"Designing With Souls" by Robert Reed
"Sergeant Chip" by Bradley Denton
"Falberoth's Ruin" by Matthew Hughes
"Peter Skilling" by Alex Irvine
"Gasoline" by J. Annie MacLeod
"I Am the City" by Richard Mueller
In Mark W. Tiedemann's "Rain From Another Country," a woman vists her old lover on the planet Homestead to fulfill the conditions of her will. The woman is not actually Ann Myref, who died on Earth a week ago, but a "codicil," whose body has been hired for the duration, modified to resemble Ann and overlaid with a recording of her personality. Willem, Ann's old lover, now runs a vineyard on Homestead, and Ann has included him in her will. Will is suspicious and uncooperative, and the pair find themselves falling back into the patterns of behavior that destroyed their relationship years ago.
The idea of a codicil gives a new meaning to the phrase "living will," and Tiedemann skillfully explores the implications of the concept. The relationship, both past and present, between Will and Ann is the heart of the story, and the science fictional questions raised by the idea of the codicil are movingly interwoven with that changing relationship. At the end of the story, Will and Ann are given a kind of second chance, in a way only possible in science fiction. An excellent story.
Once again Robert Reed appears in F&SF, with "Designing With Souls," a clever and mildly creepy takeoff on popular TV shows. Madame Zane is the host of the popular web-cast Designing With Souls, which uses the "residues of once-living people" whose souls left "an imprint on some compliant substrate." Nothing adds the perfect touch to your kitchen like the ghost of a 19th-century servant girl, after all. There's some vaguely scientific handwaving about quantum this and neural that, but it's all window-dressing to let Reed give Madame Zane her comeuppance.
Madame Zane, you see, doesn't have the proper respect for the souls she uses as decorative material, and the souls are beginning to resent this. When Grammie Dawson begins complaining about becoming a fixture in her granddaughter's nursery, Madame Zane decides to take drastic action, but underestimates the resources of an angry ghost.
Reed's story is clever, and works as an entertaining, though fairly mild, satire of reality shows. It never quite attains an effective tone of horror or even suspense, though, since Madame Zane is neither sympathetic enough for us to identify with, nor terrible enough for us to particularly enjoy her fate.
The cover story for this issue is "Sergeant Chip," a novella by Bradley Denton, told by the titular character, a war dog in the future military. Chip is the K-9 partner of Captain Dial, and the story is told in the form of a message from Chip to the Supreme Commander of the military. From the beginning it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong with their mission, but it is only gradually that the details are made clear.
What I found most impressive in Denton's novella is his firm control of Chip's narrative voice. Not for a moment are we allowed to forget that we are seeing things from the point of view of a dog: a dog who happens to be a highly intelligent, skilled, and deadly soldier, but a dog nonetheless. The recurring judgment of events and people in terms of pure loyalty, which Chip calls "being good" (as in "Good boy!") serves to emphasize the canine viewpoint. At times we are briefly allowed to see Chip as a lovable, loyal dog. Shortly thereafter, we are then inevitably reminded that Chip is a soldier, by seeing him kill three men in five seconds.
On the whole, "Sergeant Chip" is a masterful performance, and one I would not be surprised to see in a Year's Best volume.
"Falberoth's Ruin" by Matthew Hughes, set far in the future in the penultimate age of Old Earth, inevitably evokes Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Henghis Hapthorn, Old Earth's "foremost freelance discriminator," is hired to discover who it is who might want to kill Torquil Falberoth. Henghis quickly discovers that his problem is not one of too few suspects, but too many, for Falberoth is a decidedly unpleasant sort. With the assistance of his integrator, which seems to be a sort of artificially intelligent personal assistant, Henghis is able to narrow the suspects down to seven, and with the delivery of the list to Falberoth, he believes his involvement in the matter is finished. When Falberoth is then murdered shortly afterwards, after having summoned the seven suspects to his home, Henghis finds himself unwillingly involved again.
Hughes has given us an entertaining mystery with an intriguingly detailed far-future setting. Like Vance, Hughes employs a narrative voice of straightforward irony that works to simultaneously narrate and comment upon the story's events. The story ends on an uncomfortable note that ensures that I will keep my eyes open for later stories of Henghis Hapthorn.
Alex Irvine's "Peter Skilling" was originally published in the online magazine Salon, and I think I might have liked it more reading it there, rather than in F&SF. In both places it would likely have read as the witty, topical satire it is, but being surrounded by witty, topical editorials and essays on Salon might have worked to its advantage. In the more sedate printed pages of F&SF, however, it seems a bit out of place, a bit lightweight.
Peter Skilling falls into a glacial crevasse in 2005, freezes to death, and is awoken ninety-eight years later, the subject of an experimental cryonics procedure. He shortly discovers that the world of 2103 is a Salon reader's worst nightmare: an intrusive, theocratic police state run by hyper-conservative bureaucrats. A few seemingly innocent remarks later, Peter finds himself back where he started.
The satire was a bit heavy-handed, as satire can be, and while I likely share many of Irvine's political concerns, I would have liked just a bit more science-fictional oomph to wash down the satirical content. I enjoyed "Peter Skilling," but was left with a slightly sour aftertaste.
"Gasoline" is a piece of literary fantasy, and while J. Annie MacLeod seems to be a capable writer, I found myself unmoved by this story of a teenage girl's exploration of magic. Jo is a small-town girl from Nebraska who longs to visit the big city of Omaha. When she discovers that Viola, the local crazy lady, is in fact a skilled magician, she sees a chance to get to the city. Viola takes her out into the country to teach her to change shape, but afterwards, Jo has her own plans.
The implicit conflict between an older earth-based magic and a newer urban magic is interesting, but I never felt that the story did enough to bring out this conflict. While Jo, who tells the story, is a vivid character, Viola never becomes more than a flat type, a typical figure of ancient feminine power. Without a more vivid character to embody the older magic, the conflict never comes sufficiently alive to capture my sympathy or my attention.
The issue ends on a topical note with Richard Mueller's "I am the City." The situation in Iraq today may be troubled, but at least no one has to deal with ancient Babylonian deities duking it out. Such is the situation Dave McNary, a Los Angeles reporter, finds himself in, after a tip from a friend leads him to Jack Rackham, the "current decade's Harrison Ford." Rackham, Dave discovers, is not just your run-of-the-mill Hollywood star. For one thing, he's quite a bit older than most, by, say, a few thousand years.
Mueller's story is straightforward entertainment, and does a good job of it. I'm not sure I found myself better suited to judge the current geopolitical situation in the Middle East after reading his story, but it was certainly more fun than reading the newspaper.
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