Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 2004

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"How It Feels" by Robert Reed
"So Good A Day" by Sheila Finch
"Kissing Frogs" by Jaye Lawrence
"The Masked City" by Melanie Fazi
"The Long Run" by John Morressy
"Jew If By Sea" by Richard Mueller
"Serpent" by James Patrick Kelly
"Quarry" by Peter S. Beagle

ImageThe May, 2004, issue of F&SF is weighted toward the F of the title, but in this writer's humble opinion the stories are well worth the imbalance.

"How It Feels" by Robert Reed begins with an account by Pauline, a young woman, "with a passion for body art and beer and boys and parties and more beer," of her possession by the Glick-Pick. The Glick-Pick are a race of disembodied aliens in a diminutive spacecraft who have struck a deal with the powers that be. In exchange for the opportunity to experience life as humans, the Glick-Pick will give humans the marvels of their advanced science and engineering.

The Glick-Pick slip inside young Pauline's mind and take over her body for a day. Pauline wanders the city, has dinner with her roommates Serena and Glory, shares a beer with an earnest man named Jim and ends up at her ex-boyfriend Samson's apartment.

Serena picks up the story next, telling us about how the Glick-Pick first made contact with humans. The story passes to Samson, who gives us a different perspective on Pauline. It's left to Glory to reveal the secret of the Glick-Pick, and Jim to show us what the revelation means to humanity.

In the end the story is more about Pauline than it is about the Glick-Pick, and that's just as it should be. None of the characters is entirely trustworthy, but Reed masterfully builds a believable story out of the overlap and opposition between the various accounts.

The story is set in a near future, but it could be as well set today. It's a story about humankind and what we're capable of, and it ends on a note of nastiness that feels entirely appropriate. Thought-provoking, original and thoroughly entertaining.

Sir Francis Drake returns, like an Elizabethan Arthur, to England in her time of need in Sheila Finch's "So Good A Day."

The setting is the dramatic evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. The sloop My Gal Mary is the very last boat to arrive at the harbor. With German planes strafing the beach, My Gal Mary recovers one man whose leadership is critical to England's ability to survive the coming war. The easy evacuation routes are out of commission and the sloop is out of gas: only a master sailor with an intricate knowledge of the channel can hope to return safely to England.

Interwoven with the story of the evacuation at Dunkirk is the story of Sir Francis Drake's death. In his last hours he relives his life and the deeds, good and bad, that weight his fate. He is assisted in this remembrance by his long-time companion Diego, whose other name is Death. The scales that weigh Drake's fate come up even, and Drake sleeps until he can be tested again.

"So Good A Day" is an engrossing read, suspenseful even though we know how the story has to end. Finch doesn't skimp on the action, but the story's really about what makes a life worth living, and philosophy's at the heart of it. The one blemish on this pearl is a strange kind of inconsistency in the matter of Drake. His life was judged on his morality, but it's his skill as a sailor that tips the scale. To this reader, the ending didn't seem to fit the beginning. (But I liked it all the same.)

"Kissing Frogs" by Jaye Lawrence is a lovely modern parable about Sharon, a woman whose self-image has suffered a battering, and Jerry, a frog looking for a Princess. Jerry runs a personal ad, Sharon answers it.

A premise like that could easily lead to a campy, overly clever or obvious story. Lawrence chooses none of the above. Instead she writes a story that is simultaneously funny and sad. It's even touching, with an ending that is full of the meaningful messiness that characterizes real life.

There's a dark and portentuous gloom hanging over Venice in Melanie Fazi's "The Masked City" (translated by Brian Stableford). Giordano Salvaggio haunts the city's bridges and canals, capturing the echoes of Venice's violent history with magical totems made by his lover and partner, Sofia. He sells his acquisitions to gullible tourists who are lead to believe they're buying a less gruesome past.

But Venice is not pleased with the couple's theft of her secrets. She takes Sofia to a watery doom, and demands of Giordano a sigh for every one stolen if he wishes to ever leave her dominion.

While the language in this story is evocative and even poetic, it's also relentlessly gloomy. In a reverse of the typical formula for short fiction, the characters are a backdrop for the setting. In fact this felt less like a story and more like a word portrait, by an artist with a grudge against her subject.

Annalter is a runner in "The Long Race" by John Morressy. It's a race with no apparent end, no urgency and no winners. It's a celebration of endurance, and can easily be read as an allegory for life.

There's a kind of melancholy dignity in Annalter's fundamental dedication to the race, and this piece left me a little sad, and a little moved.

The title of Richard Mueller's story, "Jew If By Sea," at first seemed vaguely anti-semitic. But it sets the right tone for an unsettling story, an alternate history in which the Axis and the Allies have fought each other to a bloody truce, with the Axis controlling Europe and the British Empire kept alive only by the fickle good will of the Americans.

Lieutenant Andrews is given command of the USS Unicorn, an attack submarine based in Mauritius, and ordered to intercept and observe a new kind of German transport that has been seen in nearby waters. Andre Broussart is Andrews' friend and the French "liaison" assigned to the mission as a knowledgable observer.

The true mission of the German transport is revealed when the Unicorn pulls a Polish Jew from the sea, who tells a horrifying story of industrial genocide. Andrews response is likely to end the fragile truce and reignite the war.

This is not a comfortable story, and I found myself wondering why Mueller felt the need to write a story about a new method of genocide, when the original inspires abhorrence quite successfully. I'm not sure if there's an intellectual answer, but at an emotional level the story worked. Uncomfortable, yes, but worth reading even so.

James Patrick Kelly has a wicked sense of humor that puts a nice strop on the knife edge of his always sharp short stories. In "The Serpent" we witness the title character and narrator subverting the second batch of sentients to inhabit Paradise, in the process getting a glimpse of what it means to be human; the good, the bad and the ugly. It's a very short story well worth the reading.

A young man named Soukyan is Peter S. Beagle's "Quarry," running from a mysterious and evil fate somewhere most often referred to as "that place." He is being pursued by implacable hunters who will never stop and never fail. At the moment when it seems the end has arrived, Soukyan escapes with the help of an old man, a trickster and a shapechanger, who is running from his own pursuer and who sees benefit in sharing the road with the young man.

"Quarry" is a novelette, but it has the feel of a sprawling fantasy trilogy, with a complex and richly detailed world in the background. If I had to find fault with the story, I'd point out that Beagle's backstory can be as interesting as the narrative arc, and that the hints he drops about the rest of the world left me frustrated that they're not more fully developed.

Overall, an excellent issue, one of the best I've read in a long time.

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.