a competition. Hopefully, that’s enough to keep the readers happy! It also includes a rather fun cover image by renowned British artist David A. Hardy, showing his little green alien Bhen exploring the surface of Mars accompanied by one of NASA’s rovers. The picture doesn’t, for once, illustrate any of the stories inside but marks the fortieth anniversary of Bhen’s first appearance on the cover of F&SF back in November 1975. There are several new blog posts about Bhen on the website if you want to find out more.
The longest piece in this issue is Carter Scholz’s SF novella, ‘Gypsy’, which at 68 pages takes up fully one quarter of the magazine’s length. The story starts in 2041. Earth is slowly dying from the effects of climate change, resource wars, flooding and rampant global capitalism. A small band of renegade scientists and engineers who can see the writing on the wall and have been preparing for this moment for many years put a bold plan into effect. They have begged, borrowed or stolen what they need. Now they launch a starship from Earth orbit, headed towards Alpha Centauri. On board are a crew of sixteen, all in hibernation for the planned 72 year journey.
Two years in, Sophie is woken from her enforced slumber by the ship. Something has gone wrong, requiring human intervention. Sophie soon realises that the ship’s fusion engine, which was intended to accelerate them to cruising velocity, didn’t complete its burn properly. As a result the ship is flying slower than expected, meaning that it will take them 84 years, 12 longer than intended, to get to their destination. This might not seem like such a big deal but with a mission skating on the edge of technical feasibility, the extra flight time has a profound effect on the chances of success, transforming a predicted failure rate of less than twenty per cent to over fifty. Sophie does what she can to compensate, reprofiling the mission to cruise for longer, then brake harder at the other end. Then she goes back into hibernation.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only problem to beset the mission. Over the following decades, one astronaut after another is woken in order to tackle increasingly challenging equipment failures. Will they make it to their destination in one piece? Even if they do, will they find a habitable planet at the other end?
One of the biggest risks with any hard SF story is that it focuses on the science and technology to the detriment of the characters. There are no such problems here. As each astronaut is woken, Scholz fills in their backstory without resorting to info-dumps and he makes you empathise with them as they try to keep the ship going. He also intersperses flashbacks that show how our intrepid travellers managed to put the mission together. Scholz has clearly done his research, creating not just a plausible near future spaceship design but also problems that seem all too realistic. However, he never loses sight of the people at the heart of the story. Wedded to strong pacing, the plot pulls you through from beginning to end, desperate to know if the crew will survive to journey’s end. ‘Gypsy’ is one of the best SF novellas I’ve read in several years and I fully expect to see it on many awards shortlists over the coming year.
The novelettes in this issue are both SF stories. The first of them is ‘Hob’s Choice’ by Tim Sullivan. It’s the third outing in ‘MoF&SF’ for the lead characters and the setting. On this occasion, Hob Dancer has gone to the high gravity swamp planet of Cet Four, looking for the local resistance fighters, in order to deliver them an important message from his great-great-grandmother, Uxanna Venz. Although he manages to find the resistance, he is arrested before he can pass on his message by the brutal Tachtrans Authority or TA who are set on exploiting this planet and its life-forms as they’ve done elsewhere so many times before. Can Hob escape his captors and deliver his message? Even if he does, what difference can it possibly make? I really enjoyed Sullivan’s world-building and his cast of human and alien characters but I fear that this may be an occasion when familiarity with the earlier stories in this series would be of particular benefit. I couldn’t quite work out why the TA were so irredeemably evil, what the central conflict at the heart of the story actually was or what was going on during the rather too mystical conclusion to the tale. Even so, I enjoyed the ride and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for more of Sullivan’s work in future.
The other novelette is Lisa Mason’s ‘Tomorrow Is A Lovely Day’, in which Benjamin is serving out the last day of his much-hated temporary job as a security guard at a high tech laboratory, ahead of being awarded his Master’s degree the following day, which will finally let him get his dream job as a secondary school teacher. However, when the head of the lab, Dr. Schroeder, turns up in the middle of Benjamin’s final shift, it turns out that the obscure machine that Benjamin is paid to guard is more unusual than he could possibly have imagined and it may have the potential to destroy all his future plans unless he decides to do something about it first. Mason brings this story to life through several wonderful character vignettes, however, once the nature of the odd machine became clear, I found myself wishing the story would speed to its inevitable conclusion rather more rapidly.
Turning to the eight short stories, which split half and half into SF and fantasy, Jeffrey Ford’s ‘The Winter Wraith’ is an excellent supernatural story in which a man who decides to pack up the seasonal decorations while his wife is away on a post-Christmas work trip gets more than he bargained for.
‘The Thirteen Mercies’ by Maria Dahvana Headley is a military SF story which explores what happens when a team of elite soldiers is hung out to dry after carrying out alleged war crimes, apparently at the behest of the same political masters who then disown them. I must admit that the story confused me on first reading. Re-reading it later, though, convinced me that it’s well worth making the effort to get to grips with this complex but rewarding tale.
‘Her Echo’, which is apparently K.J. Kabza’s eighth story in F&SF over the last four years, is a fascinating flash fiction fairytale which fits a lot of story into its two pages. Harvey Jacobs’ ‘The Fabulous Follicle’ shows us what happens when sixty year old barber Morris Fein decides that it’s time he worked for himself and ends up cutting hair for a particularly demanding supernatural clientele. I really enjoyed the first half of this original and interesting story but felt let down by the lack of any real conflict or tension in the way Jacobs brought it to a rather flat conclusion.
Bruce McAllister originally wrote ‘DreamPet’ two decades ago as a pitch for a Hollywood film. The visual potential of the story is clear throughout as workaholic Tom, chief designer of genetically-engineered and personalised pets for people with more money than sense, tries to use his creations to buy the love of his wife and children with predictable results. I loved the way McAllister contrasted the perfect pets with the problems in Tom’s home life but I’m afraid the way he chose to work off his frustrations didn’t seem to work for him or the story.
‘Cleanout’ by Naomi Kritzer is a quiet and understated exploration of what happens when three sisters get together to clear their parents’ house, prior to selling it, after their widowed mother has a stroke and goes into a home. The tension, as the women find more and more clues to their unusual past is dealt with brilliantly and the conclusion to the story is both poignant and satisfying.
Norman Birnbach’s ‘It’s All Relative At The Space-Time Café’ is a humorous piece of word-play which will appeal most strongly to those familiar with the roll-call of twentieth century physicists, as befits a piece written to mark the centenary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.
The final short story in this issue is ‘The City Of Your Soul’ by the ever-prolific Robert Reed. An un-named protagonist is patiently queuing at his departure gate, ready to fly to Seattle for a tedious work meeting, when he and the rest of the passengers on his flight see something extraordinary on the TV news. It becomes the only topic of conversation on the flight, yet when they get to Seattle, an even greater surprise awaits them. This is an interesting and thoughtful story with the slightly novel stylistic departure that it’s written in the second person, present tense (ie ‘You hear a noise…’). I thoroughly enjoyed the first 95% of the tale but was less impressed with the strange and rather abrupt ending which didn’t seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the story.
As well as all the fiction, there’s a Moon-themed poem from Sophie M. White, three book review columns, a film and TV review and the usual ‘Curiosities’ column, this time about a little-known British fairy story from the 1920s.
The closing issue of ‘MoF&SF’ in 2015 provides a strong, confident end to the magazine’s year. The standout story is undoubtedly the lead novella, Carter Scholz’s ‘Gypsy’, but it’s complemented by several highly enjoyable shorter stories as well as the usual set of supporting non-fiction articles. If you enjoy reading new short fiction, you could do a lot worse than subscribe to ‘MoF&SF’ for 2016.
(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 7.99 (US). ISSN: 1095-8258)
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