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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 2004

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"Finding Beauty" by Lisa Goldstein  
"Time to Go" by Michael Kandel
"A Paleozoic Palimpsest" by Steven Utley
"The End of the World as We Know It" by Dale Bailey
"The Angst of God" by Michael Bishop
"Cold Fires" by M. Rickert
"Opal Ball" by Robert Reed
"Flat Diane" by Daniel Abraham
"The Courtship of Kate O'Farrissey" by John Morressy
"The Little Stranger" by Gene Wolfe
"In Tibor's Cardboard Castle" by Richard Chwedyk

Image"Finding Beauty" by Lisa Goldstein
Reviewed by Therese Pieczynski
Lisa Goldstein's "Finding Beauty" retells the classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty from the prince's point of view. The story starts with the Queen inviting the witches of the kingdom in to bless her newborn son. She asks for them to give him virtues to rule the kingdom. They bestow physical beauty and make him charming (not resolute, valiant, or virtuous). In the midst of this scene, another witch, the uninvited one, appears in the doorway and says, "'Charming?' '...You might as well have given him stupidity and be done with it.'"

Her curse (or gift depending on your point of view) is to give the prince a destiny. It will be he who finds the Sleeping Beauty, he who will awaken the princess with his kiss, and he who will marry her. It doesn't sound too bad, and yet a shiver runs through the Queen.

As the years pass the prince does indeed grow handsome and charming. As a ten-year-old he begins questioning his mother about the princess he's destined to save. He asks, "'Will she be beautiful?'" The Queen remembers the witch having said the princess was "surpassingly fair." "'But fair could mean anything!' ...'She could be beautiful, or honest, or have a pale complexion....'" Yes, indeed, fair could mean anything...just as "finding beauty," with its many nuances and layers, can. This story is well worth your time. Goldstein has a deft touch and she delivers a satisfying read.

"Time to Go" by Michael Kandel
Reviewed by Therese Pieczynski
In "Time to Go" Michael Kandel asks us to imagine how boring it would be to live forever. The serial marriages alone would be a killer-you'd need a database to keep track of the relatives! Luckily, if your "existential ennui" progresses to the point of unbearable suffering you can pull your own plug.

Our protagonist "Tim" is asked to retrieve his "Uncle Carmine" to attend a family wedding (They're a young couple, this is only their fifteenth time down the aisle). It's Tim's job to get Carmine (who's nearly a million) to the wedding before he gets so bored he pulls his own plug. It's not looking too good when they stop off for a beer with Carmine's buddies "Ho Hum," "Been There" and "Same Old." During the course of reminiscing, Ho Hum and Been There pull their plugs without warning. Apparently, when it's time to go, it's really "Time to Go." Kandel manages a perfectly deadpan delivery throughout.

"A Paleozoic Palimpsest" by Steven Utley
Reviewed by Therese Pieczynski
Steven Utley's story "A Paleozoic Palimpsest" is hilarious. Able to time-travel, man has sent an expedition of military and civilian personnel to the Paleozoic period. In this place "...a singular limestone slab stands as though balanced upon its edge in an area like a miniature arena." Upon this slab the expedition members (both military and civilian) have layered graffiti ranging from "Better E. remipes than E. coli," to the critiques of contemporary seventeenth-century poets. The story is given in the guise of an academic paper discussing the slab and its importance (complete with footnotes to texts with names such as "PaleozoInk (Necessary Impurity)" and "My Silurian Sleep-Over"). Academics (of course) disagree over whether the graffiti is "puerile nonsense" or "vital" (and the sheer amount of literary criticism generated by that disagreement is apparently impressive). There is a sociologist "doing what sociologists do anywhere there are humans living together in social groups," and, of course, people doing what they have done since the Paleolithic-marking on things to express themselves.

I thought Utley's slab brilliantly echoed the jar in Wallace Stevens' famous poem "Anecdote of the Jar." Utley manages to poke fun at academia, literary criticism, and metaphysics and yet, beneath the humor, he (like Stevens) is seriously asking the reader to consider the relationship of the elements of a work of art to its whole shape and character and to consider what happens when life's realities are absorbed into and transformed by art. When was the last time you managed to do all that in a single story? Don't miss this one, it's a must read.

"The End of the World As We Know It" by Dale Bailey
Reviewed by William I. Lengeman III
"The End of the World As We Know It," by Dale Bailey, takes a clever, tongue in cheek look at the clich├ęs that populate end of the world and disaster stories, while unfolding one such story of its own. UPS driver Wyndham has carved out a comfortable routine for himself, but finds that routine shattered one morning when he wakes early, as usual, to find his wife daughter dead.

Further investigation reveals that everyone in the world - or at the very least, in Wyndham's small corner or the world - is also dead, with the exception of a solitary woman who turns up a few weeks later. The author, who frequently addresses the reader directly and who comments on various catastrophes down through the ages, states right out that he has no intention of giving Wyndham, the girl, or the reader, the satisfaction of knowing what happened or why. The story just kind of fizzles out a few pages later with an ending that left-brainers will find maddeningly inconclusive and yet, overall, the story is not unsatisfying.

"The Angst of God" by Michael Bishop
Reviewed by William I. Lengeman III
Michael Bishop's "The Angst of God," written in tribute to George Alec Effinger, finds alien peacekeepers known as the ztun seeding the earth's atmosphere and rendering everyone comatose for a period of time that could range up to a year, depending on the "innate bellicosity of the person incapacitated." One cannot help but be reminded of at least one - perhaps more - Star Trek episodes launched from a similar premise.

At the same time they are attempting to pacify Earth, the ztun are at work on other planets throughout the universe. Before long General Myron Draper finds himself being spirited away on a ztun ship to a planet in the Spica system, where he will apparently serve as a research subject. Along the way the ztun conduct a sort of enforced group therapy among the representatives of the various races onboard. After a few rough patches, Draper and his companions eventually bond. They find that the ztun have proven the existence of God and discovered a connection between the great mass of dark matter and energy that makes up the universe and the angst of God over the "inhumanity of humanity." What this means for Draper is apparently not much, since, after a stint as a ztun guinea pig, he finds himself back home in circumstances not all that far removed from when he left.

"Cold Fires" by M. Rickert
Reviewed by Chris Markwyn
In a frozen cabin in winter, a man and a woman sit on the floor by their wood-burning stove and tell stories. First the woman tells a story of pirates and strawberries, and a woman, her great-great-grandmother, who loved both. Then the man tells of Emile Castor, who made his fortune in sweet cough drops, and his attempt to paint an icon of the woman he loved. Their stories fill the night, and, in a beautiful image, Rickert describes how they trap themselves:

 

All that night, as they told their stories, the flames burned heat onto that icy roof which melted down the sides of the house and over the windows so that in the cold morning when they woke up, the fire gone to ash and cinder, the house was encased in a sort of skin of ice...
I found this story beautiful, and a joy to read, yet impossible to explicate. It struck me as the sort of piece whose meaning is best expressed in the reading. It seemed to hover in the space between the fantastic and the mundane. Like a frozen river, "Cold Fires" is slick and cold on the surface, but beneath the icy crust, dark shapes of meaning swim obscurely.

"Opal Ball" by Robert Reed
Reviewed by Sherwood Smith
*Robert Reed's nifty story "Opal Ball" is set in a future wherein "players" are those who make their money off human prediction, as opposed to the more general predictions of science and politics and what might come at us next from space-"and no damn AIs to compete against. ('If machines ever master human dynamics, I'm sunk.')" With terse skill Reed sketches in the future, focusing in on Cliff, who meets another player, a female, with whom he should be in direct competition. The spark of sexual attraction transcends that and they end up in bed. So of course Cliff has to predict what will happen next . . .

Reed rides the currents for a time, looking at world and the consequences of that much computing power-and then stoops in on the human element. This story ought to elicit a frisson of surprise in most readers; in one segment of the population I will just about guarantee the ending strikes the heart with its truth. And that's what good science fiction is all about, not just the nifty interplay of ideas, but that sublime fire of shared human experience.

"Flat Diane" by Daniel Abraham"
Reviewed by William I. Lengeman III
Daniel Abraham's novelette, "Flat Diane," is an intriguing and eerie look at what happens to a tracing protagonist Ian Bursen makes of his eight-year-old daughter Diane. Ian and Diane send the tracing to relatives, asking that they send back photos of themselves posing with "Flat Diane," before passing the tracing to other relatives. All is well until the real Diane begins to act strangely, as though she is in contact, of some sort, with her slim counterpart.

As if that wasn't bad enough, things take a dramatic turn for the worse when Flat Diane falls into the wrong hands. Flat Diane's not so nice captor mistreats her, while real Diane manifests the effects of this mistreatment, and Ian is assumed to be responsible. Ian takes matters into his own hands and deals with Flat Diane's captor in dramatic fashion, but as the story winds to a close he still has not been able locate the tracing.

"The Courtship of Katie O'Farrissey" by John Morressy
Reviewed by Sherwood Smith
*John Morressy's novelette "The Courtship of Katie O'Farrissey" is another of Morressy's delightful, stylish tales. I'd travel a long way, I think, to hear someone with the proper accent read the dueling banter between the two main characters, the old, crabby wizard Conhoon and his young and beautiful ward, Katie.

The two have lived more or less in harmony for seven of her seventeen years, Katie cooking, cleaning, scrubbing, and sewing for the wizard, who teaches her after her long and arduous day the ways of magic. Both of them have benefited from this arrangement: the wizard had grown thin and unkempt in his bachelordom, and Katie's early life had been far tougher, and no magic lessons.

The problem, as Katie acknowledges with her usual practicality, is that at seventeen she's now considered a woman grown and she's the prettiest girl in Ireland-and the local young men have just discovered that. She prefers handling the problem herself (mostly with accurate fire from dirt clods) when, to everyone's surprise, Katie's fairly godmother shows up, insisting she has to find Katie a husband, and the faster the better, as she is overworked and far behind in her duties.

I dare anyone to predict what happens, even when the fairy godmother shows up with three perfect suitors-a silver-voiced minstrel, a hero, and a prince in disguise. Katie's approach to problems, and to life, had me laughing out loud. I wish there'd be more stories about her.

"The Little Stranger" by Gene Wolfe
Reviewed by Chris Markwyn
As so often seems the case in Gene Wolfe's fiction, most of the action in "The Little Stranger" occurs beneath the surface. What initially seems a simple epistolary exchange between Ivy, an elderly woman living alone in the woods, and her cousin Danny quickly becomes rather odd; by the end of the story, Wolfe's tale has opened up into something radically different. We get a hint of oddity in the first paragraph, when Ivy writes: "You are the only family I have, and as you are dead you probably do not mind." Well, writing letters to the dead is odd, yes, but perhaps it is merely the eccentricity of an old woman?

More oddities follow. Ivy's house is lonely, so she wants to build a small cottage to keep it company. A family travels past Ivy's house; their car breaks down, and soon they have agreed to build the cottage. Ivy finds strange marks on the underside of a rock. The oddities build, connect, sketching a symbol for us. Perhaps all of the rumors that inevitably sprout about old women in the woods are not unfounded.

Reading Gene Wolfe is always rewarding, though I will admit that there have been times when I have not been precisely sure of the nature of the reward. He is a master of the hint, the timebomb clue, the cast-off phrase or gesture that only later proves essential. Ivy's matter-of-fact eccentricity lulls us into accepting these oddities, these hints and fragments, only to have them come back to bite us at the end.

"In Tibor's Cardboard Castle" by Richard Chwedyk
Reviewed by Sherwood Smith
"In Tibor's Cardboard Castle," the third story about the toy-sized saurs, *Richard Chedwyk introduces us to the newest saur, the baby in Bronte's egg from the story of the same title. For readers who might have missed that excellent, award-winning story, or its predecessor "The Measure of all Things," a toy company had designed living, thinking saurs and sold them as toys. Most of them were treated as toys, a result horrific enough that their manufacture was halted and the surviving saurs whisked away to a remote house to live in comfort.

This well-written, funny story meanders amiably from saur to saur, plot-point to plot-point, and though there is a central tie, it's not nearly as driving as in the previous story. One of the plot lines touches on Guinevere, the first egg-hatched saur, who has yet to speak. She scampers up onto the table where one of two rather odd, definitely assertive, saurs, Geraldine and Tibor, have their respective cardboard boxes. Tibor and Geraldine are each stationed across the room, but they engage in a loud argument that gets almost everyone else involved, namely, to whom the universe belongs: Tibor or Geraldine. Guinevere pops into Tibor's cardboard box, where no one has ever gone, which scares poor Alex, her self-appointed guardian into following, but he's too large and he gets stuck in the doorway. Meanwhile, inside he sees strange things . . .and outside, the humans who care for the saurs, see a troubling thing or two . .

This story reads like a transitional sequence in a novel. It glimmers with wonderful ideas, the writing is excellent, the development of the saurs moves along, but the story seems to set up more possibility and conflict than is resolved here. That shouldn't keep anyone from thoroughly enjoying it, but wow, I really do want to read what happens next.