Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 2006

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cover art by Max Bertolini

"Less Than Nothing" by Robert Reed  
"Shadow Man" by Matthew Hughes
"The Boy in Zaquitos" by Bruce McAllister 
"Horse-Year Women" by Michaela Roessner 
"A Daze in the Life" by Tony Sarowitz
"Journey to Gantica" by Matthew Corradi  

Much of this issue of F&SF is taken up by the first installment of a serialized novella by Terry Bisson: "Planet of Mystery," which will have to wait until its complete publication for review. A pall of horror and gloom seems to hang over the rest of the issue; most of the stories end on a downbeat, and the collective impression of the human condition created here is not an enviable one. Fortunately, depression and gloom comprise the natural disposition of this reviewer, who thereby addresses her task with enthusiasm.

"Shadow Man" by Matthew Hughes is a portrait of that mainstay of horror fiction: the sociopathic serial killer. Damien grows up knowing "that some of the thoughts that slowly bubbled up to break at the surface of his mind were best kept unsaid. Thoughts about pain and how animals squirmed and yelped when things happened to them. How interesting it would be to know if people squirmed and yelped like that." He also knows that the Shadow Men are watching him. He can’t really see them, but he knows when they are around because he can feel the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Damien’s mother knows that something is wrong with him, she takes him to doctors, has him put on medication, but Damien grows up, moves out, and stops taking the pills. Then, one day, he catches one of the Shadow Men unawares and learns the reason they have been watching him.

Hughes is sparing with his grue; little of it splashes onstage in this very short piece, yet we know quite well what Damien has been doing with the cats and what he would like to do with the cat-eyed girl. But the real monsters, who raise this story from the level of yet-another-serial-killer tale, are the Shadow Men, who watch it all for reasons it is not pleasant to imagine. The reader also has to wonder if they have been doing more than watch, if Damien might somehow have been their creation rather than just their subject.

Bruce McAllister‘s story "The Boy in Zaquitos" is no less disturbing.

At first Matt Hudson only wants to serve his country. His ambition is to be an intelligence analyst, but he just doesn’t have the right stuff. Then the government finds a use for him when they discover that he is suitable to be an asymptomatic carrier of disease—specifically the bubonic plague. Matt is sent to certain countries to be a vector of plague and consequent political destabilization, and there the work begins to affect him.

After doing those three cities, I took the train back to the capital and found myself not looking at women or children. If I looked at them, I felt like they were going to die, that I was going to kill them—which could have been true, but not in the way it felt at the moment. I felt that my eyes—just my eyes—could do it. If I looked at them, they’d die. And with the women, if I thought they were beautiful, they’d also die because I thought it—because I thought they were beautiful.

Later, it would get a lot worse—the superstitions and habits—but that’s how it started, on the first mission. Not looking at women and children.
The horror here comes not only in watching Matt’s psychological disintegration but also in realizing that the government considers this an acceptable cost, that people like Matt are as expendable as the brown-skinned boys in third-world countries who have to die of plague to further a political agenda. And in knowing that this story, except perhaps in a few details, is not merely fiction.

"A Daze in the Life" by Tony Sarowitz is merely depressing in contrast. Paul is a CAptive, member of an elite class of drones who have sold their brains’ processing power to some vaguely realized governmental organization through the medium of a Cerebral Appliance, or CApp. One day, he receives a cerebral invitation from the woman of his dreams, but he discovers she is only trying to entrap him into a plot to subvert the CApp-based system, on which he depends for everything.

"It’s not that I’m afraid of losing the work, though I am.

And it’s not the toys I wouldn’t be able to afford, the meals I’d have to give up or the rent I wouldn’t be able to pay. It’s not even that I believe the data stream is sacrosanct, or anything like that. Or maybe it is all of that. I don’t know. I just know the thought of putting that god-awful thing on my head makes me sick to my stomach."

The premise of this piece seems a bit technologically backwards. What kind of sinister mind-control organization gives its mind-slaves two hours off for an expensive lunch, besides letting them free at the stroke of five o’clock? Why would they count on their voluntary cooperation, when the necessary equipment could be hardwired into their skulls and run 24/7? Paul does indeed have it pretty good, and it’s no wonder that he resists the attempt to break the electronic chains of his exploitation.

Michaela Roessner has taken the premise for "Horse-Year Women" from Eastern astrology, the superstition that "hinoeuma," or women born in the fire-horse year, are cursed because of their headstrong, untamable natures; no man would ever marry them.

Roessner’s story is the life of Thera, a woman who possesses in full measure the qualities of women born in the Year of the Horse. She is headstrong and independent, hard-working and restless, and fated to be unlucky in love. As Roessner’s narrator comes to know the Horse Woman, she is fascinated by the cautionary tales Thera’s Japanese-born mother used to tell her, of girls abandoned in the wilderness because they were born in the Year of the Horse. The stories alter and grow in the telling to become tales of wild horse-woman tribes, reflecting the changes in Thera’s life.

An air of sadness and tragedy hangs over Roessner’s story, the spirit of the millions of missing Asian girl-children, left to die or, in these modern times, selectively aborted because the families prefer a son over a daughter. The same qualities of independence that make a Horse Woman so undesirable are not considered a problem for a man.

This story contains no outright fantasy, however, other than the legends the characters tell.

Matthew Corradi‘s "Journey to Gantica" is a fable of giants in a strange land where people grow and shrink in size for reasons that are not well-explained, except as "true reflections of the inner heart."

Adelia, having outgrown her home, leaves to seek the opportunity to do great deeds as a giant-slayer; later, she discovers that she is herself a giant. Always, the people tell her that her goal can be found Upland, in Gantica, but no matter how far Upland she travels, she never reaches Gantica. The goal she does reach, and the lesson she finally learns, are unfortunately banal and laid on with an overly didactic hand.

Robert Reed continues his series about Raven Dream with "Less Than Nothing." Raven’s People returned several generations ago to the old way of life, hiding from the others they call demons—anyone not of their tribe. In a previous story, Raven had gone onto the demon lands and was followed there by a fellow tribesman, whom he was forced to kill. But One-Less-Than-One’s ghost has returned to haunt him. "An endless river of blood was leaking out of One-Less’s ruptured kidney, and the bloodless face grinned with its slack empty mouth while sunken eyes glared at him, fury mixed with a cold, cold humor." Raven has lied about the killing, but his grandfather is able to see the ghost and the truth. Raven is banished from the People, forced to go out into the demon world, and the vengeful ghost follows, waiting for an opportunity to do him harm.

As part of the ongoing series, this one provides crucial and surprising information about the past of both Raven and the People. It is also clear that there is yet more of the tale to anticipate. But for readers coming to these events for the first time, these revelations will be less significant, despite the condensed backstory Reed has provided.