Fantasy and Science Fiction, Oct/Nov. 2003

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"The Bear's Baby" by Judith Moffett
"Four Short Novels" by Joe Haldeman
"The Artificer's Tale" by John Morressy
"Hooyoo Love" by Fred Chappell
"Hunter Lake" by Gene Wolfe
"The Navatar" by Jerry Oltion
"The Census Taker" by Dale Bailey
"Like Minds" by Robert Reed
"Almost Home" by Terry Bisson

This is a double issue of F&SF, with nine stories, out of which I recognized 5 authors and have read at least two (to my certain recollection).

First up is the novella by Judith Moffett, "The Bear's Baby." I read this story through before reading the introductory blurb, and therefore took it as a stand-alone. Even after reading the blurb, though, I found my thoughts were not substantially changed.

Denny Demaree is a wildlife biologist studying bears in eastern Kentucky. We discover that the Earth has been taken over by an alien race called the Hefn, ostensibly to fix the ecological disaster that humans have inflicted upon it. To that end, they have sterilized humanity to allow the environment a chance to recover after depopulation. The Hefn have also created a Wildlife Recovery Program staffed by humans dedicated to the work, though not necessarily to the Hefn.

We meet Denny on the day he finds out the study is suddenly being terminated and he is forced to leave his bears and take up another position elsewhere. He is determined not to give up his research, and he returns to the preserve, to discover the Hefn's motives behind ecological recovery were not as altruistic as they had led people to believe.

Most of the issues I had with this story were technical. As part of an established world, which some — myself, for example — may not have seen before, the horking great chunks of exposition™ and maid-and-butler dialogue I suppose were necessary to establish character, context and setting, but I found it didn't add anything to the story, and as a result, the story didn't actually grab my interest until I was six pages in.

I also tried to reconcile the intro blurb's assertion that Moffett "often writes about strong-willed characters — take a look at how much Denny Demaree risks in this story for the sake of his research" with what I read and I couldn't. Part of the problem was that whatever Denny was supposed to be risking was effectively stopped cold by a deus-ex-machina pronouncement from the future that I found utterly jarring and out of place, and left the protagonist with nothing to do because whatever he did was already fixed by what the future showed him as being. As either a stand-alone story or as a complementary piece to a larger work, this story did not work for me.

"Four Short Novels" by Joe Haldeman is a treat. Here, we are given four aspects of immortality and how, in each instance, one individual is able to completely alter the status quo of that immortality. Haldeman's prose is utterly effortless and a joy to read. I loved it.

Greek mythology was my "thing" in high school, and as my school was one of the few that taught Ancient Greek as part of the regular curriculum, I was lucky to read the myths in the original language. I could never get enough of them, and, as a result, I've always been on the look-out for good stories based on the myths. So I read John Morressy's "The Artificer's Tale" with great anticipation.

This is the story of Daedulus after his escape from Minos. It's told in the first person, and that makes it a very human tale — no cameos or direct interference by any gods, so it steps away somewhat from the traditional myth-telling in that regard. The story is very well told, the prose is excellent, but at the end I was left feeling vaguely unsatisfied. My main quibble was that for such a short piece, having two antagonists — one perceived (Theseus) and one actual (Minos) — was too much, considering both were off-stage for the duration of the story. I felt a bit cheated that Morressy spent so much time on Theseus and then doing nothing with him as regards the fate of Daedulus. I also found the character of Daedulus to be passive, and the ending of the story illustrates that passivity rather too well.

However, as a "what happened afterwards" story taken from mythology, it did satisfy my hunger for such stories and it was better than most I've read.

Fred Chappell's "Hooyoo Love" has me completely stumped as to how to explain it. I'm not sure I can even synopsize it and do it any justice. Is it a story about what a person will do for the sake of love? Well, yes. Is it an essay on an aspect of the human psyche, about how some people are drawn towards cults, even creating a cult by imitating the attitude of visiting aliens and accidentally achieving a kind of transcendence because of it? It's that, as well. Chappell's story grabbed my attention and held it, and, except for the overuse of neologisms mostly confined to the first couple of pages, I really enjoyed the rich prose and how it pulled me along.

Gene Wolfe's "Hunter Lake" is a supernatural thriller — it doesn't quite tip over into horror, at least for me — about an ambitious freelance writer intent on getting a story about a haunted lake, and the daughter she drags along with her, who is less than thrilled about the prospect and acts accordingly. Gene Wolfe is one of the authors I've read before, though not in short form. Leaving aside that baggage for the moment and looking at this story on its own merits, I found it a little lacking in the grab-my-guts-and-squeeze feeling I look for in such stories. I think it was the distant voice Wolfe employs; we are never entirely in either the mother's or the daughter's point of view and neither character is terribly sympathetic, so when the Big Bad happens, I didn't get the visceral tug that makes me care about what happens either to the mother or the daughter, good or bad. I will admit that perhaps Wolfe has done it so subtly that I might have overlooked it. The twist ending was nicely done, and I quite liked it, in the context. I just wish I'd had more emotional connection to the characters in the story for it to have been really effective.

Some have heard me bleat how good, old-fashioned sf stories seem to be in short supply. Well, I found one — Jerry Oltion's "The Navatar". It might also be subtitled "The AI and his Boy", after C.S. Lewis. An AI, called the Navatar, while talking to one of the charges under its care, realizes it wants to be a spaceship, and, by accident, literally, eventually achieves its goal. Told from the AI's point of view, it's a fun story from start to finish. It's the kind of story I like to read (not exclusively, mind you) and rarely find these days, and also it's very well told. I grant that it might be a bit light for some, but a bit of lightness never hurt anyone, and I'm tucking it into the "guilty pleasure" category.

"The Census Taker" by Dale Bailey is another classic tale, this time in the realm of dark fantasy. A stranger finds himself in a mysterious little town and discovers, almost too late, that he should have kept going. The story is told by the storekeeper who also seems to act as the town's keeper, keeping people in as well as trying to keep strangers out. However, this keeper is one who takes no pleasure in his job. I found the language used to portray the mood and the setting quite effective, and the world that Bailey creates is almost stifling with a kind of claustrophobia that adds to the overall feeling of utter hopelessness to which the storekeeper/town's keeper himself has succumbed. It had a little of that grab-your-guts feeling to it, but not enough happens in terms of conflict beyond the setting and the mood (somebody – two somebodies, actually – do die, but because they are not the primary players in this story, their deaths have little impact on the status quo), so I'm reluctant to give it full praise.

"Like Minds" by Robert Reed is one of those surrealistic stories that trouble me – or get me into trouble – because I'm always afraid I'm not clever enough to "get" it. Well, I read this story through twice, and I think I've got it – but don't quote me on that.

The Authority is an intelligence (whether machine or organic or something else is never really explained, nor does it need to be) which provides access to an infinite number of alternate realities. Individuals can access these alternate realities based on their own genome through an interface that looks like a grey puddle. Josh, on his 18th birthday, takes the plunge, as it were, into these alternate realities, and begins to live a kind of half-life, where the accomplishments of his alternate selves offer him more satisfaction than living a full life of his own. There is also another being that puts in an appearance from time to time, a self-styled God of unpleasant habits who also interacts with the Authority. Who he is, is never explained, but one can infer… Ultimately, Josh discovers what the secret of the Authority, in fact, what seems to be the secret of the universe, is, and what he decides to do about it brings the story to a conclusion that I wasn't expecting, but which worked. I can't say I liked this story, but it did intrigue me on a philosophical level.

The last story by Terry Bisson, "Almost Home", did achieve that grab-my-guts feeling. Three children find something amazing at an abandoned racetrack, and through this thing that they find, they also discover something about the world they inhabit. Because it's told from the pov of one of the children, we don't get the kind of internal analysis an adult protagonist would need to engage in to reconcile what they discover against what they know. It's another story I'd call "classic"; simply, but effectively told, and it gave me that delicious under-the-skin creepy feeling even though I knew pretty much how it was going to end about half-way through. I really liked this one.

All in all, this was an enjoyable issue.

Theresa Wojtasiewicz is the former editor of Sol Rising, the newsletter of the Friends of the Merril Collection, a member of the Cecil Street Writers Workshop, and an avid (though lately too infrequent) reader of fantasy and science fiction. She works in desktop publishing, doing things like brochures and newsletters, to feed her reading habit.