Fantasy & Science Fiction, Oct./Nov., 2009

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The Far Shore” by Elizabeth Hand

“Bandits of the Trace” by Albert E. Cowdrey

“The Way They Wove the Spells in Sippulgar” by Robert Silverberg

“Logicist” by Carol Emshwiller

“Blocked” by Geoff Ryman

Halloween Town” by Lucius Shepard

Mermaid” by Robert Reed

Never Blood Enough” by Joe Haldeman

“I Waltzed with a Zombie” by Ron Goulart

The President’s Book Tour” by M. Rickert

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot – LXXI” by Ron Partridge

Another Life” by Charles Oberndorf

“Shadows on the Wall of the Cave” by Kate Wilhelm


Reviewed by Lyndon Perry

I enjoy variety and you probably do as well, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading these reviews at Tangent Online. Well, Fantasy & Science Fiction is tailor-made for people like us – especially this anniversary issue. It is chock full of great stories showcasing a variety of styles, themes, and genres. And of course, authors from grandmasters like Robert Silverberg, Carol Emshwiller, and Kate Wilhelm to current favorites, this 60th anniversary issue will take you on journeys to the far flung corners of the universe as well as deep within the recesses of your mind. Sit back and enjoy the variegated ride.

The Far Shore” by Elizabeth Hand is a forlorn yet hopeful story of transition with accompanying undercurrents of loss and renewal, death and rebirth. Philip, a former ballet performer and instructor who suddenly finds himself bereft of career and purpose, agrees to a friend’s invitation to retreat for the winter at a favorite childhood camp in Maine, now vacant for the season. The lakeside camp is Tuonela, by the way, which the perceptive reader will link to the mythical island of the dead since the narrator details to us the fact that Philip was “surprised to learn that the name Tuonela was Finnish…though no one seemed to know what the word meant.” (Hint hint, go look it up!) Despite this rather obvious clue as to the direction of the story, Hand masterfully incorporates other subtleties (mentions of dreams, swans, migrations, and seasons) into a vivid narrative that invites the reader to explore this archetypal theme of underworld descent as we journey with Philip to some distant shore. This is a big story, one told exceptionally well and one which nicely fills out its novelet length.

Beyond the strong telling, what makes this journey suspenseful and intriguing is the introduction of a unique antagonist (?) – the figure is sufficiently obscure so as to let the reader interpret him in a variety of ways – that leaves Philip conflicted and confused as to what steps he should next take. Should he befriend? protect? follow? this mysterious man, Suru, or leave well enough alone? While I could identify with Philip (an everyman or everywoman that almost every big story needs), the figure of Suru was more difficult for me to relate to. This is probably intentional on the author’s part as it is often difficult to explain the strange catalysts that bring healing during many of life’s significant passages. This disorientation mimics our human transitions and Hand’s narrative device of taking Philip’s story from dirty realism to a surrealistic climax (a blending of physical and spiritual ecstasy that is powerfully described) carries us, believing, to the far shore as well.

Albert E. Cowdrey’s “Bandits of the Trace” is a fun, if a bit lengthy, mystery wrapped in a thin layer of Poe-like supernatural. It is a story within a story within a story that hints of the devil and expounds on the devilish nature of greed. I liked the characters: Professor Keyes is a burned out college teacher struggling to get past the first chapter of a history book he’s writing; Bernard “Houdini” Marx is an inconsistent student more interested in puzzles than actual study and so inevitably “disappears” from class after only a few lectures. When Keyes gives Marx his manuscript which contains a cryptic code thought to unlock the location of a vast treasure, the story is set for adventure. Unfortunately, the adventure is mostly backstory – much of “Bandits” is Keyes’ first chapter, which, like many a textbook introduction, is detail heavy – and we’re two-thirds into it before we get to the mystery. So while all the elements are there for a good story, and it is solidly written with witty dialog and colorful characters, I felt the narrative frame fell short somehow. Still, the piece doesn’t ask us to do much more than enjoy a good yarn, ride the frontier traces with a gang of bandits, consider our motives when seeking our fortune, and poke around a bit to try and discover some buried secrets. And in that Cowdrey succeeds.

Grandmaster Robert Silverberg enthralls us with a sweeping fantasy in “The Way They Wove the Spells in Sippulgar.” Silverberg’s world building is magnificent and his theme of faith, doubt, and one’s ability to choose one or the other is as encompassing as his writing. In a wonderfully descriptive first person narrative, the protagonist, at the behest of his wife Thuwayne, sets out for distant Sippulgar to unveil the circumstances surrounding his brother-in-law Melifont’s strange and sudden disappearance. In lesser hands, a similar plot would devolve into a simple cloak and dagger detective story, but Silverberg expands the tale by weaving into it the search for something higher and more profound than a mere forensic solution to life’s mysteries.

Sippulgar is known for its “multitudinous cults and sorceries [and] abundance of strange creeds.” It is a mystical, magical city. As a businessman from Sisivondal (with far fewer religions to boast of), the narrator is a skeptic, or rather, pragmatic when it comes to finding out what happened to Melifont. When confronted with the possibility that some demons made off with his overambitious brother-in-law, he more thoroughly considers the alternatives even though these other options are admittedly less likely. Step by step we follow this businessman to the end, sympathetic to his plight in resolving this mystery for the sake of his wife. But will we finally agree with his conclusion? Silverberg expertly leaves us with all the possibilities open for consideration.

The conflict between truth and reason is broached in Carol Emshwiller’s short, well-crafted parable, “Logicist.” A teacher takes his children out of the classroom to witness a battle, thinking “they should see history as it was happening” in order to experience and understand the real world. He gets more than he bargained for, however, when the enemy routes their army and suddenly turns on the bystanders, scattering and killing the children and sending him fleeing over the hills. When he comes to himself (deep within enemy territory) he is befriended by a foreign woman and his logical mind goes into overdrive. Should he A: Trust her? B: Flee? Or C: Allow this experience to shape his beliefs about the enemy? Using just such a formalist device, the acclaimed Ms. Emshwiller prompts us to examine our own prejudices and think through our own reasons for rejecting or accepting what is true.

Blocked” by Geoff Ryman is an interesting first-person present, nearly stream-of-consciousness telling about a man, his adopted family, and their last hope refugee dash to safety. Set in a future Cambodia, Ryman captures the exotic and romantic Southeast Asia mystique while communicating the danger, fear, and uncertainty that we Americans felt (and undoubtedly the refugees had) when we watched the original boat people flee in the 1970s. The speculative element is subtle – there may be an impending alien invasion; there may be an imminent global catastrophe. But no matter, to every danger the human species will respond and survive, to every blocked path we will find a new way toward the future…or will we?

Lucius Shepard’s “Halloween Town” is a quirky-themed novella about “Clyde Ormoloo and the willow wan, but it’s also the story of Halloween, the spindly, skinny town that lies along the bottom of the Shilkonic Gorge.” And with just that mix of strangeness and familiarity, Shepard takes us to the bottom of that gorge where offbeat characters work, live, gripe, gossip, and make love in its bowels, light years (but only a mile) away from “topside” America. Clyde is a new resident of this small, nearly subterranean village. He is somewhat of a misfit (due to a special ability he has) and is on probation, hoping to pass muster and become a citizen of the town. But after encountering some queer happenings, bucking up against some curious taboos, and discovering that some kind of alien life form exists that has been causing the disappearance of fellow citizens (and cats!) Clyde isn’t sure if he’s ultimately in for a trick or treat. 

The peculiarity of this strange SF tale kept me intrigued until the last page, but I have to admit there were elements that didn’t seem to resolve in my mind. Clyde’s special ability didn’t seem particularly integrated into the story and the payoff at the end wasn’t as satisfying as I expected. I’m not spoiling the plot when I say that there is “something” in that gorge responsible for the missing animals and citizens. But the denouement left me pondering what it could have been. And maybe that was the author’s intent. Not all riddles can be solved for life itself is strange enough; especially in and around Halloween.

As prolific a short fiction genre writer as Robert Reed is you have to wonder if creativity simply expands, like a muscle, with use. His story “Mermaid” is a case in point. It’s not only a different take on the mermaid myth, it takes you a different direction. In fact, I wasn’t even sure who or what the creature was by story’s end but it didn’t matter, because Reed deftly reveals enough detail that I too (like the protagonist) felt a longing to love, protect, and care for this endearing creature.

Maybe too much. And that’s probably what makes this story unique. It’s as much a psychological piece as it is a modern day fairy tale…but without the fairy tale ending. Before the action of this particular story takes place, Jake discovers his mermaid (“Even though I didn’t come from the ocean.”) and pictures himself as her saving prince. By the time the reader catches up with them, however, she is unwell, smothered – but still in love – and Jake is grouchy and obsessive. Then suddenly, the possibility exists that a second “mermaid” has moved into the area and has attached herself to a less than worthy neighbor. Or so Jake believes. But really, is anyone worthy of true love?

I quite liked “Never Blood Enough” by Joe Haldeman, a nice blend of science fiction and murder mystery reminiscent of some of Asimov’s early stories. But instead of a professional sleuth, the reluctant detective is a xenobiologist who happens to be the only one with any medical knowledge on this distant outpost on the planet Runaway. A woman has bled to death, three puncture wounds in her back, and the rest of this short fiction is a quick investigation as to the cause. Haldeman paints snappy and compelling characters and rushes the reader to an abrupt, almost breathless, conclusion. A creative writing teacher might say this piece is really more a set up scene for a novel, and that may be – the author might want to consider that possibility! But whether scene or story, “Blood” did its job by leaving me wanting more.

I Waltzed with a Zombie” by Ron Goulart is a fun and funny parody pulp fiction detective story that features all the clichéd characters, tropes, slang – and zombies! – we’ve grown to love and love to make fun of. Of course it’s set in 1942 Hollywood at the height of B-grade cinema. So amidst the Cecil B. DeMilles, Val Lewtons, and Rita Hayworths, in schleps Hix, the “unconquerably second-rate writer of low budget B-movies.” Hix does doesn’t actually know these A-listers, but he does have one thing going for him – he’s friends with a dame named Marlys Regal, an up and coming actress who happens to have stumbled upon an insider secret: Paramount is filming a movie starring a dead man! With Hix’s own feature film concept foundering (the first horror musical comedy of its kind, titled – you guessed it – I Waltzed with a Zombie) the screenwriter is convinced that if he can get the scoop on the studio cover up, then he’ll catapult to big-budget heaven. Yes, the plot sounds as corny as I’ve described, but with pulp you don’t expect much more than that. The strength of the story of course is in the telling and Goulart has his schtick down pat. Memorable characters, clever repartee, and good clean melodrama make “Zombie” a pleasant diversion.

Describing “The President’s Book Tour” by M. Rickert as a dystopic fiction unnecessarily burdens it with post-apocalyptic theatrical baggage, but I’m not sure how else to paint it. In this disturbing social commentary, Rickert does deal with the aftermath of war by presenting us with a denuded country, malformed children, and examples of Presidential power and abuse. Too, the narrator makes fleeting reference to the misguided policies that likely brought about the devastation. But the story’s heart seems to express something more elemental than mere governmental corruption – the theme of hope amidst betrayal. This is a complex and mournful tale that defies an easy synopsis. I don’t quite have a handle on it myself, so I won’t say much more other than this: it is simple in its telling yet mature in its content, and therefore a story to ponder long after the reading is done.

This nod to the long-running pulp groaners of previous decades from Ron Partridge, “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot – LXXI,” is almost self-explanatory. It’s a wonder no one had thought of this rather obvious set up and punch line before!

Charles Oberndorf’s “Another Life” is an intricate metafiction that utilizes a tricky double POV where the narrator in first person present tells a story in first person past. Add to this the subtle unreliability of the narrator and we have a profoundly gripping science fiction piece that explores such grandiose themes as love, death, and the relentlessness of living. The protagonist – he says of himself – was a military grunt ready to ship out to his first battlefront on a distant planet. A week before leaving he met and fell in love with Noriko, with whom he eventually, evidently, posted in the same unit as comrades-in-arms. He must have died in battle – or so we’re told – because the next thing he remembered he was being woken up, rebooted into a cloned body, ready for his second chance at life.

While this piece necessarily explores such basic human ingredients as self-awareness, relationships, and sex, it is a bit heavy in explicit sexuality (as are Shepard’s and Rickert’s and, to a lesser degree, Hand’s stories). I can understand the significant role sex plays in adult speculative fiction; still, it unnecessarily distracted from a fascinating premise, in my opinion. Nevertheless, Oberndorf handily accomplishes what he set out to do, weaving two stories together, both imperfect in their recollection yet fulfilling in their resolution. The main story (or is it the main story?) is punctuated by the narrator’s conversation with his multiple-life partner who has chosen not to start over in a new body and is seeking some sort of closure or consolation. With the telling the protagonist too finds some release, albeit bittersweet.

There’s something about the traditional story – well told but with that slightly tilting feel – that keeps readers coming back for more. Celebrated author Kate Wilhelm is one who achieves just that kind of response in “Shadows on the Wall of the Cave.” Three young children at play one summer enter a cave near their grandparents’ farm and only two return from the darkness. Sounds like a story prompt, but in the hands of Wilhelm this idea grows to include mystery, suspicion, fear, regret, fantasy, discovery, and possibility. When Ashley and Nathan return to the small town of their childhood on the occasion of their grandmother’s funeral, well, you know they have to go back to the farm. And if you trust the author enough to take you there, you won’t be disappointed in what you’ll find. A good story to conclude this double volume.

Overall, this 60th Anniversary issue was an excellent representation of what readers have come to expect from the premier magazine of thoughtful and entertaining fantasy and science fiction stories. I enjoyed the author notes and biographical blurbs, as well as the editorial commentary, as they add that personal touch and give the reader the sense that she or he is a co-creator of literary magic. Editor Gordon Van Gelder, as usual, did a fantastic job lining up quality authors and fictions in celebration of F&SF‘s sixtieth year. He might have missed an opportunity to feature a first-time-to-these-pages author and showcase some new talent, but that is a minor quibble…the next 60 years will provide plenty of opportunity for the next generation to shine.