Fantasy & Science Fiction, June/July, 2009

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

“Firehorn” by Robert Reed

“The Motorman’s Coat” by John Kessel

“Corona Centurion™ FAQ” by Terry Bisson

“Paradiso Lost” by Albert Cowdrey

“Adaptogenia” by Wayne Wrightman

“Economancer” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

“The Spaceman” by Mike O’Driscoll

Reviewed by Aaron Bradford Starr

Perhaps Gordon Van Gelder, the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, has had a streak of lucky breaks of late, and has been getting nothing but well-polished manuscripts in the mail. Maybe he’s been hoarding these gems for a while, and the June/July issue of F&SF just happened to be the one they all were let loose in. Or perhaps he’s kicked things up a notch, defied the gods of the slush pile, and vowed to bring nothing but fire to the people. In any case, this issue may well contain the best collection of stories ever held within a single F&SF cover. Any one of these is worth the cover price, and to get them all feels uncomfortably like something too good to be true. It makes you want to donate a bit more cash to Mr. Van Gelder’s favorite charity, just to be fair. Just kidding, but not really: it’s that good.

The fiction opens with Robert Reed’s “Firehorn,” a story that makes clear that Robert Reed is not worried about running out of interesting ideas any time soon, since he feels free to pack so many into this story. Set in the dusty, bleached desert of the future southwest, the story’s characters bring to life the moment when mischievousness is hijacked by human credulity. We are guided through the evolution of the urban legend, from a joke played on younger kids, through decades of slow growth, and into the final stages of being hunted down with all the tools of super-science. The clever take on AIs and the social entanglements they create are used as a counterpoint to the all-too-human characters, and the story proceeds quickly, as the protagonist, Gabe, confronts the ultimate truth about the mythical creature he once created, and the power imagination and belief play in society.

One of the pleasant aspects of this journey is how fresh it feels. The characters all defy any number of possible stereotypes, and manage to convey the sense that there’s much more to them than the story requires. Gabe’s failed efforts to debunk his own myth have given him a unique view of human nature, a mix of amusement that slides into bewilderment as time changes any number of social norms, but never the core of what makes his fellow humans so eager to believe in the fantastic.

His childhood co-conspirator (and now ex-wife) Morgan has ridden the wave of change more enthusiastically than Gabe, and together they join the hunt for the Firehorn by a team of dedicated monster-tracking AI. That the artificial intelligences of the story are as gullible as the organic ones is a statement about the proper roles of intelligence, logic, and cynicism, and yet this is merely touched on, left for the reader to explore after the story ends. That the ending is somewhat abrupt, and the resolution a bit stark, may be seen as a flaw, but mostly because we want the characters to speculate more on their world before we’re forced to leave it, and this they will not do.

Continuing the issue’s trend toward understatement is “The Motorman’s Coat,” by John Kessel. As an attempt to thrill, this story would fail, but as a vehicle to plumb the depths of the protagonist’s psyche, it works astonishingly well. The fantastic elements are few, and mostly cosmetic:  fabrics are synthetic not by choice, but due to the seeming extinction of cotton plants, while construction is now mostly organic, with buildings planted and left to mature for years before use.

While these elements would seem superficial changes, placing the story in Prague brings the tale into haunting focus. This is a place mysterious long before the future arrived, and the protagonist, Frantisek Lanik, feels every bit a part of it. His mind is the true setting of this story, however, and, like Prague itself, is characterized by a past that is one part accurate history and another part speculation, fused together by wistful nostalgia.

This future Prague remains the home of visionaries and progressives, and yet Frantisek only has eyes for the past. His specialty shop deals with the detritus of an age that may never have happened: organic fabrics, gold chintz, and the baby steps of consumer technology. Frantisek’s worldview is similarly out of place, filled with the longing for contact of someone who has lost touch with his fellow men and women. The woman he loves, Veronica, has left him, and he cannot bring himself to accept why that is. The appearance of another woman, the sexy and exciting Carlotta Olembe, focuses him on the future’s potential, but not for long. For she has a proposition, an item for sale that he cannot resist:  a perfectly preserved uniform from the early twentieth century.

Frantisek’s slide into obsession, and the oblique way in which the climax of the story strikes, is powerful writing. The quiet desperation is perfectly drawn. John Kessel captures the uncomfortable balance of hope and dread that courtship brings, and the single-minded focus that can make fortunes or destroy lives. “The Motorman’s Coat” is a pleasure to read, not for the fantastical elements, as smoothly delivered as they are, but the clever and deeply etched characters, and the well-mannered torment of the hopeful Frantisek.

The “Corona Centurion FAQ,” by Terry Bisson, is the perfect counterpoint to Kessel’s tale. Besides the utterly unique format for a short “story,” this FAQ for a fictional heart replacement unfolds like literary origami:  all straight creases and hidden surfaces. It starts out light, almost funny. Then the FAQ develops disturbing undertones. But, being a marketing tool, these are all in the reader’s head. The salesmanship continues as chipper as ever. But the intended effect is created, and the “Corona Centurion FAQ” lingers in the mind, with the ramifications both of this product and the society that might produce it left for the reader to puzzle over. An intensely unique piece.

Seemingly hewing to far more traveled literary ground is “Paradiso Lost” by Albert E. Cowdrey. The grand old tradition of military science fiction has many tropes, and this story would seem to be yet another permutation of familiar elements. But driving this intricate tale is the voice of an older, wiser man reminiscing about a younger, more naïve one, and this awareness lends the telling a very real tone. The military order aboard the huge warship Zhukov is put into the perspective of being necessary, and at times critical, but still faintly foolish in retrospect. This isn’t to say that the story mocks the regimented life aboard ship, but the antiquated military traditions do, at many points throughout the story, provide cover for actions that are dubious at best, and, ultimately, of dire consequence.

This critical introspection on the part of the narrator is an essential component of the story, touching on every one of the standard science fiction props, giving them new life. Faster-than-light travel is handled with the distinctly modern-sounding method of transiting to a pocket universe whose tenuous connection to our own is able to move thousands of times the speed of light. Finally, a realistic number with regards to speed, considering the craft is to travel around inside the entire galaxy. Realistic, too, is the way alien contact is handled:  distant spacecraft, and the slow-motion waltz of two specks drifting around a planetary system. The alien technology is comparable to ours, and clearly constrained to the realm of known physics. These are realistically portrayed living creatures, not mere earth-culture analogs or a horde of raging, soulless monsters.

The alien foe in “Paradiso Lost” turns out to be the dark side of human nature, and the merciless shadows that lurk within the human psyche, nurtured and brought to maturity by pain, isolation and a thirst for control. Those humans who transcend their darker sides are swept away by their fellow who cannot. The narrator glimpses this truth in a nightmare, only to be soothed back into blindness by his desire to believe in his society, and he works hard to maintain his illusions as the truth prods him throughout the voyage. At last, his eyes are opened, and the basis of his retelling of this tale becomes clear:  it is a warning to one of the next generation’s leaders, so they can learn from his mistakes. “Paradiso Lost” is one of the finest stories of military science fiction I’ve ever read, because it fully embraces the human qualities that make war inevitable, deceit profitable, and hope rise anew within each generation.

“Adaptogenia,” by Wayne Wrightman, can’t be accused of not warning you at the outset that it isn’t going to end all that well. But then it sweeps you away, following the strange workaday investigation of a nameless protagonist. In his role as contributor to a conspiracy tabloid as a front for an elaborately secretive information broker, he travels about the slums of the city, documenting the possibly paranormal.

The writing is terse and clipped, built with snippets and fragments. Blink and you’ll miss one, which would be a shame, since the plot advances at such a rapid pace. The entire first half reads like banter, funny and irreverent. The main character has no time for most people, and so their appearances in the tale get truncated regularly as he loses patience and jumps to some point more interesting to him. There are some great verbal exchanges here, and the best phone messages I’ve ever read in a story, short or otherwise.

But Wrightman warned us that the apocalypse is coming, and the developments become rapidly more disturbing and far-reaching as the story continues. But even this is handled with the same dose of humor, until the gallows nature of the laughs bring home the stark reality that the characters’ face. In the end, even they cannot laugh at their fate, and “Adaptogenia” ends with a strange point-of-view dislocation, mercifully insulating us from the final experience of the story.

Next up is “Economancer.” Whether Carolyn Ives Gilman has succeeded in writing what she knows–specifically  the intricacies of international finance–or she has done the much trickier feat of writing so that it appears she knows about such things, doesn’t matter a bit. In either case, “Economancer” is the perfect story for this particular year, spinning a tale that combines globally connected mega-finance with shamanic folk magic and somehow producing the most coherent explanation of the current financial crisis I’ve yet seen. After reading this tale, it seems hard to imagine that the arcane financial instruments we’re all hearing so much about aren’t truly arcane.

This piece hits almost every note with pitch-perfect skill. The characters convey a sense of depth with minimal exposition, their motives, actions, and reactions clear and believable. The plot, conveyed in a series of e-mail messages, moves forward quickly, ending with a shot of rich conspiratorial depth. The world-spanning schemes of secret societies is presented as cleanly as the methods of magic-wielding holy men. There is not even a whiff of stereotypes or cliché, and when dealing with secret societies, that’s pretty remarkable.

If there is any crack in the façade of perfection, it is in the nature of the e-mails that this story seeks to emulate. These e-mails are just a bit too evocative to read as genuine, especially at first, when the narrator’s frustrations are guiding the descriptive sequences. But the writing smooths out at once, and any quibbles about relating verbatim conversations in e-mails must be set aside, because this piece deserves the full treatment it receives, rather than an attempt at spare “internet-ready text” experimentation. The protagonist is just a financial guru with an eye for detail, is all. And the anonymous nature of the one-sided communications finally serves as a sinister coup de grace, making us feel like a criminal mastermind reading e-mail hardcopy at story’s end.

“Economancer” is an exceptional piece of fiction, a story at once both outlandishly contrived and seamlessly believable. Strangely, it comes off as likely an explanation for the global financial crisis as anything else we’re likely to hear, and is infinitely more entertaining.

If “The Spaceman,” by Mike O’Driscoll, seems to start out slowly, it’s because the trajectory it sets for itself is less forward-moving with any frenetic action, but down, into the depths of the characters and their relationships with each other and the world around them.

That isn’t to say that this final story bores, or that reading it begins as a chore. Far from it. O’Driscoll’s writing is clean and bright, and the voice of the protagonist Freddie is very engaging. The author’s ability to express clearly the interior world of a twelve-year-old boy’s experience of aloneness and longing is literary gold, calling to mind Bradbury or very early Heinlein. Like Bradbury, the story takes place in a world that is just a bit surreal, and yet so sunwashed and visually clear it effortlessly bonds the real and the known to the utterly unreal. And the Heinlein-ish retro tech of Captain Paul and his rocket ship’s lost crew is all the more tangible through the eyes of the disbelieving Freddie.

And this disbelief is the root of the story, and a tragic reminder of what adulthood costs so many of us:  our ability to set aside norms and just get lost in what our imaginations reveal to us. At the cusp of adulthood, with sexual awakening just around the corner, Freddie’s desire to pursue his new friend Jenna over the strange imaginings of his longtime companion Mouse rings perfectly true. This desire to set aside part of his youth for a chance at a taste of adulthood elevates “The Spaceman” over most fantasy and science fiction shorts.