Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2015
Reviewed by Colleen Chen
As I’ve found every other issue I’ve read of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, this one is competent, professional, and supports its reputation as one of the best magazines of the genre. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed with the selections this time, which is full of across-the-board strong stories, but somehow had none that I found truly memorable.
“Prisoner of Pandarius,” by Matthew Hughes, features the return of the thief Raffalon, who stars in another of this ongoing series published in F&SF a year ago, which I also reviewed. Here, the story begins with Raffalon drinking in a bar, in diminished financial straits due to a recent case resolution by the Guild of Purloiners and Purveyors, an organization that regulates the dealings of thieves and those who receive the stolen goods. Cascor, a sorceror Raffalon encountered in that other story, finds Raffalon and hints that the resolution of Raffalon’s case might have been rigged. Cascor manages to tempt Raffalon to work for him once more, to break into Cascor’s former employer’s home and find out what precious possession is hidden in a secret chamber protected by magicked locks.
After that follows a tense and detailed description of Raffalon’s breaking into the mansion. Upon entering the secret chamber, he encounters an old man with amnesia. When he takes the old man with him, little does he know that he is putting himself in the center of a dastardly plot that is at the root of his financial difficulties from the beginning of the story.
I’m not sure if it’s just because Raffalon and Cascor have grown on me through familiarity, but I enjoyed this story much more than the one which introduced these two to me. The pacing of the story and the build toward a climax is much more balanced and less erratic in this round of the adventures of Raffalon. My impressions are of an intricate plot, smart writing, and tongue-in-cheek humor throughout which tempers the tense scenes.
“Lightning Jack’s Last Ride,” by Dale Bailey, takes place in a dystopian U.S.. The narrator, Gus, begins by describing news reports of Lightning Jack’s death in a fiery crash as he was attempting to steal a gasoline tanker out of a military convoy—an act he’d pulled off successfully several times before. It’s hard to believe the news, as Lightning Jack was such an amazing driver, but the narrator assures us that he is indeed dead.
Gus explains his certainty by telling the story of the deterioration of the country as reflected in Lightning Jack’s life of race-car driving. Jack begins as a young man who shows promise of greatness, then fulfills it. Then, oil becomes far too expensive, NASCAR disbands, and states continue seceding in an increasingly broken-up federal union. Jack comes out of an alcoholic funk to reignite his passion for driving by planning the gas tanker robberies. Gus, along with other former crewmates from Jack’s racing days, reunites with him. We already know how the story ends, but Gus’ inside scoop on Lightning Jack explains how doom was inevitable, simply a predestination for a man like Jack.
A depressing story about car racing in a U.S. that’s falling to pieces, there isn’t much about this story that I can actually say I enjoyed in a visceral or emotional sense. Still, I appreciated it as a well-constructed legend of a man whose star burns too brightly—and how his story represents the dystopian backdrop of a country that perhaps could be burning itself too fast and brightly as well.
“Jubilee: A Seastead Story” by Naomi Kritzer takes place on a seastead in the future U.S. that’s about to celebrate its 50-year birthday since its construction and colonization. The problem is that two plagues, sociopolitical disagreements, and organizational gridlock have created chaos. Beck, a high-school-aged female whose show of innovation in getting cafeterias to only serve food to those vaccinated against the diseases, earns a place helping address the cholera epidemic in a government-free part of the seastead called Lib. With anyone with any authority gone, Beck has free rein to organize and lead as she sees fit.
This is a young adult science fiction tale, with a heroine who’s smart and calm but with just enough teenage female concerns that we remember that she’s of high school age. Despite the gravity of the situation on the seastead, the tone of the story is light—all seen as through the eyes of Beck. I didn’t feel that this story would appeal as much to older audiences, because the heroine is rather annoyingly smart and mature and without vulnerabilities for her age, but she is the sort of character that younger readers—who like strength and don’t much appreciate vulnerability—would adore and warm to immediately. The setting is unique, with realistic and visual detail.
The story assumes a premise that the cholera vaccine is effective and paints a picture of vaccine-refusers as being irrational. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this aspect of the story, which assumes the validity of conventional science in a future setting without adding any ideas about how this science might evolve. As the validity of vaccines is such a polarized topic these days, with people violently opposed on each side, this aspect of the story’s construction annoyed me.
Albert Cowdrey seems to be one of the most frequently featured authors at F&SF. I’ve found everything I’ve read from him to be dark and somewhat sinister, but unique and always worth the read. In “Portrait of a Witch,” the FBI blackmails Alfred Engle into taking a job as a steward for an English lord on a small island in the Caribbean. Despite the presence of enormous Komodo dragons on the property, as well as the lord’s bitchy photographer wife, Lady Fay, who is hated by most of the simple people of the island, Alfred settles into his new job. Soon, however, he discovers the reason why the FBI wants him there—anyone who has ever stood in Lady Fay’s way has mysteriously and suddenly died, but no one knows how. A boy who refuses to be her photography model dies, as does his brother who comes to avenge him, and Alfred has to continue his role even as he fears he might be next.
This story cleverly deals with the concept that exists in many cultures that taking a photograph of someone can steal their soul. Like many of Cowdrey’s other stories, this one begins, continues and ends on the same sinister, dark note, but it’s intricately done and keeps you guessing until the end.
“Farewell Blues” by Bud Webster is a story that takes place in 1937. The narrator, trumpet player Juney Walker, talks about a cornet player named Jake, who was so good he could play to wake the dead. Turns out this is literally true. One hot summer, he and Jake were playing music nights in a small swamp town in Louisiana, and strange dead things start emerging from the swamp in response to the music. It turns out that Jake isn’t quite from this realm, and the music he plays is bridging the place where he is to the place he’s from. Something is calling him home, and if he doesn’t go, the uncontrolled pieces from that beyond place will seep into here and wreak their eerie havoc.
This is an atmospheric and Cajun-flavored ghost story. I’m thinking it may be more a metaphor for the music than anything, about some otherworldly connection one makes with the dream world when one is really merged with the music one plays. Of course it’s likely that I’m completely wrong. The story of Jake is a surreal one—I’m still furrowing my brow over the scene of the dead rising to the sounds of jazz expertly played, and then everyone, including the ghosts, going to do battle with strange creatures from the swamp. It’s an image I can’t even begin to interpret. Interesting piece not only for story but in its quality of evoking the auditory as well as visual senses of the reader.
In “Telling Stories to the Sky,” by Eleanor Arnason, a cold, windy city on a plateau surrounded by mountains is the home to a beggar child named Swallow. Although ugly, squint-eyed, and lame, Swallow has a talent for collecting, retelling, and making up her own stories—and she dreams of becoming a storyteller, although such a profession is reserved for males. One day, she writes her best story on a kite and it breaks off and flies away. Then she dreams that a messenger appears and tells her that his master, the North Wind, wants her to send more stories. After she does so, she is requested to appear at the North Wind’s court. In her dreams, she does so, becoming the official teller of stories, which she enjoys until she learns that her physical body will die if she doesn’t return to it. Swallow has to negotiate the intersection between the physical world and her dream world as she decides what it is she truly wants.
This is the second story I’ve read by Eleanor Arnason. This one, like the other, feels like a fairy tale for adults. It reads like a traditional folk or fairy tale and has the magical realism of one, but the themes have more weight and depth to them—it feels like one could draw a lot from the contrasts this story offers between rich and poor, life and death, dream and reality—the things that people yearn for and strive for in whatever realm or state they might inhabit.
“Out of the Jar” by Eric Schwitzgebel is a story that “grew out of some exercises in philosophical thought experiments that [the author] tried out on his blog.” It reads like a dream, with segments that intersect and unfold and contain each other. The narrator is the author himself—a professor who teaches a 400-person class on Evil. He dreams of a fifteen-year-old boy who demands to be called God and asserts that Earth is an illegal software program he’s trying out on his computer. The boy shows the narrator pieces of the setting of the narrator’s life and shows the narrator how much control he has over it all. He forces the narrator to live the experience of being a killer, or the killed, to explain evil to the boy in various ways. The boy continues to play with Earth like a game, creating chaos and destruction at will, and the narrator attempts to save humanity from the boy by becoming a plastic dinosaur in the boy’s room instead of a human-bodied professor during the times that the boy pauses Earth.
This is an interesting piece—I’m not sure I would call it a story—and is of the sort that I really hesitate to try to interpret. But my impression of it is that it shows the process of empowerment and raising of consciousness the narrator goes through, by being “in the game but not of it”—by playing by the rules of the reality he’s given. It’s like he’s having a dream that becomes increasingly lucid. The piece is confusing, but there is enough coherence and plot-like progression to satisfy the reader. That’s as much as I can say about it—that it’s deep and thought-provoking and the author is probably a very interesting person to talk to. I’m not sure I could take reading a longer “story” of this sort, but this one seems to successfully execute its concept.
In “History’s Best Places to Kiss,” by Nik Houser, Ray and Karen Fox are an estranged husband and wife who, rather than go through the pain of divorce, are using the services of a company that offers time-travel tours to try to stop their past selves from getting together. They smuggle guns with them and go back to their wedding day to try to hold it up. When the TimeTroller, the device that says whether they’ve changed the course of history, shows that their future marriage remains intact, they continue to travel back in time to try to sabotage different points of their romantic history. They start to interact with each other in a way they haven’t in a long time, learning things about themselves even as their goal continues to elude them.
This is my favorite story of the issue. I’ve read a lot of good time travel stories, and I keep thinking the trope has been exhausted. This one proves it hasn’t. It’s fun, unique, and highly romantic.
“The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner” by Alan Baxter is the story of a pirate captain, Reeve, who becomes obsessed with a strange pattern that a mad vagrant traces in the blood of a dying man. The vagrant tells a crazy story of seeing that pattern drive men to frenzied murder during his last sea voyage. The narrator, Daniel, whose loyalty to his captain is cemented by their mutual love of a woman who died by the hand of the British, observes as Reeve takes his new crew onto the water and slowly is driven insane by following the pattern as a map. As they veer far off any course the crew understands, discontent, madness, and of course plenty of death become inevitable.
This is a fine Lovecraftian pirate tale, entertaining, creepy, and mysterious. It hooks the reader in and gives plenty of chills. Excellent storytelling.
In “The Man from X,” by Gregor Hartmann, Franden is a fresh arrival on the planet Zephyr. He comes from a planet with such a huge population that various groups on it dispute its name, hence outsiders calling it Planet X. With dreams of getting an artist’s visa that will allow him to stay on the planet with his living expenses paid, Franden attempts to prove that he is an Individual with Extraordinary Creative Ability.
This is a fun story and one I especially appreciated when Franden is pleading the case for his visa—that there is so much competition from literally a billion other writers that he’s auto-rejected after two seconds, and original ideas are extinct. But then it turns out that Franden is also somewhat lazy—that he doesn’t want to do any hard work. The story sounds to me a little like the author is making fun of the typical writer’s predicament, and he does so in an entertaining and clever fashion.
“The Gazelle Who Begged for Her Life” by Francis Marion Soty is a retelling of the encounter between the merchant Kafar al-Din and the Jinni Mudar, as told in A Thousand Nights and a Night. In it, Kafar al-Din has ridden four hours into the hills north of his city. He has a gazelle with him who he is planning to kill. He gives her her last meal and eats his, tossing his pomegranate seeds toward the trail. Unfortunately, one of the seeds strikes an invisible jinni and kills him, and his father wants to kill Kafar for it. Kafar begs time to fulfill his obligation to kill the gazelle, and he tells the story of her sins. For she is not a real gazelle, but a human transformed into one.
As is typical with many of these stories, this is a nested story—a story within a story, although as with many of these stories I don’t really understand the reason for it. I don’t understand a couple of other things about it as well—such as how a pomegranate seed could kill a jinni, or why on earth Kafar had to ride four hours to kill the gazelle instead of just killing her right away. Still, it’s an excellent retelling, with a voice through which the flavor of the story comes through crisply and concisely. Having read a number of these stories from the Islamic Golden Age and noted their long-winded and often irrational style, I particularly appreciate the skill and smoothness of Soty’s version.
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