Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2002

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"Soul Pipes" by Ray Aldridge
"Walk to the Full Moon" by Sean McMullen
"The Woman in the Mist" by Ron Goulart
"Under Hill" by Gene Wolfe
"The Unfamiliar" by Jerry Oltion

This issue gets off to a good start with the novelette "Walk to the Full Moon" by Sean McMullen. The protagonist is a linguist brought in by his detective uncle to communicate with someone who appears to be a member of a Neanderthal precursor species plopped in the middle of modern day Spain. Penned up at a research institution, the Homo heidelbergensis woman becomes the focus of some nasty university politics over who gets to take credit for having found her and develop the best theory for how she got to the present day. Meanwhile our linguist friend is the only member of the investigating team who actually gets to know the woman as a person. And by winning her trust, he is also the only one to learn the secret of her presence in modern times. The revelation of the secret took me completely by surprise and it provides a satisfying finish to a well-crafted story.  

The protagonists of the novella "Soul Pipes" by Ray Aldridge also seek to unravel an ancient mystery, here on an abandoned colony planet. Members of an archeological team, misfits all (for who else would undertake such a journey), have come to Graylin IV to learn why its human colony, founded hundreds of years ago by Jamaicans, suddenly perished shortly after getting established. As, one by one, the members of the archeological team are picked off and destroyed by creatures embodying their own imaginations, the team’s mechanic, immune because his imagination was taken from him by court order, learns of a local ecosystem with a unique survival mechanism. The development of the mystery and its ultimate revelation are nicely handled, providing some lasting images. Less satisfying to me was the novella’s conclusion, which seemed more in the service of ending the story than to be supported by true character motivations.

Gene Wolfe‘s short story "Under Hill" is a reworking of a fairytale using Camelot as a backdrop. A beautiful maiden has been placed by an evil sorcerer atop a very slippery glass hill, there to be rescued by a knight of King Arthur’s table. The knight builds some construction scaffolding without much trouble, and takes the princess, only to be whisked with her to the evil sorcerer’s lair under the hill. The "evil sorcerer" turns out to be from tens of thousands of years in the future, and, for an obscure reason he doesn’t explain properly, he wants to arm the knight with a device that will render all of the knight’s enemies, and their children too, incapable of violence. The scenario struck me as preposterous. Why construct a glass hill and put a maiden on top just to capture the knight? Why not just abduct him? Why would someone of an extremely advanced technological society expect that a man who lives by the sword would go along with a plan to render his enemies pacifists? This one just didn’t do it for me. "Under Hill" is also a reprint, being first published in the online magazine The Infinite Matrix.

"The Unfamiliar," a short story by Jerry Oltion is a light tale involving a man who moves into a new house and discovers that the previous owner has left behind a supernatural lapdog to guard some of the house’s secrets. Not from the new owner, but from another man upon whom the previous owner has laid a curse, and who will come back to the house to try to break the spell. The poor schlep who bought the house doesn’t even like dogs, let alone supernatural beasts who can shape shift into slavering bear-like monsters. The relationship between the new owner and the cute, fluffy, and very annoying lap dog is nicely set up. But the story ultimately fell flat for me, mainly because the relationship never really develops, even after the dog/monster defends the house against the intruding man with the curse. Perhaps this story was never meant to be more than a shaggy dog story, but I wanted just a little bit more from it.

This issue’s concluding novelette, "The Woman in the Mist" by Ron Goulart suffers from some less-than-deft writing that kept me from ever becoming fully engaged in it. For instance, early on occurs this sequence:

"The heavy stone gargoyle he’d seen plummeting down toward him from high up on the cathedral smacked into the sidewalk on exactly the spot where he’d been standing. His suitcase was squashed flat. There was an immense smashing, crunching, and cracking, and dust came swirling up as jagged fragments of paving shot up all around."

Okay, it’s not actually grammatically incorrect or anything, but it makes me stop to think about it. It’s out of order. The suitcase is squashed flat, and then there’s this smashing and crunching and cracking. The two events should occur at the same time. And I’ve never heard the word "immense" ascribed to a sound. The dust swirls up, to me a more lazy motion that should come last, but instead it occurs before the shooting up of pavement fragments, a much faster motion.

This sort of thing occurs throughout the piece, constantly throwing me out of the story. Then too, the novelette is part of a series of books and stories featuring the same characters, so I also felt left out because I hadn’t read any of the other works in the series. The hero is, as the editor’s intro puts it, a Victorian ghostbuster. In the vein of Sherlock Holmes, his purpose seems to be to debunk ghost sightings for his clients. The "ghost" in this story is actually the young woman victim of a scientist’s experiments with an invisibility serum. There’s an international spy and her strongman boyfriend out to get our ghostbuster hero, and they all come together at the end for a less-than climactic conclusion.