"The Harps of the Titans" by Sharon E. Woods
"A Fully Integrated Marketing Plan" by Greg Beatty
"Horse Years" by Will McIntosh
"The Writer’s Orchard" by Sandra McDonald
"Elegy for the Square Deal Towns" by Toiya Kristen Finley
"A Spec(i)Fic Retrospective" by Sean Melican
"Dragons Just Wanna Have Fun" by Paul Woodlin
"Walking West" by Joel Best
"Paper Tigers" by Melissa Mead
"(Just Like) Starting Over" by Stephen Couch
"Like Cleveland, Without the Sparkle" by Jay Lake
"Watercolors in the Rain" by Beth Bernobich
Considering the low pay of Fictitious Force, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this new kid on the block, but I was pleasantly surprised by its quality. Editor Jonathan Laden has assembled some terrific stories by some well-known—and some not so well-known—voices. And the "The Author Reflects" sections at the end of the long stories give useful insight into the creation of the stories.
"In The Harps of the Titans," Sharon E. Woods takes us to a world fueled by both magic and industrial age technology, where motor cars trundle over cobblestoned streets past buildings heated by dragons. Martin is an expert at restoring antiquities, and has traveled to a town called Old Dunbar to refurbish a pair of giant harps left behind by a race of so-called Titans. Martin quickly sets to work cleaning the harps, even as war looms on the horizon. With enemy planes cutting off the city, Martin must choose between his work and his beloved Jenna, whom he left behind to come to Old Dunbar.
This is a great little story of the kind I would expect to read in F&SF. The universe is well thought out, right down to what appears to be a base six numbering system. This is a well-rendered, deeply moving story.
In the short-short, "A Fully Integrated Marketing Plan," Greg Beatty shows us a truly sinister and well thought-out marketing ploy. A company called GeneCorp plans to make the results of the Human Genome Project available on the Internet, charging people for an online peek to see how fast their genes are changing. The only problem, is, genes don’t change, so they release findings that the new MegaHard PCs are leaking enough radiation to guarantee mutation, then offer an affordable decontamination procedure, which is where they really make their money. This isn’t the first work of SF to discuss the somewhat sinister nature of marketing, but it does a great job. Is this simple satire, or is Greg Beatty’s tale the future and we’re merely paying the rent?
In Will McIntosh‘s "Horse Years," a suicidal executive finds an unlikely source of salvation in an alien-owned casino. The horse-faced Equuians deal in Chi, the life force. Gamblers attach suction devices to their navels and gamble for the ultimate prize: if they win, they get extra years of life. If they continually lose, they age and die in a matter of hours. Unable to throw himself from his hotel window ledge, our protagonist enters the casino in the hopes of gambling his life away.
This is a very cool story. McIntosh shows an insightful understanding of depression and gives us a character to root for. And unlike most suicide tales, this one has a happy ending.
Stories about writing and writers are precarious at best, and downright awful at worst. Sandra McDonald‘s "The Writer’s Orchard" is neither. Alex, the struggling actor, and his girlfriend, Linda, the struggling writer, are on their way to upstate Maine to visit friends from college. While trying to find the right house, Alex wanders into a walled apple orchard attended by an old man. The apples, the old man tells him, are stories, and they are for sale. Not believing the old man, Alex steals one and gives it to Linda. That night, Linda eats the apple and gets the idea for a masterpiece, spending the entire visit in front of their friends’ computer. Put off by Linda’s behavior, Alex goes back to the city and doesn’t call Linda in a sort of passive-aggressive breakup. Later he finds out that Linda has sold her first novel and has moved on to fame and fortune, while Alex is still struggling to find parts.
Frustrated and jealous, Alex makes another trip to the apple orchard, but finds that, where writing is concerned, there are no special tricks, no magic apples.
McDonald does a great job of capturing the pains and difficulties involved with writing. Like many people, Alex goes into it thinking that all he needs is a good idea, but he learns that hard way that it takes more than that. You also need the ability to tell a story, something that can’t be taught. The idea of magic apples that contain stories is a nice touch as well. And here I thought the stories were in an idea bureau in Schenectady!
"Elegy for the Square Deal Towns" is Toiya Kristen Finley‘s semi-autobiographical homage to the city of Binghamton, a once vibrant, prosperous city now falling into decay. A young teaching assistant at the local college rides the bus and takes in the squalor, and has a conversation with a taxi driver who claims to have known Rod Serling in high school. It then cuts back and forth between the teaching assistant and a young man who falls into the river and is swept away by the current.
This is a good story in many ways. It’s a nice character study of not only the people who inhabit Binghamton, but the city of Binghamton itself, told with the firsthand knowledge and insight of someone who once lived there, as Finley explains in the Author Reflects section at the end. But it wasn’t even remotely speculative, and feels a bit out of place in a speculative fiction magazine. Still, it has an engaging, literary style that a few of the other stories share, but that’s all it has in common with the other stories in this issue. "Elegy" is something that would be quite at home in Glimmer Train, perhaps, or any other literary journal, and the fact that it isn’t science fiction or fantasy shouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it.
Sean Melican‘s "A Spec(i)Fic Retrospective" is a funny piece of "nonfiction" fiction. In this humorous, recursive tale, Melican writes a retrospective review of an imaginary magazine called Spec(i)Fic, which selected stories based on specific themes for each issue, but said themes were kept secret until the issue was published. Therefore writers would send in stories with no idea if what they were writing about fit that issue’s theme.
It’s an absolutely crazy concept, and Melican has grand fun with it. You’ll laugh out loud at some of the stories and themes, especially if you’re pretty well read in the SF field. My favorite is the section discussing Terry Bisson’s career-boosting story "Bears Discover Fiber," published in issue #203: The Shit Hits The Fan. This story reminds me a lot of the old contests that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction used to hold in which contributors had to come up with humorous alternate titles and other such nonsense. Where’s James Blish’s "A Torrent of Feces"?
"Dragons Just Wanna Have Fun" is Paul Woodlin‘s take on a classic fairy tale trope. In this short short, a dragon talks about the fun it has playing with foolish knights who come around trying to kill it. See, this dragon has worked out deals with any princesses who don’t want to marry the jerks their fathers have chosen for them. Not much to this one, but a cute and clever story nonetheless.
"Walking West" by Joel Best is a strange little ditty with no easy answers. Sullivan’s wife left him to walk west, a strange phenomenon that has gripped the world. Then he meets Aggie, and the two move in together. Now she has gone too, and Sullivan must pick up the pieces of a life marred by two similar tragedies.
This is a good example of a story that uses a speculative element as a springboard for character exploration and development. The reason for the walking west phenomenon doesn’t matter as much as what Sullivan learns from the experience. Nice job, and a good fit for this magazine.
Melissa Mead‘s "Paper Tigers" is yet another clever, recursive SF story. In this short-short, science fiction magazine editors are being kept in an alien zoo and "fed" manuscripts. Alien onlookers get a thrill from watching them go to work on the stories with their blue pencils. Like the dragon story, this is cute, clever and, thankfully, short. Nothing earth-shattering, but well worth the read, and a nice change of pace from somber pieces like "Walking West" and "Elegy."
"(Just Like) Starting Over" is Stephen Couch‘s tale of alien memory loss. A purple-skinned, silver-eyed alien is being kept in a hospital bed, continually drugged so his ultrasonic voice won’t injure anyone. He doesn’t remember who he is, and every time he wakes up, he doesn’t remember the time before. What’s great about this story, is that while the main character has amnesia, the reader still gets the plot of the story laid out for them by the other characters, even though the alien remains in the dark. There’s alien experimentation, cross-breeding experiments, and genetic manipulation that has deadly consequences on the world of this story. The amnesia thing has been done to death, but Couch manages to breath some new life into it. Nice work. Besides, I’m a sucker for stories with song lyrics for titles.
In "Like Cleveland, Without the Sparkle," the prolific tour de force, Jay Lake, shows us a marketing scam of a different sort. Our main character has to convince potential colonists to move to the dangerous world of New Elizabeth, a planet populated by such unfriendly-sounding critters as vein snakes and marmotodons. Naturally, he has a problem sending colonists off to a fate worse than, well, Cleveland, but he does everything he can to make the horrid conditions sound promising. Then his mother signs up for the trip.
This reminded me a lot of Kornbluth and Pohl’s novel The Space Merchants, in which admen had to get people to move to inhospitable Venus, but this is Jay Lake, and he puts his own unique spin to things that is clever and funny, and dripping with acid humor and sarcasm. My only problem was that it was too short. Not that it was shorter than it needed to be, but that it was less of Lake’s work on the page. Note to the editor: next time, a longer Jay Lake story. Please?
Beth Bernobich‘s "Watercolors in the Rain" is a fanciful tale that uses fairy tale imagery to reunite an estranged married couple. The wife, who is lying in a hospital in a coma, dreams she has entered a fairy tale castle and is being watched over by a witch. The husband, wracked with guilt, holding her hand, wants to be anywhere else but here, so he imagines he is a knight hacking away at the thorns surrounding a castle. There are shades of Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella here, and I think using fairy tale tropes to reunite two lovers is very sweet. This is a good story, especially for you lovers of classical fantasy and fairy tales out there.
All in all, this is a great little magazine, despite the odd format (it’s 8 1/2" x 11" paper folded lengthwise). The list of authors is impressive, the stories top notch, and I hope this magazine will be able to continue putting out good speculative fiction.