Fantasy & Science Fiction — July/August 2011

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Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2011

“Bronsky’s Dates with Death” by Peter David
“The Way It Works Out and All” by Peter S. Beagle
“Less Stately Mansions” by Rob Chilson
“The Ants of Flanders, A Tale of Five Adventures” by Robert Reed
“Hair” by Joan Aiken
“The Witch of Corinth” By Steven Saylor
“Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things” by Richard Bowes
“Someone Like You” By Michael Alexander
“The Ramshead Algorithm” by KJ Kabza

Reviewed by Sherry Decker

“Bronsky’s Dates with Death” by Peter David

Some stories hit the reader between the eyes with the first line, or by the end of the first paragraph, others by the end of the first page. Not this one. That doesn’t mean the writing is bad. The writing is good. It’s clear and understated.

The character, Bronsky is an incessant talker.  He can’t seem to stop himself. The worst part is, he dwells on dying, on his own death. He mentions it in every conversation of every minute of every day. His wife tries to discourage this obsessive habit, but fails.

Bronsky receives a formal invitation to meet Death in the city park. They meet and have a conversation. Death, in the form of a talking cat, is disgusted because Bronsky doesn’t dread his death – he finds it intriguing.  Death plans to ignore Bronsky until his attitude changes, but warns him about meeting another, different Death. One who handles the problem cases.

“You wouldn’t want to meet him; trust me. He takes you places you wouldn’t want to go.”

Bronsky plans to keep his meeting with Death a secret from his wife, but the words tumble from his mouth before he can stop himself.  His wife calls their daughter, Penny, because she has a strong relationship with her father. Bronsky’s wife hopes the daughter can talk some sense into him – otherwise, she wants him to check into a mental clinic. It’s here the story develops a sinister tone. I found myself reading faster.

Penny and Bronsky disagree for the first time ever. It’s a serious argument. He is hurt by his daughter’s words, probably because she has sided with her mother. On a street corner, Bronsky shouts at his daughter. Furious, he stomps off, dwells on the argument, feels guilty and heads back toward his daughter. Death drives up, wearing Marlon Brando’s face and Bronsky is told to get inside the car. Death is even angrier because Bronsky hasn’t changed. He terrifies Bronsky, but not with dying. Death doesn’t threaten Bronsky – he threatens Penny by speeding straight toward her.  Bronsky, fastened into the passenger seat (it’s the law) grabs for the steering wheel.

This has a curious ending. I enjoyed this story and believe other readers will too.

“The Way It Works Out and All” by Peter S. Beagle

Avram Davidson is almost seventy years old and crippled by an arthritic knee. This story is told by Avram’s friend, Dom Pedro.

Dom Pedro receives numerous postcards from Avram a day apart, postmarked from distance places around the world, so far apart it would be impossible to travel that far, write the postcards and mail them. But Dom Pedro knows that his friend is most unusual.  He knows that someday he’ll figure out how Avram accomplished sending all those postcards — or someday Avram will explain it to him. Naturally, we hear the explanation.

The writing style reminded me of a modern Sherlock Holmes, with plenty of character development, but a somewhat proper, slow pace.  Avram Davidson claims there is another dimension. It’s called the Overneath.  Avram explains: “it’s about forty-five degrees to your left and a bit up – I could take you there this minute.”

Dom Pedro is curious and intrigued by Avram’s claims, so he agrees to see the Overneath. Avram tells him,

“Just walk exactly in my footsteps and do me after me.” He started on along the road — which, as far as I could see, led nowhere but to more road and more wind — and I, terrified of doing something wrong and being left behind in this dreadful place, mimicked every step, every abrupt turn of the head or arthritic leap to the side, like a child playing hopscotch. At one point, Avram even tucked up his right leg behind him and made the hop on one foot; so did I.”

Dom Pedro could have used some forewarning before he followed Avram into the Overneath. Dom Pedro spots other people at a distance and shouts and waves at them. They appear human but in reality are dangerous creatures. That’s the only description we‘re given. A frightening chase ensues, employing more of the mimicking and hopscotch maneuvers. It results in a close escape.

That’s all that happens, folks, and while interesting I would have liked more than a long description of how they got there (hopscotch) and what they saw upon arriving . . .

“…and found myself in a different place, my left hand still gripping what turned out to be a projecting brick in a tall pillar. We were standing in what felt like a huge railway station, its ceiling arched beyond my sight, its walls dark and blank, with no advertisements, nor even the name of the station.”

…and the chase scene. Other than proving the Overneath isn’t just a wild tale, there didn’t seem to be any real reason for the adventure into the parallel universe.  I admire the ending, however, because it wasn’t an ending.  It was a maybe.

“Less Stately Mansions” by Rob Chilson

Jacob Mannheim is an elderly farmer, clinging to Earth’s soil with a passion that only life-long farmers can.  He’s a widower who misses his children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces who seldom visit.  When they do show up, it’s to try bullying him into selling the property.  They want the money.  They do have a point — the Earth is slowly dying because the sun is finally fading.

The family forces Jacob into a courtroom where a judge determines if Jacob is of sound mind. Because the judge is honest, she sides with Jacob. Angry and bitter, the family decides they’ll join the growing multitude of emigrants and leave Earth forever.  One, somewhat empathetic niece visits Jacob to tell him of their decision. She begs him to join them.  Jacob is saddened by his family’s abandonment, but he stays. 

Spaceships and distant-world colonies do not change the situation.  Family greed happened in ancient times, it’s happening today, and I guess if the world is still around in five hundred years, it will happen then too.

This one was short and a bit predictable.

“The Ants of Flanders, A Tale of Five Adventures” by Robert Reed

Well, so much for starting a story with action, even though that’s what most writing teachers advise. Of course, this isn’t a short story and it wasn’t written by a student adhering to a good-intentioned teacher’s directive. So I’m already at the bottom of page four before that standard dictum even occurs to me. By then we’re facing world domination by aliens, or destruction, annihilation or assimilation, and our only hope is a big, curious, stubborn sixteen year old boy named Simon Bloch, a boy with an abnormal amygdale (brain lobe) that makes him impervious to fear. When faced with danger, his normal response is, “Neat.”

Robert Reed, like Stephen King, is a master at creating and developing characters who make you care, just before something deadly or tragic happens. You might not realize how dire the situation is until you’re almost finished with the story.

The aliens have traveled for eons, searching for the perfect planet. They pass several that would have been ideal, but settle for Earth.  Their landing isn’t gentle. And there isn’t just one ship, or one type of alien.

Simon Bloch approaches the crash site and says, “Neat.” He rescues two children from a smashed van before helping rescue the alien inside an egg-shaped capsule. The alien speaks English.  She says, “dying,” “help” and “water.” Simon and several other brave rescuers manage to lift her out.  They refer to the alien as she, because it has a feminine face. Otherwise it looks a bit like a dolphin. 

The nearest logical place to take the alien is the zoo’s penguin habitat with its large pool.  When they finally manage to drop the alien into the pool, she sinks.  They panic, wondering if they need to rescue her again, but she swells up like a massive sponge and burrows through the bottom of the pool, draining it and leaving behind an abyss.  They don’t see her again, but the earth around town begins to rumble and jolt.

On the opposite side of the Earth, life is destroyed. Communication breaks off. All its sources of power vanish and the soil itself becomes like pudding. From that pudding sprout bizarre trees, trees that can pull up their roots and run. The pudding spreads.

Along with those determined to annihilate humans is at least one Defender, a kinder, gentler alien.

Simon Bloch awakes in a mobile military hospital. Not everyone who touched the alien is changing. Only Bloch begins to morph into something new – something bigger than he was, something stronger, and something much hotter.

“The boy’s skin looked like metal or a fancy ceramic, but that was only one piece of this very strange picture. Bloch was big before, but he was at least half a foot taller and maybe half again thicker, and the bed under him looked shriveled because it was. The metal frame and foam mattress were being absorbed by his growing body. Sheets and pillows were melting into him, harvested for their carbon. And the gray skin was hot as a furnace. Bloch was gone. Replacing him was a machine, human-faced –”

A panicky soldier shoots the boy, but the bullets only feed Bloch’s new form.  He runs, mainly to avoid frightening people.  He hides in a woman’s basement on a side street.

Bloch’s brother, Matt, has played a small, distant part in the story to this point. Matt was sending messages to Simon when the attack was first starting. Matt was stationed in Yemen, so when he appears on the streets of home, Bloch doesn’t believe it’s really his brother. This new Matt knows things about the past and the future.  He and Bloch have a long, philosophical conversation, and I suppose it served a purpose but it could have been shorter in my opinion. Among many things, Matt says,

“A starship carrying possibilities struck the Earth, and it claimed half of the planet in a matter of minutes. Not that that part of the war has been easy. There’s a hundred trillion mines sitting in our dirt, hiding. Each one is a microscopic machine that waits, waits, waits for this kind of assault. I’ve been fighting booby traps ever since. In my new state, this war has gone on a hundred years. I’ve seen and done things and had things done to me, and I’ve met creatures you can’t imagine, and machines that I can’t comprehend, and nothing has been won easily for me . . .”

Matt leads Bloch to the gates of the penguin habitat and says “this is where the adventure begins.” Bloch finds the empty pool and the deep hole in the bottom, dives in head-first and meets the alien far, far below.

“I’m not here to fight,” Bloch said to the darkness.”  Here, he makes a long, brave, boastful speech to the alien, challenging him, or her, to kill him while he/she has the chance.  Finally,

“Bloch stopped talking. He wasn’t standing in the bubble anymore. He was floating in a different place, and there was no telling how much time had passed, but the span felt large. . .”

“His mother and Mr. Rightly were there, and the scientists and that blond girl whose name he still didn’t know. And the camel had been saved, and the rest of the surviving zoo animals, and two hundred thousand humans who in the end were pulled from their basements and off their front porches. The penguins hadn’t made it to town in time, and the leopard was still dead, and Matt eventually died in the Pacific — an honored fighter doing what he loved.”

Not a happy ending, but satisfying.  Adventurous. Exciting in places. Recommended.

“Hair” by Joan Aiken

The disclaimer describes Hair as a short Gothic story, but other than providing a description of Sarah’s mostly-sad, short life and giving us a brief glimpse of her early years in the disgusting place where she grew up, I’m uncertain what the purpose of this story was.

There is no timeframe mentioned, but I pictured it taking place in the 1920s. It’s about a pair of newlyweds on their honeymoon, aboard a small luxury ship traveling from exotic port to exotic port along the Nile, and now as a widower, Oxford, the husband, travels alone, returning to London to give a packet of his wife’s hair to her mother.

Upon his arrival, Sarah’s mother takes him on a tour of her oppressive, overheated home. Her relatives and friends staying with her are prisoners and it’s an obvious case of Munchausen’s by proxy. The mother and the other women in the story both have enormous amounts of hair, and so did Sarah before she cut it off and stuffed it into a box to be given to her mother after her death, but I never figured out what the connection to hair, was.

When Oxford hands the tissue paper full of Sarah’s hair to her mother,

“She received the bundle absently, then examined it with a sharp look. “Was this cut before or after she died?”
“Oh — before — before I married her.” He wondered what she was thinking. She gave a long, strange sigh, and presently remarked, “That accounts for everything.”

This could have been a novel with subplots, adventures, and more complete characters with motives, misdeeds and consequences — and clarity.   But it wasn’t.  The writing was European in tone and very atmospheric.  I just wish it had been more fully developed and that I comprehended what it was really about.

The Witch of Corinth” by Steven Saylor

By page five I began to wonder if anything was ever going to happen. Young Roman citizen, Gordianus and his traveling companion and teacher, Antipater, pause on the hillside overlooking the isthmus of Greece.

“At its narrowest, the isthmus is less than four miles wide,” (Antipater) said. “A young fellow like you, Gordianus, might easily walk from the Gulf of Corinth on the north to the Gulf of Aegina on the south and back again in a single day, with time for a leisurely lunch beside this road, which at the isthmus links the two parts of Greece.”

The geography and history lessons go on for an interminable length of time, and we’re on page eight before anyone even mentions magic, witchcraft or a witch.  Did I mention, page eight!  There is a lot of unnecessary dialogue regarding the difficulties acquiring a room at the inn, and hackneyed lines like:

said Lucius, looking fretful.


said Tullius darkly.

But they finally convince some other guests into giving up a room and they eat too little and drink too much and fall asleep. The next day all the visitors explore the ancient ruins on the hillside.  That night they party again and fall into an even deeper sleep. In the morning, Gordianus goes downstairs and finds the other visitors in bloody piles in the tavern, all with their throats slit.

Gordianus and Antipater are held for questioning but it’s Ismene, the serving woman who is considered the prime suspect. She is not in her hut on the hillside and all that is found inside her hut are items used in witch ceremonies. Antipater suspects one of the Romans “filched” an ancient coin or lucky charm from the ruins, angering the local witches. There is also a buried treasure, but it doesn’t play a big part. Gordianus meets Ismene on the hillside and she explains everything. The ending is telescoped or condensed (rushed) by that dialogue. The guilty are named and Gordianus and Antipater are allowed to leave.

This story felt like an excuse for displaying the author’s extensive geographical and historical studies.  Finally, I can stop calling Antipater, Anteater. 

Not my cup of tea.

“Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things” by Richard Bowes

“Under the spell of Queen Morgana, King Arthur and his knights slumber the years away and have rare moments of wakefulness and waiting.” The protagonist states:  “…the human faces without bodies that float before me like a vision. You resemble neither angels nor demons and you don’t speak but appear to listen to what I say. Occasionally I see one or two of you following other knights in these halls. They take no note of you and know not what I’m talking about when I mention you.”

On one of his wakeful wanderings, our protagonist first meets the good knight, Percival.  Neither have any idea why they are spending most of their hours sleeping. They discuss Queen Guinevere, who seems to often be awake, unlike them, and that she’s been seen “dancing with a certain knight. I think we both know which one…” They wander in different directions.

Next, our protagonist meets Sir Bors along the lonely hallways. Bors complains about the inequality at the Round Table, and about having terrible dragon nightmares. He says that another knight, “got up at an untimely hour and the Night Dragons took him. Had him by the ankles and whisked him right under the bed. Witnesses heard that little chuckling sound they make. Later when they gingerly pulled up the spread there was nothing under the bed but a button or two from his clothes and one index finger.”

Okay, I like that part. 

The protagonist’s name is Morgravain. (I guess the title was a clue.) Morgravain meets Sir Caradoc while wandering the sleepy castle hallways. Caradoc accuses Morgravain of being a traitor in King Arthur’s last battle and that he, Caradoc, served him a mortal blow. Morgravain denies it. After Caradoc stomps off, Morgravain admits, “I’m the fly in the ointment, the dead dog in the well, the sign that any system run by humans will have flaws.” Morgravian senses King Arthur is waking. The king’s eyes open. Morgravian realizes the King recognizes him. He kneels, prepared to tell his side, but his words are never presented here. I was hoping for more dragons.

“Someone Like You” by Michael Alexander

I enjoy a time travel story. This one hops around through time like a bee-stung rabbit, and that makes it difficult to keep track of exactly when and to whom things happen, or in what order. 

A young woman feels cheated out of ever knowing her father. On occasion she begs her mother for stories about her dad and descriptions of what he was like. With a melancholy expression, her mother usually obliges. Apparently, her father was an amusing but abusive drunk. Her mother was married twice. Our protagonist has one brother.

Time travel stories depend on memories. That’s what drives the desire to travel back in time, to relive something or to repair it.  This one’s about repairing. If you’re not accustomed to time travel stories, this one might confuse you in places. But it’s worth the effort. Read it twice if you need to. It was during my second reading I realized the brother and sister have different fathers.  The problem is, I was uncertain which father the mother was describing.

Again, the protagonist remains nameless.  Her mother calls her kiddo.  Her brother calls her Sis.  When her mother dies, kiddo is on her knees at the graveside, praying . . . and that’s when she realizes she can travel through time. It’s during those travels she discovers who killed her father, and it’s during those travels she sets things right.  There are always consequences to going back in time and changing something, but she accepts that. I’m going to read more by this author.

“The Ramshead Algorithm” by KJ Kabza

I read for pleasure, to learn something, or because a friend asked me to. This story fits the third category and was a challenge for patience and perseverance. It begins with science fiction terms that boggle the mind and technically mean nothing, but the story eventually begins to make sense. Just not right away.

“Beneath the four of us was a patch of bare earth, which Yuri had anchored into reality with a screw he’d muttered. Beyond our tiny island of the rational, the lines, as they say here, ran crooked: unknown suns rocked in the sky in polynomial smears of light. The walls of vegetation surrounding us reiterated with themselves, morphing each second into something different. The sudden paths in the undergrowth pulsed, as if breathing, before being swallowed by life again. Unchallenged by screws, The Maze reigned.”

The protagonist, Ramshead, has ventured into territories where one needs a portal to enter and exit.  While on the other side, he’s “…on a Trail Crew. I help maintain things. I make everything behave how it’s supposed to   . . . it’s complicated.”

There’s a problem with the portal. The portal exists inside a hedge maze, in the middle of his father’s massive estate.  In order to move the portal, Ramshead must perform magic.  He must recite something from unknown, untranslatable texts and provide an exotic, rare animal. 

Ramshead’s father and brother are against him at every turn. Even when he begs for help they threaten to have him arrested for trespassing.  The only one who helps him is his groupie, tattooed sister, whom he must bribe. She finds him an endangered snail. Then, Ramshead searches the internet for the unknown tongue and stumbles upon a very rare language, Chinook Wawa.

Ramshead has already performed the ceremony when his father arrives at the maze and does everything possible to prevent Ramshead from succeeding. He smashes the snail, gets into a physical brawl with Ramshead, and yells and screams.

Maybe the author was aiming for reality where people stutter, start and stop, hem and haw, but the dialogue hemmed and hawed a bit too often and for too long, especially considering much of it happened during a knock-down-drag-out fight. The ending is heavy on explanations. We do learn why his father wanted to destroy the maze. But to be honest, I never cared if Ramshead succeeded or not. Every character was irritating.

I enjoyed parts of this story but was relieved when I finished. You may feel differently.