Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Fantasy & Science Fiction: July/August 2011
This is the fifth issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction that I've read. I reviewed the two prior issues here and here.
We begin with Peter David's story, Bronsky's Dates with Death, one of the issue's several humor pieces – and, without a doubt, the best of them. The titular Bronksy's a salesman as incapable of lying as he is of shutting up, and, in his old age, all he wants to speak of is death. This causes a problem, because the benevolent death cannot approach one who thinks of him, because he "doesn’t do well with expectations." (p. 14) The two meet several times, and at each meeting death is increasingly adamant that Bronsky must focus on other matters before the other death, the malevolent one, can come to fix the problem. This is a genuinely witty story, and the ending – in which we go from laughing to caring – is superbly done.
The next piece, Peter S. Beagle's tribute to Avram Davidson, The Way it Works Out and All, is less successful, though I'll admit that part of my apathy may derive from me not knowing much of anything about the late, and evidently great, Mr. Davidson. Read without knowledge of the man or his work, all we've got is a simple story about travelling outside our reality that, while certainly competent, does little to excite or set itself apart.
Rob Chilson's Less Stately Mansions is about farming, and the author's passion for the subject bleeds through everywhere you look. Our tale takes place in a future where the earth's on a decline and deals with a man's family's decision to try and force him to sell his farm. None of the story's turns are particularly surprising, but the characterization and, even more importantly here, love for the subject matter shine through all, and the story's conclusion packs a hefty emotional punch.
Next up is the issue's cover story and centerpiece, Robert Reed's novella The Ants of Flanders. In our opening, two alien presences make their way to earth, and we follow the gargantuan teenager Bloch as he and everyone else are caught in the middle of a war waged on a scale unimaginable. The story's central thematic thrust is right up my alley. We are the Ants of Flanders here, those caught in the middle, as one of the characters theorizes: Picture some field in Flanders. […] It's 1916, and the Germans and British are digging trenches and firing big guns. What are their shovels and shells churning up? Ant nests, of course. Which happens to be us. We're the ants in Flanders. (p. 114) Reed's prose throughout all this is excellent, loaded with almost cheerily delivered macabre touches (The van's driver was clothes mixed with meat. (p. 89)), and above all a mixture of the crass and the epic:
The mass of a comet was pressed into a long, dense needle. Dressed with carbon weaves and meta-metals, the needle showed nothing extraneous to the universe. The frigid black hull looked like space itself, and it carried nothing that could leak or glimmer or produce the tiniest electronic fart – a trillion tons of totipotent matter stripped of engines but charging ahead at nine percent light speed. (p. 84)
Alas, the synthesis of humor and the grand, while excellent at a sentence level, does not work so well in the tale as a whole. We spend half the story with the Science Fiction apocalypse playing out off screen while we observe Bloch's antics – after having seen so many movies along similar lines, we're presumably supposed to fill in the apocalypse for ourselves. The other half concerns that apocalypse reaching to the characters and dragging their lives off course, changing who they are and restructuring their world. The two clash more than they aid each other. The early developments carry no impact at all. The rumors of destruction are too vague to inspire awe but too generic to create much wonder, and the tongue in cheek nature of much of the characterization serves to undermine the plot. Some of this is intentional. As one character says: Adventure is the story you tell afterwards. It's those moments you pick out of everything that was boring and ordinary, and then put them on a string and give to another person as a gift. Your story. (p. 128) But the random nature of those ordinary events sabotage the extraordinary, leaving us with a story whose grand arc feels less revelatory than arbitrary, not to mention one where the heroics feel out of place in light of the overriding antesque theme.
Joan Aiken's Hair is the opposite of Reed's preceding short: short, quiet, creepy, and resplendent with hope and despair in such a fashion that, instead of canceling each other out, each only reinforces the stronger. After a brief but whirlwind romance and marriage with a once secluded girl, and after that wonderful woman's death, the main character must deliver a lock of her hair back to the home of her birth. There, there's no outward horror here, no true danger, but all is decrepit, taken care of and helpless, it's denizens gentle, frail, and unspeakably old. (p. 144) They live in a home of perpetual decay, an atmosphere of continuous death. (p. 141) After the happiness of his love, the protagonist realizes that, by returning his physical mementos of her, he seems to be allowing her to slip from the world. This is a story of entropy on a personal level, and its center is the at once fabulous and dooming line, You'll tire yourself out. (p. 140)
Steven Saylor's The Witch of Corinth is next, a historical piece set in the time of Rome and the destroyed city of Corinth. Our protagonist Gordianus – and his teacher, the poet Antipater – meet a group of twelve other travelling Romans as they explore the ruins, and there they find riches, memories, and terror. Saylor never reveals whether the deaths are truly the work of witchcraft, but he doesn't need to. The tale's centerpiece, occurring perhaps two thirds of the way through, is a fantastic twist and even better set piece, both cinematic in its description and rivetingly creepy. Best of all, though, is the way Saylor grounds his tale in the time period, something that shows not only in the subtleties of character interaction but also in the quips they make, the best of which might be: "Oh, some women are always cursing each other. Especially the Greeks – 'Hermes of the Underworld, Ambrosia is prettier than me, please make her hair fall out.'" (p. 161)
Richard Bowes brings humor back to the fore with Sir Morgavain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things, a story about the enchanted sleep of King Arthur and his knights – oh, and about the enemy warrior mistakenly thrown in along with them. The story is a monologue of that knight, sometimes delivered to another knight and sometimes to the air around, and it's filled with digressions, witticisms, and clever turns of phrase and thought. Can't remember my name? our protagonist asks. Well, why should you have to, dear fellow? It's such a bother remembering peoples' names. Everyone should be able to remember his own name and not expect others do it for him. (p. 187) The speaker, it must be noted, is not sure why he's included in the generally sleeping group at all, eventually concluding that it's either a mistake or that he was put there to be myself and spread unease. (p. 189) Watching him spread that unease, always in the most conversational and genteel fashion, is quite simply a delight.
Someone Like You, by Michael Alexander, is a disorienting and engrossing story of time travel and different realities. The narrator's father was murdered by an impossible killer, and she – in numerous different timelines – figures this out and resolves to stop it, even if it's at the risk of erasing herself as well. The story's confusing at first, but soon comes clear, and the connection of the different periods is damn clever. To top it all off, Alexander's writing is littered with enjoyable quotable moments like: Ants can't blaspheme. (p. 215)
Our closing tale, The Ramshead Algorithm by KJ Kazba, begins with a scene of strange otherworldliness before the protagonist returns to earth. The portal between dimensions is located in the backyard of our protagonist, Ramshead's, father, a billionaire who cares little for the games and dementias of his second son. Though the story never returns in force to the delicious oddities of the opening, the interactions between Ramshead and his family are enjoyable, the characters and their lifestyles larger than life, and the tale overall at once gripping and humorous.
Standouts: Someone Like You, Bronsky's Dates with Death, Hair, and The Witch of Corinth