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

Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 2007

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cover by David Hardy


“Kiosk” by Bruce Sterling
“The Darkness Between” by Jeremy Minton
“The Strange Disappearance Of David Gerrold” by David Gerrold
“The Dark Boy” by Marta Randall
“How to Talk to Girls At Parties” by Neil Gaiman
“X-Country” by Robert Reed

How might the availability of inexpensive, unbreakable products affect the marketplace?  What if everyone could manufacture almost everything they needed themselves?
 
“Kiosk” by Bruce Sterling is set somewhere in the old Soviet bloc, near Poland, maybe Romania (?) or thereabouts.  Borislav is a kiosk owner, a street salesman who makes a modest living anticipating and supplying the small needs and wants of the people.  Having grown up in the first Transition, the fall of the Soviets and the chaos that followed, he also survived the second Transition, when not only the local economy but the worldwide situation took a nosedive as a civilization based on fossil fuels fell apart, followed by a plague—some sort of flu—that decimated the weakened population.  Things are better now, and Borislav would be content to continue running his kiosk, setting aside his profits to buy up apartments to rent in anticipation of his old age.  Instead, he unintentionally sets off the third Transition when Fleka the Gypsy persuades him to buy a bootleg copy of an improved “fabrikator,” a machine that can copy anything, including itself. 

Borislav’s old fabrikator made cheap little plastic novelties that self-destructed in a week.  The new one, intended for medical use only, was designed to make replacement bones but can make any sort of durable, almost indestructible goods.  The technology has been around for some time but was suppressed by governments and manufacturers who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
 
Borislav is a philosopher with an instinctive grasp of economics.  As an entrepreneur, he relies not on graphs and charts, but a deep understanding of “the soul of the people.”  This engaging character leads us on a journey through a very believable extrapolation of the possible results of technological changes.  He is ably abetted by a cast of characters that include Ace, the local mobster, and Savic, a lawyer and politician, who is “smart and honest, and therefore ineffective.”  Enjoy the journey; you might even pick up some marketing tips.
 
“The Darkness Between” by Jeremy Minton takes us into the claustrophobic dark, trapped far underground in low, narrow tunnels, running out of food and water, besieged by hungry “knuckledusters.”  As if that weren’t bad enough, it gets worse: horror piled atop horror.
 
Brand and his family and companions are distrustful of the aliens from the stars, and have no desire to be miners, but the lure of forizael is stronger than their fears.  “Forizael! Sweetest of gifts of our world. Bliss for the soul and joy for the senses, a taste that elevated man and raised him nearer God. Wars had been fought for it, kingdoms betrayed for it, princes had died for it. For us it was a sacred thing; its use lay at the heart of our oldest rituals. Amongst our people, a man who possessed a quantity of forizael would never lack for anything else. To gain it we were willing to endure hardship. We were willing to be led by foreigners and heretics.”

Young Brand hates the foreign magicians with their strange, heretical ideas and their odd speech.  Now, following an earth-slip, he finds himself trapped below the mines, struggling to survive and hoping somehow to escape.  He focuses all his hatred on Merrison, one of the aliens who fell with them.  But Brand has much to learn.  He will find that those he trusted most may be his enemies, and his hated enemy may really be his friend, and his only hope for survival.
 
“The Strange Disappearance Of David Gerrold” by David Gerrold takes us on another trip, an odyssey through lesser-traveled roads in California, Nevada, and points north.  Somewhere north and maybe east of Red Bluff, California, the author stumbles onto a private hunting preserve and has a strange encounter with an animal—or person—being hunted, when he rescues it—him—from a barbed wire fence.  A run-in with the people who patrol the hunt club follows, and Gerrold escapes their clutches through a lucky combination of circumstances.  He continues on his trip, meeting friends in Oregon or maybe Washington—he’s not saying.   He and his friends plan to go back, to learn more.  Did they survive?  We don’t know yet.  What was that creature?  Don’t know.  Tall tale or truth?  You decide.  It’s entertaining either way.  Gerrold’s running travelogue is delightful.

“The Dark Boy” by Marta Randall is a different sort of journey, one of self-discovery.  Shy and timid Nancy, mourning the death of her partner of twenty years, is sent by her partner’s children to Baja California for a rest and a change.  It seems a bad idea at first, to be among strangers, and especially to be alone and grieving in unfamiliar territory when everyone else is part of a happy couple or a group.  Nancy spends most of her vacation hiding in her room, but ventures out to experience one adventure—a whale-watching tour.  On the way to the docks, she encounters a street urchin who aggressively tries to sell her souvenirs.  Having escaped him and the other children, she is dismayed to find the boy is also on the tour boat.  She is frightened, but the boy makes her a gift: a gift of wonder, of magic, perhaps of courage.  Her healing begins.

This is a gentle, subtle story, but one of hope and a whispered promise of joy.

“How to Talk to Girls At Parties” by Neil Gaiman is not, I repeat, not, an etiquette handbook of the sort you might expect from Miss Manners or Ann Landers.  Nor is it likely to help you in any way with charming girls or smoothing over those awkward moments trying to become acquainted with strangers.  It could be taken as a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of failing to listen to the people you’re trying to talk to.

Two teenage boys, Enn and Vic, set out to attend a party that a friend of Vic’s has told him about.  Vic forgets the directions, and they wind up mistakenly crashing a different party.  A very different party.  What follows is seen through Enn’s eyes and heard through his ears, although it mostly bypasses his brain.  Shy, awkward Enn is just thrilled to be actually talking to a girl, even if he can’t make sense of what she says, but it’s obvious to the reader that there are some strange things going on here.  Vic, who is a littler more experienced in the girl department, gets the shock of his young life, while Enn remains basically clueless, but neither of them will ever be the same again.

The story-within-the-story, as might be expected from Gaiman, is poetic and replete with inspired strangeness.
 
“X-Country” by Robert Reed combines marathon running, some commentary on mathematics, and the mysterious acquisition of luck.  You can read the title as “cross-country” as in running, or “x-country” as in unknown territory.  We cross our fingers for luck, but cross them behind our backs when we’re telling a lie.  Which value of “x” applies here?  Maybe all of them.  Take your pick.
 
Kip Logan comes into town with apparently a sizeable independent income and buys a modest local mansion, reputedly for cash.  He doesn’t talk much about himself, but he may have grown up in the nearby hill country and attended schools which are now shut down and their records unavailable.  He appears to fit the stereotype of a “tall and pretty-boy handsome” blond, with a nice smile and cheerful disposition—friendly but not too bright.  He’s strong and physically fit for his age, which may or may not be mid-fifties.  He likes to run cross-country races, and does well, even though he admits he has no grasp of pacing.  He spends most of his time “with the disciplined life of an eternal athlete. Hard runs were woven around sessions in the weight room, plus he was a regular in both yoga and pilates classes. His diet was rich with nuts and green leaves, and he never drank more than half a beer.”  Yet he also finds time to date two attractive young ladies and drive around town in his BMW convertible, and he has a relaxed attitude toward life in general.  No one knows him well, but people like him.

Then Kip decides to sponsor a race—a “X-country” race, which is indeed laid out in the shape of an “x” in brutally steep hill country, with poorly marked trails and confusing directions.  The race starts out with a large turnout—the prizes are enticing—but many become confused and angry and drop out.  Kip cheerfully refunds the entry fee, with a little extra to boot, to anyone who complains.  It appears this was an expected situation.  Although Kip never explains exactly what he was doing and disappears shortly after the race, those who manage to finish encounter some strange changes in their lives.