The September/October issue of ‘The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ popped through my letterbox a few weeks back and I’ve been busily enjoying the stories inside ever since. After the last issue was guest edited by C.C. Finlay, this one returns to the hands of long-time editor Gordon van Gelder, who has selected five novelettes and seven short stories for your reading pleasure, alongside the regular articles.
The issue opens with Jérôme Cigut’s SF novelette, ‘The Rider’. This Hong Kong-based story follows Luke Gianfaria, one of a small number of humans who are partnered with one of the rarest and most advanced artificial intelligences in the world. For a long time, Luke’s job has been to help David, his AI, to kill the partners of its one hundred or so rivals, as it bids for absolute supremacy. However, when a new player arrives in town, killing any AI that moves, everything changes. Luke goes into hiding but, when it becomes clear that won’t work, David decides the best form of defence is attack. I enjoyed the world-building and the characters in this story very much. However, I found Luke’s role as David’s partner difficult to believe and the rather long flashback that is supposed to explain this didn’t work for me.
The next story is ‘The Caravan To Nowhere’, a fantasy novelette from Phyllis Eisenstein, featuring her serial character Alaric the Bard. When Alaric agrees to join a trade caravan travelling across the Western Desert, he is unprepared for the oddities of the relationship between caravan owner Piros and his drug-addicted son, Rudd, and has to use all his skills to stay out of trouble. The setting for this story is hardly original but Eisenstein tells her tale well, bringing the characters and setting to life through great attention to detail and delivering an intriguing and satisfying story. It’s worth noting in passing that this is the novelette’s second publication, as it also appears in the June 2014 anthology ‘Rogues’, edited by Gardner Dozois and George RR Martin.
Oliver Buckram’s flash SF piece, ‘Marketing Strategies Of The Apocalypse’, is a satire about a future high-tech war where product placement is ubiquitous. Buckram even manages to include a reference to F&SF itself in this short but effective story.
‘Sir Pagan’s Gift’ by Tom Underberg is a fantasy short story about the abuse of economic, political and religious power in a rather backwards coastal village. It packs a lot into its fifteen pages, perhaps too much. I enjoyed the story but had to re-read it a couple of times to get past the confusing oddities.
Jay O’Connell’s SF short story, ‘Other People’s Things’, is about Chris, a guy so unsuccessful with women that he hands over huge wodges of cash to ‘attractiveness consultant’ Manuel Peebles, a fat, balding man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly but gives Chris honest, unvarnished advice that seems to work, even if it does lead Chris to wonder what he’s actually looking for. I loved this story, both because O’Connell has given Peebles a refreshingly honest voice, despite his ridiculous job title and because he extends this same lack of false sentiment to the rest of what in other hands might have become a mawkish non-story.
‘The Culvert’ by Dale Bailey is a surreal fantasy tale told by Douglas, who recalls how his identical twin brother, Danny, disappeared at the age of thirteen in a hidden culvert which they both used to explore. What they found in the culvert and how Danny’s disappearance affected Douglas subsequently are the subjects of this odd but extremely well-told story.
Albert E. Cowdrey’s ‘The Wild Ones’ is an SF novelette which considers what might happen if humans decided to re-colonise the Earth, a thousand years after environmental catastrophes had forced us to abandon it for pastures new. Would a renewed planet welcome us back with open arms or might the ecosystem have evolved in such a way as to keep us at arm’s length permanently? Cowdrey’s take on this question is interesting and funny at the same time, with lots of black humour lightening the mood whenever the situation for the re-colonisers looks bleak.
‘Embrace Of The Planets’, by Brenda Carre is a fantastic SF short story in which Eleanora Watson, a woman who has been physically and emotionally crippled by a childhood car accident which claimed her mother and brother, finds solace in an antiquarian bookshop. However, the owner seems strangely intense and when she finds a copy of an unpublished non-fiction book by Jules Verne, his weirdness reaches new heights. Who is he and what does he really want from her? I loved this story, which manages to jump from cosy character piece to dread-filled thriller to time travel tale, all within thirteen pages.
Next up is the longest story in the magazine, ‘Avianca’s Bezel’ by Matthew Hughes. This is the second fantasy novelette in this issue to feature a series character, in this case a rather unlucky thief called Raffalon, who finds himself arrested, fined and then sold into servitude to pay off his debt to the court. He is bought by a wizard called Vidlo who orders him to steal Avianca’s Bezel, which turns out to be a piece of jewellery carved with a rune of power. Unsurprisingly, Vidlo has only employed Raffalon for this task because it is very dangerous and he is completely expendable. Can Raffalon steal the bezel and escape with his life? I really enjoyed this story. Raffalon is a classically likeable rogue and Hughes does a good job of ratcheting up the tension a little bit at a time for page after page, until you don’t see how Raffalon can possibly blag his way out. Yet, somehow, he does. I’ll certainly keep an eye out for Matthew Hughes’ stories in future.
Robert Reed’s SF short story ‘Will He?’ tells the tale of Dr. E.P. Adleman, a biologist whose inability to match up to the achievements of his overbearing father leads to alcoholism and a deep cynicism about the net benefit of the rest of the human race. When he decides that the world would be a lot better off with a much smaller human population, his research into viruses comes in very handy. He quickly realises that he could do something radical. The only question left is, ‘Will He?’ This is an uncompromising and challenging story to read but I found it excellent, all the way to the last page. Unfortunately, I was not convinced by the conclusion. However, the story is well worth reading and I am sure some readers will react very differently to the ending.
‘The Way We Are’ by Ray Vukcevich is a second SF flash fiction story, in which an unnamed man takes his girlfriend out to dinner but is frustrated at every turn because everything, including his girlfriend, now has a password and he can’t remember them. This is a potentially interesting allegory of modern life but I felt it was let down by a rather weak ending.
The final story in this issue is ‘The Thing In The Back Yard’, a humorous fantasy novelette by David Gerrold, a man to whom I will be forever in debt as he managed to make ‘Star Trek’ genuinely funny when he wrote the classic episode, ‘The Trouble With Tribbles’. His story here concerns a down on his luck writer whose life gets infinitely worse when a half-troll comes to live in his garden. There is humour aplenty here but there’s also an undercurrent of menace and the way the story resolves is just brilliant. This is definitely a good choice for the final story in the magazine.
There are five non-fiction columns in this issue. Charles de Lint’s ‘Books To Look For’ should have something for almost everyone, as he reviews one SF novel, one fantasy novel, three comics and two non-fiction titles in his usual intelligent and thoughtful way. In ‘Books’, Elizabeth Hand focuses in detail on just three titles, all of them some way off the beaten track. In doing so, she does us all a service by taking us outside our comfort zones and broadening our reading horizons. Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty have co-written ‘Science: The Hole In Reality’, which discusses the disturbing fact that much of what we see around us is an illusion, created by our eyes and brain on the basis of what we expect to see, not what we actually see. Rather wonderfully, they use this point about optical illusions to illustrate the value of Science Fiction, as a form of literature that helps us to see the everyday in new and sometimes surprising ways.
The film column, by David J. Skal, is a wonderful example of lively criticism, as he first heaps tonnes of praise on Angelina Jolie’s feminist portrayal of Sleeping Beauty’s arch-enemy, ‘Maleficent’, before burying Hollywood’s latest remake of ‘Godzilla’ under significantly larger tonnages of wonderfully vitriolic scorn. As ever, the last page of the magazine provides a witty summary of a historic novel from our genre. In this case, it is John Lymington’s surreal 1964 novel, ‘Froomb!’, which Graham Andrews summarises with great aplomb.
A final shout out should go to the intriguing and colourful cover image by Bryn Bernard, which illustrates a key moment in Matthew Hughes’ novelette, ‘Avianca’s Bezel’.
All in all, this latest issue of ‘The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ contains a strong set of stories and articles, with an almost even split between Science Fiction and Fantasy. If you enjoy reading short genre fiction, I’m sure there will be something here for you.
(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 7.99 (US). ISSN: 1095-8258)
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