Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 2005

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"The Imago Sequence" by Laird Barron
"The Golems of Detroit" by Alex Irvine
"The Great Caruso" by Steven Popkes
"The New Deity" by Robert Reed
"I.D.I.D." by Robert Thurston
"Born-Again" by K.D. Wentworth

ImageLaird Barron's "The Imago Sequence" is a darker piece than F&SF normally publishes. Marvin Cortez is a former wrestler and sometime thug-for-hire. In return for a favor, he is hired to track down the origin of a disturbing photograph—apparently showing a deformed hominid trapped in rock—and to investigate the presumed death of his employer's uncle. The photograph in question, Parallax Alpha, is the first part of three photographs that make up the Imago Sequence of the title, and it has strange effects on Marvin's mind, filling his sleep with nightmares. In the grip of these nightmares, sleep deprivation, and strong painkillers, Marvin stumbles through the dark, perverted world of the photograph's previous owners.

Barron is extremely adept at invoking a subterranean sense of horror and inescapable, inevitable doom, and he writes very well. His story is a blend of hard-boiled detective and horror. And this, for me, was where the story lost some of its impact. This type of detective story has become increasingly common in speculative fiction, and for obvious reasons. It allows the author to swiftly and smoothly feed the reader with information, without resorting to unconvincing infodumps. However, as with infodumps, it is a technique whose currency is pretty well spent. Within speculative fiction, the hard-boiled detective follows a predictable dance, and it is rare to find authors who step too far from that dance. Undoubtedly, Barren uses the technique well, and it would be unfair to blame him for its previous overuse in the genre, but it does constrict the story and leave a feeling of over-familiarity.

Although this is the longest story in the issue, Barron keeps it moving quickly, never letting the pace drop. Through the twists and turns, the story grows darker—horrifying, increasingly-consuming nightmares; impossible photographs; a shape like a body in a pit beneath a house—while Marvin's grip on reality loosens. This has the effect of dragging the reader as helplessly through the story as Marvin is drawn to the Imago Colony at the centre of the tale and its secrets. Although Barron makes a good, and surprising, attempt to tie all of these elements together, I was not entirely convinced by the conclusion.

This is a bold, ambitious story by an author whose reputation has been deservedly growing, but it is not entirely successful. If you are a fan of dark fantasy or horror and of the traditional hard-boiled tale, you may love this story. If, like me, you are less enamoured of them, you may still be impressed, but you may also end the story feeling unsatisfied.

Alex Irvine has become one of F&SF's more frequent contributors. While some frequent contributors offer pretty much the same thing time after time, Irvine manages to display a remarkable range, from political satire ("Peter Skilling," September 2004) to fantasy that is nearly mainstream ("The Lorelei," January 2005) to his latest story, "The Golems of Detroit." Set during the second world war, this is fantasy alternate-history. It is the story of Jared Cleaves, a worker on a production line of a golem factory, who has just discovered that his wife is pregnant, and of Moises, the eccentric rabbi who brings the golems made in the factory to life and sends them off to Europe to fight the Nazis.

"The Golems of Detroit" is an extract from Irvine's forthcoming novel, The Narrows, about a very strange alternative wartime Detroit. It works reasonably well as a stand-alone story, although it is only just a complete story, rather than a vignette from a longer story. Novels are written differently from short stories. There is frequently more detail. Plot and characters develop over larger scales. The focus is wider. Despite this, Irvine has selected his extract well. "The Golems of Detroit" is a story about fatherhood, contrasting Jared's forthcoming change of status with Moises as the father of the golems, with each man seeing in his children the potential to change his situation. I would have liked to have seen Irvine make more of this theme. If the story had been written as a short story rather than as a part of a novel, I suspect he would have done. The world of the "Golems" is well constructed and hooked my curiosity, and it is a decent short story.

Proving that the lightest of stories can resonate as greatly as the most serious, Steven Popkes's "The Great Caruso" is a surprisingly touching story about an old woman determined to be in control of her own life and her own death.

When her son has finally grown up and left home to start his own family, Norma Carstairs decides to return to the greatest pleasure of her youth: smoking. In order to save money, she buys an imported brand over the Internet. But one of the packets arrives contaminated by a mix of nanomachines, and something strange begins to grow in Norma's lungs.

Popkes's touch is delicate, and his story appears to have been written with the touch of a smile always on the author's lips. Norma is a great character. Despite her unrepentant attitude towards smoking, or perhaps because of it, she is the kind of independent and crotchety old person most of us secretly dream of becoming when we're old enough to get away with it.

Choosing smoking as the focus of Norma's doggedness could have alienated a lot of readers. Yet it is impossible not to be both delighted and swept up by this story. "The Great Caruso" is the most likeable story that I have read by Popkes, and it is certainly the most likeable story in this issue of F&SF.

Another regular contributor to F&SF is Robert Reed, whose short story "The New Deity" is the shortest in this issue. Reed's normal fare in these pages is lightweight humor, and "The New Deity" is no exception. Essentially, this is a story about replacing a sports coach, but instead of the coach, we have a state's deity. The parallel is quite an apt one, with the current deity falling from the devotion of his people after a string of poor results (wishes slow to be granted, less than ideal weather, and so on) and the transfer of devotion to a new deity who promises the return of glory days. The rumors that accompany the parade of candidates and the maneuvering will be instantly recognizable.

"The New Deity" is a pleasant, inoffensive read. Its main problem is that it is a small idea that hasn't been developed much beyond its core idea. There is little that might be called plot in it, and the characters are deliberately familiar. It is as slight as a breeze and as swift to fade from the mind as summer mist in the sun. But while it lasts, it is a gentle pleasure for the reader.

Robert Thurston's "I.D.I.D" starts well enough. Yesenia is a linguist working as part of a scientific team observing a group of crash-landed aliens called the Loshak. She has been summoned back to mainland America to put the case for continued funding of the project. In the first part of the story, Thurston shows well the relationship that Yesenia has built up with the aliens, and portrays the aliens themselves intriguingly.

Unfortunately, when Yesenia gets back to the mainland, the story loses its shape, becoming rambling and clumsy. We are treated to several pages of what-has-changed-since-you-were-here-last, most of which appears entirely irrelevant to the actual story. Only in the parts where Thurston returns to the aliens, through news reports of developments on the island, does the story show sparks of life.

Thurston appears to be trying to contrast the relationship and sense of kinship that Yesenia has developed with the Loshak to the alienation she feels from her compatriots. This alienation is shown through a random series of encounters with a bureaucrat, a female taxi driver, and an amazingly obnoxious man she meets twice. All of these characters are flat and seem to exist solely to ram home the points that Thurston is attempting to make, rather than being self-consistent or believable.

Had Thurston focused more on Yesenia's relationship with the Loshak and less on his lengthy look at the none-too-convincing future he postulates for mainland America, or had he tied the incidents that occur into the plot in the tight way that, say, Laird Barron does, then this story might have been a lot stronger. As it is, "I.D.I.D." is a meandering and unappealing piece.

We see far too little of K.D. Wentworth in the pages of F&SF, or indeed of any of the other magazines. In "Born-Again" she introduces us to a near future when cloning technology, coupled with DNA traces on the Turin shroud, has allowed companies to sell clones of Jesus. Having an annoying adopted younger brother is bad enough for teenage Bailee, but the fact that he is a clone of the Messiah makes him utterly unbearable. She would far rather spend her time with her best friend, Harmony, but Jesus keeps getting in the way. Bailee's Jesus is not the only one. There are dozens of clones of Jesus in their town alone, and each one is determined to repeat the miracles that the Biblical Jesus was reputed to be able to do. Whatever the cost might be.

At the heart of this very funny story is a much more tender core. It is a story both about the expectations that society places on children and about identity. Every Jesus in this story is obnoxious and sullen and obsessed with his own status. It is a burden that could warp even the most balanced child. The tragedy is intensified by the fact that none of these children is capable of the miracles that the original could perform and that they cannot allow themselves not to be capable of them. In the humor is a knife that cannot fail to cut even the most jaded and cynical reader.

Wentworth writes the children in this tale extremely well. She shows their facades and their frailties with equal skill, and the brother and sister are extremely convincing. Hopefully, the next story from K.D. Wentworth will not be long in coming.

There are no absolutely outstanding stories in the May issue of F&SF. The best of them is K.D. Wentworth's "Born-Again." Laird Barron's "The Imago Sequence" and Steven Popkes's "The Great Caruso" are also both noteworthy.

Three of the stories are science fiction and three are fantasy. There was one novella ("The Imago Sequence"), one novelette ("I.D.I.D."), and four short stories. Three of the stories are humorous, and the humor is stronger in this issue than it sometimes is, providing two of the best stories. Notably, both of these stories use humor to illuminate a powerful heart.