Fantasy & Science Fiction March 2003

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"Buffalo Wolf" by Robert Reed
"For Want of a Nail" by Charles Coleman Finlay
"Decanting Oblivion" by Lawrence C. Connolly
"The Resurrections of Fortunato" by John Morressy
"Hunger: A Confession" by Dale Bailey
"Visiting the Dead" by Kit Reed
"Shutdown/Retrovival" by Aaron A. Reed

"Buffalo Wolf," a novelet by Robert Reed, is the cover story and the first story of the issue. Part of a series about a native American boy living in isolation with a tribe following the old hunter-gatherer ways, it details the boy's introduction to the wide world outside. The white "demons" have been reintroducing bio-engineered buffalo and wolves to the world, and bringing back the prairies, and the boy and his grandfather track a wolf into the outer world to investigate further. Reed does a good job of detailing the vast outer world through the eyes of a boy who has trod the same few acres his whole life. The boy learns not only about the world outside, but about how his family has had more contact with demon's world than he ever knew. It's an engaging piece, but it felt incomplete to me, like a slice of a novel; a world is introduced, and then ended before reaching a proper conclusion.

John Morressy's short story "The Resurrections of Fortunato" is a reworking of Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Cask of Amontillado," about an aristocrat who, seeking revenge on one of his fellows, lures him into the catacombs beneath his mansion with the promise of a fine wine, and walls him up there among the dead. The Poe story ends with the live burial, but Morressy takes the story further, having the unfortunate Fortunato escape from the lousy masonry job, and flee the city for the hills, where he can plot his own revenge. Morressy closely matched Poe's voice, and takes the story to a deeper and richer place than Poe's original, ending with a surprising conclusion.

The editor's intro to Charles Coleman Finlay's novelet "For Want of a Nail" calls it a heroic fantasy, and I suppose it is, if you want to consider a couple of assassins heroic. These two are on a mission to infiltrate a medieval city-state, and for reasons which remained obscure to me throughout the piece, steal a magical talisman and bring it to their overlord. I got off to a bad start with this one when I imprinted on the guard the assassins encounter at the gates, instead of the heroes. I also had trouble telling the assassins apart in dialogue, and some awkward language in the narrative further impeded my enjoyment of the story.

"Hunger: A Confession," a short story by Dale Bailey, is good old fashioned horror, and too bad for me, I read it late at night in a cold and dark house. Two brothers with unpleasant parents share a room in a new house, and each night, the older brother's scary stories drive the younger a little closer to the edge. Throw in an insane, child-murdering former owner of the house who may or may not be haunting the place, and you've got all the ingredients for insomnia. The characters are well drawn, and the story reaches its sickening finish after just the right build up.

Kit Reed's short story "Visiting the Dead" concerns a young girl and her mother in search of family after the girl's father has deserted them. Family turns out to be a clan of ghosts in a crumbling hotel on the edge of this South Carolina town. Mom wants to join her dead parents with the help of a bottle of sleeping pills, and it's up to the girl to save her. The girl's motivations were slippery to me, swinging too easily between easy acceptance of death and horror at her mother's behavior, but I found the story's premise and its execution compelling.

"Shutdown/Retrovival," Aaron A. Reed's short story, was for me the best of this issue. The protagonist is a member of an entire class of people who have checked out of reality in order to live permanently in an endless series of virtual reality worlds. Our hero gets a very nasty jolt of reality in the form of a female member of the underclass that looks after the physical needs of the checked-out upper classes. In parallel with the woman's efforts to sabotage the artificial realities, the protagonist discovers a little-used exit portal that will allow him to experience his actual body in the actual world for the first time in his life. The parallel plots dovetail nicely to suitably bleak effect, raising important questions about class and its relation to technology–issues all to often ignored in science fiction.

Lawrence C. Connolly's concluding novelet "Decanting Oblivion" gives us an engaging viewpoint character in the form of a sleep deprivation researcher turned bike messenger. The woman's research was canned in the wake of escalating budget cuts, forcing her to earn her living any way she could. But she discovers that the answers she'd been seeking as a researcher are much closer than she imagined, when she's charged with delivering a mysterious package to the heart of a city under curfew in the wake of mysterious explosions. The explosions, she discovers, are the same kind of psychic blasts let loose by her sleep-deprived former research subjects, and her delivery of the package takes her to the middle of an attempt to harness the power of deferred sleep for economic gain. This story, like "Shutdown/Retrovival," raises some profound questions about the role of technology in the emerging global economy, but unlike Reed's piece, its sf premise seemed to me to lack cohesion and therefore failed to carry the story.