"Of New Arivals, Many Johns, and the Music of the Spheres" by John Kessel
"For Malzberg It Was They Came" by Daniel P. Dern
"A Short Religious Novel" by Barry N. Malzberg
"A Clone at Last" by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg
"The Fluted Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi
"Mabiba Overboard" by Bill Vaughan
"The Super Hero Saves the World" by M. Rickert
"The Twenty-Pound Canary" by Jack Cady
"The Tale of the Golden Eagle" by David D. Levine
The June issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is crammed full of wonderful things to read. As befits the magazine's name, it jumps around from subgenre to subgenre. Perhaps the best stories in this issue (though there are no bad ones) would be most easily classified as science fantasy–in this case stories set in a far future in which many varieties of technological and scientific development are taken for granted, but in which the key elements are human relationships.
Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Fluted Girl" completely entranced me. I read it with rising joy and fear, desiring and dreading the end. This science fantasy puts us in a decadent future world both feudal and capitalistic, in which human beings can be remade in a variety of styles, and immortality is possible at a price. The girl of the title is indeed a kind of human flute, in servitude to the liege who had her remade from her natural self. Bacigalupi imagines an intricate and lush world for us, but perhaps the best thing about the story is that it is in no way predictable, and yet the twists he gives the reader do not jar. "The Fluted Girl" is a glorious story that will leave you hungry for more of Bacigalupi's work. Googling his name led me to a nice essay on Salon.com, but what I really want is more stories!
David D. Levine's "The Tale of the Golden Eagle" is more science fiction with the touch and feel of fantasy, and also a delightful story. Nerissa was once a golden eagle but was transformed into a ship's brain back in the cruel times when people thought that was acceptable. She loved the joy of soaring through the skies, but is now something almost human, and a formidable storyteller. She has become the property of a gambler, who appreciates her as she is, but can also use her to remake his fortunes. Ultimately, the story is about his moral choice, as well as being a history of the world in which they both live. This story has the feel of a futuristic folk tale. And Levine's summaries of the political changes that took place in the universe as it moved toward what may be a more compassionate time gave me pause: As he kept saying that these things happened in the bad old days before people were so enlightened, I found myself thinking of the many times I've said the same thing and wondering what the future will say of our time.
Bill Vaughan's "Mabiba Overboard" also sucked me right in. It's what I like to think of as a "future history" story, one which speculates more about future political systems than it does about science. This story of Zulaika and Mabiba's adventures in free diving for treasure (in shops in drowned cities, rather than in shipwrecks) and their travails with both state and federal law enforcement is a rollicking adventure with undercurrents of social commentary. The story maintains a tall tale tone, but, like most tall tales, there's more than meets the eye. According to the editor's introduction, Vaughan died last year; the talent behind this story makes that a real loss, not just for his family and friends, but also from those of us who would like more stories like this.
M. Rickert's "The Super Hero Saves the World" is magic realism–a world in which a three-year-old girl survives being swallowed by the python that killed her mother, a world in which ghosts come to visit. Lots of magic here, but the story is more about Marcado and her father and sister, and how they cope with each other and their family history. Marcado is not a superhero in the usual sense of the word, but Rickert convinced me that her dancing and dreaming and poetry were indeed going to save the world–or some small piece of it, anyway. The story is beautifully told, and just the thing for the reader who wants something a bit different.
Jack Cady says "The Twenty-Pound Canary" is "in memory of Damon Runyon." And despite the fact that the narrator is not a cynical New Yorker but rather a sixteen-year-old girl living in Cheddarburg, Wisconsin–where they think Oshkosh is Sodom and Wasau is Gomorrah–the story does have a Runyonesque tone. Cousin Murph is doing genetic experiments in the basement, and Clarence the Canary (with some duck and raptor genes) is his finest creation. I giggled my way through this one; Cady knows how to create a tone and use hyperbole to great effect.
This issue is billed as the "Special Barry Malzberg Issue," and, indeed, the four stories and one essay that make up that section will be particularly special for Malzberg fans, as well as anyone who enjoys a bit of science fiction history. John Kessel's "Of New Arrivals, Many Johns, and the Music of the Spheres" puts Malzberg in his own Writer's Heaven, where he promptly pisses off both the literary and the SF elite. It's homage, of course, to both Malzberg and the narrator (whose first name is Damon but whose last name isn't Knight, though that Damon also has a cameo). But the ending is moving on its own, while paying a large compliment to Malzberg's body of work.
Daniel P. Dern also pays homage in "For Malzberg It Was They Came," a delightful story about an alien invasion in New Jersey. Like Kessel's story, it makes use of some inside jokes from science fiction ("Star Fleet Captain James Kirk Poland"), and paints a picture of Malzberg that hints at both his personality and his fictional preferences.
Malzberg himself is represented in this issue by two short-short stories, and an essay about his years at the Scott Meredith Agency. We don't review non-fiction on Tangent, but I will observe that those readers who enjoy trying to catch all the in-jokes in Kessel's and Dern's stories will also appreciate the essay.
"A Short Religious Novel" is indeed that: the whole history of the human obsession with the almighty summed up in around 500 words. And "A Clone at Last," written with Bill Pronzini, can actually be summed up by its (groan) pun of a title. Yet despite the obvious joke here, this story tells us plenty about the human condition. In both stories, Malzberg shows his mastery of the short-short form: no wasted words, complete stories, and plenty to chew on after you finish.
Nancy Jane Moore lives in Washington, D.C., where she finds herself writing with the accompaniment of Black Hawk helicopters. Her fiction is forthcoming in several publications, including the anthologies Imaginings, Imagination Fully Dilated, and Mota 3: Courage.