Fantasy & Science Fiction — November/December 2013

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Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2013

Through Mud One Picks a Way” by Tim Sullivan
Success” by Michael Blumlein
Stones and Glass” by Matthew Hughes
Sing, Pilgrim!” by James Patrick Kelly
Hell for Company” by Albert E. Cowdrey
The Soul in the Bell Jar” by KJ Kabza
Hard Stars” by Brendan DuBois
Baba Makosh” by M.K. Hobson

Reviewed by Colleen Chen

This issue offers an even mix of fantasy and science fiction, plus one sort-of ghost tale within a tale. A couple stories fall on the darker side, and a couple on the lighter, but all are of Fantasy and Science Fiction’s usual high caliber.

In “Through Mud One Picks a Way,” Tim Sullivan revisits a space and time he’s written about before—a future in which main characters hail from Cet 4, a heavy-gravity planet tough to live on but with abundant natural resources.

In this story, taking place on Earth, Uxanna Venz has been hired by a fellow named Hob to communicate with three Cetians whom he has illegally obtained and wants to use for his own benefit. The Cetians are amorphous, clammy creatures whose home is the bogs of Cet 4, and they communicate with Uxanna by touching her with squidlike tentacles they can form at will. Uxanna earns their trust at the same time as she feels guilty for doing so. They’ve been so abused on their home planet by humans encroaching on their territory, and she knows Hob can’t have good intentions for them. There’s more twists to the story, though, as Uxanna learns the truth about their appearance on Earth, and then unveils her own surprises as she tries to do what’s best for the Cetians at the same time as earning her money.

I’ve read one other story by Sullivan that takes place in this universe. I liked this one more—although maybe it’s just that the author’s particular style, which seems to develop both plot and characters mainly through dialogue, is growing on me. But this story has enough action to keep the story moving despite the lengthy dialogues, and thus it translates into a visual piece that I felt I could watch like a movie in my own head. The characters were likable, the world-building strong, and although the ending is left somewhat unresolved, it stops at a point which promises later continuation.

Success” by Michael Blumlein is a novella introduced with the caveat that it “should be vetted before it’s shared with a younger reader, as it’s inappropriate for some.” I suppose this refers to a couple of scenes with passing sexual content, but my reaction after reading this piece is that anyone who could get through this story is likely mature enough for anything in it. It’s a smart story about an even smarter man, Dr. Jim, and his wife Carol, who is slightly less smart intellectually, but much smarter emotionally.

Dr. Jim is a brilliant tenured professor who gets obsessed with finding a “Unifying Theory of Life,” and in the first part of the story his behavior becomes so eccentric that he loses his job, wife, and home, and on the eve of another attempt at treatment by the hospital doctors he vanishes into thin air. Three nights later, he reappears in his bed with no trace of his former disorder, and he begins his life anew.

Five years later, he’s gained back all his former status and is remarried. He’s working on his great masterpiece of a book—detailing his studies of the gene, the epigene (related to changes in gene expression), and the perigene, which is more encompassing than the epigene and possibly the key to the Unifying Theory of Life. He gets inspired to build a model in his yard that expresses his theories, and the heap of cobbled-together junk grows as he veers once again into obsession and eccentricity. Scenes of his increasing derangement as he builds are interspersed with scenes of a strange secret he keeps in the basement—one that links together the first part of the story to this one. And as Carol slowly loses patience with his obsession, that secret may be the key to saving their marriage—or at least showing an interesting practical result of all their theorizing about the epigene and the perigene.

Very clever piece, often amusing and as brilliant as its crazed protagonist. It’s a flowing, easy read despite my having to look up several words, and I particularly admired the way the story is constructed—it feels three-dimensional, with tiered levels of meaning. This story has a lot to offer and is worth multiple reads.

In “Stones and Glass” by Matthew Hughes, a thief named Raffalon arrives in the city of Tattermatch to sell a bag of fake weft-stones at a fair. He paid for these stones, and the spell to renew their illusion, by working for the magician Vaudelare on a number of theft jobs. Unfortunately, the fair is canceled; not wanting to lose his investment, Raffalon makes arrangements to find buyers for his fake stones. On top of the stress of diminishing funds and plans gone awry, Raffalon is being followed by a man whose livelihood was destroyed by one of his past thefts. The story takes a twist when we discover that someone other than this man may be the true enemy for Raffalon.

This story is engaging and tension-filled, with a solid fantasy world behind three-dimensional characters—we don’t learn much of their history or their emotional makeup, but their motivations and the stamp of their personalities are obvious through their dialogue and actions. I did feel that the first part of the story, building up to the sale of the weft-stones, took too long compared to the action-packed second part, but this is nevertheless a skillfully told and executed piece.

Sing, Pilgrim!” by James Patrick Kelly is a very short absurd piece about a chair that appears in front of a bank and is discovered to be immovable. A further discovery is that anyone who sits on it and sings a song (so long as the song hasn’t been sung on that chair before), disappears into thin air. A church and a religion forms around the chair as a way to transcend, and efficient administration allows 150,000 pilgrims a year to sit, sing, and disappear.

This compact, somewhat silly story is a pleasure to read. It doesn’t offer much in the way of plot, but the craftsmanship of the story is superb and each sentence worth lingering over. It also has more depth than one might expect from a story about a chair, as I took it as a commentary on blind faith and mass consciousness—or perhaps mass unconsciousness would be more apt here.

Hell for Company” by Albert E. Cowdrey is a nested story within a story—the narrator meets with Mark Twain at an exclusive club, and Twain tells of an odd experience of ghosts. His story is about two brothers, one dead and one labeled a murderer and insane. The one who’s alive claims that he’s actually the dead one, who possessed the body upon his brother (the live one) killing him. At one point, Twain hears the story of what happened from one brother, and twenty years later, he hears it from the other—coming from the same mouth.

The author has an obvious gift for storytelling; I found that the nested structure made the internal story far more interesting than it would be alone, as it added layers of meaning—a ghost telling a story about ghosts, and the author possibly being possessed by Mark Twain to write this—and makes one examine the very meaning of story. The title, too, has a double or possibly triple meaning—lots of company being kept on multiple levels, and lots of Hell being expressed.

In “The Soul in the Bell Jar,” by KJ Kabza, young Lindsome Glass’s parents have gone on a trip around the world and sent their daughter to stay with her great-uncle, Doctor Dandridge, at his house on Long Hill. Doctor Dandridge is known as “the Stitchman,” because he works with vivifieds—dead bodies who have been reanimated with their souls. The house and grounds are as creepy as one might expect; Doctor Dandridge is friendly, but inaccessible, and Lindsome is warned against nosiness by the assistant-servant Chaswick, who despite his nastiness is the closest thing Lindsome can find to a friend. Lindsome is repulsed and terrified by turns as she tries to find a place for herself, and then she stumbles upon her great-uncle’s terrible secret and his plan for taking his vivification experiments to the next level.

The writing in this story is incredible, the story magical—I loved it up until the last ten percent, when the story rushed somewhat confusingly to a conclusion and one that I found sad and unsatisfying and not worthy of a heroine so adorable as Lindsome. The story is good, no doubt—I just wish the author would rewrite the ending, and make the whole thing longer! This is an author from whom I would read anything, so long as someone cleared it beforehand for having a happy ending, because I don’t think I can handle these sad endings.

Speaking of sad endings, “Hard Stars” by Brendan DuBois is about one long sad ending, a dystopian United States that has broken down as some unknown enemy has launched a number of automated drones who are directing missiles, it seems, at any centers of authority or military power that they can locate. This includes people who have been microchipped, and any technological equipment that can be tracked—guns, GPS devices, cell phones, etc.

The story is told from the point of view of Trenton, a member of a team hiding out in a country house in the woods, trying to avoid detection by the drones. We soon discover that the team is working to protect the President, no less. Loyalties weaken amongst the team, but as they try to find a safe harbor for the President, Trenton remains ever true. When it comes time to decide if he’s going to be like the men who didn’t adequately protect their Presidents from assassination, or like the man who took a bullet for Ronald Reagan, there is never any doubt which way he’ll go.

This story feels like a warning about a possible future of tables turned against the U.S. I found it bleak, depressing, and the themes very masculine—of patriarchy, hierarchy, authority, black-and-white sacrifice unmediated by any softness or peripheral hope. It’s an effective story, albeit slightly melodramatic, and thus not at all a comforting read. I didn’t enjoy reading it, but only because of the feelings it evoked in me.

Baba Makosh” by M. K. Hobson is my favorite story of this issue. Three Comrades, fighting for the Red Army in the Russian civil war, are sent as a squad to seek Hell. We don’t realize that it’s literally Hell they’re looking for until an old woman finds the three—two of the Comrades beating each other nearly to death, and the third, Pudovkin, dreaming of better times with his beloved grandfather. She is Baba Makosh, and like much else in this story she is more than what she seems.

Baba Makosh leads them to a village and a great building made of twisted roots, inside which they meet her sons, who look like stags but walk like men, and her husband—whom only Pudovkin sees is the horned god Veles. His companions are too busy gorging on cheese to notice. Pudovkin begins to question the post-revolutionary principles of the Red Army—principles he has supported until now—as Veles and Baba Makosh show through their words and actions that the traditions his grandfather loved, cruel though they may seem, have a strength and a rationale for existence that cannot be controlled nor defeated.

This piece offers beautiful, lush writing, a unique plot, strong characters, and folklore intertwined with history so skillfully that the whole takes on a magical quality that transports the reader completely to this new reality. The story is worth dissecting and even more worth reading as a whole—it’s rich in theme, with every word and line placed with purpose.