Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2005

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“Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link
“The Housewarming” by Albert E. Cowdrey
"What I Owe to Rick" by Arthur Porges
“The Denial” by Bruce Sterling
"Age of Miracles" by Richard Mueller
"A Quantum Bit Exists in Two States Simultaneously: On" and "…Off" by David Gerrold
“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” by Carter Scholz

Hard to believe, but "Magic for Beginners" is the first Kelly Link story that’s crossed my path.  But you have to start somewhere, and I can’t imagine a better introduction to a writer.  The story is a loopy narrative about a group of teenagers, and a few adults in their orbit, obsessed with a Buffy/Charmed-like TV show that comes and goes on odd channels at unpredictable intervals.  Full of odd twists—inheriting a phone booth in Las Vegas; a horror novelist who reupholsters furniture in ways unspeakably eldritch—this story is really about the intense bonding that comes once a lifetime, and how fragile those bonds become when adulthood comes rushing in.  With its spot-on observations about human behavior, authorial interruptions that break all Clarion rules, and love of eccentrics, it reminded me of an Eileen Gunn story.  The narrator tells us we ought to wish we could see her fictional TV series, but I found myself wishing instead that I could live in the world of this story, dark undercurrents and all. 

In another contemporary fantasy, "The Housewarming" by Albert E. Cowdrey, an ex-priest turned real-estate investor realizes he’s bought a house with a barn that’s haunted.  And not by your garden-variety ghost, either.  The unfrocked one’s love interest, a ruthless realtor, actually seemed more frightening than the haunt, but that may be the point.  It’s enjoyable and well-written, and nicely evokes New Orleans, possibly the most Catholic of American cities, and the only one a story like this could plausibly take place. 

Also set in the present is "What I Owe to Rick," a short-short by the amazing Arthur Porges.  It’s about what you have to do when you’re the only person who sees the signs of danger coming, and the value of having a folklorist on the case. 

Bruce Sterling’s "The Denial" is a fable set in a Balkan-like nation, a mixing-board for the world’s major religions.  Since it’s a fable by Bruce Sterling, expect no homilies or consolation.  A village is flooded, and the protagonist spends the story trying to convince his wife that she drowned.  But the drowned wife is so much more agreeable than the version he knew… Sterling, as usual, is incisive and funny, with a twist I should have seen coming but didn’t.  Like his sf and nonfiction, this story bristles with interest in practical matters: it really is a big deal to lose your toolkit in a country where you can’t replace them at Home Depot. 

This issue’s sf selections span past and present.  In "Age of Miracles" by Richard Mueller, the difference engine was invented far earlier than Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, and the Vatican underwent an early electrification.  Michelangelo and Leonardo had something to do with it, but the world in which our hapless salesman of the Computos system Fenestrum must function is also the world of the Inquisition.  The details of the electrification and digitization of this early world are a lot of fun—and you just know Torquemada would prefer Windows to its competitor.  The author makes a reasonable attempt to wring a deeper meaning in the curtain line, but the story is basically an amusing fantasia.  My high-school Latin vocabulary hasn’t had such a workout since the last time I read a Gene Wolfe novel. 

David Gerrold offers two stories, "A Quantum Bit Exists in Two States Simultaneously: On" and "…Off"—I think I read them both before I opened the box and the cat died.  They’re more philosophical dialogues than stories, conversations between Gerrold and a friend named That Pesky Dan Goodman.  "On" is about what it means to be a saint, and ends with a homily-like note.  I also found the Church of the Chocolate Bunny, of which Dan is pope, unbearably cute (though put me down for communion).  (Lots of Catholicism in this issue; is editor Gordon Van Gelder honoring the shade of Anthony Boucher?)  "Off" is the better of the two, taking an old question about time travel into provocative directions, which turn out to have very practical implications for the author. 

Another time travel story, "I Didn’t Know What Time It Was," is a mindbender from the reliably mindbending Carter Scholz.  In this scenario, jazz aficionados rendezvous with iPod-like “hotlists” in the past (must be a niche market).  There they experience their beloved music in its purest form.  Oh, sure they do.  Things aren’t quite what they seem; as usual with Scholz, the universe he built is full of trap doors.  He also describes the music with flair, and is one of the few writers who can get readers so worked up over copyright issues.  His depictions of jazz giants under attack, and the eras they supposedly inhabit, rang true to this C-minus student of the form.