Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 2004

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"The Battle of York" by James Stoddard
"Nine Whispered Opinions Regarding The Alaskan Secession" by George Guthridge
"A Life In The Day Of Eb And Flo: An American Epic" by John Morressy
"Stuck Inside Of Mobile" by R. Garcia y Robertson
"A Balance Of Terrors" by Albert E. Cowdrey
"Johnny Beansprout" by Esther M. Friesner
"The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy" by Daryl Gregory

ImageI think it's Joel Siegel who is the movie studio's favorite reviewer, because he loves everything he sees. Now while I don't think a reviewer has to find fault with what he reveiews, I must admit to feeling that I'm not doing my job if I like everything I read. That said, call me Joel because I'm damned if I can find anything much to criticize in Gordon Van Gelder's July issue of F&SF.

James Stoddard begins "The Battle of York" by informing us that, "Three thousand years have elapsed since the passing of America." That, and the impermanence of magnetic media, gives him the excuse he needs to spin out a fantastic epic made up of pieces of selectively distorted Americana.

We meet our soul-weary and battleworn hero General Washington wandering the haunted Sequoia Forest with his battleaxe Valleyforge and his horse Silver. In that gloomy dark he meets Waynejon, The Pilgrim, who tells him he is the only one who can save America from the alliance of the Gaul Prince Louis, the Wolf Prince Hitler, and the Wizard of Canada. Waynejon sends him on a quest to capture the Words of Power from an iron box on the living mountain Mount Rushmore.

On his way Washington meets and befriends the gallant Custard, called Arm Strong; Apollo the giant eagle, son of E. Perilous Union; and Eisenhower Iron Hewer. Together they recover the Words of Power and return to defend York from the depredations of the Wizard of Canada's old world giant.

The story is so jampacked with oblique references to U.S. history and legend that long before you finish you'll exhaust your complete stock of high school civics tidbits and start reaching for the reference books. Even so, there's nothing difficult about the story: it's fun, a word that too seldom applies to short fiction.

This may be my favorite story so far this year.

George Guthridge chose to wait until the end of "Nine Whispered Opinions Regarding The Alaskan Secession" to reveal how the story came to be, so I won't expose it here. Suffice it to say that despite mechanistic origins, "Nine Whispered Opinions…" is heartfelt and true, as only fiction can be.

The story is made up of nine vignettes, each the perspective of an Alaskan, each an indictment of the Outsiders. We hear from Shoryn, guarding the border gate against obnoxious Texans; from Totem Tom, half-Tlingit, half-Tsimshian and half-crazy, taking the government's money to carve subversive totems; from Governor Diedre Stuck, trying to decide if she should sign into law Alaska's secession; and from many others.

The Alaskan secession is the center of this story, but like a painter sketching around the outside of the subject, Guthridge shows us the secession in the lives of the people affected by it.

"A Day In The Life of Eb and Flo: An American Epic" is a weighty title for a story that's shorter than many of the reviews I've written. It's a humorous look at the life of an American, in one day. I can't say I loved it, but since it's only a thirty second read it's hard to go wrong.

The July cover story from R. Garcia y Robertson, "Stuck Inside of Mobile," reminded me in some ways of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. Not that they have anything in common plot-wise: "Stuck Inside of Mobile" is an alternate history of the French-built Confederate submarine the Memphis, and the man who is supposed to sail it against the Yankee blockade of Mobile, Lieutenant Eugene Beauregard Fontenot. What "Mobile" and Cryptonomicon share is an abrupt and somewhat disappointing ending, more than offset by a wonderfully languorous, imaginative and detailed beginning and middle.

We begin "Mobile" at Beau's side, reading Jules Verne while he awaits the unloading of Memphis from the ship that brought it to Mobile. Much to his delight he has an opportunity to show off the Memphis to the young and lithe Emma de Pralines, during which visit he meets the French supercargo that accompanied the ship, no other than Jules Verne himself.

Beau and Verne take the Memphis out alone on a nearly calamitous test cruise. Recognizing the futility of trying to sail the Memphis alone, Beau raises a crew with the help of Emma's slave Mama Love, a voodoo priestess who wields enormous influence over the slaves of the region.

But all is not as it seems, and Beau finds himself forced to make a difficult decision. The fact that the decision is not nearly as difficult as it seems it should be may have contributed to the rushed feeling of the ending.

Dr. Anna Weiss is a brilliant biomedical researcher who was scarred, physically and emotionally, by her relationship during medical school with James Parmenter, in Albert E. Cowdrey's "A Balance of Terrors." Although their relationship ended thirty years before the start of the story, Weiss still thinks of Parmenter as the love of her life.

Parmenter, for his part, thinks of Weiss as a good resource. He is the well-paid and well-respected face of an unnamed medical foundation. He is not brilliant, and knows it, relying instead on social engineering to guarantee his success. He takes Weiss to lunch in order to extract from her the sound bytes he needs to appear intelligent and well-informed.

Weiss, an environmental zealot, has her own agenda for their meeting. But random fate interferes with her plans.

A depressing story, well-written, with complex and believable characters.

Esther M. Friesner's "Johnny Beansprout" is a vegetarian activist whose meddling interference in United States' politics overturned the natural, um, well, cannibalistic order of things.

The narrator is none too pleased by Johnny's history, which he relates to an audience of "young'ns" while they await the arrival of supper. His answer to Johnny's legacy is unique and poetically just.

This is a very funny story with an ending that anyone who has wanted to throw the bums out can appreciate.

As Gordon Van Gelder warns us in his introduction to "The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy," Daryl Gregory's story is not technically science fiction. Zealots may object to its presence in the magazine, but anyone who found in speculative literature an escape from the labors of growing up will appreciate Stevie, the boy who at sixteen built his own rocket ship, and Timmy, his best friend.

Stevie's rocket ship blew up, killing Stevie and crippling Timmy. "Rocket Boy" is about Timmy's return to the town where the accident happened and his attempt to understand why. It's also about his determination to prevent history from repeating itself.

If you've read much mainstream fiction, you're probably a little tired of stories about kids who have been abused. That tired plot's presence in this story is only a small blemish in an otherwise emotional and touching piece.

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, now featuring original fiction.