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

Fantasy & Science Fiction -- May/June 2013

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The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June, 2013

Grizzled Veterans of Many and Much” by Robert Reed
By the Light of the Electronic Moon” by Angélica Godorischer, translated by Amalia Gladhart
Changes” by Rand B. Lee
The Woman in the Moon” by Albert E. Cowdrey
Wormwood is Also a Star” by Andy Stewart
Directions for Crossing Troll Bridge” by Alexandra Duncan
The Bluehole” by Dale Bailey
The Mood Room” by Paul Di Filippo
Doing Emily” by Joe Haldeman
Systems of Romance” by Ted White
Canticle of the Beasts” by Bruce McAllister

Reviewed by Michelle Ristuccia

F&SF isn't a themed magazine, but if it was, this issue's theme would be sex told in first person. Most of the stories mention infatuation or sex, and a few are explicit, bordering on erotica. Some of the writers are so good that they could win over all but the most prudish – and of those that didn't wow me, most are still high quality writing. This issue is definitely worth the cost even if you end up disliking a story or two as I did.

Grizzled Veterans of Many and Much” by Robert Reed takes us through the introduction of digital transcendence and the resultant depopulation of the Earth, as seen through Bradley's eyes. When Bradley is eight, his grandfather announces at a family Christmas gathering that he has elected to transcend rather than die slowly of cancer. He patiently explains the process to Bradley, and by proxy the reader, and then predicts that many people will follow in his footsteps as the new technology becomes more available. Soon after this the narrative jumps forward in time to Bradley's adulthood and the changes that transcendence has wrought in his personal and family life. The more we jump forward through Bradley's life, the more we see how transcendence is affecting the entire world through depopulation and the incredible shifts in related technology.

This story questions the value and purpose of the human condition – mortality and unaugmented intelligence – by making death more appealing than life. When characters transcend, they experience compressed time that allows them to think and create at genius levels while their bodies rot away. Those who transcend initially benefit human kind with their genius, but as transcendence becomes more popular, the negatives begin to outweigh the positives for those who remain behind. By the end of the narrative, transcendence technology has become so safe and inexpensive that many choose to transcend as soon as they reach legal age. At the end of the narrative Bradley challenges the supposedly sacrificial nature of transcendence by making a sacrifice of his own.

I found the themes in this story intriguing. The time jumps give the impression that Robert Reed is only showing us the surface of his iceburg. While I didn't feel close to the characters, I enjoyed the story overall and would like to see others set in the same world.

By the Light of the Electronic Moon” by Angélica Godorischer, translated by Amalia Gladhart, is told from the first person perspective of a guy meeting another guy at a bar to pal around with and talk about the second guy's sexual misadventures in space. Space travel, aliens, and robots make this an SF shoe in, but the story's premise didn't interest me and the men's chauvinistic dialogue never recovered my interest, although I'm sure it's intended to be humorous.

Simply put, there was nothing in this story for me. A male traveler tells about a sexual misunderstanding between himself and an alien lady, and all the two guys worry about at the end is whether or not he'll end up with an unwanted baby.

Changes” by Rand B. Lee is an intriguing post-apocalyptic SF tale complete with chaotic time travel and talking monster dogs, told in third-person over the shoulder of Whitsun, a Fair Dealer who sets the world right by releasing the magic wealfire that burns in his blood. The “Changes” that he is Called to fix are pockets of mixed-up time all over the Earth, and in these constantly changing pockets he encounters seemingly impossible chimeras and other unfortunate meldings of space and time. When a pack of mutant dogs alerts him to the poisonous nature of a pocket of ominous mist, Whitsun feels that he must investigate.

I love the idea of reality constantly destabilizing around the characters and I appreciated the mix of science fiction, fantasy, and horror that results. The ending was a bit out there, but at least it stems from a premise that matches, in that it is just as difficult to articulate. This story is big on dogs and could almost be rewritten from one of their perspectives and I found their involvement in the story fascinating and integral.

The Woman in the Moon” by Albert E. Cowdrey is an entertaining romp through Professor Threefoot's young adulthood of lies and treachery, as told to his unsuspecting, naïve son-in-law, Adam. The third-person perspective allows us the cynical hilarity of watching the son learn a family secret, while we at the same time experience the sense of wonder engendered by the scientific discoveries surrounding Threefoot's dark soap opera.

Threefoot presents to us a world full of lies where you may as well lie to get to the top. His flippant attitude indicates that human nature is barbaric and our problems are typically trivial, so we may as well laugh at our high-and-mighty attitudes and treat life as a game to be won. Luckily for Adam, Threefoot wants his daughter, Adam's wife, to win that game.

Cowdrey's humor is post-modern and refreshing. Because Threefoot's story is set in the near future, we are treated to jokes that have contemporary meaning, such as Safety First, a real company that currently manufactures kids' safety products, building a fusion reactor that powers a rocket to the moon. Sit back and enjoy the humor because, like any rambling professor, this one can't stand to be interrupted.

Wormwood is Also a Star” by Andy Stewart is one of the stories that adds the A to Amazing in this issue. The plot includes many aspects that I usually hate, namely, glorified suicide and adultery, and yet Andy Stewart's fantastic writing still ensorcelled me.

Told in the third person, “Wormwood is Also a Star” takes us to the heart of two mysteries set in the Ukraine in 1992. The macro mystery concerns the Angel's Tear, a magical forcefield of unconfirmed origin that sprang up to protect part of the Ukraine from the fallout of Chernobyl. The more personal mystery is that of the death of reporter Mitka's sister 20 years earlier, which is still shrouded in political secrecy, even from Mitka. As she investigates Vitaly and his siblings' connection to the appearance of the Angel's Tear, she falls in love with the much younger Vitaly and attempts to use his ability to read minds to explore her fading memory of her sister's death for missed clues. When Vitaly is invited to attend her father's birthday party as a political stunt, both mysteries come to a head in ways that Mitka never could have predicted. Meanwhile, Mitka must worry about keeping her adulterous relationship secret from her husband, keeping Vitaly safe from political piranhas at the party, and discovering why and how it is that Vitaly's siblings are all committing suicide right under the government's noses.

Wow. If that's not enough layering for your tastes, you can look up the title, which refers to the biblical end-time prophecy where a “star” named Wormwood falls to the Earth and poisons the water, as the water in the story is poisoned by Chernobyl. Andy Stewart put an incredible amount of work into this story and pulls it all off well, including the scenes involving borderline erotica and backstory reveals occurring simultaneously. I tried to guess the ending and only got it half right. I dare you not to be smitten with “Wormwood is Also a Star” by Andy Stewart.

Directions for Crossing Troll Bridge” by Alexandra Duncan is exactly what the title describes, a bullet list of advice for crossing a troll's bridge, seemingly written for parents. The bullet list is five points long, making this a flash fiction piece.

It's difficult to comment on such a short story. It felt like the author could have developed it into more of an allegory, because, as is, it could apply to almost any trial in life.

The Bluehole” by Dale Bailey is an engaging horror story told from the first person perspective of Jeremy, the man who was once a teenager in the 80s and is now, because of the events that unfold, an irrevocably broken adult. The language of the narrative is spot-on without requiring the reader to have grown up in the 80s, tapping into the types of dilemmas teenagers of all generations face, and the behaviors and feelings that follow from them. Jeremy begins with an event that many can relate to – the death of a parent, in his case, his mother – and how her loss affected his sense of identity and morality, which contributes in some immeasurable way to his bad descisions throughout the story. We then meet his soon-to-be best friend, Jimmy, and it is their sometimes negative relationship that centers the plot and pushes us towards the tragic end.

You may at this point be wondering where the science fiction or fantasy comes in. The Bluehole, which the story is titled after, turns out to be a deep lake shrouded in ominous rumors of deaths caused by an unknown monster living under its murky surface. The characters also make mention of being science fiction fans themselves, which provides us with a few tips-of-the-hat. Because Jimmy does not believe in the Bluehole's deadly nature, the two friends end up there and Jeremy's lifetime of regret ensues.

My only complaint is that it takes Dale Bailey too long to tell us what the Bluehole is. I enjoyed the outcome, but I had imagined something completely different, perhaps a portal to another world. I always dislike suspense techniques that sound like “but wait, there's more!” and these techniques are used a few times throughout the prose. Overall, though, the mystery of the story works well and the shiver-inducing ending is like a horror movie where you never get to see the killer's face. In fact, I would argue that one interpretation of the ending places this story out of the spec fic genre, but if “The Bluehole” appeared in a lit fic magazine, then this enticing ambiguity would vanish.

The easy first person narration of “The Bluehole” had me from page one, and the character interplay and the perfect level of detail kept me biting my fingernails until the last word. Prepare to be transported to the 80s as the dangerous boy's best friend.

The Mood Room” by Paul Di Filippo takes us into the first person narrative of one of the last 20th century humans being interviewed about personal gossip surrounding the creation of a virtual reality room reminiscent of a holodeck.

This story is one big sex joke. It didn't make me laugh because I knew what was going to happen the instant I read the word kegel. Call me a prude, then. The light tone seemed appropriate and it was easy to read, and the SF technology bits were reminiscent of a Douglas Adams future.

Doing Emily” by Joe Haldeman is told from the first person perspective of a scholar who indulges in trendy VR technology which allows him to roleplay as famous writers. We get a few funny glimpses of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and then our scholar chooses his first female persona, Emily Dickinson. He makes crude sexual innuendos fit for a teenage boy, and then everything goes wrong.

I've read Emily Dickenson and I'm familiar with the concept of Virtual Reality, and yet I didn't “get” this story. Who wouldn't want to be Emily Dickinson? Me. She wasn't exactly the happiest writer in history. The entire premise gave me a low opinion of the character. The VR bits were interesting but I wasn't in tune with the protagonist and that's where it lost me.

Systems of Romance” by Ted White is the first person account of a romantic tryst between a 200 year-old musician from the 20th century and Cecilia-B, who uses math to compose music through a computer. As the old musician describes the chronology of their relationship, we also learn about the DNA-cleanouts that keep him and his exclusive club of culturally significant artists alive, theoretically indefinitely. Despite these cleanouts, our protagonist finds himself forgetting details from a century ago, as you might expect. In contrast, Cecilia-B is not yet 30 and fears that she will die with ideas unspent because the cultural club is even more exclusive than our protagonist suspected. Even after their tryst has ended, the old musician finds himself using her leftover ideas rather than finding his own inspiration. The story begs the question, which is more tragic, these unexplored ideas, or the senile old man with no new ideas left?

I loved this story even though it takes sex to a weird place. From the beginning, our protagonist regrets that his initial impression of Cecilia-B was based almost solely on her “cute” appearance. As their relationship intensifies, he attempts to cater to her perceived needs, but discovers that despite his efforts his perceptions are skewed by his chauvinist assumptions. The entire relationship causes him to question his ability to adapt to each new life and we see subtle signs that he also fails to fit into society as a whole.

This thoughtful narrative makes for a high-quality short story for it rests on the broad shoulders of two interesting characters and 200+ years of science fiction history.

Canticle of the Beasts” by Bruce McAllister is told in first person by a fourteen-year-old boy traveling with Child Pope Bonifacio and Caterina, incarnation of Madonna of Provenzano, on a mission to transport the holiest of holy water to the front lines of the war against the Drinkers, or vampires. This background is dispensed with quickly, and the story itself deals more with the journey, the trio's friendship, and the magical creatures they meet when their need is greatest.

I wanted to like this story more, but I felt that its placement at the end of this issue made it clash with the other, more cynical and “adult” stories. It read like an upgraded version of my favorite middle grade adventure fantasies and I enjoyed the historically appropriate religious bent. The end pushes the border of a complete narrative versus an installment of a serial, but in a Sword in the Stone kind of way that leaves the reader with a satisfactory origin story. Any reader with a smattering of Spanish language or Old World history should feel comfortable with this piece.

Michelle Ristuccia enjoys slowing down time in the middle of the night to read and review speculative fiction, because sleeping offspring are the best inspiration and motivation. You can find out more about her other writing projects and geeky obsessions by visiting her blog.