Challenging Destiny, #17

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"Dark Thread" by Marissa K. Lingen
"Jack Be Nimble" by Fraser Sherman
"Faller" by William McIntosh
"Frank Among the Franks" by Brian N. Pacula
"Robin Williams, Speaking Spanish" by A. R. Morlan

My first exposure to Challenging Destiny, a Canadian science fiction/fantasy magazine, was a pleasant surprise. It appears that the magazine falls into the semi-professional category, but it holds its own with the big boys, in terms of both presentation and content. Challenging Destiny is digest-sized, with a glossy color cover and black and white interior illustrations. A different artist contributes several illustrations for each fiction piece.

Issue 17 packs four short stories, a novelette, and three nonfiction pieces into 132 pages. Nonfiction includes "How Can You Use Your Computer More Effectively" by editor David M. Switzer; part two of a look at time travel movies, by reviewer James Schellenberg, in which he considers the merits and/or lack thereof of both versions of The Time Machine, as well as 12 Monkeys, Back to the Future, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and Donnie Darko. Schellenberg and Switzer team up for an interview with Scott Mackay, the pen behind SF novels Outpost, The Meek, Orbis and Omnifix.

As far as fiction goes, I can't point to a dud in this bunch, though several of the stories stood out from the pack. "Dark Thread," by Marissa K. Lingen, is a fantasy piece that tells of Anne, a blind concert pianist who is nearing the end of her career. Each night when she falls asleep Anne slips into another world – a world where she can see, in dazzling color – and takes up the role of Weaver Queen. While there she meets other human counterparts such as the Healer and the Scientist. This is a brief, but effective story, with an undercurrent of tension between Anne and her assistant Thea, that adds to the impact of the piece.

"Frank Among the Franks," by Brian N. Pacula, is one of a pair of lighthearted stories in this issue. While in the process of "scamming on this Wiccan girl," Frank Mulligan accidentally summons an entity known as the Principate of Anthropology, or Prince Anthro. The Prince is apparently an angel, whose duty it is to preserve endangered societies by relocating them to other worlds. After a moment out of Job – more or less – during which Frank proceeds to kick the Prince "in the nuts" and wrestle with him, he agrees to serve as an advisor to a grimy tribe of Salian Franks. Pacula does a good job of mining this clash of cultures for humor and constructs the story so that we are not surprised when Frank goes native and settles down among the Franks.

Retellings of fairy tales are about a dime a dozen, and that's about what most of them are worth. Anyone who attempts such a feat runs the risk of allowing it to degenerate into a heap of trivial fluff that's not worth the paper its printed on. Fraser Sherman's "Jack Be Nimble," a retelling of – you guessed it, Jack and the Beanstalk – evades this trap, for the most part. Sherman's revamp is thoroughly modernized, and features such characters as Puss, the talking marmalade cat; a mysterious venture capitalist; and a race of nasty goblins organized into a modern-day corporation. Jack, who lives in a trailer park, eventually defeats the goblins, with the help of a few clever riddles and a heaping dose of bureaucracy, but not before he is forced to serve as a product tester for various noxious goblin-generated substances.

A. R. Morlan's novelette, "Robin Williams, Speaking Spanish," is one of the standouts in this issue. It tells of Temple Kenward, a social worker who makes the round of asteroid mining ships to make sure the resident Savant-Contingents are being treated well. In Morlan's future, an oversight by a drug company is responsible for the birth of around one hundred thousand autistic savants – think Rainman. Many of the Savants, Dalton Durwin – Kenward's current case – among them, are employed on mining ships as a backup data source, in case the ship's computers go down. It is a measure of Morlan's skill that she makes this unlikely piece of the story seem believable. The odds of any of the Savants being called on to perform their function are astronomical, but of course Dalton is the first. Morlan does a great job of holding the reader's attention as she details the complex, and frequently strained, relationships between her small cast and leads up to a sort of surprise ending. My one quibble – a minor one – is with the story's over-reliance on references to movies (Flubber, Rainman, Alien, Dead Poet's Society, Awakenings) which, if I am counting right, would have been at least a half century old in this world.

"Faller," William McIntosh's fantasy tale, was my favorite piece in this issue. How can you not love a story that opens with the line "I've been falling for thirty-eight days"? Rohan, the Faller of McIntosh's story, finds himself plummeting great distances among the hundreds or thousands of floating cities in a world that seems to have blown itself apart. He visits numerous cities along the way and eventually finds love with Norri, a girl who is afraid of heights, but whom he persuades to take the leap with him. McIntosh manages to sustain the promise of his first line all the way to the end of this lyrical tale, an ending which is just too good to relate here. This is one you'll have to read for yourself.