"Broken Butterflies" by Denise Lopes Heald
"Virtual Daughter" by Linda Dunn
"Blockade Runner" by Jamie Wild
"Changeling" by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
The new Absolute Magnitude (Summer 2000) has got only 4 stories, but they are longish, so there are some 54,000 words. I can't really figure out what Warren is doing with the length of his magazines, actually. According to my word counts, the Winter 2000 issue had about 81,000 words of fiction(!), the Spring issue only 38,000 or so (though there was an article by Harlan Ellison to compensate), and the Summer issue fits in between. But I'm not complaining: Absolute Magnitude stuffs more into its pages than most smaller press magazines do: certainly more than any of Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales or Aboriginal SF. About the same as F & SF, on average, and a bit less than Asimov's and Analog. And of course my wordcounts could be off: Lapine fools with the typeface some, and the illustration clips on some of the pages make estimating word counts harder as well.
Anyway, that's all by the by. What about the stories? I should start by mentioning that there is one real keeper: "Changeling", by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, a fine, fun, involving novella set in an out of the way planet in the Liaden sphere of influence. It involves a young man from a family of shopkeepers who shows unexpected promise as a pilot. Early in what appears to be becoming a successful career, he is offered a surprising marriage contract with a member of the leading pilot family on his planet. But the marriage no sooner started ends in disaster: his wife dead in an accident while they are flying together. The anger of his wife's family leads to his ruination, as he is unjustly blamed for the accident, and he is forced to turn to a Terran company to continue his career. But his wife's family won't let well enough alone … As I said, it's a good story. Fun to read, and filling in some nice details about Liaden social customs. Also the main character is believable and likeable, but not a typical daredevil hero either. My only quibble is that the ending is rushed just a bit. But it's a fine story, in fact the best story Absolute Magnitude has published this year.
I can't say as much for the rest of the issue. "Changeling" is a novella. There is one short story, and two novelets. (And I do like Lapine's habit of publishing longer stories.) The short story is Denise Lopes Heald's "Broken Butterflies". I didn't like it much: it's trite, and the central conceit is pretty darn silly, and the feel-good resolution is achieved without believable conflict. Still, it's basically inoffensive. Of the novelets, one is OK, Linda Dunn's "Virtual Daughter". It has a decent central conceit: a divorced man is only allowed virtual contact with his daughter, no actual visits. Finally he realizes he needs to push for real contact, and he finds that something very odd is going on. What he finds is a nice idea, too, which I won't reveal for spoilers. The resolution, however, is too pat and convenient.
The other novelet, sad to say, is a disaster. This is Jamie Wild's "Blockade Runner". The problem starts with the title. Part of Harlan Ellison's article in the previous issue talked about the importance of titles: they need to grab the attention: be memorable. "Blockade Runner" is about as bland a title as you'll find. Especially since it's not even ironic. Still, I can forgive a good story a bad title. What's the story about? It opens with Captain Joseph Jackson, a veteran of 40 years in Earth's Space Navy, trying to get his three-person ship into port. Earth and the "Coalition" are not at war – yet – but they soon will be, and he's carrying an experimental super-FTL drive that might just give the Earthmen a chance against the superior Coalition forces. The story follows from there, rather episodically, as Jackson hires then leaves an ex-Coalition gunner, makes his way back to Earth, and then joins battle with the Coalition once the real war starts.
For a moment or two I thought this could be a suspenseful minor space war/adventure piece, but I was severely let down. The story is almost a complete failure. The arbitrary nature of all the plot elements is a major problem: since we don't really know (or believe) how anything in this universe works, we can't really be surprised at anything that happens. Moreover, it's a structural mess, just limping from scene to scene: adding a planet to visit if necessary, throwing in a sudden need for short rations, introducing then discarding potentially interesting characters, introducing without previous hints of her existence a cliche loyal wife for the main character… I really thought, for a while, that maybe Wild was playing this all for laughs, for irony. But no, it's all perfectly straight-faced. And there is nary a twist, nary a surprise. About all I can say for the story is that Wild is a competent, though hardly special, wordsmith. That is, the prose isn't "Eye of Argon" bad. The prose certainly doesn't sing, nor is it remotely memorable, but it's not awful, either. In the service of a decent plot with decent characters it would be OK.
I have a feeling Warren Lapine might say that one of the old magazines whose spirit he is trying to bring back to the field with Absolute Magnitude would be Planet Stories. You know, unabashed adventure tales, tales of pirates in the spaceways, all that good stuff. And I confess I think that would be a nice thing to do. But let's not forget that for every Poul Anderson or Leigh Brackett story, Planet Stories had two or three by the likes of Ross Rocklynne, Bryce Walton, or Stanley Mullen. Believe me, those latter stories aren't the ones you want to bring back to the field: but that's pretty much the level Jamie Wild achieves with "Blockade Runner". He doesn't even match J. T. M'Intosh!
Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the sf and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13.) Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in the St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent.