The last issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ for 2016 contains four novellas, no novelettes and seven short stories, as well as the usual non-fiction articles. It also contains a handy index of everything published over the year.
The magazine opens with Esther M. Friesner’s fantasy novella, ‘The Cat Bell’. This is also the subject of Kristen Kest’s cover picture, showing a handsome middle-aged man in his front room, cuddling one cat while surrounded by many more, one of which is a self-confident tabby cat which is looking straight to camera and winking! This picture neatly encapsulates several key elements of the story, which focuses on life ‘below stairs’ in a large manor house in New York State, occupied by internationally renowned actor and cat lover, Mr. Rutherford. While he is a kind and sensitive individual, the same cannot be said for his cook, a 43 year-old spinster whose sole pleasure in life is finding fault in others. She has the job, amongst many others, of feeding her master’s nineteen cats, a task she detests. When Ellen, the kind and thoughtful scullery maid, offers to do this, the cook is happy to delegate the role to her, although saying a simple thank you remains beyond her. When the cook later notices a large stray tabby cat trying to join the party, she offers Ellen ten dollars (a sizeable sum for the maid) to get rid of it permanently, having no wish for the master’s nineteen ‘darlings’ to become twenty. However, being as much of an animal lover as Mr. Rutherford, Ellen decides to feed and then hide the stray instead. Somewhat miraculously, her kindness is rewarded the following day when, out of the blue, her long-lost brother arrives at the manor house. Separated from the rest of his family years earlier, he has made his fortune in the gold mines of Canada and has come back to share it with his sister. Was this a coincidence or did Ellen’s kindness to the cats have something to do with it? Friesner has crafted a witty, intelligent fairytale which provides a moral lesson in an entertaining and enjoyable way.
Albert E. Cowdrey is one of ‘MoF&SF’s most versatile contributors. His SF novella, ‘The Farmboy’, concerns a starship crew on a routine survey mission to a previously unexplored exo-planet. When their chief engineer Chuck, the farmboy of the title as he was brought up on a small rural farm back on Earth, discovers significant gold deposits close to the surface, he wonders whether they could take some back to Earth to raise interest in the space programme. Some of his colleagues, however, aren’t so selfless. They see the gold as a way to get rich quick, if only they can figure out a way of getting it back to Earth without the ship’s captain, or the authorities back home finding out. Trouble is, if the stakes are high enough, some people will do whatever it takes to get what they want. This is an excellent hard SF story which marries three-dimensional characters to an energetic plot. It is a mark of Cowdrey’s abilities that I was fully engaged by the story throughout, despite the fact that three of the main characters are thoroughly unpleasant individuals.
Matthew Hughes’ tales of Raffalon the Thief have been appearing in ‘MoF&SF’ for the last four years. ‘The Vindicator’ is the sixth and final one, with Hughes apparently planning to collect them together and publish them as a book. I’ve always enjoyed these stories for their mix of the magic and the mundane and this outing is no different. The story starts with Raffalon busy at his Guild’s headquarters, doing administrative work for them on one of the two days he is required to give to Guild work annually. When three of the Guild’s most senior staff pass him by, his somewhat cursory salute is taken as a direct insult. This is less surprising than it might initially appear as Raffalon’s relationship with his Guild’s leadership is strained to say the least. Soon afterwards, someone makes an attempt on Raffalon’s life. The method used suggests that he has been targeted by an agent of the Guild of Vindicators, a profession dedicated to investigating and solving, with extreme prejudice, disputes between people. The question is: who wants Raffalon dead and why and is there anything he can do to cancel the contract that’s been put out on his life? This is another classic Raffalon story. It is wryly amusing and both entertaining and interesting to read, with a complex plot and central characters that I enjoyed spending time with. It may be the last Raffalon story for now but I hope that Hughes can be persuaded to bring Raffalon out of retirement at some point in the future.
‘Passelande’ is a near-future SF novella from that most prolific of short fiction stalwarts, Robert Reed. The world is warming due to climate change and most average people can no longer afford to run cars. At the same time, the latest innovation to sweep the world is online personality backups, with rich people using miniature cameras to film their every action, enabling them to create virtual backups of themselves in cyberspace. What happens, though, if the backups start to have lives of their own? Lucas Pepper is a 39 year-old who has no regular job and makes what little money he can from investigating crimes and mysteries taking place in the online world of the backups. His latest client is the backup of a woman called Alexis, who has suspicions about what Alexis’ boyfriend Bracken’s backup is doing in the virtual world when nobody’s watching. Alexis’s backup’s logic is that if you can’t trust Bracken’s backup, you can’t trust the man himself. Yet she’s scared to raise this with her owner, in case Alexis takes umbrage and destroys her own backup. The problem for Lucas is that the virtual world is just that – virtual – and it can be difficult to tell the truth from fiction there. Sometimes that’s the case in the real world, too. Who, if anyone, can Lucas trust? As is to be expected from Reed, ‘Passelande’ is an engaging and worthwhile read. However, it’s also pretty confusing. That’s no doubt deliberate, as a key point of the story is that it’s difficult for the humans in the real world to know for sure what’s really going on in the virtual world of the backup s. Even so, I did find this a more challenging read to follow than I’d normally expect from Reed. It strikes me that this novella, although self-contained, might work better as part of a novel.
The magazine’s seven short stories start with Lilliam Rivera’s ‘Between Going And Staying’, a near-future SF story about Dolores, a celebrity mourner who will emote at anyone’s funeral if the price is right. When a former close friend is ‘disappeared’ for protesting against the totalitarian government, Dolores starts to question her own life choices. Although I enjoyed the SF trappings of this story, the basic plot didn’t take me anywhere particularly new.
Next up is ‘The Place Of Bones’, an epic fantasy story about a quest to see a live dragon, compressed into just seven pages. This comes from the pen of the esteemed genre writer and anthologist Gardner Dozois. I’m aware from social media that he has been ill recently, so it’s lovely to see a short story of his here. It’s a masterful, near-perfect performance which kept me hooked from start to finish. In an issue filled with quality stories, this was the stand-out one for me.
Minsoo Kang’s ‘Lord Elgin At The Acropolis’ introduces us to the unfortunate director of a prestigious museum, who goes to work one day to find that their most famous painting has been replaced by a fake. Yet their CCTV records show no evidence of a break-in and none of the art experts they call in afterwards agree that the painting on the museum’s wall is not the original. Is he going mad or has something truly strange happened to the whole world around him? This is a fascinating story which raises some interesting philosophical questions, even if the story title is almost completely misleading.
Kurt Fawver’s ‘Special Collections’ is a horror story about one section of a university library which seems completely harmless if two or more people go in together. When someone enters Special Collections on their own, though, they never come out again. Those left behind are desperate to find out what’s behind the door and are prepared to go to ever more desperate lengths to try and find out. Fawver has written a genuinely unsettling story that mixes the physical with the metaphysical in a highly effective way.
In ‘A Fine Balance’, Charlotte Ashley presents a fantastical city where the tensions between competing clans are dissipated through officially sanctioned duelling between highly trained female fighters. The two current champions of the sahidi discipline are Shoanna Yildirim and Kara Ramadani, who are each wandering round the city looking to challenge the other. However, although they both view their eventual meeting as an almost sacred occasion, the result will have huge financial and political implications for the winning and losing clans. What happens if one of the clans decides to rig the result? I enjoyed this immensely. Ashley is a fine author and this story is told with great energy, the author providing a wonderful balance between plot, characters, action and setting.
James Beamon’s ‘The Rhythm Man’ is a story about an ageing blues horn player who is tempted into supping with the Devil for a chance to play the new jazz tunes like his younger and better paid colleagues. When he gets the chance to ask for his heart’s desire, though, he’s faced with a quandary. Is this what he really wants? There’s an interesting story trying to get out here but the plot is so conventional and the treatment so routine that I’m afraid I couldn’t gather any great enthusiasm for it.
Given that this is the last issue of 2016, I guess it’s no surprise to find a Christmas story right at the end. Sandra McDonald’s ‘Merry Christmas From All Of Us To All of You’ is an ironic and satirical take on the traditional story of Santa’s elves that brings it bang up to date. What might it be like to grow up at the North Pole, knowing that your likely career path involves a zero-hours contract in ‘order fulfilment’, making and shipping round the world an ever-increasing volume of children’s presents? McDonald doesn’t take any prisoners and I imagine that, for anyone who read it over the festive season, it provided a welcome contrast to the usual diet of festive schmaltz. Even out of season, I loved it.
This issue’s non-fiction includes the usual two book review columns, with Charles de Lint covering his customary mixed bag of genres and media types in as even-handed a way as always, while Chris Moriarty provides some genuine insights into three recent hard SF novels. David J. Skal reviews Ben Wheatley’s recent film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel ‘High-Rise’, providing an incisive commentary on both book and film. Graham Andrews’ ‘Curiosities’ column is an intriguing and brutally honest précis of an early 20th century novel by a radical left-wing Scottish Parliamentarian which takes the end of H.G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ and its world of the elitist Eloi and the downtrodden Morlocks as its jumping off point.
The last copy of ‘MoF&SF’ for 2016 is, to my mind, one of the strongest of the year. I hope they can carry this level of quality through into 2017’s issues.
(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 7.99 (US). ISSN: 1095-8258)
check out website: www.fandsf.com