Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 2004

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"The Ocean of the Blind" by James L. Cambias
"The Unpleasantness at Le Chateau Malveillant" by John Morressy
"The Forest on the Asteroid" by Robert Sheckley
"The Millstone" by Kate Mason
"The Seventh Daughter" by Bruce McAllister
"Silent Echoes" by Albert E. Cowdrey
"Gas" by Ray Vukcevich
"Dancer in the Dark" by David Gerrold

ImageOverall April is a strong issue, with a healthy melange of straightforward science fiction, sword and sorcery, and contemporary fantasy.

James L. Cambias's "The Ocean of the Blind" wins this month's award for best opening sentence:


"By the end of his second month at Hitode Station, Rob Freeman had already come up with eighty-five ways to murder Henri Kerlerec."

Hitode Station is a human research facility anchored to the planet Ilmatar's ocean floor. Rob Freeman is a specialist at underwater photography and drone operation. Henri Kerlerec is an egotist, media personality, explorer and archaeologist, in approximately that order.

Kerlerec is universally despised by the station's scientists and technicians. With only eighty-five entries, Rob Freeman is in third place in the station's unofficial contest to see who can come up with the most methods of doing away with Kerlerec.

Kerlerec recruits Rob on a secret and unapproved expedition to film the Ilmatarans, a sentient, submarine race that relies on touch and sonar to apprehend their surroundings.

Interwoven with Rob and Kerlerec's story is the story of Broadtail, a young naturalist and member of the Ilmataran gentry. Broadtail and the Bitterwater Company of Scholars (an organization he hopes to join) cross paths with Kerlerec, and what happens when they do I'll leave to you to read. Suffice it to say that of the two species, the Ilmatarans prove to be the better scientists.

Cambias's portrayal of the Hitode Station staff feels effortless and true. The Ilmatarans, on the other hand, felt a little like humans dressed in lobster costumes. (Although I should point out that the lobster costumes are inventive, intelligent and fascinating.) It may be the overly obvious parallels between the Bitterwater Company of Scholars and the various naturalist societies of nineteenth century Europe that led me to that conclusion.

Other than an occasional impatience with the Ilmataran scenes, I found the story engrossing and entertaining.

The wizard Kedrigern has developed a history over his lifetime in print that gives each successive story a depth that can be hard to create in stand alone stories. He's the kind of character you would like to talk to, so you could ask him all about the bits of his past and personality that are hinted at, but never explored, in his chronicles.

"The Unpleasantness at Le Chateau Malveillant" is another delightful adventure in classic Kedrigern style, with grumpy homebody Kedrigern dragged by his star-struck wife Princess to the aid of King Rathreen at Le Chateau Malveillant, the site of an unprecedented diplomatic concordance. There seven kings will meet and choose from their number a high king to rule them all and bring peace to the land. Rathreen is the favorite, but his days may be numbered. The Lord Of Shadows, a mysterious assassin who it's rumored never fails to dispatch his targets, has announced that there will be no less than six attempts on Rathreen's life. If Rathreen survives them all, the Lord Of Shadows will consider himself beaten.

It is Kedrigern's duty to help protect Rathreen. It will surprise no one, I'm sure, if I reveal he does so successfully. But who hired the Lord Of Shadows in the first place?

If magic in Kedrigern's world seems a bit too mechanistic, it's forgivable because it fits the light-hearted tone of the stories. Light-hearted, but with an edge. In this as in many of Kedrigern's stories we're reminded that feudalism is a brutal regime, and that royalty is won at the edge of a blade.

Robert Sheckley's narrator in "The Forest on the Asteroid" is portrayed not in words about him, but in the words he uses and the story he tells. I have a vivid image of what the narrator looks like, despite receiving no description to go by. It's an excellent example of a writer using his craft to good effect.

The narrator relates the story of how he came to live on the small, forested world where we readers find him. It's an asteroid custom designed in every way by the narrator's friend and former employer Arthur. Arthur, it seems, was fabulously wealthy and more than a little reclusive. He was also obsessive about his little world, and when he intuited something not of his own making, he set out to discover what it was.

As the narrator says:


"In places of danger, it is best to go in courageously and face what comes up. But in places of safety, where you can be sure nothing ever happens or ever will happen, it is best to hang back, take thought, desist."

It's a highly stylized tale, closer to a fable than a story, and it's more than a little strange; but I liked it.

"The Millstone" is a retelling of "The Poor Miller's Boy and the Cat," a fable in which three miller's apprentices go out in search of horses. The third apprentice is a despised dullard, and the two older apprentices abandon him in a cave. The dullard, named Hans in this story, wanders the forest until he comes upon a talking cat, who promises him a beautiful horse if he serves her for seven years.

At the end of his servitude he returns to the mill to face ridicule and await the arrival of his horse. But the cat is actually the Princess in disguise, and she rewards Hans' service by marrying him and giving him the kingdom.

What makes "The Millstone" work is its framing: the story is narrated by the second apprentice long after the events of the story have taken place. In his version of the story, of course, he portrays himself as a true friend to Hans, forced to go along with Hans' ill treatment by a froward older apprentice.

It's a brilliant little twist that keeps you turning the pages just to see how the narrator is going to justify his actions.

Bruce McAllister has a talent for hallucinatory prose. His novel Dream Baby sits high on my list of all time favorites.

"The Seventh Daughter" is a very short piece in true McAllister fashion about an American boy who lives in an Italian town and dreams true dreams. The American boy has fashioned a miniature village of clay that he keeps in his dresser drawer. In the village live the seven daughters of Satan. Each of the daughters has her own miniature village of clay fashioned by a boy to ease the daughters' loneliness, as the men of the village fear the daughters. One day the boy in the village dances with the youngest daughter and breaks the spell of fear.

The American boy becomes a man and returns to America, but he wonders what happened to his clay village. In the end, he finds out.

With a small ration of words McAllister still manages to provoke a range of emotions and leave you with a lingering sense of mystery and, ultimately, joy.

Joy is not an emotion that figures prominently in Albert E. Cowdrey's "Silent Echoes." Curt Blanck is a good old boy in New Orleans whose girlfriend Missy is a sado-masochist and a psychic. He pawns her off on his step-brother Roger when he begins to realize that Missy is not quite right in the head. As it turns out, Missy and Roger are quite compatible, in no small measure because Roger himself is a masochist.

Roger and Missy move to Washington, D.C., and eventually get married, but as time passes their union proves to be a mistake. Roger moves toward the mainstream, while Missy grows less normal every day. Missy craves the presence of the other world, the voices of the past and of the future, so prominent in her hometown of New Orleans, and Washington can't live up to her expectations.

Roger is transferred to Germany, and in a concentration camp Missy finds the world of pain she was searching for. When Curt visits and Roger leaves her, Missy finally finds a way to join the world she hears and finds so much more compelling then the real world of Roger and Curt.

It's a very sad story about misfits, pain and love, and it's beautifully written.

I'm not quite sure what to make of Ray Vukcevich's "Gas." It may be one of the oddest stories I've read in a long time.

Lindsey and Jack are young lovers who go to see the famous outlaw flautist Aloysius Mann. (I'll bet I'm the first to use the phrase "outlaw flautist" in a sentence.) Mr. Mann is an outlaw because when he performs he emits a green miasma that puts your garden variety halitosis to shame. Audiences at his performances must wear gas masks to withstand the olfactory assault.

As we discover in the course of the concert, it's no accident that Lindsey took Jack to this particular concert. Lindsey, Jack and Aloysius Mann are none of them who they at first appear to be. But don't worry, in the end young love conquers all.

Wildly imaginative is probably an understatement in describing this story. I quite enjoyed it, although there was one too many loving descriptions about bodily emissions for my taste.

We see the world of David Gerrold's "Dancer in the Dark" through the eyes of a boy, Michael, an orphan shipped to the countryside and taken in by a farmer woman he's told to call Miz.

Michael's society huddles behind the protective walls of the dark, a kind of elemental force field that sucks light and color from the world. Nobody likes the dark, but it's necessary to hold back the brightlands, a mysterious place where the light burns and from which nobody returns.

The dark is deliberately created by stringing dark generators in grids and walls, like the Dutch walling out the sea with dikes. Michael's life in the dark is one of unending drudgery and misery, but it's all that he knows. Until, that is, he sees Doey, Miz's former warder who one day wandered into the brightlands and was never seen again. Doey comes back to Miz's farm and gives Michael a taste of the bright, opening Michael's eyes to the world as it could be.

Michael is torn between the fear instilled in him by the adults in his life and the joy he glimpsed through Doey's touch. What will he do, and will Miz prevent him from making his own decision?

I kept expecting there to be more to this story. It is what it appears to be, an allegory about fear and freedom, and in the end it felt more like a sermon than a story. Because the story sets itself up as advocate of freedom and beauty, I feel churlish for being disappointed. Even so, I was disappointed, despite the well-crafted language and careful characterization. I suspect that this story is rooted in the politics of our own time, and will feel dated ten years from now.

I've yet to find an issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction that has disappointed, and April's issue is no exception. With the possible exception of the David Gerrold's cover story, there's a lot to like in this issue.

Jeremy Lyon is a freelance writer, tech industry cube farmer and the publisher of Futurismic, a site for people interested in the future and the effects of science and technology on the present.