Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/ April, 2019
“The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets” by Gregor Hartmann
Reviewed by Seraph
“The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets” by Gregor Hartmann
Hartmann offers a futuristic space fantasy that occurs on several non-Earth planets, and references a few others. He incorporates multiple elements of space opera, buddy cop, religious and mystery themes. The central theme of the slow-to-never-changing nature of humanity despite the relentless march of technology is well attained. Take out the jargon, the tech, and exotic locale, and it could just as easily be set here, today, on Earth. It is relatable, and it flows well. As the too-smart detective and the surprisingly clever yokel beat cop try to solve the murder of a financial speculator, none of the dots form a line. An insightful theory from the beat cop results in a violent arrest, and well-earned accords for both of them. Throughout the development and resolution, the two cops bond as they start out not really liking one another, but eventually grow to a grudging respect and admiration, even culminating in an offer to sponsor the beat cop for a detective position. Overall, nothing novel or new, but well executed and engaging.
“The Plot Against Fantucco’s Armor” by Matthew Hughes
Another story in the Baldemar series, this high fantasy story weaves elements of might and magic with what could be whispers of emerging steampunk. The technological level exceeds that of most magical realms, and the magic is woven into every part of everyday life, from communication to craftsmanship and trade. The story revolves around a conspiracy to affect the line of succession in the realm of Vanderoy, but is a more complicated plot that, while moderately predictable, is satisfying in its twist at the end. If the central theme revolves only around advancing the story of the protagonist, Hughes achieves this thoroughly. Baldemar starts out as a humble henchman working for a mid-level mage with a temper and the accompanying troubles that tends to bring to others. Despite his protestations, he is later recognized as instrumental in exposing the plot and recruited into the “Eyes and Ears,” the spy corps of the realm, which seems to be quite a promotion. The realm seems nuanced and well-constructed, but as this is my first introduction to the series, I can only speak to this specific story. Overall, I was pulled in, wanting to read more, and it was an enjoyable foray into what feels to be a well-established world setting.
“At Your Dream’s End” by S. Qiouyi Lu
This occurs in what I would consider a parallel reality, in that in almost every regard it is identical to our own current time and locale, with a couple of minute differences. In this case, the difference is an app, but for nightmares. It is not dissimilar to a world in which Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. were a real entity that sold their monsters out to those desiring a scare. The story, in a number of ways, reads like a more evolved vignette of that type of plotline, and had the potential to be very enthralling, right up until the resolution. However, the “horror” is cliché and unengaging, and the central tenet of “If you can survive this, you can survive anything” is weakly presented. What could have been a moving and validating story of strength in the face of adversity falls flat. Instead of encouraging mental health and emotional resilience, it presents validation via the psychological equivalent of cutting/self-harming as the solution. “I’m going to hurt myself so that I can overcome some other pain” is not a virtue to be emulated, and self-harm should never be presented in a light that suggests it might be a positive or helpful thing to do, physically or psychologically.
“All of Me” by R. S. Benedict
There is no rule that demands stories be bright or uplifting, and in fact some of the most moving of truths are found in the dark. That is not an open invitation that they should abandon all light and hope. In possibly the grungiest, most depressing story I’ve had the privilege of reviewing thus far, (which alone is impressive,) this is a loosely historical story cast in the image of “Rita Hayworth as the little mermaid.” The most accurate synopsis I can give is that this is literally the story from The Little Mermaid, filled in and twisted in the telling by the dark and abusive truths of Rita Hayworth’s tortured life. It could be argued that there were some minor elements of fantasy thrown in, but nothing beyond small twists in the mermaid/ mythological element itself. There is no virtue here, only harsh abuse and meaningless survival in soulless Hollywood. The abuse is physical, emotional, and psychological, and is as often self-inflicted as it is from outside sources. It would be more than fair, in fact, to say that the only true central theme is heartless exploitation, and as such succeeds beyond possible expectation. Overall, it is almost impressive at how dark and hopeless the author’s style achieved, and masterful if in no other measure than how badly I needed a shower after reading it.
“miscellaneous notes from the time an alien came to band camp disguised as my alto sax” by Tina Connoly
This is probably the shortest short story I’ve ever seen published (in my limited experience), and the format made me question at length how to classify the story. To be fair, the title really does a good job of representing the story. The entirety is a set of bullet-point note entries detailing the encounter between a high school musician and a shapeshifting alien obsessed with music, interspersed with the diary-like thoughts of the teen. There are all the elements of an SF alien encounter, a budding teenage romance, a little high school angst and light comedy. There is, however, precious little to tie it all together, or to give any sense of when and where. I can’t legitimately offer a criticism of the format, out of respect to artistic expression, and I found it light and fun. It’s a nice contrast to the heaviness of some of the surrounding stories. But it is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it levels of short, and leaves little room for any kind of theme beyond “one time at band camp.”
“The Mark of Cain” by John Kessel
Set across decades of recent modern American history, from the fields of Kansas to the mountains of Utah, Kessel manages to touch upon the supernatural whilst weaving a wholly relatable tale of hope, regret, and questions about life left unanswered in death. The story is written in two voices, that of the character, and that of the author, which is somewhat novel and interesting in its own right. The protagonist, such as he exists, is but a character… something of a self-aware, fourth-wall breaking narrator. The titular mark of Cain is referred to at several points, but never in a similar manner and is left somewhat vague. The story meanders at length, yet comes to sudden stops in a way that makes cohesion very difficult to achieve. If anything, it could be said that the central theme is a character study of someone who lacks many virtues, but so desperately wants to be better than he is. This effort successfully reflects what is possibly the oldest struggle of being human, and is deeply thought provoking, if a little hard to get through. It does seem to ramble more often than it needs to, and feels a little too lengthy, almost wistful in how it recounts these memories. Overall, it wasn’t unpleasant and was interesting, but it felt overly heavy and left a tiresome aftertaste.
“Playscape” by Diana Peterfreund
Seemingly set in modern American suburbia, though it really could be anywhere, this is a powerful look into the oft justifiable fears and anxieties of parenthood. I wish I could say that the elements contained within were fantasy, but they really happen. Children do go missing, whether stolen away, or slain inexplicably by their own parent. The story revolves around a mother’s introspection after another woman’s child vanishes from a playground. The prominent theme is the terrifying and powerful “what if it were my child” that haunts parents, and it is displayed so well that you can almost believe, towards the end, that something really is wrong with that playground, that it isn’t just some trick of fear upon the mother’s mind. There is much bouncing between “maybe she did it” and “maybe she is innocent” but more than anything, the author really captures the disruption of every aspect of life, the doubt that is injected into every sound and shadow, simply by the slightest of associations with the poor woman who lost her child. Overall, powerfully disturbing, and well written.
“The Free Orcs of Cascadia” by Margaret Killjoy
This… had so much potential. Elements of murderous intrigue, altered realities in the wake of apocalyptic events, and somehow it even managed to fit in heavy metal, which is even more gratifying. It is set sometime in the near-ish future, in the wilds of Cascadia (a somewhat imaginary secessionist region that more or less encompasses the pacific northwest of the US.) It is, however, little more than a glorified LARP, taken to the highest extremes. I personally have no ill-will towards escapism, and I can frequently sympathize with it. It is even impressive how the “orcs” in this tale blended their fantasy with that of Tolkien’s, filling out the infamous Black Speech of Mordor into a newer Dark Speech, and the development of a living code to which they adhere devoutly, blending the savagery of Tolkien’s orcs with the native nobility of tribal groups. But the problems that beset them are little more than a newer retelling of “Heart of Darkness” in which going native takes on merely a collective rather than personal meaning. It is beset with tiresome virtue signaling and weak clichés. The plot begs sympathy, but for what it is difficult to discern. “I regret nothing” should mean far more than it seems to in so many cases these days, including this one.
“Dear Sir or Madam” by Paul Park
I feel like a story about a highly advanced form of virtual reality would have, years ago, been amazingly cutting edge and prophetic. In this present day and age, however, in which this story is set, it is actually not so unusual. Nor is the idea that one could take old pictures, videos, and recordings to fabricate one last chance to say goodbye after death. However, this story contains a slight deviation, in the concept of merging both for a fully immersive experience, even sex, as the story bluntly states at several points. There is a malicious tint, only hinted at, but unmistakable, in a form that would surely constitute rape should the story continue beyond the point at which it ends. Even the format, a letter “to whom it may concern,” hints of a note left to explain an act that defies explanation. There is no doubt that the creator of these visions is lonely, desperate, and disfigured, and finds himself put in a remarkably compromising position by someone who is willingly making themselves vulnerable, and the opportunity to abuse that vulnerability for his own pleasure and needs. This story is quite nearly a cautionary tale, a glimpse into the moments before a terrible thing is to be done, and how a mind could possibly justify such an awful decision.
“Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Jerome Stueart
I am happy to have read this. It is a story of a faun, thousands of years old, a creature of myth, if you perchance missed that in the title. It’s set in St. Louis, though it spans several other American cities in the retelling, and mostly occurs in the present. There is a rich history hidden away in the letters, stories of battles between hope and love, and their opposites, hatred and despair… Of the battle between the puritanical removal of all things that bring pleasure, and the music that sets free the souls of mankind. There is, perhaps more prevalent, the passing of this music from the old to the young, and the growth of the young into maturity. The themes are poignant, timeless, and beautiful. There is a little bit of divergence from the train of thought, meandering at times. Overall, it is well written, and there are few faults to be found within. The mythological elements are not overdone, and enhance rather than distract from the beauty of the tale. Highly recommended.
“Bella and the Blessed Stone” by Nick DiChario
This is perhaps the most brutally cynical story in this entire issue. It’s set in modern day America, without reference to where. I mean, ignore the child abuse, the parental abandonment, the mother’s greed and selfishness, or even the mercilessly hopeless state in which the story portrays the plight and motivation of the entirety of humanity, and you are left with a vague attempt at humor towards the end that only a truly bitter individual could find amusing. If there is a central tenet here, it is nothing more than everyone, and everything, is miserable and life is as pointless as the cat videos everyone immediately goes to back to sharing the moment they can in order to forget about anything of substance. The story may not ever reference nihilism by name, but it puts it on display in all of its filth nonetheless. It takes the most depressing and painful of subjects, the abuse of a child, and then it gets worse. In that regard, it is so well executed that it almost deserves a recommendation… almost.
“Contagion’s Eve at the House of Noctambulous” by Rich Larson
This is indeed a well-executed piece worthy of Larson’s talent, and is delightfully ghoulish. It is set multiple generations into the future, in what can no longer really be called the future of humanity, but is still here on Earth nonetheless. A contagion, a final solution, was devised, to cleanse the planet of all the so-called “parasites” who were consuming all of nature’s resources. As the editor’s note suggests, there are certainly some darker elements that stem from our current and recent history, namely eugenics and the concept of genetic superiority. Both are alive and well in our current era, and both lead to unimaginable cruelty and dehumanization. However, the finger rarely seems to get pointed at those who actually perpetuate these twin ideologies, and like the characters in this story, they often go underground during times of purging, and emerge later with different names and faces to continue their cruel and bloody legacy. And, as is often the goal with eugenics, their obsession with genetics leads to gene-editing, in this story of a very ghoulish nature. Rippling muscles bursting through skin, detachable eyes, hydes made of thick, impenetrable toughness, and so on, whilst combined with advanced technology, like smart bullets and drones are the result. The reminders of the evils of eugenics are blunt, poignant, and unmistakable. The dangers of the concept of genetic superiority even moreso. It is a masterpiece of fantasy and horror written into a cautionary tale. Certainly recommended.