Fantasy & Science Fiction — May/June 2011

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Fantasy & Science Fiction – May/June 2011

For this issue we asked Caroline E. Willis to handle the short stories and Rhonda Porrett to tackle the novelettes and novella.

From Caroline E. Willis–

“Starship” by Scott Bradfield
“The Old Terrologist’s Tale” by S. L. Gilbow”
”Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer” by Ken Liu
“Building a Readership” by Paul di Filippo
“Agent of Change” by Steven Popkes
“Stock Photos” by Robert Reed
“The Road Ahead” by Robert Reed
“Signs of Life” by Carter Scholz
“Fine Green Dust” by Don Webb

From Rhonda Porrett–

“The Black Mountain” by Albert E. Cowdrey
“Rampion” by Alexandra Duncan
“Music Makers” by Kate Wilhelm

Short stories reviewed by Caroline E. Willis

“Starship” by Scott Bradfield features a talking astronaut dog, a diamond-farting alien, and a capitalist. The dog, Dazzle, decides to offer himself up to the space program. Once in space, the capitalist, Robbie, threatens to have Dazzle’s automatically dispensed food cut off by mission control unless Dazzle reads Robbie’s advertisements for broadcast in space. That’s how Dazzle met Glixglax, the alien with the sparkly excretions. Glixglax takes his excretions to Earth and trades them for the sort of things conmen sell to the gullible.  “Starship” is an excellent piece of humorous SF, in the vein of Douglas Adams.

“The Old Terrologist’s Tale” by S. L. Gilbow is set in the planetary equivalent of a perfectly correct English garden. The planet is getting its first tour of potential buyers, and one complains that it is too correct, too perfect, too boring. And then the old terrologist speaks up. He tells them a space age urban myth, about a terrologist who reacted to a similar claim by making a planet full of dramatic contrasts, and the consequences of such.  The voice of the two storytellers makes this tale; one full of anxiety and nicety, the other restrained and knowing. “The Old Terrologist’s Tale” is as well crafted a piece of SF as the planets it describes.

“Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer,” by Ken Liu is set in the Data Center, the universe perched in the Northern reaches of the Earth, where human kind uploaded itself post-singularity. Renée is the child of the algorithms of eight parents, though most of her comes from two in particular, and those two are the ones she calls Mom and Dad.

Renée’s mom is an Ancient, a woman who spent 26 years in the flesh before uploading. Her mom has come to tell Renée that she has decided to move her consciousness to a robot being sent to another planet, to aid in exploration. However, there are not enough resources to transmit her mom’s consciousness back; when the robot submits to entropy, she will die. “Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer” tells the story of how Renée and her mom spend their remaining time together.

Renée is the narrator, and her voice is a pitch-perfect representation of a relatively mature girl in her early teens. She loves her mother, and she cannot understand why she would allow herself to die when there is continuous existence in the Data center. Her mother takes her out in a robot craft, and shows her the Earth, and its life, and signals not crafted for and by humans but by another set of laws entirely. Reality is what her mother is seeking, out in space, and by the end, Renée understands that. It is a  delicate story Liu has told, and well worth reading.

“Building a Readership” by Paul di Filippo is a hilarious satire of the technophilia of budding SF writers. The narrator, Paul, breaks down and buys a Lector-5000, a life-like robot capable of reading and discussing the whole of human literature, and also Paul’s own novels, and then providing feedback. It’s a short and delightful piece, though the humor might be limited to would-be authors, which is not a problem, as according to the story, that’s everyone.

“Agent of Change” by Steven Popkes uses a collection of fictional documents to describe the discovery of the North Pacific Leviathan. It follows the progression of a breaking news story, with transcripts from government meetings providing a behind the scenes look, as well as persistent characters. That progression, incidentally, is discovery, international debates of ownership, conservation, and the inevitable capitalization in the form eco-tourism. It’s got the kind of light humor that puts the “mock” in mockumentary.

“Stock Photos” by Robert Reed is a tricky thing. It is the first of two related SF stories by Reed in this issue, the second of which is “The Road Ahead.” I wrote this review before reading the second story.

“Stock Photos” opens with a woman and a photographer showing up at the narrator’s house, asking to take pictures of him mowing his lawn. It becomes obvious, to the narrator at least, that they are interested in more than photos. The story ends as abruptly as it began, leaving the reader to mull over all the possible interpretations of events.

My personal interpretation, at this point, is that the story is itself a stock photo; a scene that can be plugged into any number of plots in order to move the story forward.

I think these stories might be cleverer than I. “The Road Ahead” is prefaced by the editor, who says that Fantasy and Science Fiction received this story when they asked Reed what exactly “Stock Photos” was about.

“The Road Ahead” switches narrators from the man mowing his lawn to the photographer. It seems likely that the female companion of the photographer is actually an AI, but it’s not clear. The photographer is airing some of his concerns about the history of the company, and the strangeness of his companion, which both answers questions and creates new ones. And then the plot folds in on itself like a Möbius strip, and they go to another man, who is about to mow another lawn, and the story ends.

These stories invite speculation. I’d recommend having some friends read them too, then settling in with some beverages and turning the plots over and inside out until the world seems to be made out of shadowy multi-national organizations and bubbles.

“Signs of Life” by Carter Scholz is about an All But Dissertation PhD candidate who dropped out, had a bad relationship, and became a lab tech. The narrator seems to view it as the bio-Informatics equivalent of hitting bottom. He buries himself in his work, until a lovely Asian lady PhD candidate helps him see the scattered, shifting meanings encoded in the junk, in unused DNA, in life. It’s a strange bit of science fiction; more fiction about scientists than anything else.

“Fine Green Dust” is set in Texas and written by a Texan, Don Webb. To be precise, it’s set in Austin, that proud weird city. It’s about the end of the world, and geckos. Like many of the stories in this issue, it has a sort of surrealist tone and a wandering plot. The highlight of the story is the effect it creates in the reader; if you’ve ever spent time in Texas when it’s been triple digits for more than a week, “Fine Green Dust” will affect you in a very familiar way.

“The Final Verse” by Chet Williamson is the perfect story on which to end an issue. It’s a perfect story to end anything, really. It’s an Appalachian ghost story about driving up to an old holler to find the last singer of the last verse of an old mountain song. The narrator is a bluegrass singer about to make it big, and he wants to sit down and record the secret of the verse, so that folks can read it after he dies. The pacing of this story, as in all good horror, is perfect; it pulls you in, but slowly, until it’s too late to let go.

Novelettes and novella reviewed by Rhonda Porrett

Preservation can be personal or societal. Alex is driven by a need for both in “The Black Mountain” by Albert E. Cowdrey.  Enamored with the idea of saving historical buildings, Alex often rubs against Jim, a philanthropist for all the wrong reasons. Jim bulldozes the cherished edifices of New Orleans to erect new structures dedicated to alleviate human suffering and more importantly promote his name as a kind and decent humanitarian. Despite their rivalry, the two maintain a cordial relationship. Alex also battles with the on-again off-again symptoms of cancer.

Jim’s new project is to turn an abandoned cathedral he just purchased into a recreation center and pool for disadvantaged kids. He enlists Alex’s help in determining the historical value of the property before demolition. Flashlights in hand, they explore the eyesore to the community. Alex can only find one redeeming piece of value, a masterful fresco of the Archangel Khorazin, the Guardian of the Gate.

Alex wonders if he should try to save the entire cathedral from destruction or merely the fresco. He takes into consideration the religious oddities of the congregation—long since disappeared or disbanded—and their enigmatic leader. When Alex speaks in a voice not his own, it makes his decision that much harder as he deciphers the secret of the Guardian of the Gate and battles the weaknesses within his own body.

“The Black Mountain” is a slice of New Orleans refreshingly devoid of Mardi Gras festivities. I found the backstory engaging and the writing infused with an enjoyable playfulness as evidenced by the “barbarian horde called the Chamber of Commerce” and “the blue-haired Mafia.”

The supernatural aspect of the climax lacked explanation. It’s easy to piece together what happened, but the underlying cause of how the magic came into being is overlooked. Mr. Cowdrey does an excellent job at interweaving political and legal facets of the story until we discover that a missing person’s will is executed well before the seven years needed to legally claim him dead under such strange circumstances. The novelette ends abruptly in that Alex hides his limited knowledge of events for his own personal preservation rather than pursue the truth—thus denying the reader the experience of recovering the body and discerning its ultimate fate.

Love at first sight; is it possible? Ishaq believes so. He falls for the beautiful Lady Sophia de Rampion when he catches a glimpse of her through a window. And pays for it with his very eyes. In “Rampion,” a novella by Alexandra Duncan, Muslims, Jews, and Christians live warily amongst each other in medieval al Andalus.

Lady Sophia is Rapunzel, Snow White, and Juliet all rolled into one. It’s not long before Prince Ishaq ibn Hisham of the Umayyads climbs up to her window and they become lovers. Caught in the act, Ishaq is severely reprimanded, his eyesight and his dignity taken from him—a moor who besmirched the virtue of a Christian woman. She is taken to a different city to wed the man of her family’s choosing while he lives in self-imposed exile, blind and alone, ashamed to return to his home and his father, the caliph.

Ishaq learns of his beloved’s whereabouts and travels the long journey to find her, made even longer because he can’t see. But what will he do when he gets to his destination? He cannot fight for her honor, cannot provide for her safety from the pockets of bandits and mercenaries and soldiers that trouble the roads.

Power struggles consume al Andalus, and an underground movement of men emerges, wishing to return Ishaq to his family and position of authority as Prince. Ishaq must choose between locating the woman he loves or resuming his legacy as heir to the Umayyad caliphate.

Aficionados of historical fiction will delight in this tale, exceptionally well-crafted for being told from the point of view of a blind man. Period details abound, as do tensions between religious factions. There were times I found the various names overwhelming, wondering who claimed allegiance to whom. The supernatural element is a mere whisper of a thing, unnecessary to the story as a whole. Lady Sophia’s wicked stepm . . . I mean, grandmère and her poisonous ap . . . oranges are easily attributed to alchemy rather than witchcraft. Die-hard fantasy fans are advised to proceed with caution.

“Music Makers” by Kate Wilhelm explores the soul of music not shackled by the confines of notes on a staff line. Jake, a writer, is sent to Memphis to cover the obituary of a musician he’s never heard of. Thinking it will be a trivial assignment, he doesn’t expect to find a garden oasis amidst strip malls, gas stations, and mattress stores. He enters the home of the deceased to interview the former singer of the group, only to be deeply moved by the passionate and compelling tapes he listens to of the band playing together. Some people claim to hear the music even when the tape recorder is off. Jake supposes it’s because the band members are buried beneath the oak tree out back.

The house, along with $32,000 owed in back taxes, now belongs to Beth, a widow and mother of an eight year old prodigy. Jake wonders if there is a way to help her by preventing the sale of the special house, and hopes to find the answer in a good old-fashioned New Orleans wake.

The supernatural element is slight, flashbacks abound, and “Music Makers” did not tug on my emotions due to phrases such as “Beth felt defeated” and “Beth felt chilled.” Third person omniscient point of view also contributed to my lack of concern for the characters by forcing me to reorient myself at random points in the story.

I normally try not to focus on the writer or the comments of others when reviewing (I wish I could read each story with the author’s name stripped out), but something made me break this rule and Google Kate Wilhelm. And I realized I just signed my death warrant in the field of fantasy and science fiction. A toast to Mrs. Wilhelm and all she’s done for the genre, and another toast to honesty. Fans of Mrs. Wilhelm decide for yourselves if this is worthwhile and disregard the drunken woman in the corner trying to influence your subconscious.