Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Fantasy & Science Fiction: May/June

This is the fourth issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction that I've read. My review of the prior issue, March/April, is here. Like most of the issues I've read so far, the May/June issue is generally quite successful, filled with well written tales that occasionally manage to prove themselves exceptional. Which is not, of course, to say that there aren't a few weaklings among the bunch.

Chet Williamson's The Final Verse is the first of two stories about music. The tale centers around a hunt for the fabled lost verse of "Mother Come Quickly," a break out classic folk song. The best part of the story is the way Williamson manages to weave Mother Come Quickly into the music scene and history. By the time you're done hearing the first printed verses, don't be surprised if you're searching youtube for a live performance. The supernatural aspect isn't particularly surprising, but it's well done, and the conclusion is a good creepy closer.

Next we get the first of Robert Reed's two pieces, Stock Photos. To be honest, I'm not sure what to think of this story. A man and a woman come up to the protagonist and ask to take his picture a few times. That's about all that happens, and any deeper significance was, even after two readings, totally lost on me. That being said, Reed's writing is strong enough that the dialogue flows naturally and that there's an unmistakable undercurrent of malice throughout. Reed's second story (a hundred or two pages later) gives us the behind the scenes footage of Stock Photo. Though the big questions still aren't answered, everything makes far more sense afterwards. Still, while the second story's the one that brings the clarity, it's the first that's truly memorable. I'm not sure if the two story gimmick is particularly fair play (they read more as part one and two), but Reed pulls it off too well for me to really complain.

Albert E. Cowdrey's The Black Mountain pits a preservationist against a developer when the latter decides to renovate a cult's old cathedral. Like most of the Cowdrey tales I've read, The Black Mountain is enjoyable without being incredible. The supernatural aspect is pleasantly subtle, and the two main characters do have an engaging and natural rapport, but there's no moment that elevates the tale to greatness.

Steven Popkes's Agent of Change is the first of two stories that are about A. climate change, and B. lizards. The mighty Pacific Leviathan has emerged, and it's wreaking havoc. Or something like that. The story is told through articles and transcribed board room meetings, and there are numerous places where Popkes's straight faced characters manage to become laugh out loud funny, such as Toho, LTD.'s statement: Toho has copyright on the look and feel of the Godzilla franchise. […] If this creature is real, it is the property of Toho and a natural resource of Japan (p. 84-5).

Fine Green Dust – by Don Webb, one of the authors involved in last issue's collaboration – focuses on an apocalypse of rising temperatures. Our straight man, math teacher protagonist notices that the people around him are disappearing as it gets hotter and hotter, and lizards are everywhere he looks. He notices one of his students in the yard next door mutating, mainly (p. 100) into a lizard in the family Gekkonidae, I think (p. 100). Unfortunately, the reader's likely to figure everything out long before the protagonist does, and any surprises are few and far between.

Alexandra Duncan's Rampion is the longest story in the issue. It is also fantastic, one of the best tales I've read in F&SF. Scenes alternate between the present, with our protagonist disfigured and blinded, and his past as a prince. The story takes place in a Spain divided between Christians and Muslims, and, though the actual events and characters of the story feel too vibrant to possibly have existed, their every thought and action evokes that time period. The main character's secret love for a Christian woman feels at first like a small story well told, but the rumors and glimpsed conversations of the opening and other sections serve to broaden the story's focus and show the ramifications of seemingly minor acts. To be fair, this is a fantasy story by only the most tenuous of threads – a character is rumored to be a witch – but the quest and characters are as well done as you're ever likely to find.

Carter Scholz's Signs of Life deals with a group of scientists manipulating the seemingly empty information surrounding the meaningful part of DNA, and Scholz manages to make a compelling metaphor for our lives while creating several fascinating lines such as: We want nature to speak our soul's language. When we can no longer bear its silence, we speak for it. tell a story where no story is (p. 159). Or: Mind lays traps for itself, it's capable of anything. Traps simple as habit, devastating as psychosis, elaborate as epistemology, seductive as science. (p. 162) But while the writing and thematic portions of the tale are strong, I found the actual story and characters unsatisfying. This feels more like a story about modern day science than a Science Fiction story. The eventual revelation falls well short of earth shattering – at least to my layman's perspective – and, worse, the main character remains grumblingly but not compellingly unlikable throughout. Signs of Life is, in some ways, an accomplished tale, but it's not one I can say I enjoyed.

Scott Bradfield's Starship Dazzle is evidently one of many tales about Dazzle the talking dog, but no knowledge of the other stories is required. Dazzle manages to get himself sent into space, and, once there, finds himself broadcasting advertisements across the stars. Dazzle's quarrel with his corporate superiors is a bit obvious, but the story is saved by its fantastic and humorous voice. A prime example's Dazzle's initial launch speech:

"I know I haven't been the best company you could wish for on this stupid planet. […] And I'm sure you'll be perfectly happy to see my hairy butt vanish into the Pleiades. But at the same time, I'm not bitter about our past dealings, and I hope you're not bitter about me either. So good luck, try to clean up the mess you've made of this planet, and think about me every so often. By the way, my name is Dazzle, and while you probably can't tell from this crazy space suit I'm wearing, I'm a dog... (p. 179)

S.L. Giblow's contribution, The Old Terrologist's Tale, opens with a conversation between a terrologist, the man he plans to sell his newly-created planet to, a few other elite members of Giblow's futuristic society, and an "old terrologist." (p. 194) The heart of the story-within-a-story is the story told by that last character, the old terrogolist. The man's conclusions about beauty aren't particularly surprising, but both the frame and the narrative are well told and fascinating, and Giblow manages to fill his scenes with both a homely, conversational atmosphere and a futuristic sense of wonder.

In the March/April issue, Ken Liu contributed The Paper Menagerie, a quiet but powerful story about a family and its quiet magic. His story here, Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer, also has a family at its heart. Liu presents a dichotomy between an artificial reality resplendent with freedom and intricacies far beyond our own and, on the other hand, reality. Our viewpoint is the child of a father who – like most of the society – stays immersed in the virtual, but the protagonist's mother is one of the strange folk who seems to prefer the real. Liu imbues his future with enough strangeness – both in style and in concept – and depth to make it seem a compelling place, but the story never took off for me. The ultimate conclusions about the physical world feel obvious, and, where The Paper Menagerie felt quiet and unassuming, Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer feels empty.

Kate Wilhelm's Music Makers closes the magazine and is the second of its two music-focused pieces. Unfortunately, it's also the weakest story here. While Chet Williamson's story that opened the magazine focused on a quest with music as the object, Wilhem focuses on the emotional and familial sides of music. But the performers never come to life, and, without coming to believe in their sound and success, the adoration of the other characters and the tragedy of their deaths just comes off as effusive and saccharine.

Standouts: Rampion, The Old Terrologist's Tale, Stock Photos

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