Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2005

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cover by Bryn Barnard

"Walpurgis Afternoon" by Delia Sherman
"The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai" by Geoff Ryman

"Poppies by Moonlight" by Sydney J. Van Scyoc
"An Incident at the Luncheon of the Boating Party" by Allen M. Steele
"The Cure" by Robert Reed
"When the Great Days Came" by Gardner Dozois
"The Last Akialoa" by Alan Dean Foster
"Cannibal Farm" by Ron Goulart

Geoff Ryman
’s historical fable “The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai” is  the clear highlight of the F&SF December issue. This tale is a meditation on the ways of heroism, on revolution and war, on kingship and enlightenment. While there is too much of the fantastic to call it historical fiction, the situation echoes the sad history of nineteenth-century Cambodia, reduced to a vassal state by its more powerful neighbors Siam and Vietnam, while at the same time the forces of Western imperialism were poised to overtake the entire region.

In Ryman’s version of events, the monk Kai has mastered the Ten Rules of Heroism, which recall the maxims of Sun Tzu, or perhaps the Sayings of Mao Tse-Tung—another notable revolutionary leader in Asian history. The Ten Rules are:

1. Heroism consists of action
2. Do not act until necessary
3. You will know that the action is right if everything happens swiftly
4. Do whatever is necessary
5. Heroism is revealed not by victory but by defeat
6. You will have to lie to others, but never lie to yourself
7. Organized retreat is a form of advance
8. Become evil to do good
9. Then do good to earn merit and undo harm
10. Heroism is completed by inaction

Each of these rules is exemplified in one of the last ten years of the hero’s life. In the beginning, “Kai starts each day with his exercises. He stands on tiptoe on the furthest leaf of the highest branch of the tallest mango tree in the region. He holds two swords and engages himself in fast and furious swordplay. He walks on his hands for a whole day.

"Yet he takes no action.”

But the Kingdom of Kambu is very badly ruled. “Our army is controlled by our enemies. Our wealth pours out to them and when they want more, they just take it. The King’s magic makes girls pretty, fields abundant, and rainfall regular. It holds back disease and the ravages of age.

"The Neighbors make the magic of war.”

The fatal thought enters Kai’s mind: “If only the King were strong. If only the Sons of Kambu stood up as one against the Neighbors. If only there were ten of me.” He decides to take action. He decides to be a hero. The fate of the Kingdom is forever changed.

Many readers will inevitably be reminded of Zang Yimou’s wuxia film Hero. The two works explore similar themes: the cost of rebellion, the burden of kingship, the eternal tension between ends and means, intentions and consequences. In both there is splendid, fantastic imagery. Ryman’s version is more enigmatic; there is more irony, and no romance. But in both we can hear the whisper of history’s great Tempter, urging us to go forth and do great deeds.

The issue’s other novelet is “Walpurgis Afternoon,” a wish-fulfillment fantasy by Delia Sherman. We find Evie as a suburban housewife, justifying her existence by writing a weekly garden column for the local paper and pretending that her teenaged daughter needs someone to slice her apple when she comes home from school. Then one morning she wakes up to discover that a couple of witches have moved into the house next door—where there had been only a vacant lot the day before. But it’s a liberal suburb. They can cope with witches. And no one there would actually use the W-word.

And of course witches have the best gardens, with fresh fruit out-of-season any time they want it, and they bake the best pies, and wear the coolest clothes, and throw the very best parties for the most special people, and don’t have to worry about any zoning laws, either. And of course, the most special people are all witches, too. Don’t you wish you were a witch? Well, maybe you are.

It is a pleasure to encounter Sydney J. Van Scyoc once again as the author of the issue’s first short story, “Poppies by Moonlight.” The premise here is one of science fiction’s oldest, but Van Scyoc does not mean to astound us with novelties. She knows that we know where the mysterious visitor comes from. The satisfaction here comes from the author’s way in the telling.

Before his death, Carla promised her stepfather that she would look after his feckless offspring, Rob. She keeps her promise out of a grim sense of duty and the memory of Steve, on whom she had an unrequited crush. “Her return was like some dumb, unreasoning migration. Salmon swam upstream. Birds flew north, flew south. Gray whales spouted along the coast. Carla returned to the dry hills.” But this time, something has changed. Rob is showing uncharacteristic signs of shaping up. Carla is soon aware that this transformation owes something to a visitor boarding with him in the old ranch house in the hills, and we await the consequences of their inevitable encounter.

This reviewer tends in general to be irritated by reprints where she expects to find original fiction, but Allen M. Steele’s “An Incident at the Luncheon of the Boating Party” is so very short and appeared in such an obscure original venue that she would be tempted to forgive the sin if the story itself had a bit more to recommend it. But the piece tends to drag on too long for its three pages, heading for the revelation of a time-travel misstep that was already obvious from the title.

The editorial blurb calls “The Cure” by Robert Reed a fairy tale, but it depicts the real and disillusioning world of the publishing industry. After a career on the edge of failure, Francis Holiday is struck with inspiration. The Cure is sold for a six-figure advance, but the movie deal makes him a millionaire, and his agent wants to him to top it with an even bigger idea. Yet he may find that even his most cynical imaginings can not compete with the truth.

Those readers who have also been authors are likely to find interest in this piece. Beginning with the words, “Francis Holiday had always been a mid-list author,” we groan in sympathetic pain. However, it can not really be considered science fiction or fantasy, and as a satire, the edge of its humor is not all that sharp.

And speaking of humor, there can be no better example than “Cannibal Farm” by Ron Goulart that judgments of what is humorous and what is not must be entirely subjective. It seems clear that the editor of F&SF thinks this tale of the adventures of Jack and Hildy investigating Mad Dog Disease are funny, else he would not have published it. In this reviewer, on the other hand, it caused excruciating pain. She therefore leaves it for the readers to decide if this is likely to be to their taste:

Heading for the Animal Husbandry Building, Hildy took a pedramp that passed a Designer Diaper Shop with its flashing sign that said You’re Never Too Young To Be Incontinent! Be Prepared! Next came a ServoMech Outlet—Trade In Your Old Bot! Pay Practically Nothing…Or So It Seems! After passing a Burger Boyz restaurant—Buy 4 Big Fat Burgers And Get A Full Pound of Ground Beef FREE!—Hildy turned onto a tree-lined lane that led to the campus building she sought.

Two university gardeners were testing a stand of holographic elm trees, causing the images to wax and wane.

A large pinked-faced man of about fifty was awaiting her on the neostone steps of the domed Animal Husbandry Building. Giving out a pleased chuckle, he came hurrying down the stairs to her. “Hi, hon,” said Professor Walter Brinkerhoff, spreading his arms wide. “It’s a true pleasure to meet the author of my favorite book, Hey, Pete, Let’s Eat More Meat!, in the flesh, as it were. How about a big hug?”

“I think not, professor.” Smiling amiably, she dodged his charge. “What I’m here for, as I explained on the phone, is some information about the hybrid veal you and your staff have been working on.”

“Come on up to my lab, hon.” His attempt to pat her on the backside was not, due to evasive footwork on her part, at all successful.

Gardner Dozois follows the trail of a rat on the night “When the Great Days Came.” It is not a magical rat or a transformed footman, but an ordinary rat; “in fact the only ‘name’ it had was a scent-signature composed of pheromones and excretions from its scent-glands, the tang of its breath, and the hot rich smell of its anus.”  It seems also at first to be an ordinary night for the rat, with the usual measure of frustration that attends the life of a rat, who must give way to creatures larger and more formidable than itself, and in particular to humans, whose presence so dominates its world. But this is no ordinary night, and the rat, so well-adapted for survival, is about to come into its own at last.

Left until the end: “The Last Akialoa” by Alan Dean Foster, as the discussion of this story is likely to arouse a certain amount of controversy in these parts, for the editorial blurb points out that it is not science fiction or fantasy. It is the story of ornithologist Loftgren on an expedition into Hawaii’s Alakai Swamp in search of the reportedly-extinct Akialoa bird. Why, then, does it belong in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction?

For many reasons. First, it is a story of a scientist in the pursuit of his goal. Loftgren is as dauntless and determined as any steel-jawed rocket scientist of Golden Age SF, and his adventures as harrowing.

Second, Foster’s setting is as exotic, as wondrous, as perilous as can be found in any work of SF. Indeed, it has the most fantastically alien setting of any of the stories in this issue of the magazine.

The Alakai Swamp occupied the bowl of a gigantic caldera that formed the top of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Trade winds slamming into the flanks of its highest peak, Mt. Waialeale, were shoved upward into colder air where they were forced to drop their load of moisture day after day, month after month, year after year, with a benumbing, saturating regularity. Four hundred and eighty inches of rain a year. Six hundred and twenty-four inches in the record year of 1948. Cherapunji in India occasionally had more during the monsoon, but Cherapunji also enjoyed a dry season.

In the depths of the Alakai, the swamp in the sky, the dry season was measured in hours.

If Foster had merely omitted the reference to Hawaii and placed this tale on the fictitious planet of Paludium, not even the most hard-bitten science fiction fan would have had a word to say against it. More, Foster describes this setting with such authority, with such exotic detail and sensory richness as to provoke a real SFnal sense of wonder in the reader. Those names!

They were perched in a cluster of trees green with epiphytes and bromeliads, bejeweling the branches with the brilliance of their plumage. His jaw dropped in wonderment. A pair of black momo sat preening themselves, their own shorter sickle-bills digging parasites from beneath their wings. Nearby, a flock of greater amahiki chattered away like so many lime-green mockingbirds. With its thick, heavy beak, a greater koa finch was plucking caterpillars from the trunk of an isolated tree, while overhead a trio of o’o’ flashed their extraordinary tail feathers and brilliant gold wing tufts. Crow-sized kioea yelled at diminutive red-and-gray ula-ai-hawane.

Finally, many readers will indeed recognize a definite element of the fantastic in the story, and one that is not at all incidental to the events. A similar legend can be found in other tales from other lands, under other names, and there should be no question that it belongs in the pages of this magazine.