I’ve got a bit behind with my reviews of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ recently. This issue, however, has been well worth the wait. It is ‘MoF&SF’s first Special Author issue in a decade and their sixteenth in total and is dedicated to David Gerrold, the man who wrote Star Trek’s ‘The Trouble With Tribbles’ at the tender age of twenty-two. Gerrold is still going strong half a century later, continuing to write stories and win new fans and awards. He has written quite a few pieces for ‘MoF&SF’ over recent years and so it seems entirely appropriate that they have honoured him in this way, choosing the date to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of ‘Star Trek’ first bursting upon the world.
The David Gerrold section of the magazine comprises four items: a warm and generous introductory appreciation of the man and his work by his friend and former editor of MoF&SF, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, two new novellas by the man himself and a short article, also by Gerrold, explaining how he came to be an SF writer and why he loves the genre so much. Actually, there is a fifth David Gerrold item, too. The magazine’s cover art, created by David A Hardy, is a lovely montage of images relevant to the author and including him at their focus.
The first novella, ‘The Further Adventures Of Mr. Costello’, is a loose but authorised sequel to Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 SF story, ‘Mr. Costello, Hero’, which was a thinly veiled attack on those politicians who gain power by whipping up fear and distrust in the voting public. While Sturgeon’s story was clearly aimed at Senator Joe McCarthy, it’s not so clear who Gerrold might be lampooning here, largely because there are so many potential candidates in the public eye right now. Putting that to one side, though, the present story is set on Haven, an Earth-like exo-planet whose farmer-colonists are still at a relatively early stage of economic development. The story is narrated by an unnamed female colonist, one of a group of seven who live and work together and who have moved to Haven precisely to have a quiet, uncomplicated life away from too much civilisation. They farm the local ‘glitter-bushes’ and protect them from the planet’s largest predator, the aggressive, omnivorous ‘horgs’, described as an over-sized cross between a rhinoceros and a warthog. When the eponymous Mr. Costello arrives on the planet with ambitious plans to farm the wild horgs for their meat, the narrator and her group view him as yet another idiot who will probably get himself killed in short order. They’re happy to take his money and agree to help him out, presuming that his plan won’t long survive contact with the enemy. What if he’s not as stupid as he looks, though? I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Gerrold is a past master at world-building and the planet Haven comes across as a fully-realised setting, not just in terms of the physical environment and the alien flora and fauna that occupy it, but also in terms of the way that the colonists’ society is organised. The story has interesting things to say about the relationship between fear, trust and happiness and it strikes me as an extremely worthy successor to Sturgeon’s original tale.
David Gerrold’s second novella, ‘The Dunsmuir Horror’, is another in his recent set of semi-autobiographical stories for ‘MoF&SF’. Here, David’s alter-ego seems to be confined to some sort of mental institution and the story is recounted by him in the form of a letter to ‘MoF&SF’s publisher, Gordon Van Gelder. The main topic of the letter is the recent road trip that the author made to Portland, Oregon, on his way to collect an award at the World Horror Convention. What happened at the convention and afterwards was the subject of a novelette in the July/August 2016 issue of the magazine. The present story, however, focuses on the journey to the convention and the strange goings-on when he tries to stop for petrol and some food at the town of Dunsmuir. There are two parallel storylines here: the weird goings-on in Dunsmuir and David’s attempts to rebel against being locked up in a mental institution. However, Gerrold wraps these in so many diversions, asides, genre in-jokes and elements of wordplay that the reader is continually kept off-balance. In another author’s hands, this approach to storytelling might well annoy me but Gerrold’s self-deprecating humour and humanist spirit are so pervasive that I found the story a delight from beginning to end.
On the evidence of these two novellas, David Gerrold has lost none of his skill. If anything, he’s only getting better with age. I look forward to seeing his name on the cover of the magazine again soon.
Although the David Gerrold section of the magazine take up around two-fifths of the page count, that still leaves room for a novelette, seven short stories, a poem and all the usual articles.
The novelette comes from Canadian writer Geoff Ryman. ‘Those Shadows Laugh’ is set on the island of Colinas Bravas, situated somewhere in the Atlantic between the USA and Europe. The island was settled by a group of Taino Indian women, who sailed there from the Dominican Republic some 1,700 years ago. The place appears to be a feminist utopia, with no men either allowed to live there or, indeed, needed as the women reproduce parthenogenetically, that is to say, their children are created asexually from unfertilised eggs. However, they have started to suffer from increasing numbers of birth defects and, in an attempt to address this, they have temporarily opened up their generally secretive island to Senora Valdez, a doctor working for an American biotechnology company, who wants to trial a new treatment on them. However, although Valdez has been well-briefed on the island’s unusual customs, she still manages to break some of their social taboos almost immediately. Can she complete her important task or will she be kicked out for disrespecting the islanders’ way of life? Ryman’s depiction of the island, its people and their idealistic existence is excellent and the central plot idea raises some fascinating questions. Even so, I ultimately found that the story was far too black and white in its portrayal of the moral questions at its heart. None of the islanders ever seem to do anything wrong. That is left solely to Senora Valdez or one of the other foreigners, making it far too easy for the reader to make lazy moral judgements. I would like to have seen a more complex and nuanced clash of cultures than I found here.
Dealing with the short stories in their order of appearance, Sarah Pinsker’s ‘Talking To Dead People’ is a near-future SF story about Gwen and Eliza, a couple of college roommates who turn their mutual fascination with unsolved murder cases into a highly profitable business venture until the different motivations behind their obsessions come into conflict. This is a quietly understated piece but the twist at the end is powerful and it rounds the story off perfectly.
‘The Green-Eyed Boy’ is a sort of prelude to Peter S. Beagle’s hugely popular 1968 fantasy novel, ‘The Last Unicorn’. It tells of the apprenticeship of Schmendrick, a hapless wizard who features as a supporting character in the novel. The story is gently enjoyable, but relatively little actually happens so it will probably of most interest to those, unlike me, who have actually read Beagle’s most famous work and want to reconnect with one of the characters from that story.
Desirina Boskovich’s ‘The Voice In The Cornfield, The Word Made Flesh’, is an SF horror story about what happens when a tiny extra-terrestrial crashes its spaceship in the rural Mid-West Bible Belt and tries to communicate with the rather insular locals. The story is dramatic, effectively told and punctuated by several highly disturbing scenes. However, for me, the attempt to tie together the alien rescue narrative with a parallel storyline about the frustratingly limited existence of the women in this deeply conservative community was ultimately unsuccessful.
‘A Melancholy Apparition’ is a ghost story based around an invented episode in the life of the distinguished eighteenth century English writer Dr. Samuel Johnson, as recounted by his real-world biographer James Boswell. Ian Creasey writes in an authentic period style and uses the story to explore issues of theology and ethics in a way that is extremely enjoyable while remaining true to his characters throughout.
In ‘Anything For You’, Lisa Mason tells us the tale of Willem and his unnamed wife, a middle-aged couple whose ideas of marital bliss have gone somewhat sour. While Willem’s wife tries to escape the drudgery through a real-life affair, Willem spends every evening on their ‘Interactive TV’ watching ‘The Dr. Virginia Isley Show’. Dr. Isley is clever, beautiful and everything a man could desire. Every time something exciting is about to happen in the show, Willem can press a button to bring up a menu of alternative actions for Dr. Isley to take, rather like in a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ gamebook. She is his to protect from harm, his to help and control. Even here, though, Willem may not always get his way. This is an interesting SF story that explores some serious issues in a fun and light-hearted way.
Leah Cypess takes dating websites into the future in ‘Cupid’s Compass’. After yet another disastrous short-term relationship ends, thirty-five year-old Julie is persuaded by her sister to go to a start-up company which offers a new solution. Using the miracles of modern neuroscience, they can take two people who have never met, alter their brain chemistry using their patented machines and make them fall in love. The question, though, is whether love is just chemicals surging round your brain or something more? Cypess has written a short, smart and very funny story that tackles one of the oldest questions in the book in a fresh new way. I loved it. Or at least, I think I did.
The final short story in this issue is Steven Popkes’ ‘The Sweet Warm Earth’. Set in the 1960s, it follows the adventures of Larry Mulcahey, originally an enforcer in Boston who recognises that a mob war is about to break out and very sensibly leaves town beforehand. He moves to California and gets a new job as a security guard at a race course, his role being to ensure that nobody tampers with the horses in order to beat the betting odds. The job’s an easy number until a little old Italian guy called Antonio comes in one day, talks to one of the horses without getting close enough to tamper with it and promptly wins some money when it races. What’s Antonio’s secret? Given that this is a story set amidst organised crime, it could have been grim and brutal throughout. Although there is violence from time to time, the real focus of the story is the lives of the ordinary people just trying to make their way from one day to the next. I warmed to Larry and Antonio immediately and wanted to know how things would turn out for both of them. Definitely a good story on which to end.
In addition to all the fiction, there’s a short fantasy poem by Aimee Ogden about an old woman and a dragon, plus the usual two book review columns, a film review and the regular ‘Curiosities’ column, which this time focuses on an obscure nineteenth century collection of mythical tales in the style of ‘The Thousand And One Nights’ which sounds absolutely fascinating.
I found this to be a particularly enjoyable copy of ‘MoF&SF’, so I hope they revive the idea of the Special Author issue more frequently from now on.
(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 7.99 (US). ISSN: 1095-8258)
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