"The Light of the Ideal" by F. Brett Cox
"Weigh Station" by Ben Miller
"For the Sake of Another Man's Wife" by J.R. Dunn
"The Onely Shake-Scene in a Countrey" by Dave Hoing
"Heartlines" by Karen Jordan Allen
"Jack Daw's Pack" by Greer Gilman
It's good to see Century back on the scene. In the mid-90s it was one of the best new magazines, publishing a high quality mix of genre and literary fiction. After four issues, though, it went on hiatus. Despite assurances by its staff that it had not died, as the years went by its revival seemed more and more unlikely. Now, after three years, a new issue has arrived and Century's editor Robert K.J. Killheffer assures us in his editorial that the magazine is here to stay. The new issue presents a wide range of stories. The only pure science fiction story is J.R. Dunn's "For the Sake of Another Man's Wife," although Dave Hoing's "The Onely Shake-Scene in a Countrey" is at heart an alternate history tale. The rest of the stories are fantasy or fabulation, and several would not seem out of place in a mainstream literary journal.
We open with F. Brett Cox's historical fantasy, "The Light of the Ideal." Richard Henry Stoddard is a frustrated poet in 19th century New York, working as a customs inspector at the Port of New York. A ship captain gives him a mysterious package containing some sort of force, inspirational for Stoddard but terrifying for others. The prose is smooth, the story moves well, and the characters are nicely rendered, but the ending left me cold. The package is too obvious a symbol or metaphor, and is not so much a part of the story's reality as it is an authorial device to get a point across. Most of the story is very concrete and realistic, but then at the end we are suddenly taken away into abstraction. The story would have been stronger either as a purely realistic piece or if the fantastic element had been more concrete. As it stands, the story wants to be both realistic and fantastic, and does not fully succeed at being either.
Ben Miller's "Weigh Station" is told in fragments, bits and pieces of pop culture ephemera mixed with surrealism and fantasy. The narrator's apartment begins to do its own housework, and he discovers the ghosts of children in his oven. A band's album climbs up the charts, while the narrator's downstairs neighbor starts a homemade fireworks business. It's an odd story, at first seeming like no more than a series of disconnected images, but at the end it does come together. There is a loopy absurdity to much of the story that keeps it entertaining, even when the direction it is heading is unclear. The final poetic image of the Swimming Pool House somehow pulls the story together: how, I'm not sure, but it works.
J.R. Dunn gives us a near-future science fiction story in "For the Sake of Another Man's Wife," the longest story in this issue. David Shire is a former UN Peacekeeper who was accused of standing by while South African civilians were massacred. He is hired by the wealthy Bernard Jacoby to retrieve a "dupe"–a computerized duplication of a personality–of Jacoby's ex-wife, Tania Dayton, a famous actress. The dupe is owned by Jorge Baumgart, a Brazilian strongman, and Shire must infiltrate his mansion and retrieve the dupe. The story alternates between Shire's attempt to escape with the dupe of Tania and his earlier efforts to successfully set up the retrieval. There is a fair amount of straightforward action in the story, but the action of real importance occurs within Shire, as he is finally able to admit his cowardice in South Africa to Tania and find some measure of peace. What seems like a straightforward thriller becomes a study of a personality under stress. The story is well written and moves steadily forward, and while the near-future setting seems a bit cobbled together out of bits and pieces, it is not the most important element of the story.
What if William Shakespeare had never lived? This question provides the impulse for Dave Hoing's "The Onely Shake-Scene in a Countrey," an alternate-history tale that is a meditation on the contingencies of history. At the beginning, a narrator asks us to consider what history might have been like had a young Will Shakespeare drowned when trying to rescue a friend. How would we miss the works of Shakespeare if they had never even existed? Then the narrator rescues Christopher Marlowe from an early grave, and shows us how he becomes the greatest playwright in the English language. Hoing's story is the alternate history tale boiled down to its essentials. Who knows how many great authors or thinkers, or conversely, how many terrible serial killers, are lost to history because of accident? By directly addressing the reader and overtly manipulating history, Hoing makes his point more clearly than he could by using a conventional plot-driven narrative.
An imprisoned Central American poet sends a cry for help to the world in Karen Jordan Allen's "Heartlines." All across the world, women hanging their washing on clotheslines hear the name "Juana Teresa Calderon de Figueroa," as if their clotheslines were singing to them. Juana Teresa is a poet, imprisoned for being subversive, or perhaps for simply being an artist in an oppressive society. Each day, when she hangs the clothing in the prison courtyard, she whispers her name, and somehow her message is transmitted to women the world over. We see four of these women, each responding differently. One writes thousands of letters to try to free Juana Teresa, while another is too afraid for herself to do anything but pray. This is a delicately written story about the cost of being human. How much are we willing to sacrifice to help another person? Allen's story is a strong moral tale with a muted but strong anger that makes it memorable.
The final story in this issue is Greer Gilman's "Jack Daw's Pack," a lengthy allegorical tale told in densely symbolic and lyric prose. I was never quite sure what the story was about, however. I got the impression that there was some sort of fertility rite going on, and there are echoes of various myths and stories, but the overall impression left by the story is one of confusion. Despite my efforts, I was never able to get a handle on what was going on.
This is a strong return for Century. Several of the stories are excellent, and even the ones that fail do so out of an overabundance of ambition. I look forward to many more years of excellent fiction from this magazine, and hope they have overcome their early difficulties and remain on the scene for a long time.
Chris Markwyn has been reading and writing science fiction since he was old enough to pick up a book or a pen. His other interests include baseball, vegetarian cooking, and haunting used bookstores to expand his sf collection. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with his wife and daughter.