Friday, March 4, 2011

Fantasy & Science Fiction: March/April 2011

This is the third issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine that I've read. Of all of them, it's probably got the strongest standouts, though it's also got a few weaker tales.

Albert E. Cowdrey's Scatter My Ashes starts us off, one of the many horror tales in this issue. Cowdrey has been present in each of the three F&SF issues that I've read and seems equally adept at whatever he turns his hand to. The characters and situation are rapidly set up (a mysterious family tragedy, an aging and rich woman, the dark and mysterious sorcerer, and the writer to investigate it all), and Cowdrey is able to flavor his story with brief spurts of Russian dialogue and character quirks without drowning in them. Perhaps best of all, Cowdrey is quite capable at wryly mocking his own set up, leading to several humorous lines such as: [The servant] had the highly suspicious feature of not understanding a word of English, when when spoken by a Hearst reporter in a firm, clear voice. (p. 14) The story's final line is predictable but loses little of its charm for that. And yet, for all the skill of its construction, I wouldn't say that Scatter My Ashes is an excellent tale. The concluding line really sums the story up: familiar, well executed, and enjoyable, but not exceptional in any way.

If Scatter My Ashes is the refreshing and enjoyable cup of coffee that leads you into your day, Paul di Filippo's A Pocketful of Faces is a delicious and disquieting brew had in the alleyways of a city you've never been to before and never will return to. This is a Science Fiction story that manages the rare trick of combining intensity and atmospheric, intriguing setting without letting up on either element. The narrator is a policeman tasked with hunting down criminals that illegally outfit their robot "twists" with stolen faces, replicas of people in their lives. The story is filled with amusing references (The Man of a Thousand Faces, The Face that Must Die, and so on), and is host to enough powerful images and scenes that the rushed-feeling climax fails to detract from its power.

Sophie M. White's Metaversal is a poem that rapidly branches out and, in four verses, manages to launch us through quite a multitude of realities. The poem's amusing, and fits well between A Pocketful of Faces and the story to follow.

Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie is an affecting modern fantasy tale. The story's opening draws the reader in with sweet and seemingly innocuous imagery:

A little paper tiger stood on the table, the size of two fists placed together. The skin of the tiger was the pattern on the wrapping paper, white background with red candy canes and green Christmas trees.

I reached out to mom's creation. Its tail twitched, and it pounced playfully at my finger. "Rawrr-sa," it growled, the sound somewhere between a cat and rustling newspapers. (p. 64-5)

Before long, however, the characters begin to draw apart, and the idyllic opening scenes give way to a melancholy middle. The situation is likely familiar to most readers – and the fantasy content is rather slight – but Liu manages to create character sympathetic enough that they make us feel for them up to and beyond the story's close, and the tale never loses its charm.

Sheila Finch's The Evening and the Morning is the issue's centerpiece and by far the longest tale here. Unfortunately, it's also the issue's weakest piece. This is the concluding tale of Finch's Xenolinguist series of shorts, which I haven't read, but, as it's here published without the benefit of the prior dozen-or-more tales, I think it's fair to judge it on its own merits. The opening scene is a meeting between Crow (the main character) and the alien Tu've. The two are old friends, which does come across, and the setting is interesting, but the scene is smothered with details and information, preventing the newcomer from getting through the door. Compounding the problem, Finch has a habit of drifting off in the middle of her own sentences, seemingly losing her train of thought halfway through and then regaining it, ending up with awkward constructions like: One week later, the Venatixi craft, nameless as all Venatixi ships were – how the Venatixi overcame the resulting confusion was something Crow couldn't image – stepped out of deep space just inside the orbit of Earth's satellite and commenced normal cruising speed. (p. 83)

Once the tale gets moving, things don't much improve. Crow, several humans, and Tu've's daughter travel to the long-lost Earth and are eager to explore. Instead of finding a paradise still functioning (but in isolation), they see nothing whatsoever made by human hands. Now, the backstory seems odd to me, but, fair enough, I haven't the prior knowledge to make sense of it. More damning is the fact that the desolate earth is never felt by the reader, and that the characters – though they're quick to lament the tragedy of earth's fall – never come off as particularly upset, save for a few rather maudlin scenes. In fact, the characters besides Crow are uniformly shallow; Tu've's daughter is the worst of the lot, her every action incomprehensible and illogical. The tale's resolution bears with it a few interesting elements but doesn't manage to justify the story's length or even answer the questions that the story itself raises.

Things get more interesting again with The Night Gauntlet, a round robin Lovecraft mythos tale. The only author I'm familiar with is Pugmire (and even there not first hand), but all the participants must be commended; there are no jarring transitions to be found here, and the atmosphere is carried along throughout. The meat of the story isn't groundbreaking, but the tale is enjoyably seasoned with a commendable knowledge of horror Lovecraftian and otherwise (including a reference to that Ligotti fellow I'm always harping on about), and there are several images here that are quite successful. This isn't an essential story, but it is a capable horror tale rendered all the more impressive by the number of its creators.

Happy Ending 2.0 by James Patrick Kelly loops around the turning point of a happy couple's relationship. Returning to the spot where everything started to go downhill, the two end up out of step with one another with one foot in each time stream. The story's not surprising in the least, but it's concise and emotional enough to pass muster.

The Second Kalandar's Tale, written by Francis Soty, is a bit of an enigma, to say the least. The events, characters, and prose style are larger than life and flashy enough to keep the reader's attention, but it's tough to say, upon turning the last page, what significance – if any – the whole thing has.

Karl Bunker's Bodyguard tries for pathos on a grand scale and doesn't quite manage it. The story's protagonist, a human amidst an alien culture, seems like an interesting figure, but the reader never grasps enough of the culture or the wider world to ever understand his situation. There are well done moments, here, but the story as a whole feels distinctly more like watching someone have an emotional breakdown than it does having one yourself.

Kali Wallace's Botanical Experiments for Curious Girls is a slow building tale, one filled with eerie, small details such as: Miss night used to put Rosalie to bed every evening while snow fell outside the window, but one day her fingers had curled up like brittle twigs and she couldn't unfasten the buttons anymore. (p. 223) The oppressive tone only gets stronger as the tale goes on, and the protagonist soon manages to arouse our sympathies, all culminating in an excellent ending.

After the humorous but brief Ping (two sentences long), we reach the issue's closing tale: James Stoddard's The Ifs of Time. From the first paragraph, Stoddard is quick to invoke the bizarre and the epic: Evenmere is a house of infinite proportions. Within its gabled halls, beneath its countless roofs, are countries and kingdoms, dominions and principalities, walled fields and farmed courtyards. The manor is the mechanism that regulates the universe, and its many servants light the lamps, wind the clocks, repair the walls, polish the doorknobs – a thousand tasks – so light and time and space, the stars and the worlds, continue. (p. 239) Stoddard is able to keep the same vibe throughout the story without having to sacrifice characterization or immediacy for it. The meat of the tale is the four stories-within-a-story told by a strange group of friends. Each is an interesting piece in its own right, and the frame story's climax is powerful and interesting.

The March/April issue of F&SF is a very strong one overall and one I'd recommend to any fan of genre short stories. The highlights here are well worth remembering – in particular I'll be searching out Filippo's prior work and keeping an eye out Wallace's future fiction – and a good majority of the rest is comprised of stories that, if not excellent, were certainly not poor.

Standouts: A Pocketful of Faces, The Paper Menagerie, Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls, and The Ifs of Time

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