Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2017
“Evil Opposite” by Naomi Kritzer
Reviewed by Jason McGregor
This is the 68th anniversary issue of F&SF. Other than having a novelette by Samuel R. Delany, who hasn’t appeared in the magazine since the 28th anniversary issue, there’s not a lot particularly special or anniversary-like about the story selections, though. The issue was mostly SF (nine stories to five) but didn’t often feel like SF.
“Evil Opposite” by Naomi Kritzer
The narrator is working toward his doctorate in physics. He has a nemesis who is the teacher’s pet. That teacher had written something about a quantum spyglass so the narrator, who’s handy with tools, builds it. He then falls down the rabbit hole of examining an interminable number of his alternate lives before figuring things out (with a side dish of understated revenge).
This is reasonably short (5,000 words) but still feels a little long (especially in the early-middle) and it has some clever touches but lacks real tension or punch.
“We Are Born” by Dare Segun Falowo
A woman, presumably in Nigeria, has had three stillbirths in her life. One night a storm comes and she is taken in a frenzy and creates a child out of mud and magic. The spirit of that entity, physically mute, narrates the tale, which momentarily turns fairly horrific (if not for the magic) and makes another cycle in what may be a surprising way.
This is a lyrical tale with some strangeness which may appeal to some.
“Leash on a Man” by Robert Reed
Porous Mirth is a prison guard of the future. Yet he’s also a man of the past, being genetically modified to be a throwback. He likes it in his prison and wishes to stay despite his generally mandatory retirement coming up. When the Crystals (post-humans) send a women convicted of monstrous crimes to Earth because they don’t want her, the warden doesn’t want her either and asks for some quid pro quo from the guard. Things then proceed with many feints and reversals.
This story seems to be a variant on Shaw’s saying that, “While we have prisons it matters little which of us occupy the cells,” in which it very much does matter but not in the way you might think. Nevertheless, whatever Reed is saying in this didn’t come through clearly to me or with urgency. Too much contrary subtlety amidst clear didactic speeches. Others may get different mileage, of course.
“Tasting Notes on the Varietals of the Southern Coast” by Gwendolyn Clare
A very short tale of the master vintner moving along with the campaign against the Qati. They have excellent vineyards and the Romanesque emperor has made a “breathmage” craft a plague to eliminate the people. Sort of a neutron plague.
This is mostly an exercise in narrative voice as the aesthete details the wines and whines about his difficulties in an insane detachment from reality. But, as the editor’s notes indicate, it does skillfully evoke a world in less than two thousand mostly indirect words. So it’s at once annoying (if that’s the word) and clever and different readers will weigh the story differently.
“The Care of House Plants” by Jeremy Minton
The malicious Grayling and weak Harry are “cops” for a biotech firm hunting Bendick, an employee who has disappeared with some of the company’s tech. They find his mother at her house and Bendick’s obviously been there because the house and grounds are a riot of strange plant growths. As the story progresses, we find that mom is not as she seems, Harry’s antagonism toward Grayling grows, and the story turns toward horror (or a changed perspective).
Not to my taste, but effective for people who like the UK tradition of invasive vegetative body/mind horror.
“The Hermit of Houston” by Samuel R. Delany
This “unofficial tale” of two homosexual lovers spends its first half in Yucatan before finally moving to Houston. The climax before a double denouement (only one of which is described as such) is an infodump by the “hermit” who seems to be a sort of occult enforcer of social order. The bulk of everything besides the infodump is essentially a travelogue or reverie. There’s no plot but only an elucidation of a semi-near-future society (c. 2110) which is oddly contemporary (Facebook, Uber, approximate references to the current White House) and obscured by time’s abyss (Facebook is ancient and overgrown with myth and, aside from the contemporary references, it’s a virtually unrecognizable world). This society seems to have problems with population and thinks that memory editing (the “coming-of-age forgetting process”), enforcing rules of narrative by shooting writers who stray from the approved official narratives, and letting isolated homosexuals die after failing to reproduce, is the way to go. Meanwhile, there’s lots of explicit sex and debates on whether Sherlock Holmes was gay, the Earth is flat or round, and what “dozen” means. But apparently the society is supposed to be very recognizable in that the story ends with a contemporary dateline, underscoring its timely un-story-ness.
If you prefer “texts” to “stories” then this is the story for you. If you don’t like things that demand reading twice without giving you anything to enjoy the first time, then it’s not.
“On Highway 18” by Rebecca Campbell
In the late 80s, a couple of late-teens are doing late-teen things on an island, apparently in Canada. While starting off with Jen and focusing on her a great deal, it turns out to be basically Petra’s story as she becomes estranged from her friend. Interwoven with this is the ominous recurrent motif of ghosts of hitchhiking girls and the question of whether one or both of Jen and Petra are “like other girls.”
The fantasy element seems at once obligatory yet creepily effective but the characters never really connected for me and it all seemed a bit thin. Still, if the characters and situations and sehnsucht or “negative nostalgia” work for you, the whole story might.
“Hollywood Squid” by Oliver Buckram
A heartless director (but in a different sense from all the other heartless directors) and his alien-squid friend are living in his guesthouse (he’s rented out what used to be his house after falling on hard times) and have come up with a movie idea about Hollywood corruption in which the squid will star. However, after making their unsuccessful pitch, their laptops with the story ideas get stolen and they have to figure out if truth is stranger than fiction.
Some readers may object to this being an utterly silly story and dislike it while others may find it very funny. I’m in the latter camp. The idea of two-foot-tall aliens clowning around after being taken to our leaders and all the rest of it (including self-referential illogic amidst reference to That Movie with the Self-Referential Title and the third bit of evidence that proved the conspiracy to the protagonist) just worked for me.
“Still Tomorrow’s Going to Be Another Working Day” by Amy Griswold
In this flash piece, people go into debt for fertility treatments and the protagonists come to repossess the kid when the parents can’t pay (though there’s more to it than that). Interesting and effective enough.
“Bodythoughts” by Rahul Kanakia
Slimy aliens from Rigel have been isolated on Earth after Rigel is destroyed in a war (with humans). The protagonist for the first greater-than-half of the story is one of these Rigellians, and “they” (later “he”) has fallen in love with the protagonist of the second less-than-half of the story, a space Captain who was stranded and who had to live with the Rigellians during the war and became basically an honorary Rigellian before being rescued and returned to Earth.
Alien physiology and psychology are used as a means to discuss sexuality and identity (and social dominance) and people who like this sort of thing probably won’t find it to be the best of the many, many examples (not least due to the awkward transition of focus) but probably better than average. (One very odd thing about this story is that it features both a movie (based on the Captain’s story) and vaguely aquatic aliens, exactly like “Hollywood Squid,” but is otherwise about as different as can be.)
“Riddle” by Lisa Mason
Edwin is an artist who has broken up with a woman and is trying to hook up with a waitress but fails. Then he meets a strange something in the alley on his way home which turns out to be a sphinx. Lots of riddles and weird sex and horrific things follow.
Some may see this as a tale of one screwed-up clueless nutcase. Others may see it as a defense of women who want to “fix up” their projects of boyfriends. Some may see this as a really powerful embedding of ideas in imagination. Others may see it as massive overkill (literally). Either way, it has a trite, obvious, and anti-climactic ending. But points for a memorable sphinx and a vividly nightmarish quality.
“Children of Xanadu” by Juan Paulo Rafols
For this story, we have to accept that the U.S., all of southeast Asia, and perhaps the world, have lost a war to China which, as inexplicable as that would be, even less explicably did not become nuclear. “Dr. Garcia” (who has a past which is revealed in due course) has become a collaborator with the Han “Meritocracy” which involves creating genetically edited people to be human fruitflies in VR scenarios which test how to best enhance the intelligence of the progeny of the rulers. This Cognitive Enhancement Program (which, governmentally speaking, is more plausible than the war) is run from Xanadu, which has “eclipsed Beijing” and is described as, essentially, the capital of the Pacific and/or all Asia. In this dense and interesting (if appalling) milieu, a fairly standard “revolt for freedom” plot unfolds.
This is a good story in many ways but is hobbled by at least two problems. One is that the long narrative is basically told in a single step-by-step, plodding, linear way. It would have helped to modify this. Perhaps have the story open with the beginning of the rebellion and interweave brief current story segments with backstory sections. As is, the “all backstory” story gets rather dull. This is made worse when coupled with the style.
An electronic watch beeped a summons to the everyday. I hauled myself up the sink, ran a hand over haggard-pale features, and started on those rites of hygiene.
This doesn’t sound fatal in isolation but when extrapolated over 15,000 words, the pace is obviously not what it would be if the style was:
My watch beeped, so I rose and cleaned myself up.
Obviously, that condensation is not stylish but there could be a happy medium between style and conciseness. Isaac Asimov tells a great story of the conversation he had with his editor after he handed in the first rather purple chapters of his second novel. Walter Bradbury, asked him, “Do you know how Hemingway would say, ‘The sun rose the next morning?'” – “No, how?” – “He would say, ‘The sun rose the next morning.'”
Still, the editorial blurb states that this was a first sale and it’s certainly a creditable one.
“The Two-Choice Foxtrot of Chapham County” by Tina Connolly
This short-short neo-fairy tale is about a girl who gets too familiar with a local youth and winds up with a “stone baby” (which can be a heavy burden) and the sets of “two choices” she and her friend (our narrator) have and what happens when they pick neither and go off-script.
I’m not so sure about the “script” prior to going off-script. I say this is a “neo-fairy tale” and it is vs., say, the Middle Ages, but it reads like an awfully old-fashioned story in relation to the 21st Century and the story is told entirely in the terms of those fashions. That and the particular logistics of the end also make it imperfectly convincing.
“Starlight Express” by Michael Swanwick
Via Flaminio’s eyes we learn about Roma in the far, far future and the woman who seemed, not to go to the carrier beam of the transmission station relic as suicidal people often do, but to come from the carrier beam where, as far as most people know, people haven’t come from for millennia. How her universe has changed, and how she changes his, makes the bulk of the tale.
I could understand seeing this as a dull and underplotted story if the poetry of it all doesn’t speak to you but, if it does, it’s a really remarkable story (if more bitter than sweet) which strongly evokes deep time and vast space and an enduring humanity. Despite sharing something similar, as trite as “Riddle” seemed, so this seemed fresh—and so much more beautiful. Recommended.
More of Jason McGregor’s reviews can be found at Featured Futures.