Fantasy & Science Fiction, February, 2006

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Cover by David A. Hardy

“The Cathedral of Universal Biodiversity” by Gary W. Shockley

“The Long and the Short and the Tall” by John Morressy
“thirteen o’clock” by David Gerrold
“Boon” by Madeleine E. Robins
Short Story:
“Parsifal (Price Fixe)” by James L. Cambias
The four novelets and single short story in February’s Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy run from hard sci-fi (“The Cathedral of Universal Biodiversity”) to heartfelt urban fantasy (“Boon”), and all share voluminous imagination and fine craftsmanship.

“The Cathedral of Universal Biodiversity” by Gary W. Shockley heads off the collection. Focusing on a monk who imagines worlds into beings and the woman whose passionate nature pierces his bubble, Shockley’s story praises the creative powers of the human mind, which, he warns, cannot be divorced from our earthy sensuality. It’s a familiar theme, enlivened somewhat by Shockley’s take on the ‘possible worlds’ theme (in one society live “a mandelbrot spill of eigenvalues defining tentacled beings with a half-life of nanoseconds, yet capable in that relativistic moment of building a high-tech civilization in the virtual realm”).

Shockley’s lofty prose turns deep purple, however, and he comes across like Orson Scott Card at his worst: earnest and preachy. Especially with a mind-vs.-matter battle of the sexes, Shockley could use a sense of humor. Beautifully written, “Cathedral” lets you sample the verbal pyrotechnics that sustain this issue, but unfortunately doesn’t show you much of a heart.

Turn the page, though, and read on through “The Long and the Short and the Tall” by John Morressy. The plot is simple: hammy, crabby wizard Kedrigern goes on a quest to recover the Dwarf King’s magic belt (which, among its many powers, cures lower back pain). Morressy meanders through the standard pseudo-medieval fantasy realm, reversing stereotypes through a combination of subtle characterization and barbed quips. Nimbly paced and entertaining, “The Long…” seems like a parodic side tale from Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Plus, it made me laugh out loud.

In the middle of the issue is the best story, David Gerrold’s “thirteen o’clock.” One of the questions I’m supposed to answer as a reviewer is, “Why is this story worth reading?” If you ask me this about “thirteen o’clock,” I’m liable to start ranting: “Well, it’s told in this cool style, no capitals or periods or anything, rambling and rough and lyrical all at the same time, and it’s full of gay sex and swears, but it really works because it’s about more than gay sex and swears; it’s actually about love and loneliness, which sounds pretty corny, but the author makes it work, and it’s like this constant stream of fireworks, brilliance and beauty, in your brain, and you have to go buy the magazine right now because you’ll always keep coming back to this story…”

Sorry. Got carried away there. Anyhow, Gerrold’s story immediately drops you into the head of a trucker who’s world-weary, but still has a bit of the poet in him. As he cruises a bar looking for hook-ups, a one-night stand—a moment of intimacy—sends the narrator through the stories of his past in search of some magical spark of meaning. More magical realism than pure fantasy, Gerrold writes with a masterful, streaming-consciousness style reminiscent of a less disciplined Virginia Woolf. “thirteen o’clock” is kind of like Orlando on overdrive in the 21st century and more than worth the price of the issue.

“It’s hard to find Pampers in Elfland.” With this first sentence, Madeleine E. Robins brings us into the urban fantasy of her novelet, “Boon.” Mia, a single Latina mother struggling to raise her daughter, resents the encroachment of elves and other Faerie creatures on to the streets of New York. But Mia has more urgent matters to think about, until two gnomes, Oakmoss and Leafdrop, start helping her with childcare. Mia then becomes a part of class warfare among magical beings.

This is an original and engrossing story in which precise descriptions quickly illuminate the key characters, and magical themes boast sharp political edges. The gritty details of Mia’s scraping-by life evoke working class New York life strongly, as well as the main character’s irritation at the flashy, arrogant, wealthy elves. Pale, perfect, and at the top of the Faerie food chain, the elves who look down on Miya, Oakmoss, and Leafdrop stand in for the snotty, WASP-y types who think of people as nothing more than the services they provide.

Despite harsh intimations of prejudice and bondage, Robins resolves the story’s conflict with a thoroughly modern compassion that redefines what a family is. This is what urban fantasy should be: magical, compelling, and relevant. Charles DeLint, take note!
James L. Cambias’s “Parsifal (Prix Fixe)” rounds out the issue like a mellow after-dinner wine. On first reading, this story barely seemed fantastical to me. The characters just eat an endless, lovingly described meal as they discuss the history of the Holy Grail in a charming, rural, French restaurant. Then you realize that the characters are on their own gastronomical Grail quest even as they speak. Cambia’s vignette, bolstered by restrained naturalism in setting and conversation, brings the issue’s fantastical flights back down to earth. The author reminds us what’s really important in life: good friends, good food…and, most of all, good stories.