Amazing Stories, #608, February 2005

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"Authorwerx" by Greg van Eekhout
"Steagal’s Barbershoppe and Smoke Emporium" by Jay Bonansinga
"A Vampire and a Vampire Hunter Walk into a Bar" by Keith R.A. DeCandido
"The Woods" by Benjamin Percy
"1,000 Words: Mortal Dance" by David Gerrold

ImageThe new editor of Amazing Stories, Jeff Berkwits, expresses nostalgia for the classic pioneers of science fiction—particularly Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.  His goal, in keeping with the magazine’s distinguished legacy, is to infuse each issue with the same "indescribable sense of wonder" he experienced while reading these authors as a child.  As a fan of the old masters myself, I applaud Berkwits’ vision, and I wish him luck in making Amazing Stories even more amazing when it emerges from its hiatus.  In the meantime, the editor is actively seeking suggestions from readers. 

If you could meet with any author from a bygone era, whom would you choose?  That question faces the protagonist of Greg van Eekhout‘s "Authorwerx."  In this quirky tale, a never-named underachiever visits a gallery of robotic replicas to literally "sniff out" trade secrets for the competition.  His investigation leads him on a sentimental detour, and his guide is Nathan P. Horn, a simulation of a favorite fiction author from his youth.  When the robot turns out to have schemes of its own, our hero becomes entangled and emerges with a prize that seems empty—until he realizes that what he wants is not the same as what he needs.  In the end, this is a refreshing story about how profoundly good literature can influence a child, even when it’s half-forgotten in adulthood.

The first-person storytelling here is relaxed and accessible, and peppered with wry humor.  "Authorwerx" does contain a few disturbing images, but the author, at the brink of dystopic horror, always pulls back with a "nah—just kidding."  The combination of profound theme and light tone worked well for this reader.  I only wish van Eekhout had chosen an author from my own childhood so I could have fully shared the protagonist’s voyage of rediscovery.

In "Steagal’s Barbershoppe and Smoke Emporium," Jay Bonansinga introduces us to a shell-shocked veteran of the Iraq War who visits an old refuge of his youth—the local barber shop.  He’s not there for a haircut, though, and that’s not what he gets.  The story’s speculative element is rather transparent, but while this may dull its impact, the protagonist and the reader may still share a poignant surprise at the end.

Bonansinga writes with a masterful style that fully engages the senses.  The protagonist’s recollections of war are stark and realistic, and one may wonder if the author has seen action himself.  This is a timely tale, and along the way it reminds us of the humanity we share with friend and foe alike.

As the title suggests, "A Vampire and a Vampire Hunter Walk into a Bar" is a lively romp punctuated by witty one-liners.  This dialogue-only story by Keith R. A. DeCandido features Count Dracula and Van Helsing (presumably) in a rapid-fire bitch session that includes plenty of ranting about popular culture.  I found this piece very funny, if a bit unfocused; I also wonder how these two find so much to talk about when they meet.  Beneath the laughter lies a gentle lesson about what can give life meaning.

A turn of the page begins a much darker journey into "The Woods."  This coming-to-terms story by Benjamin Percy follows a man on a hunting and camping trip with his woodsman father.  The rift between them is as wide as any canyon in Oregon’s high desert.  The piece unfolds like a horror tale, beginning with the discovery of death in the wilderness.  It keeps the reader guessing about the speculative element, dropping vague but tantalizing clues in the style of The Blair Witch Project.

The author writes in the first person, deep in the point-of-view of the protagonist, Justin.  From early on, this story feels like a very personal journey; in fact, it is dedicated to a man who shares the author’s last name—his father, one assumes.  Still, Justin’s original motivations remain somewhat mysterious to this reader, especially considering his aversion to both his father and hunting.

"The Woods" is well-crafted, and the prose has a literary quality full of evocative images.  Percy succeeds in bringing the setting to life as a full-fledged "character."  Unfortunately, the emphasis on scene description contributes to a rather slow pace.  This reader would also have preferred a higher dialogue-to-narrative ratio.

Though the plot revolves around hunting, Percy avoids gore.  Even readers disturbed by modern hunting practices might find themselves pleased with the ending.  It packs a solid emotional punch and provides satisfying closure.

David Gerrold, the writer of the classic Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," contributes this issue’s 1,000-Word feature.  Paired with a bruise-colored illustration by David Seidman, "Mortal Dance" vibrates with both tragedy and joy.  Mariella belongs to a quasi-human species whose women die if they fail to breed.  Being sterile, she is resigned to a virgin death, but she exults in the mating dance for its own sake.  The story twists when she is approached by an unexpected suitor.

The style of this piece is almost as lyrical as a poem.  At first, it’s occasionally a challenge to parse literal details from metaphor, but the reader soon settles into the surreal atmosphere.  The ending is so beautiful and surprising that a reader may feel compelled to weep or even cheer.

Overall, I was very impressed with this issue.  The variety and quality of the offerings make it a worthy recommendation to speculative fiction fans of all stripes.